Slow Cheese is Better

Thanks guys. 

Thanks guys. 

 'You going too quick, you need to slow down, no robot here, cheese is made with love' said Toski in his broken English, clutching his hand to his chest with emotion. 'Cheese in big factories - no love, all same, käse should come from the heart' he continued, making me drop my bucket into the cloudy whey and realize in an instant that he was completely right. I love cheese and I work with cheese and yet as I watched my sinking bucket become completely engulfed by small, fluffy curds I realized that I was no different from a robot in a factory, simply trying to get the job finished so that I could move on to the next task. It suddenly struck me that here I was, making handmade cheese in a rural Austrian village and yet I was still trying to move as fast as possible to get 'the job done.' Whether a by-product of living a life in the city or simply growing up in a world in where 'getting ahead' and 'moving quickly' go hand in hand, I seem to spend little or no time living and learning in the moment.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to volunteer for two weeks at the cheese making facility of Robert Strasser; an advocate of quality dairy products, raw milk and the slow food movement. Of the several people who work for him we spent most of our time with Toski, who as well as being an excellent cheesemaker could also speak no less than five languages! A native of Kosovo and the youngest of ten children, Toski grew up in rural Yugoslavia in the 1960s with no access to running water or electricity at home. Coming from a middle class English household during the 90s, Toski's early life seemed like an age gone by to me and one which was extremely difficult. Yet conversations about it reveal that he enjoyed it. ’Life was good' he told me, 'no television, no rush, a simple life.' This plain and uncluttered upbringing no doubt had an influence on his attitude to life and despite the fact he still works very hard, he does it thoroughly and meticulously rather than hurriedly and stressfully. Toski absolutely believes that the way a cheese is made affects it's flavour, it's character and it's overall happiness and why wouldn't that be correct? After all, cheese is a living organism and all living organisms require a certain degree of comfort if they are to thrive.

Milk from down the road

Milk from down the road

Like many other areas of food production, cheesemaking is surely an art. Under human guidance, cheesemaking is a skill that is learned, honed and tailored in order to create the best taste. Under robotics without the intervention of human influence, the skill element is removed and the aim is simply to increase production to the highest possible yield. Nevertheless, in order for any cheese making business to be successful, machines are absolutely necessary. The crucial difference between cheesemaking being an art as opposed to being a production line is that machines should aid the making of the cheese instead of control the making of the cheese.

Getting ready for maturing

Getting ready for maturing

Cheese made by hands may be non-conforming and create anomalies in terms of shape and flavour (especially if it is me who is making it!) yet it tastes so much better than when people's hands have been eliminated and removed from the cheese making process. In large scale factories, the closest a human hand gets to touching a product is pressing a button to start a robot. At Robert Strasser's farm, raw milk is collected from local farms within an hour of when the cheese starts to be made. The milk is then handled no less than six or seven times on it's journey to be sold as cheese. To give a brief overview: Curds and whey are separated with the help of hands; the cheese is cut into shape by hands; the cheese is washed for up to three weeks by hands and then it is finally packaged by hands. All this interaction creates a personal attachment to the product that is going to be consumed by so many people. Customers can also visit the farm to buy their cheese directly from the cooler and build a relationship of openness and trust with the owner and the cheesemaker.

The day after Toski had left me pondering my priorities when he told me to stop being so rough with the curds, Robert told me that 'a cheese is like a child' in the sense that if you care for it when it is first made then it will continue to grow up into a well-rounded, confident adult. Care for the product and attention to detail are two hallmarks of any cheesemaker and evidently high on the agenda of importance for both Toski and Robert. Based on my experience cheesemaking here, I have decided that I am going to spend less time being a robot and more time to fully learning skills and completing tasks thoroughly. There are always going to be times when we are rushed and machine-like, it's the nature of living a busy existence but when it comes to food I am going to try and take it slow. Slow food is better food.

Making cheese slower

Making cheese slower

Tête du Moine

Tête du Moine really is a cute little cheese. It can immediately be picked out of a line of cheeses due to it being almost as round as it is tall. There are certain phrases in other languages that have an air of prestige about them, a sense of importance, a sense of style. However, when they are translated into English they don't sound half as fancy. Tête du Moine converts into English as 'Monk's Head.' As a phrase, Tête du Moine sounds regal, ancient and sophisticated just like the Swiss like to portray themselves. Monk's Head sounds like a deserted, failing pub in Northern England and not at all appetizing.

Cheese shop with traditional dress! 

Cheese shop with traditional dress! 

We bought this cheese in Courmayeur (which is possibly the closest Italian town to the Swiss border) in a fantastic fromagerie where the employers wore traditional red gowns to work. As we entered the shop I almost felt as though we were being transported back in time to an era where people valued a sense of style in retail establishments. Both ladies in red attire had their hair tied back and traditional clogs on their feet making them actually look like they were at work in a cheese shop. Whether it is part of the gimmick or not, cheese is stylish in Italy and so are the people who sell it.

Tête du Moine is a small cheese with a unique shape and a stinky odor. We bought a section of a wheel to take hiking with us on the Tour du Mont Blanc in the hope that it would last a few days. Traditionally, I believe you are supposed to eat it by scraping slivers off with a knife which allows oxygen to hit the surface changing the taste of the cheese. After a long day hiking we were far too hungry to mess around with shavings so we simply cut chunks off and ate it with bread. It tastes nowhere near as strong as it smells as one lucky hiker found out on our trip. Recently returning from the shower in the refuge he complained that there must be a hiker near by with terrible smelling boots. Once we revealed that it was probably the cheese he could smell he retracted in horror only to be pleasantly surprised when we forced him to try it!

So it's not the best picture of Tête du Moine but we had just walked 12 miles in the rain!

So it's not the best picture of Tête du Moine but we had just walked 12 miles in the rain!

As the name suggests the cheese was first made by monks in what is believed to have been the 8th century. No matter where you go in Europe, monks are always brilliant at making cheese. Or at least they used to be. Regular invasions by all sorts of invaders meant that monks needed to stay on their toes and hold onto their robes. Perhaps cheese was used to save their skins. Their vast knowledge of self sufficiency, resilience, dislike for waste and simple lifestyle has proven an excellent combination for the progression of cheese through the ages.

Tête du Moine is a raw cow milk cheese made only in the Jura mountain area of Switzerland and it's said to be great with white wine although I wouldn't know because I don't like white wine! It's shiny silver foil package can be found in many cheese shops nationally and internationally with it's AOP designated status clearly visible on the label. Whether you are eating it under the name of Tête du Moine or Monk's Head, one thing is for sure, it tastes pretty good!

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Ten (Tré-la-Champ to Les Houches)

If the guide books are anything to go by then most hikers who are intending to walk the full route often do so in 11 days. Due to the availability of our schedule, we only had 10 days. Therefore we decided to combine the last two days together to make it a rather difficult ending to an already challenging walk.

Tré-la-Champ - Refuge La Flégère

Day 10! 

Day 10! 

To begin our mammoth day we left Tré-la-Champ at the crack of dawn before anybody in the refuge had woken up. This is a great time for walking. The early morning mist whispers through the trees, everything is dewy and the forest is silent. As we made our first ascent climbing over huge boulders we realized that this section's terrain was unlike any other section of the walk so far. Half way through the forest we startled an ibex which jumped out in front of us, breaking the silence. The route is varied but generally fairly steep and as you emerge from the tree line you see the gigantic rock climbing wall of Aiguillette d'Argentière with it's sheer monolithic walls.

Cloudy pinnacle.  

Cloudy pinnacle.  

This final day is also unique in the fact that it involved climbing up and over metal ladders that have been bolted into the rock face. As you near the top of the ascent to Tête aux Vents a series of ladders emerge which for the unsteady walker may seem a terrifying obstacle. Despite the engulfing drop into the abyss on your immediate left, the ladders are secure and not particularly tough unless you have vertigo!

Reaching the top you are faced with a variety of paths to take with a signpost that clearly states the way to take (and also which some numpty has decided to write his name on with a marker pen). Why is it that people feel the need to write their names with marker pens on signs and toilet doors etc? I can almost understand it in the city but what sort of hiker gets up in the morning and thinks 'waterproofs, check, lunch, check, mountain safety kit, check...marker pen, check?' It seems even the mountains are not free of brainless gits!

A diversion at Tête aux Vents to Lac Blanc on a sunny day is a great wander off of the main route. Lac Blanc is a high elevation lake that is crystal clear and surrounded by snowy peaks. Some friends of ours from Alaska showed us a picture they had taken a few days previously and it looked incredible. However, cloud surrounded us and we continued on to Refuge La Flégère and ski country.

The wife storming up the ladders! 

The wife storming up the ladders! 

Refuge La Flégère - Les Houches

We had every intention of completing the full route to Les Houches on our final day but then we didn't intend on getting lost half way along the route. On approaching the general area of the refuge the landscape changes dramatically. This is ski country. Bulldozers were digging up land, trucks were transporting materials and to make matters more confusing it was very cloudy. With the ski lifts closed and the punters gone it can only be described as a work zone and trucks are constantly changing the landscape (and knocking down signs).

The beer that never tasted so good

The beer that never tasted so good

After a few fruitless attempts to find the right route we descended on a path down to Chamonix before heading to Les Houches feeling only marginally defeated at not being able to complete the last few miles on the right track. Down in Les Houches, we met other hikers from the walk (who comfortingly for us) told us they had also gotten lost at the top so we didn't feel so bad.

Setting our tent up in the same field we began in Les Houches you get the 'full circle' feeling and lots of nostalgia for the endurance of the past ten days. Sitting at a table of a local bar with a pint of beautiful bubbling beer, my wife and I talked about the trail with other hikers who had been with us at various points during the trek. The trail changes you although I'm not entirely sure how.

Perhaps it's just the feeling of completing a 170km journey that has over 29.000ft of ascent but you get a huge sense of accomplishment and beer has never tasted so good.

The final campground! 

The final campground! 

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Nine (Col de la Forclaz to Tré-le-Champ)

Col de la Forclaz - Refuge la Balme

 Trient!

 Trient!

Waking up to yet another wet tent we decided to set off a little later in order to give it time to dry out. This was going to be a fairly short day in terms of mileage after all, if a little steep. Taking the path opposite the Hotel du Forclaz we set out through the forest on a downhill slope towards La Peuty, the tiniest and quietest of Swiss villages. When you reach La Peuty the path is marked well and signals 2h30m to Col du Balme. The entire section of this trip is on an incline starting off with a gradual road climb which materializes into a steep, rocky, zigzag track through the forest. After lots of climbing, groaning and swearing you emerge above the tree line only to be foiled again and discover that the refuge sits on the top of a distant hill on the horizon. That being said, the path from here until close to the summit is at a steadier level and the open grassland allows you to look around at the great scenery. The two and a half hour trek, whilst a bit of a slog, does its duty and provides you with a fantastic view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley below.

The Chamonix Valley

The Chamonix Valley

Refuge la Balme - Tré-le-Champ

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There are two routes to take here. The first is the route down to La Tour which is a pretty village and from which begins a long line of towns in the Chamonix valley. The second is a route up Anguille des Posettes which increases the view of Mont Blanc on a clear day. We opted for the route to La Tour which meanders through mountain bike tracks and ski lifts all the way down. The walk to Tré-le-Champ from here is another 30 minutes through Montroc (another tiny town). We had planned to camp at Les Frasserands but the campsite was closed for the season so instead we went to the auberge at Tré-le-Champ and stayed in what was the best campsite of the trip. It was good being back on French soil. The campsite costs €8 per person and there is no extra cost for the tent like you find in Switzerland, meaning that for two it only cost us €16. The campsite is next to the auberge by a stream and we had access to all the facilities we needed. You can also stay for an evening meal too which costs €17 each but we decided to walk down to Argentiére (25mins) where we could get pizzas for €11!

Campsite at Tré-le-Champ

Campsite at Tré-le-Champ

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Eight (Champex-Lac to Col de la Forclaz)

Champex - Bovine Alp

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Keen to reach our last day in Switzerland and the prospect of cheaper prices we set off early in the morning after getting a ludicrously expensive but well needed cup of tea in Champex. The road sets off pleasantly through two suburbs of Champex aptly named Champex D'en Haut and Champex D'en Bas; both pretty, sleepy villages.

Helicopters are the best method and least intensive way to transport goods and building materials up the mountains and as we were passing through Champex D'en Bas we had the fortunate experience of watching a helicopter hover just over our heads to pick up a load. Holding onto our hats we watched the pilot zoom from the valley floor to the top of the mountainside! It was cool.

The rest of the route to Alp Bovine is an uphill trail of mixed altitude gain. When the Bovine refuge is reached there is a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and a key to tell you what they all are named. The refuge is closed in September but there are still picnic tables to rest your legs under and inquisitive cows to keep you in check. All the cows we met on the route were generally very docile but be wary walking near cows with calves. One of the cows on Bovine had a calf and for a split second amongst all the mooing I had a feeling we were going to be charged at. Fortunately we escaped to continue on our route!

Haley near Bovine Alp

Haley near Bovine Alp

Bovine Alp - Col de la Forclaz

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Striding out from the picnic spot you are comforted by the fact that there is only another 62m of height gain for the rest of the day. A track it into the hillside leads you to a gate which marks the start of the descent down through a forest to the Hotel de la Forclaz. The hotel pretty much constitutes the only notable building in the area and with the exception of a small shop selling souvenirs, there is nowhere to buy food. Faced with the choice to either camp outside the hotel or keep walking to the next town we decided to rest our legs for the night and have dinner with our friend Vincent from Borneo.

The campsite cost 22CHF and is situated right outside the hotel with access to showers. We were the only people camping. Compared to other campsites in Switzerland 22CHF seemed cheap, nevertheless we were looking forward to returning to France where things are affordable. We ate in the hotel which cost us 38CHF for two basic meals with no drinks. Due to it being on the border the hotel allows you to pay with euros or Swiss francs here. Based on the price I was hoping to pay in Rupees.

The next day we found out that if you continue walking on to La Peuty that the camping is only €5 a night but there is not anywhere to eat unless you cook your own food. A few friends of ours from England took full advantage of this as they had a portable stove.

Hotel de la Forclaz from the campsite 

Hotel de la Forclaz from the campsite 

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Seven (La Fouly to Champex Lac)

If there is a day that people choose to skip on the tour then it is this one. The route from La Fouly to Champex is said to be the most unentertaining/easy section of the hike that can quite simply be bypassed by taking a bus from one town to the other. For us, skipping a section wasn't an option, we wanted to walk the whole way.

La Fouly - Issert

Heading out from La Fouly after a poor night's sleep in the pouring rain we were definitely tempted to pursue a bus but after warming our rain jackets in the dryer on site we felt ready to start another day. The route continues through the campsite onto a wooded, downhill track that gradually winds down to the valley floor. Good views are to be had here but continuing poor weather conditions meant that all we could see was cloud. Continuing along a well trodden path which eventually leads to a road is one of the more exciting sections of the walk. As you head towards the town of Issert, it's fun to stroll amongst the quiet houses admiring the piles of logs everybody has accumulated to heat their homes in the winter months.

Issert

Issert

Issert - Champex-Lac

Reach the rabbit and you're there. 

Reach the rabbit and you're there. 

Walking through Issert is one of the only sections of the trail then can be slightly misleading. Signs disappear momentarily and you are left second guessing whether to continue through the town or take one of a series of left tracks uphill as described in the guide books. Ensuring you stay on flat land through the town will lead you to a path on the left just beyond the last buildings of the town. After a long walk from La Fouly this is not an easy climb to Champex. It can only be described as a steep forest path that seems to be endless when you are carrying a large backpack. Notes of interest include wooden sculptures to keep the mind occupied that are situated every few hundred feet up the path (when you reach the large carved rabbit, you have made it to the top!) We met 6 elderly gentleman half way up the track who had a combined age of well over 550. Despite the fact that they were seasoned hikers, I was determined that there was no way that they were going to overtake us on this steep climb.

Champex-Lac

Champex is a popular ski resort with as the name suggests; a large lake. Entering the town you can tell it's Swiss, mainly because the menus on the street inviting you into the restaurants offer hamburgers for the meager price of 28CHF! If you are looking for camping then continue to walk along the edge of the clear, blue lake and on to the other side of the town. The campsite is the last of a group of buildings on the right hand side of the road and it cost a gigantic 30CHF a night for two people with one tent. The campsite itself is a three tiered, lush grass lawn and it is comfortable to sleep on. The amenities are ok and there is a drying room which is a savior in wet weather. Camping in Champex can save you a few pennies, especially if you are planning on eating in a restaurant where you will spend no less than CHF20 for a main course.

Champex-Lac

Champex-Lac

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Six (Refugio Bonatti to La Fouly)

Refugio Bonatti - Refugio Elena

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Striding out from Bonatti at 7:15am with a good breakfast behind us we knew it was going to be a long day. One of the more difficult sections of the TMB, the route to Col Ferret was always going to be a challenge, especially in adverse weather conditions. The initial track from the Refugio is steady going. It's a well worn path that cuts across the hillside towards a farm and then weaves downhill through the trees to Arnuva where there is a tearoom and outdoor seating. Whether you are able to stop in the tearoom or not (we couldn't, it was closed) it is the last flat ground you are going to see for some time. The path begins to wind uphill across open grass, increasing in altitude until you reach Refugio Elena. The refuge is well placed at a the end of the valley with the huge Glacier de Pré de Bar behind it which spills out onto the mountainside. Elena is only open until mid-September. Therefore it was closed and there were no facilities but it can still be used to shelter from the elements and as an opportune spot to look up at the hill you have yet to climb.

Looking back to Bonatti

Looking back to Bonatti

Refugio Elena to Grand Col Ferret

This is probably one of the harder sections of the standard TMB and for us the poor weather certainly made it seem so. Taking around 1h30m to reach the summit of Grand Col Ferret, the track is relentless. I have no comments regarding the view due to driving rain and sleet which along with the cloud made visibility very low. After an arduous climb, the path evens out to reach a triangulation point at the top. At 2534m you feel pretty high up and Switzerland beckons. Apparently the panorama is incredible...

Grand Col Ferret to La Fouly

A muddle of signs

A muddle of signs

Passing by Grand Col Ferret, the path then leads gradually downhill. After an hour of walking you will reach La Peula where you can find a variety of food and drinks. Despite welcoming this watering hole, the cost of the first rest in Switzerland doesn't come cheap. Even though this is a great spot to warm your hands by the fire, you can expect to pay at least 18CHF for two sandwiches and two cups of coffee. Prices nearly as steep as the climb!

Leaving La Peula it takes another hour to reach the tiny hamlet of Ferret and then a further 45 minutes to reach La Fouly, mainly walking alongside the river and in the process crossing a very wonky bridge. As with lots of places in Switzerland, La Fouly is a cute, little town with extra large price tags. The main campsite in the town is Camping du Glaciers which has fantastic amenities, including a heated room to sit, cook and enjoy the company of others. However, camping here will set you back 24CHF a night for two people and it is by far the cheapest option available. Switzerland is expensive and even going to the local supermarket to buy food involves taking out a small loan. You can still visit on a budget though. We bought soup and bread, cooked it at the campsite on a fellow camper's stove (thanks Kevin!) and then played cards with friends we had met along the trip. Great fun.

Wonky bridges near La Fouly

Wonky bridges near La Fouly

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Five (Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti)

Courmayeur - Refugio Bertone

Refugio abertone in the cloud

Refugio abertone in the cloud

Sometimes the signs along the trail are hilarious. A sign at the bottom of a hill will boldly declare that you have 1h30m until you reach the top. Bracing yourself for an uphill climb you set off and walk for 15/20 minutes until you reach the next sign which still boldly declares that you have 1h30m until you reach the top! Therefore, don't take them literally! One spot along the trail where this is evident is on the route from Courmayeur. A steady incline along Villair road leading from the town takes you to the foot of a forest which then rises in steep zigzags all the way to Rifugio Bertone at the top. Half way along this path was the spot where the signs played tricks with us. A friend we met along the trail (a guy called Herakles from Seattle) even went so far as to suggest the signs always altered their figures for the person looking at them depending on how slow they thought you were walking!

Great views can be seen through the trees down to Courmayeur at various places along the forest path. You are rewarded for your efforts at Bertone where there is sheltered seating and a selection of hot drinks. The coffee here is wonderful!

Refugio Bertone - Refugio Bonatti (via Col Sapin)

Replenished and refreshed from Bertone it is a small uphill climb to reach Mont de la Saxe with the way being flat and pleasant all the way to Col Sapin. Cloudy days provide an eerie haze across the grassland and be on the lookout for Ibex who like to hang out in these areas.

Misty mountains at Bonatti

Misty mountains at Bonatti

    Every year there is a 330km race that ends in Courmayeur, if you are in the town to watch the runners come in you can cheer them on and watch the grimaces on their faces as they aim for the finish. Some of the runners complete the race in three days which works out at over 100km per day! Lots of runners passed us on this section of the route working out their final few kilometers down to the finish. If you are there when they are, give them room to run and a clap as they pass by.

The final route to Refugio Bonatti is a slippery slope of mud and if you are lucky enough to be walking in the rain, poles really help here. Despite this, the way is not difficult to navigate and with the exception of a final ascent to warmth and comfort, Bonatti is reached without too much effort. Refugio Bonatti is an excellently run private establishment. Everything about it is great: the location; the staff; the cleanliness; the bathrooms; the food and the general atmosphere. Hammering rain and uneven ground meant we welcomed the chance to stay in the refuge rather than camp and we were able to stay without booking ahead. We were there in September, where you rarely need to book ahead in order to stay but if you are hiking in July or August then booking is essential. The cost of a bed, breakfast and evening meal is €48 each and it is well worth it.

Having a half way pint after five days

Having a half way pint after five days

Tour du Mont Blanc - Day Four (Refugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur)

Note that for this day we did not take the traditional route due to inclement weather. The official TMB route is said to be a glorious journey with incredible views. However, when we undertook this section the rain was pouring and the visibility low. Therefore we took the variant route through Val Veny.

 Refugio Elisabetta - Refugio Monte Bianco

Wait, is that blue sky!? 

Wait, is that blue sky!? 

Descending down from Elizabetta in the early morning mist makes you realize how close you are to nature. The rain was pouring, our packs were heavy and our boots were soggy but the river ran wild and the air was fresh. The path (which can be observed from the Refugio) runs straight down the middle of the valley and at the end of a very straight track there is a split. The right path leads uphill and is signposted Courmayeur, the left path leads straight on across the bridge and is labeled Monte Bianco. The latter is the one to take in bad weather. Although it's not an incredibly exciting journey, the views are still spectacular with huge cliff faces to look at the whole way down.

Cloud shrouded mountains on the way to Courmayeur

Cloud shrouded mountains on the way to Courmayeur

 Refugio Monte Bianco - Courmayeur

Day four in the rain! 

Day four in the rain! 

Again, this route should not be taken in preference to the standard route except in bad weather. There are no real notable viewpoints, it involves quite a lot of road walking and you have to be on the lookout for cars going way too fast. On reaching Courmayeur, it is more pleasurable. Whilst having the alpine feel of towns we had already passed, Courmayeur also feels very Italian. Narrow winding streets, cobbled stones, miniature balconies, pizzerias, coffee shops and wine bars all contribute to this feeling. With no campsites near Courmayeur and the possibility for wild camping off the cards we decided to book into 'the cheapest hotel in the town.' The place whose name escapes me now cost €57 per room, per night. Despite the fact that it was a shared bathroom and the decor hadn't been changed since the Romans were around, the balcony was cracking! Hungry for food, we strolled the streets in the hope of a cheap and cheerful meal. We were surprised to find plenty of options for main courses under €15. Courmayeur caters for a high society, especially during ski season and yet there are many hotels that are very reasonably priced. You can tell that the town is used to a rich crowd as intermingled with all the cute Italian stuff is Prada, Gucci and Fashion for Dogs. And real estate, lots and lots of real estate.

9 miles.

Winding streets of Courmayeur

Winding streets of Courmayeur

Tour Du Mont Blanc - Day Three (Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabetta)

Les Chapieux - Refuge des Mottets

FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

FREE campsite at Les Chapieux! 

There is a shop in Les Chapieux that sells local cheese and fresh bread and it is open from 7:30am. I would highly suggest stocking up there. We bought a fresh crottin of goat cheese, a sizable baguette, two croissants and two apples in readiness for the day for only €8. The route to Refuge des Mottets used to meander along the road but it now cuts along the hillside on the other side of the river, past plenty of cows all donning bells around their necks and hence making the whole experience feel very alpine. The cows were in the process of being moved from one side of the bridge to another and gruff farmers in wooly jumpers were to be seen shouting angrily at some of the more uncooperative bovine beasts in the bunch.

Cows on the move in the sun! 

Cows on the move in the sun! 

Refuge des Mottets - Col de la Seigne

Refuge des Mottets is great. It comes into view at the end of the long valley from Les Chapieux. It's a perfect spot for a brew before making the ascent up to the Col. Although a cup of England's finest is rather on the expensive side at €2.50 a pop, the refuge is well worth seeing due to its museum like display of old cheesemaking equipment decorating the walls. As you sip on your caffeine and look up you can see a Swiss flag flying in the wind and beyond it the vast hill that awaits you.

Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

Looking back down the valley from Les Chapieux

The Cicerone guidebook describes this section of the hike up to the Col as 'not arduous' but I highly doubt Mr. Cicerone was carrying camping gear up the hairpin paths. I also doubt that he had a near gale force wind blowing in his direction as he made his ascent. Signs advise the hiker that it takes two hours to get to the Col, which isn't far off depending on the size of your bag (and your calves). Helpfully for the hiker, the path does get less steep the further you ascend but to counteract this the wind gets stronger. Or it did when we went up. Reaching the top you'll find a stone edifice showing distances to far off cities and a small, crumbling wall to shelter behind whilst you eat fresh goat cheese and bread. Standing on the top, the view is incredible. On the edge of two countries, you can look ahead towards the wild Alps of Italy whilst looking over your shoulder at the French valley you have just climbed. That's providing you're not shielding your face from the wind and murmuring expletives.

Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Goat cheese and bread on the top. €3! 

Col de la Seigne - Refugio Elisabetta

After the 'not arduous' climb up to the Col, there is relief in the form of an abundance of downward paths into the valley beyond. If Refugio Elisabetta is your destination, ensure that you take the paths leading downhill and not the one to the right that continues uphill, even though it may look the more obvious route. The web of paths eventually mold into one and it descends all the way to the Refugio, which can't be visibly seen until it's right under your nose. It's a pretty impressive sight, the only building in view it commands your attention. Whilst wild camping is not permitted in Italy below 2500ft (and the whole area is), you can pitch a tent as long as you are not in view of the Refugio. I know you can because I asked. Eating in the Refugio costs €25 for what is a really good three course meal. Alternatively you can stay half-board for €45 per night. Under normal circumstances we would have camped but the weather was terrible and Refugio looked excellent! This seems to be one of the more popular Refugio's and it's not hard to see why. The Italians are good hosts!

9.7 miles

The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne

The route onwards to Italy from Col de Seigne