Monday 16 May 2016

Snow Capped Mountains in Switzerland!

Our current spot by the river at Zinal

France and Switzerland, 11th – 15th May 2016

We’ve crossed a new country border, and can now say we’re in Switzerland!  In terms of staying somewhere with a view, I can’t really fault our current location; we’re parked for free near the town of Zinal in the Pennine Alps, right by the beginnings of a river with uninterrupted views of the still snowy mountains around us.  The ski season has finished at this point in the year, but there are still patches of the white stuff within walking distance.  Hot chocolates have been consumed and fleeces have made their way out of the cupboards.  Tonight we may even be so extravagant as to turn the heating on for the first time in months; we shall have to see how the temperature drops at night.

But first, we finished our time in France with Chamonix and Lac Léman.

On the whole, in England we have a relatively easy time in getting from one place to another.  It’s a fairly flat country and we can easily put another road in where needed with few problems.  It was something I’d never really given much thought to until we’ve been travelling, and seen just how hilly places in mainland Europe can be.  In the UK it’s rare that we’d ever have to worry about how best to get around a mountain or across a gorge to get to the next town along.  Contrast this with the route between Passy and Chamonix, where the route entails building a skyscraper-height elevated flyover road and several tunnels; after all, this is the area around the Mont Blanc mountain range, and the land surrounding the tallest mountain in the Alps (4809m above sea level) is hardly going to be forgiving terrain for building infrastructure.  Even more impressive in the area is the route from Chamonix into Italy; instead of the usual approach of a mountain pass full of winding hairpins, they’ve drilled a straight 11.6km tunnel right through Mont Blanc – brilliant!  However at €58.50/€73.50 for a single/return journey, we won’t be making a quick foray into Italy, even if my spumante & risotto rice reserves have run dry.

Most of the mountain resorts we’ve visited so far have either been ghost towns or had only the odd local milling about with few visitors outside of the winter-sports season, but Chamonix was still full of life.  We bypassed the paying aire and instead parked for a couple of hours in some free roadside parking on the other side of town, where despite the 24 hour time limit the old British Merc van next to us had dirt gathering around the wheels.  Chamonix is quite a nice place, with a lot of cafés/restaurants (once again with plenty of pizzerias) and enough outdoor shops to acquire any bit of sports kit you might possibly need.  There are loads of patisseries and delicatessens along the main streets, although nothing is cheap; the pastries and cakes were beautiful but you can expect to be paying about €4 just for a small one.  There were quite a few British vehicles around, and it was strange to be hearing English for the first time in a few weeks.
The graffiti around the back of the sports centre was fantastic; we caught one guy in the middle of making new art and it's amazing to see how they get so much precision using just a spray can
Parking at Les Houches
Parking by a main road listening to trucks all night didn’t quite appeal, so in the evening we moved to a much quieter spot at Les Houches (GPS: 45.89580 6.78171), where we got a free riverside view.  We attempted to relax with a bit of telly in the evening but the weather had other ideas, and when the last daylight left it started hammering it down.  The television went onto max volume, but we still had to regularly rewind to figure out what people were saying.  At home I always close the conservatory off during rain because the noise is so loud; when travelling in a van, you might as well live in a conservatory as the thudding on the roof sounds much the same.  As I lay awake listening to the pounding I told myself that at least with this amount of rain, there would be nothing left in the skies by morning and we’d get a clear view of the mountains.  No such luck, as it was still grey and drizzly.  The idea of taking a mountain pass into Switzerland in the wet and fog didn’t seem like the best plan, so we decided backtrack to Passy and then go north to Lac Léman.

After our last foray at a French Lidl and a couple of hours lunch stop at an aire in Bonneville which had free electricity (perfect timing as Matt’s shaver had just ran out of juice) we set the route for a free aire at Anthy-sur-Léman, on the French side of the lake.  We ended up taking a tight country village detour to avoid a road closed due to an overturned tanker, and after the tiring drive finally rocked up at the aire in late afternoon to find all of the five spaces were full.  We looked in our books, but couldn’t find anywhere else nearby to stay.  Luckily we had internet signal, so nipped on Park4Night, where there were details for another spot just on the outskirts of Anthy by the lakeside.  We had nothing to lose so went to investigate, and it didn’t look promising when the entrance to the road had a sign prohibiting motorhomes.  Under the sign however it said something along the lines of ‘outside of reserved spaces’.  We went down to check, and found three dedicated motorhome parking bays (GPS: 46.36328 6.44219, Free), just a stone’s throw from the water’s edge.  Space is tight and there was no service point but the view was better than the main aire.

The weather still wasn’t up to much the next day, so we saw no reason to move.  I’m going to miss this when we start work again; I’m not sure that a bit of rain will be excuse enough to not leave the house!  Switzerland kept fading in and out of focus on the other side of the lake, depending on how cloudy it was and where the rain was falling.  We turned off the morning alarm for a lie-in and then chilled in the van for the day, only venturing out to walk into Anthy-sur-Léman for a fresh baguette and a look around.  The last of the British bacon came out of the freezer (thanks Gibraltar!) for lunch, and I decided that just because we lacked an oven it didn’t mean we had to deprive ourselves of comfort food so made a no-bake shepherd’s pie, which might not have been as pretty as it is after a round in the oven but was still perfectly tasty!

Not the ideal weather for being in Switzerland...
We found our ideal tiny house!

Yesterday it was time to put France behind us and venture into new territory.  It’s been months since we entered a country for the first time, so it was a little bit exciting heading towards Switzerland even if we knew the prices were going to be higher.  We tried to prepare ourselves as best we could by refilling our LPG bottles and getting diesel.  It would have been good to get a full tank of diesel as it’s about €0.20/L more over the border, but we restricted ourselves to half a tank to make sure we weren’t overweight in case we were weighed at the border, as we had an almost full water tank.  We got a few last minute supermarket purchases in and it would have been nice to get a last round of laundry in too, but none of the supermarkets we passed before the border had a self-service launderette.  Boo!

Finally we crossed the border on the western side of Lac Léman, where the police had no interest at all in seeing our passports and waved us straight through.  We headed into the mountains until we reached Leysin, where there is a designated motorhome area just next to a toboggan park (GPS: 46.34205 7.02288, Free).  Everyone keeps telling us that Switzerland is beautiful, and Leysin was certainly a good place for us to start; the last dregs of ground snow were melting, and straight out of our window we could see grassy meadows full of dandelions with snow-capped mountains in the background; all we were missing was Julie Andrews and we could have easily recreated the poster for The Sound of Music (I know the film’s set in Austria, but they ran off to Switzerland at the end right?).

Parking at Zinal
As a country we know we’re not in for a cheap time.  We know food and eating out isn’t cheap, and we’ve already seen advertisements for a McDonalds ‘offer’ menu which would feed two people for 20 CHF (that’s about £14), so with that as a guideline we’re not looking forward to the prices in more conventional restaurants, but it has to be done once right?  We’ve not yet purchased a vignette; you only need them for motorways, and the motorway we’ve avoided so far had a perfectly good alternate route, and for us cruising at 80 km/h not really any slower.  We’ll decide whether to buy one depending on where we’re planning to go, but right now we have no idea where exactly that is.  Matt’s been reading an old MMM article about visiting Switzerland that we happen to have onboard, and the Swiss Pennine Alps looked appealing.  As a result we decided to go south to spend a few days there, which brings us to our current spot at Zinal.  There are some marked walking trails that start around here, so tomorrow we’ll probably don some warmer layers and boots and explore the mountains.  After that, who knows?  We’re not sure exactly what route we’ll be taking through the country other than knowing that we’ll eventually end up crossing into Austria.  The Sustenpass is still closed until June so that’s a no-go, but we’re thinking we’d like to see St Moritz.  Beyond that, we’re very open to suggestions and recommendations!

- Jo


  1. Cracking photos. Kindest, Wayne

    1. Thanks Wayne, the Swiss mountain scenery is fantastic and makes for some good photos