The second Monday, I insisted on having some time to wander around town by myself. I left the apartment at around eight in the morning, and I have to tell you, I was amazed at how few people and vehicles were about.
Here it is, the start of the week, well into what would be rush hour in the United States -- and who did I see out?
--Street sweepers driving cubical little sweeping trucks, occasionally getting out to push brooms.
--Kids on their way to school.
--People with ice tools and trekking poles sticking out of their backpacks.
Yeah, that was about it.
I walked around, looking at the stores. A very few cafés and bars were opening -- not yet open, but someone was unchaining tables and unstacking chairs, writing on the menu boards. The very first places started to open around 8h30 for "formule petit dejeuner." I searched for something that was neither Carbs-'n' Caffeine (French breakfast) nor Carbs 'n' Caffeine Plus Yer Money's Worth O'Meat (English breakfast) and finally settled on a place that had fromage frais with muesli (plus the carbs and caffeine).
Along with the fromage frais: Baguette, butter, jam, coffee, and a petite cylindrical shot of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice.
I think the fromage frais is distinct from yogurt, but to me it tastes similar -- maybe not as acidic, but as thick and creamy as Greek yogurt. Wikipedia seems to think that it is thickened from raw milk using rennet, at lower temperatures than one cultures yogurt.
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I came back and Mark announced that we were going on a nice relatively flat hike along a river in a valley. I looked it up -- the Vallon de Bérard -- and the hike was described as a gentle two-hour hike for the whole family that ended up at one of the mountain refuges for hikers, where there would be a full restaurant with fabulous desserts. It sounded like a grand day out, and it would have us out there by snack time and back by dinnertime. Perfect.
We parked at the train station in the little hamlet of Le Buet, walked across the street, and started up the trail. Not far up we found a sign for the Refuge Pierre Bérard, 1h45, and another for a Cascade Bérard -- a waterfall -- 0h15.
The trail started out through farm fields. We were separated from the cattle by an electric fence.
Within fifteen minutes we were at the promised waterfall. A little restaurant was built right above it, with a porch that went right over the river. Like everything here it was bedecked with bright flowers, the easy kind like geraniums in pots. The children wanted to stop but we reminded them that we were going to have bilberry tarts at the refuge, and kept them going.
Not far past the cascade there was another sign that announced the refuge was 1h45 away. "Wait a minute," said Mark, "isn't that what the last one said?" We pressed on.
The trail seemed awfully steep and rocky for a gentle hike for the whole family.
Still, it was a beautiful forested hike, right next to a lovely rushing stream of glacier meltwater.
We went on and on, and up and up. Saw a slug:
And eventually put the four-year-old on a short rope for safety, as the cliffs plunged rather far down to the stream.
We stopped for lunch after an hour or so, eating all our sandwiches. Mark saved back a few M&Ms for an emergency. We planned to have snack at the refuge, so we did not bring another snack. I nursed the baby, but only a little, because he wanted to crawl around instead. When I put him back on my back he fussed angrily for a long time before going to sleep.
After a while -- by which time Mark had started carrying the 4yo on his back to make better time -- we seemed to have come to a flat place and the valley opened up all around us. There were wild raspberries growing. It was gorgeous. I think it is the most beautiful hiking terrain I have ever seen.
This is really where we should have planned to hike all day and spend the night at the refuge before hiking out. That would have worked. We came prepared for an overnight hut trip. But we didn't know till we got here.
The terrain remained gorgeous, but it wasn't flat for long. It began to climb steeply again. We saw many signs warning us not to stop because of falling rocks, and other signs warning us that the river could rise swiftly even in good weather because of power plants upstrem.
The next time someone passed us going the other direction, I asked how far to the refuge. "One hour," said the French lady.
Twenty minutes later here came another couple: this time, British. "How far to the refuge?" I asked.
"Oh, at least one hour and a half, maybe two since you have all these children," said the British lady.
The third person who came by had a German accent. "Forty minutes," he said. "And the cake is really worth it."
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Quite possibly we had fallen into a joke.
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Anyway, we eventually came to the place where we could see the refuge, far off in the distance and at least another hundred meters vertical gain. We looked at it. We looked at our watches. We looked at the sky. "Turn around time is 3 pm," said Mark, "because there's a chance of rain. So can we do it fast, or not? Can we get there in twenty minutes?"
The 8yo, who had been griping about being hot and cold and being annoyed by her brothers' singing and had claimed she had a twisted ankle until it was taped up and then she claimed that made it worse, said "I'm not sure I can go really fast but I'll try."
The 14yo wanted to go for it.
The 10yo looked and said: "I think we can do it, but not in twenty minutes."
"You sure?" said Mark.
He was sure.
"Okay," said Mark, "thank you for the information. Executive decision: we turn around." And he started back down the trail.
The 14yo was horrified. The 8yo started to cry. I felt disappointed, but also a little bit relieved that the decision was made. The 10yo was stony-faced, his expression hidden behind sunglasses. We followed.
"Anyone in the party can make the call to decide not to go to the summit," Mark called back cheerfully over his shoulder. "It is important to practice being okay with turning around sooner than you expected."
"But the cake!" said someone.
"We can stop for cake at the waterfall," I said quickly.
And that is exactly what we did.
It was faster going down, but still unsteady. The baby tired of being on my back and began to lunge his weight around in a way that threw me off balance, so I traded with Mark and held the other end of the 4yo's rope. He was well rested, having been carried so far, so he hopped about excitedly.
At the buvette two children got lemon ice cream, one child got a Schweppes Agrum' (a really amazingly good citrus soda that we have never seen in the States), one child split a fruit tart with Mark, and I had a cheese crepe which I shared with the baby and anyone else who wanted a bite.
Crepes are pretty good. I think I should learn how to make them at home. "Kind of like a French quesadilla," someone said. My 8yo wrinkled her nose and said she thought they would be better with normal cheese.
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On the way out we passed a map that we had not looked closely at before. For some reason we had not been able to find the refuge on this map. But this time when we looked at it, it popped out immediately. Along with altitude numbers.
I did a quick mental calculation. Five hundred eighty seven meters of vertical gain between the red dot marked "Vous êtes ici" and the refuge.
A "gentle hike for the whole family?!?"
I am not relying on adjectives any more. Only numbers. And not time estimates either!
We went home. To my trail-stained clothes I added some spots of cream sauce from the veal I made for dinner. I collapsed into bed. And Mark made plans to take us rock climbing the next day.
As the 4yo said to us the other day, "There sure are a lot of vacations in our vacation."