TMB, Day 0: Planes, Trains and Autobuses

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It’s been a while since we last posted our Peaks of the Balkans trek, but we are back in the blogging saddle and eager to finally catch up on all of the amazing European hiking we did in the summer of 2017.

When we last wrote, we had just finished up nine days of trekking through the Dinaric Alps in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro and were unwinding in the capital city of Tirana for a day before heading up to the Swiss Alps for our next adventure: the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 110-mile circuit of the Mont Blanc massif. The TMB is a fabulous introduction to the European tradition of hut to hut hiking and one of the most beautiful treks we’ve ever done. We hope you will come along for the ride!

Written by Matt, July 2017

The beauty of travel in a relatively small place like Europe is the ability to move quickly between countries. Today, for example, is a three-country day which has us waking up early (3:45 am!) in Tirana, Albania, catching a flight to Rome, Italy, and then another one on to Geneva, Switzerland, en route to the start of our Tour du Mont Blanc, a 10-day, 105-mile circuit around the Mont Blanc massif that sits on the border of France, Italy and Switzerland.

Lucky for us, the Best Western Ark Hotel in Tirana is literally 3 minutes walking distance from the airport terminal, and we are able to snag a quick breakfast (in fact, our flight crew for Alitalia is staying here as well) before heading out the door. Double bonus: we are able to check our backpacks all the way through to Geneva even though we bought our flights as two separate one-way tickets. This will save us tons of time in the Fiumicino Airport that we can use instead to grab a cappuccino and a cornetto for “second breakfast” and catch up on some email while we await our next flight.

Rome’s airport is, for us this summer, becoming what Hotel Shankar was for us many years ago in Kathmandu—that familiar place we keep returning to in between adventures. In total, we will pass through Roma Fiumicino four times this summer. Thankfully, it has been refurbished since we were last there. It has a lovely 2nd floor area with many places to eat and sit, and it even has three classical sculptures that were excavated at the nearby ancient Roman port town of Ostia that make the Latin teacher in me smile each time I pass them.

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The flight to Geneva is quick and painless, and the views from the air of the Alps stretched out as far as the eye can see blow us away. We are getting the feeling that we are in for a treat!

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Once we hit the ground in Geneva, it’s “go time” Amazing Race-style! We quickly find an information station for the train and figure out, with the aid of a friendly attendant, how to buy tickets. We have 11 minutes to catch the first of three trains heading up into the mountains. Surprising to me, at least, Geneva’s airport and train station are relatively small, and we arrive on the platform in no time. When we board the train heading off toward Martigny, I am reminded of how pleasant, clean and well-organized the train system is in much of Europe. If only the US could do the same!

The first train takes us an hour and a half and skirts Lake Geneva on the south shore for most of the journey. I had no idea how big the lake really is, and all I keep thinking of is Julius Caesar blocking the Helvetians here as they tried to move westward. As we near the end of the lake to our left we see terraced vineyards climbing up the hillside and the occasional old church. Every glimpse of the beautiful Swiss countryside gets us more and more excited to be here.

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At Martigny, we have a very short transfer to a regional train that we take for another 20 minutes before transferring to the St. Bernard Express, which lasts all of 7 minutes before dropping us in the sleepy hamlet of Orsières.

We have an hour and a half to kill, so we stop into the tourist office to ask a few questions, obtain bus tickets to Champex Lac and then set off down the hill into the village. We stop at a pharmacy to buy supplies for Alison’s blistered feet, walk into the Eglise Sant Nikolas, simple and spare, and then to a sport shop in search of a map of our hiking route with no luck.

It’s so quiet in this sleepy little town that we almost feel like we are intruding. We stop for a coffee at a cafe en face du gare and observe many day hikers coming down and stopping for an afternoon beer. We are starting to see at least some of the attraction of summer hiking in Switzerland!

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Soon it’s time to board the bus along with all the other backpackers. The bus winds its way slowly up hairpin turns making several stops along the way before reaching Champex Lac, a delightfully quiet village set on a tranquil lake below some impressive peaks. We hop off the bus and walk a few hundred meters to Hotel en Plein Air, our first guesthouse on the TMB.

We check into our dortoir (dormroom) with 6 beds and find we are the first to arrive. This is good since we need to shake down our packs and drop some weight before hitting the trail tomorrow morning. Our plan is to leave a suitcase here and pick it up in 11 days when we complete the Tour. Two gentlemen from Israel arrive after their day’s hike and offer us some useful tips based on their experience thus far. Number one on their list is not to carry more than we really need!

After re-sorting our gear, we head off for the sport shop to pick up a map. The town is already quiet as the day tourists have left and the hikers are ensconced in their lodging. We dash back to our hotel just as dinner is being served promptly at 7 pm. By the time we arrive, the dining room is packed, and everyone is talking excitedly with their table mates about the day. We have been assigned a table with two women from Britain and a mother/daughter pair from Colorado. They are excited to tell us about their adventures thus far and impart some of their trail wisdom. We are grateful for the “intel.” Hot tip: take the high route wherever possible, weather permitting.

We are eager to see what we can expect in terms of food on the TMB as breakfasts and dinners are included in all of our nightly accommodations on the trek. Our meal tonight consists of a giant fresh salad, a main dish of rice and roasted vegetables topped with two eggs over easy, and ice cream for dessert—not bad!

After dinner we sit out on the back patio and watch the alpen glow over a draught beer. We are the last to go to bed in this hotel full of tired hikers, and we realize that soon we, too, will be back on hiker time.

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It’s been a long day, but we ran the race well, and we are set to begin the Tour du Mont Blanc tomorrow. This is the first classic hike of the world that we will have attempted in Europe, and we are both excited to hit the trail in the morning. Bon soirée.

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