TMB, Day 6: Cozy and Dry in Les Contamines

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We wake up with the alarm, and, unlike some of our other dorm experiences so far on the TMB, we both claim a good night of sleep. There were only two other couples sharing the room last night, so it was relatively quiet. We feel rested and ready to hike. The refuge breakfast is typical of what we have seen on the trail so far: bread, jam, and coffee. There’s just enough food to fill the belly, but not so much that you feel like sticking around. Guess we’ll need to hit the trail and start walking to find some protein!

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We set off knowing we have more downhill than uphill ahead of us today, and that puts a little pep in our step. After a short climb back to the junction above Refuge Bonhomme we take the trail down toward the town of Les Contamines and begin the journey by contouring along the hillside. The sun is illuminating a mountain across the valley dramatically amidst a sky of dark clouds, and we break to take some photos. We didn’t check the forecast, but it appears that we have more rain in store for the day.

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This section of the trail is quite beautiful. The terrain is more rocky than we have seen thus far, and many of the rocks are covered in a bright lime-green lichen. The lichen and the pretty wildflowers in bloom encourage our cheery dispositions. 

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As we are crossing a small stream, I catch sight of a small herd of ibex. There are three males and a few females grazing as they head down the valley. Alison snaps the long lens onto the mirrorless camera and hands it to me; I go into “stealth mode” trying to get a decent shot of the impressive animals. We caught a brief glimpse of one lone ibex yesterday just before the Col du Fours, but didn’t get any photos. This is a great opportunity to get some photographic proof!

My experience of tracking loons and beavers in the Boundary Waters pays off. Before long, I am in range to get a few decent shots of the three males as they graze and watch over the females. What an auspicious start to the day!

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Soon after, we reach the Col du Bonhomme. We are hiking the TMB clockwise, and we are surprised to find that we actually descend to this pass. The light is very dramatic, and we stop briefly to photograph.

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From there it’s a semi-steep descent. We pass many people huffing and puffing their way up to the pass. Some are TMB hikers who are most likely just starting out. If they used Les Houches as their starting point (most do) and are hiking anti-clockwise (most are), this would just be Day 2 for them. Others are day hikers coming from Les Contamines, a popular base for daytrippers. Either way, it’s a big climb that we avoid by traveling clockwise.

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When we reach the bottom, we decide to take a detour to Lac Jovets, a 45 minute climb past a few picturesque waterfalls to two mountain lakes. We drop our big packs near a rock, put rain covers on just in case and go light with only our cameras and a picnic lunch.

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We spend several hours exploring the lakes and photographing different subjects, and we stop for lunch in an idyllic spot between the lower and upper lakes. This is one side trail that definitely pays off big time.

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We realize we still have quite a distance to cover so we reluctantly head back down to retrieve our bags and continue the journey. It’s pretty much all downhill as we pass by Refuge de la Balme and Refuge Nant Borrants. We pass by cattle grazing peacefully with the melodic clanging of their bells filling the air.

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As we drop in elevation, the forest starts to come in closer to the trail. Soon we find we are walking on an old Roman road and come across a Roman bridge (refurbished in the Middle Ages) that spans a deep gorge with rushing water below.

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A kilometer or so further on we come to a pilgrimage church called Notre Dame de la Gorge, with many Latin phrases stenciled on the exterior. We can’t stop for long and so keep pushing down the two track road.

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As we approach Les Contamines, we first encounter a recreational sport paradise with golf, swimming, tennis, volleyball and a dozen other activities. It seems like this is summer camp for Europeans. The path takes us into town along the river and mercifully off the roads, but eventually we wander into the center of town, find the tourist office and make some inquiries about our B&B.

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We stop at the Spar supermarket for a few lunch supplies when it starts to rain. It turns out our B&B is another kilometer out of town downhill. Luckily we get there without getting dumped on. Les Fayolles (The Fairies) is run by a pleasant couple. She has good English, but Michel only speaks French. Our room is super cute and well-appointed.

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We shower and head off to town to find dinner. On recommendation we head to Bistro Au Gourmand, and, with a little assistance understanding the menu, we end up ordering a fantastic meal: green salad with warm chèvre on toast and bruschetta to start, a galette (buckwheat crepe) with chèvre, tomato, champignons and honey (sweet and savory). We have giant glasses of Pelforth en pression to wash it down.

The staff is so friendly and helpful. We are the last to leave in this tourist town that grows very quiet after dark. The owner/chef brings us a shot of ginepri (juniper flavored alcohol) that is amazing, and we spend a few minutes conversing about life in the mountains and how he came to be here. We saunter quietly back to our B&B loving life and the French hospitality we are experiencing in this quaint mountain town.

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