La mer de glace

One day during our week in Megeve, Benjamin, Dominique, Cyril and I packed into the car and drove to Charmonix for a day trip. Charmonix is a little skiing town right on the border between France and Italy. It is very close to Mont Blanc and is situated in a tiny valley dwarfed on all sides by mountains. Because of this, Dominique told me that she preferred Megeve. The mountains there are present but not imposing. I loved it though. For me the mountains were more awe-inspiring than anything.

(To read more about my week in Megeve, click here)

We reached Charmonix early in order to catch the 10 am train up the mountain to the glacier, but the first train was delayed until 11. The crew needed time to clear all the snow from the night before off of the tracks and from the welcome center near the glacier.

The delay was actually a blessing because then we had time to go into the small city center to explore a bit. Charmonix had a beautiful city center, but with a noticeably more touristic air than Megeve.

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Cyril and his aunt Dominique in Charmonix

After a very steep train ride in a charming old-fashioned red mountain train we arrived at Montenvers and were greeted by this spectacular sight.

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La mer de glace!

It was my first time ever seeing a glacier in person so I was thrilled. Glaciers are incredibly fascinating for some reason that I can’t quite put a finger on. Is it their strength, age, rarity, perils, or immensity?

What’s more, we had the opportunity to visit a cave carved inside the glacier. We took a cable car down half way to the glacier and walked the rest of the way down many flights of stairs. They had plaques affixed to the rock every so often to say what year the glacier was at that height. Even though the glacier has had natural cycles of gain and retreat over the past 200 years, it is alarming to see how much it has retreated since 2010.

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The glacier is constantly ‘flowing’ and moving so they carve a new cave every year. It has been done since 1946!
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The new cave under construction
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Ice sculpture
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I just couldn’t get enough of the beautiful ice

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Back up by the visitors center, there was a small museum with displays about la mer de glace: its history, morphology, and importance. It was very well put together! The fact that blew me away is that there are actually little tiny organisms that live in the glacier. They can survive at very extreme pressures and temperatures, like at absolute zero (-273.15 Celsius) !!! The biology nerd in me was excited.
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Like science fiction come to life!!!!!!

And after that another first- snowshoeing! They had free rentals at the little glacier museum.

It was incredibly quiet on the trails; the softly falling snow muted everything. It was like Cyril and I had completely left civilization behind, even though I knew that the bustling glacial overlook was a stone’s throw away. The snow was deep at that altitude, probably about three feet. I couldn’t remember the last time I was surrounded by that much snow. To add to the ambiance, it started to snow huge fluffy snowflakes. I had never snowshoed before but I would do it again in a heart beat.

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Winter wonderland

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Towards the end we ran into rooms that were built into the huge mounds of snow.  They were spacious and surprisingly warm inside. It looked like they were renting them out for travelers. I would love to stay in a snow bunker like that for a night!

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Thanks for reading:)
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To the mountains!

Ski culture is strong in France. From anywhere in the country, the French Alps or Pyrenees aren’t too far away. A lot of the French people I have talked to have been skiing since they could walk. Some families take a whole week or two to go to the mountains in February. The way the school system is set up almost encourages it. Public schools are in session for about 6 weeks and then there are 2 weeks of vacation, then 6 weeks of school, 2 weeks vacay, and so on. In the end, it evens out because the kids have school until the 5th of July. This is very strange for me because we didn’t have huge breaks in the middle of school in MN. At most it was two weeks for Christmas, two days for Thanksgiving, Easter Monday, random teacher work days, and unpredictable snow days. My school didn’t even get the week-long ‘spring break’ that some other schools did. As a teacher the long French school breaks are a bit alarming; I hope desperately that my kids aren’t going to lose everything over those two weeks!

We don’t have this culture of skiing in Minnesota. I learned how to ski (kind of) on ‘Mount’ Kato. Mount is a bit of a stretch. Real mountains are just too far away from us for skiing to be a big deal, like it is for people in Colorado and other mountain states.

Cyril and I had the opportunity to take part in this cultural phenomenon. A few Saturdays ago, we caught a BlaBlaCar ride share to take us to the alps. (BlaBlaCar is an awesome website that sets up ride shares in Europe.) We left at 4 am to avoid traffic on the six hour ride. Most people go from Saturday to Saturday and the traffic on the highway from Paris is horrendous. Even with leaving that early, the traffic built up just behind us.

We made it to Megeve without a worry and met up with his Aunt Dominique and Uncle Benjamin. They had graciously offered to host us for the week.

The town of Megeve is beautiful, but has changed a lot with the skiing tourism. Dominique has been going to there to ski her whole life and has seen the transformation. Megeve has more luxury clothes boutiques and art galleries than is natural for a town of 4,000. One day when we walked through the village, she pointed to a luxury macaroon chain shop that came from Paris.’That used to be a cheese shop that sold local cheeses.‘ She pointed to a few high fashion clothes stores, ‘And those shops used to be a really nice local book store.‘ It is difficult for people who are actually from Megeve to afford to live there year round. That is gentrification for you:/ Skiing towns are also reputed to be very expensive places in general, whether it be to rent an apartment or order a hot chocolate at a cafe. Honestly, coming from Paris, the prices seemed normal.

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Central square of Megeve
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Sketch of one of the little bridges in Megeve, one rainy morning

The first day we went skiing it was so clear that it seemed like I could reach out and touch Mont Blanc even though it was 10 miles away. The tallest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc is saddled right on the border of France and Italy. The weather was just perfect. Sunny and not a cloud in the sky and warm, almost too warm at times (11 C/ 50F!). By the end of the day the slopes were a bit beaten up and the snow very heavy and wet.

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Mont Blanc, just can’t get enough of it!

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This is my third year of skiing on real mountains but I was admittedly a little nervous before the first descent. Skiing looks easy, but ski boots are so clumsy and heavy and restrictive, and skis are so long and slippery and somehow the synergy of these two things is supposed to transform the wearer into something fast and graceful?

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Well, graceful isn’t a word I would use to describe myself, skis or no skis. But I can do red slopes with minimal wipe out and hang ok with people like Cyril who have skied their whole lives. However, there was one red slope that was my kryptonite. It felt steeper than other reds, and I wiped out three times in a row. After my second fall, Cyril turned on the camera, just in case. You can follow this link to see my humiliation. In my defense, it is much steeper than it looks on the film!

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We skied for another day, but the snow was melting too fast, so we took a break the next two days and explored the village. One rainy afternoon we went ice skating, but it seemed like everyone else in Megeve had the same idea. That was the most crowded ice skating session I have ever been to. It was more entertaining than usual because it became a game to try to skate through the crowds of slow beginners that blocked the way at every turn. (I am not a good skater, but I am still Minnesotan.) Cyril and I also had a fun time watching a select few little kids that were disasters on skates. They were so cute! There was one little boy wearing a red body suit and a helmet (thank God) who didn’t actually skate. His form could be more accurately described as running… on his toe picks. His whole body leaned forward at an alarming 30 degree angle. He had the most terrific wipe outs but he always got up right away, brushed himself off, and set off running again on his toe picks towards another inevitable fall.

Another day we all went to the border to see the largest glacier in France. To keep this post from becoming a veritable book, I made a separate post for this day. Click here for my glacier adventure!

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‘La mer de glace’ glacier

In Mevege it started to snow again on Thursday so we jumped at the opportunity to get back to the slopes. The snow was a delight to ski on, but the big, soft flakes were not so soft and lovely when speeding down the slope. The world was one big wall of white punctuated by blurry, colorful objects: other skiers and poles marking the edge of the slopes. The bright side was that the lines for the ski lifts were non-existent. We took it easy and stopped early to have a drink at La Folie Douce (Sweet Craziness), a fun bar at the top of one of the slopes. On sunny, busy days at the ski resort, this place is hoppin’. Check it out with this link:) They have an outside bar and dance area, with a live DJ, singers, and dancers. The dancers all have super cool styles, the kind of fun, inclusive dancing that makes one want to join in even when wearing clunky skiing boots.

Our last day of skiing was perfect. The snow was fresh and the weather was clear. Now I understand why skiing is so much better with clear, sunny weather. I have skied before when it was foggy, cloudy, or slightly rainy and I always thought that my skiing buddies complained too much about it. But now I realize that the best part about skiing is when one looks up from the slopes and sees the mountains towering above. They have an amazing energy!

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There is absolutely nothing better than the fatigue after a long day of skiing and knowing that you have the right to do nothing and eat everything afterwards.

Two of the nights we ate raclette, a popular Swiss/French melted cheese meal. It is so amazing and delicious that I think I am going to dedicate a whole blog post to it later. Just a warning for anyone who visits me in France-raclette is the first meal I will treat you to and your life will never be the same again.

In between the raclette meals, Cyril and I went out to a restaurant to eat a traditional Savoyard cheese fondue. A cheese revelation, but my heart still belongs to raclette.

Mmmmm, Fondue! Image courtesy of http://www.cerisesurlegateau.fr/une-fondue-savoyarde-aux-trois-fromages/

Another interesting food encounter: on the slopes one day we stopped at a restaurant that served a ‘sandwich americain’. It turned out to be hamburger patties, onions, tomatoes, and FRENCH FRIES all smothered in a sauce of one’s choosing and stuffed into a baguette bun. I am not sure how to interpret the name of this sandwich. Is it a compliment or an insult that this creative, delicious, fatty, outrageous sandwich is named after my county?

Cyril and I caught a night train back to Paris on Friday night. We had bunk beds reserved in the sleeping cars. With the rocking of the train I dreamt that I was skiing all night during the ride back into Paris.

Night train, image courtesy of http://www.asie360.com