It truly is a magnificent drive and I’m 100% converted now, who knew snow topped mountains could be sunny and warm? I’d always thought it was a choice between pretty but cold mountains or a sunny holiday by the sea- turns out you can have a great time in sunny, warm, beautiful snow topped mountains and pretty little lakes.
Our arrival in Villars d’Arene begins with a wander round the village with all our bags to find ‘base camp’. There is nowhere with this title and we eventually relent and ask someone, showing them a photo of the place. Another local is called over to consult and we are then led to our home, where the neighbour lets us in. It’s a pretty village with a central square with a restaurant, local shop, a (closed and falling down) large church and a fountain in the centre. The square seems to be patrolled by a large St Bernard (or, Beethoven dog if you’re my generation) who is quite happily wandering around, helping himself to the water from the fountain.
Our hosts are up in the mountains for the day, so we settle in and await their arrival, noticing how all the shoes are designed for mountain use and spotting a wide selection of skis and ski boots on the first floor. They’re lovely- if our last place was like staying with family, this is like staying with friends. A couple a similar age to us, who spend the evenings having drinks with their neighbours in the front garden. It’s great, and we feel welcomed and included throughout, enjoying a takeaway pizza and some wine with them on the first night and then sharing homemade soup and a salad on the second (we made a dish each). It’s also a perfect place for me to get back into French, as the guy also speaks English and their speech is slower than Marie’s so easier to follow. I don’t get it all, but am pleased to recognise several words in every sentence and know the gist of what they’re talking about some of the time. It’s a pleasant surprise that, after a month in Italy, I’m finding it much easier to speak and understand on this arrival in France than I did at our first arrival in France, two months ago. It’s still frustrating though as I’d hoped to be almost fluent by this point!
Unfortunately Eliza has one of her worst nights yet, screaming excitedly all evening and then crying inconsolably in the night- Marie even has to get dressed and take her for a walk outside to calm her down as nothing is working. It’s a bit of a mystery but our best guess (from Google) is too much dairy as the pizzas were pretty loaded with cheese. It’s pretty bad timing as this is the first time we’ve done AirBnB as a room in someone’s house rather than having an apartment to ourselves and they both have work the next day.
We awake to what appears to be an empty house. In a break from tradition, I take Eliza to the little shop to get breakfast and a picnic for later while Marie has a bit of a break at home and Eliza is suitably adored by the shop owner and another customer. We enjoy breakfast on the patio and a little later, the female host comes down the stairs with a sore throat and cold and is very polite about Eliza’s crying in the night, saying she thinks she only heard her because she was awake anyway with a sore throat. As we’re packing up ready to go on a walk, the male host pops home on his lunch break and says we haven’t kept him up in the night. Phew! He lends us a hiking map and his backpack for our picnic and we follow his recommendation to find a local lake.
It’s a very short but windy drive just outside the village and then up a hill. We’re climbing up level with the tops of the surrounding snow topped mountains and it’s completely beautiful. Grassy banks on our side and snow covered rock in every direction. Aside from one local guy on the way to his house and one person all kitted out in mountain hiking gear, we see no one on our way and feel excited about having the place to ourselves.
The walk up to the lake is quite windy, so we do our best to shield Eliza’s ears, covering her with a hood and then putting our hands on top. It’s kind of hard to believe how beautiful it is around us, and also that we’re surrounded by snow in shorts and tshirts!
Initially, for me, the lake isn’t as ‘wow’ as I’d hoped, as we reach it at the same level as the water. However, a short walk around it puts us slightly above it and then it’s really gorgeous with clear blue-green water and these weird seaweed sticks, standing vertical in the lake. We can see little fish swimming about and we settle ourselves on a bank for a nice picnic, Eliza also joining in with her meal.
After lunch we decide to finish our tour of the lack, climbing across some of the little streams going in to the lake as we make our way around, with cute little flowers by our feet. Marie spots two eagles overhead (I miss them) and has her eyes peeled everywhere for marmots, I’ve no idea what they are, except ‘furry things’ by Marie’s description. She tells me that throughout her childhood she’s been searching to see one in the wild, looking for them whenever they were in the mountains, but has never managed to see one.
All of a sudden I spot a furry shape moving down off a rock ‘Oh! There! Is that one?’
It is! We move closer, silently pleading with Eliza to keep quiet…she doesn’t, but that doesn’t seem to bother it. We watch it go from one den to another, having a good munch on the way, it looks so soft and fluffy and pretty relaxed.
I’m fixated on the one marmot, but meanwhile Marie is scanning the area and spots two more on the slope ahead of us. We look closer and spot loads of den entrances up and down the slope. Our original marmot stops to stare at the other one for a while and then carries on with its business. We decide to spend a while watching them, imagining what it’s like for BBC wildlife documentary cameramen and relishing in this treat alone on the mountainside.
Eventually we decide to carry on, squelching through marshy land back to the path to the car. Our next stop is La Grave, the pretty village we were initially trying to stay in. From our viewpoint we can see it at the bottom of the valley below us and I both want to stay by the pretty nature things all day and want to go and explore the village.
It’s the village where our host works as a primary school teacher and it’s afternoon playtime when we arrive. The village is small and the village school is tiny, with one class for 3 years of children. It’s an off season ski resort so the pretty shops I was hoping for are hard to find and then closed. The village itself has pretty stone houses and narrow, windy streets to explore. Eliza is asleep so we push her around in the buggy and decide to stop for a drink once we do find an open bar, enjoying a pretty mountain view from the terrace.
From here, we head back, arriving in time for after work aperitifs on the patio. We catch up with the blog a bit and Eliza falls in love with a giant yellow beanbag- so much so that we repurpose it into a bed base for the night. We have a lovely dinner of salad and soup with our hosts and a much better night’s sleep.
Our sleep is so good that we sleep in the next morning…oh and also because 5am-8am were not really sleep times for Eliza. Our breakfast is so late that as we’re finishing it off, our hosts sit down to lunch! With fond farewells we’re off on our travels to Die, home of the Clairette de Die wine that I completely adore.
As for the Alps, I’ve completely loved them, so much more than I imagined (I was pretty much just humouring Marie’s love of mountains when we set out to stay in the Alps for a couple of days). I can’t wait to come back and explore the region more.