One of the World’s Best Hikes?

The  Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) trail circumnavigates Western Europe’s highest mountain, the mighty Mont Blanc, up craggy passes, over pastoral saddles and through surreal valleys of France, Italy and Switzerland.  It offers fantastic hiking that is both scenic and challenging while providing the allure of great vino, a hot meal and a comfortable bed in a charming village at the end of the trail every evening. The route winds through famous mountain villages such as Chamonix and Courmayeur as well as smaller villages that will leave you contemplating dairy farming as a plausible profession.

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There are countless hiking options of varying lengths and difficulty as well as many options to leverage buses and lifts to navigate the hike around the massif.  And both directions of traveling the loop offer their benefits and challenges.  You can plan on about 10 days of actual hiking give or take your speed of walking, and it is worth considering an option that includes 1-3 “rest” days to check out some of the bigger villages and side trails along the way. Some travelers carry their own gear, but there are plenty of guide and transport companies that will transport bags so you only need to hike with a day bag. And with plenty of refuges, some of the best potable water supplies and villages along the way, day packs can be light.  Most stay in hotels, auberges or refuges so carrying a tent or even a sleeping bag is not required. Guided trips are available and may be the way to go for those less experienced with walking and hiking, but we found the navigation and hiking pretty straightforward and enjoyed the flexibility of a self-guided version where we walked at our own pace but met up with a group often on the trail as well as at the end of the day.

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The surreal scenery makes this hike one of the best that we have ever done, but that is not the only reason why this hike is consistently rated one of the best in the world.  Here are some more reasons to love it:

  • Hiking thru three stunning countries with different cultures, food and languages- France, Italy, Switzerland.

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  • Trekking 132 miles on well marked trails with about 32K of vertical (up and down) not only gives one a sense of accomplishment, but burns a lot of calories on the gorgeous trails and allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the wonderful food and wine every night.

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  • Days are filled with surreal natural beauty.

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  • The only sound you are likely to hear are the bucolic chimes of cow bells or the rush of running mountain water.

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  • Gorgeous wildflower strewn fields abound in alpine back country.

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  • No need to worry about grizzly bears. The only wildlife you should see on the trail are more benign- ibex, marmots, hawks

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  • A hot shower and comfortable bed awaits every night in charming hotels and villages.

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  • Eating is taken seriously in Europe.  (France takes two hour lunches and many places are closed from 12-3 pm.)  In the Alps, regardless of where you are whether at the top of a col or in a valley where there appears to be nothing for miles, refuges are plentiful on the TMB offering wonderful food, drinks and shelter.

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  • Plenty of vino, cheese and great food every night.

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Bakery in Les Houches where we picked up sandwiches for our first day on the TMB.
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This spread was in a small refuge quite far from anywhere

There are so many ways to do this hike- on your own, guided or self-guided.  We used Sherpa Expeditions, and they were fantastic.  Sherpa offers a self-guided model that involves transporting your luggage every day but one.  We also started the trek with 8 other people and stayed in the same hotels every night making for a social but flexible trek.  So for those that want to hike at different speeds, this is a great option.  

The TMB is definitely one of the best hikes in the world and one of our best experiences this year between the stunning views, fresh, clean mountain air, fabulous food and wine, charming villages in three of our favorite countries!  We loved it so much we will likely repeat this trek sometime in the future.  Stay tuned for more details on the TMB.

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In the Garden of Beasts

Biking through France has made me hungry for books on WWII, and there arein the garden of beasts plenty of good reads on this topic.  After reading All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale which are both fiction novels, I picked up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson which is a non-fiction book about the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family’s experience living in Berlin from 1933 (as Hitler is coming into power as Chancellor) to 1937.  Although this is non-fiction, it reads more like a historical fiction novel, and I found it to be a quick read.

The book raises a lot of questions, but a key question raised (and attempted to answer) is why the US government did not speak out and/ or take any action given Hitler’s barbarism.  For example (and only one of so many), in 1934, the Nazi regime unilaterally carried out a series of political executions of Germans who were thought to oppose Hitler (this act was later known as “The Night of Long Knives”).  To Dodd’s credit, he warned President Roosevelt and others of the risk of another world war. Had the US and other countries done something in response to Hitler’s atrocities could WWII have been circumvented?

Well researched and written, this is a fascinating read about Hitler’s accession to power and Dodd’s experience as US Ambassador in Berlin in the years leading up to WWII.  In my opinion, the one downside of the book is that there is too much time spent on Dodd’s daughter’s, Martha, social connections and love life, but regardless, another compelling read.

La Dolce Vita: Biking to L’Isola Del Sole and Trieste

Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life. -Anna Akhmatova 

Our biking destinations for Stages 3 and 4 (of our cycling journey from Venice, Italy to Porec, Croatia) was the beautiful Italian towns of Grado,  L’Isola Del Sole (the sunny island), and the historic city of Trieste.

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Lagoon to Grado.  Grado is off in the distance with an awesome bike path on a causeway to it.

 

 

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The approach to Trieste.  Hundreds of buoys for the yachts that fill the Med in July and August.  

Our biking mileage for Stage 3 was a modest 45 miles from Concordia Sagittarria to Grado and included a fun boat ride with our bikes across a lagoon.  From Concordia Sagitarria , we biked to the stunning fishing village of Marano Lagunare in time for lunch by the sea where a boat was waiting to ferry us and our fellow biking buddies (and all our bikes).  The boat took us from the charming fishing village of Marano Lagunare across a lagoon to the surroundings of Aquileia.

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Our chariot awaits.  Our boat ride with the bikes from Marano Lagunare to Aquileia.

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Pedestrian area of the charming fishing village of Marano Lagunare.

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Another view of the charming fishing village of Marano Lagunare
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Our dock on the other side of the lagoon from Marano Lagunare and then more cycling to Aquileia and Grado.

Once we docked on the other side of the lagoon, our cycling adventure continued to Aquileia.  Aquileia  is an ancient Roman city in what is now Italy at the head of the Adriatic and the edge of the lagoon.  Aquileia is believed to be the largest Roman city yet to be excavated.

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More fun with our new camera and the beautiful town of Aquileia.

From Aquileia, we biked over a stunning lagoon on a bike path to the gorgeous fishing village of Grado.  It is located in the Venetian lagoon in the northeastern region of Italy.  Once a fishing village, today it is a major boating and tourist destination with a lot of charm.   We loved Grado for the stunning blue seas that surround it, the pedestrian walking village, the stunning architecture and of course, fantastic food.  Our hotel for the night was located in the pedestrian only corner of the city and close to the sea.

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Marina and channel right in the center of Grado.  Boating in northern Italy must be a outstanding going from one charming village to another.
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The promenade in Grado.
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Charming street where we ate dinner in Grado.  Awesome dinner at the Spaghetti House in Grado.  For some reason, the owner thought we German and started speaking to us in German.  Must be Chris’ glasses.

 

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Loved Grado.  Definitely a place to revisit.

After spending the night in Grado, Stage 4 took us cycling about another 45 miles to Trieste.  The biking approach to Trieste was stunning along a coastal road with beautiful views.  Think Highway 1 in California but Italian style.  Si bella!

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Some tunnels on the approach to Trieste.
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Stunning views everywhere on our approach to Trieste.

Trieste is a city and port in northeastern Italy close to the Slovenian border (where we will be heading in Stage 5).  Trieste has an interesting history and was actually part of Austria from 1382 until 1918.  The city was annexed to Italy after World War I. It is a border town with an interesting mix of Austrian architecture and blend of Italian, German and Slavic cultures.  Our hotel for the night is the super comfortable, Hotel Victoria, in downtown Trieste.

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James Joyce, an Irish writer, spent a lot of time in Trieste.

 

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Main square in Trieste

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We enjoyed our visit to Trieste. It is a large city and has many beaches, historical sites, and neighborhoods. Its multi-cultural past and its small suburban villages give it a unique feel.  It is strategically located near the Slovenian border where we are off to in Stage 5. Slovenia is a new country for us and looked forward to our visit – and it did not dissapoint.  It actually exceeded expectations. Stay tuned for our cycling experience in Slovenia and Croatia.