To reach Mont Blanc we needed to climb up to 1200 meters on long winding roads inclining up and through several long tunnels.
We aimed for Courmayeur on the Italian side of the mountain and on our way passed rugged snowy peaks, high altitude villages and a landscape that was in the full grip of autumn. Leaves were brightly coloured reds and orange amongst the banks of tall dark firs. It was bitterly cold.
The Italian toll road to Mont Blanc was well surfaced and the tunnels were in duplicate so that traffic flowed only one way. At 10am we saw barely any other vehicles and were certainly the only van on the route at that time.
The weather at Courmayeur was low freezing mist and the aire was empty. A ride on the chair lift up to the Italian summit of Monti Bianco cost €40 and neither of us could summon up enthusiasm for the likely chilly experience.
At noon there was nothing other to do than bid a fond farewell to Italy and pay the €58 to drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel. Unlike the Italian tunnels of earlier that morning it was single lane traffic and the passing freight on our left side caused an alarming sucking and propelling motion that meant Bertha fairly surged through the 11kms to arrive into France at the top of a steep, hairpin descent down the Route Blanche.
On the face of it, the fee to pass through the tunnel seemed costly in comparison with the 26kms of tunnelled road we had travelled along in Italy. We didn’t have time to give the matter too much thought as the steep and winding descent to Chamonix took all our attention and brake power.
As with Courmayeur, the ski-station aire was deserted and now seemingly barred to motorhomes with a new height barrier in place. Once again, there was no option other than push on and follow the road northwest and back upwards.
Up at 1500 meters we arrived in the swanky ski resort of Les Gets. The cold mountain air rang with alpine cows’ bells and the sound of labourers readying chalets, shops and bars for the new winter season.
A meander around the deserted centre proved a little surreal as signs of life were limited to the occasional carpenter or roofer, but the many shops and restaurants still advertised opening hours and daily offers. The electronic tills at a Carrefour mini market glowed neon green at the checkouts despite a hastily handwritten sign that informed the store was closed until the end of November.
A couple of young mums pushed babies and young children about in buggies; otherwise the only other life we found was in a locals bar full of elderly men drinking half pint glasses of pastis. We joined them for a couple of tiny glasses of house red and enquired about the village ski lifts which can be used to reach the peaks for autumn walks. They were however now all closed until the first snows.
On arriving back at Bertha we discovered a grazing herd of pretty cream cows had gathered at the foot of the ski run and without the prospect of any other company for the evening we pitched in for a chilly night.
After midnight their chiming bells stopped ringing and I assumed the cows had moved further away but a peek out of the curtains showed them to be collectively lying down and slumbering around us. It was a gentle company and we felt quite safe, if a little bemused by our setting.