Flat Walks in the Alps
Thollon, French Alps
by Sarah Shuckburgh
When the knees began to give
way, Sarah Shuckburgh hit upon an idea to save her walking
On Day Two of our holiday, we decided to look for flat
walks. This decision arose from two disturbing discoveries
made on Day One.
It had seemed such a good idea: a week hiking in the Haute
Savoie. Gila and I - friends of 30 years' standing - planned
to combine long walks with long chats, returning home to our
families astonishingly toned, fit, slim and healthy, with
flawless complexions, and all life's problems solved.
We woke on our first day in Thollon to find the Alps
obscured by fog, but, after consulting the guidebook,
decided to stroll to the village of Meillerie, on the banks
of Lake Geneva. An encouraging signpost read "Meillerie 60
minutes", and we set off at a leisurely pace. "We'll have
elevenses at the lake and be back in time for lunch," we
We ambled down rutted lanes beneath leafy canopies, and
sauntered past quaint gingerbread farmhouses with carved
balconies and painted shutters. After half an hour, we
passed a second sign, which read, to our surprise, "Meillerie
50 minutes". We seemed to be making very slow progress.
Now the path dwindled and narrowed, and we found ourselves
on an almost vertical slope, battling through
tangled undergrowth, wading across waterfalls, stumbling
over roots, clambering round fallen tree trunks, and
skidding on loose pebbles. And this is when we made our
first Disturbing Discovery - that I, or rather my knees,
hate walking downhill.
Through the mist we caught occasional glimpses of the
sunlit lake, glittering miles below us, and heard distant
bells chiming the hours. At last, as one o'clock struck, the
undergrowth parted to reveal a flight of medieval stone
steps and we staggered to the edge of the rippling lake.
I can vouch that Meillerie is a lovely place, with a
13th-century church and fishing nets hung to dry among the
geraniums. But what superfit Alpine commando clocked up that
timing? The downhill walk took us not one hour, but three,
and left us with a serious dilemma. Over lunch in a lakeside
café, we discussed our desperate situation. Should we, or
shouldn't we, order a taxi to take us home by road - a
circuitous route of 20 miles?
Finally, puritan ethic, pride and parsimony persuaded us to
walk. As we struggled upwards - past a sign saying "Thollon
1h 30m" - gone was all chatter about friends and family. Now
our only topic of conversation was whether, if one of us
collapsed, the survivor should go back down for help, or
head on up. Meillerie church chimed pityingly as we
slithered up the muddy mountain.
The ascent took five hours, during which we made our second
Disturbing Discovery - that Gila is hopeless at walking
uphill. Next day at the alimentation, the shopkeeper
confided that nobody with any sense ventured down that path
to Meillerie. Once a family had set off on bikes, but had
jettisoned them in despair. "The bicycles are down there,
somewhere in the undergrowth, to this very day," she
shrugged. And so it was, that with one of us useless going
downhill, and the other useless going up, we hit on the
brilliant idea of Flat Walks.
Thollon - a thriving ski resort in winter - is almost empty
in the summer but, luckily for us, the cable car was still
manned. After the operative had finished his cigarette, the
machinery would creak into action, wafting us up the north
face of les Mémises to gently rolling Alpine meadows at the
top. From here, we could strike out in any direction with
We settled into a pleasant routine. Over breakfast, we'd
comment hopefully on the weather. Then we visited the
alimentation to buy a picnic of dimpled apples, mouldy
plums, soggy lettuce and dried bananas (well past their
sell-by date), while the shopkeeper lectured us on the folly
of setting foot out of doors in this "mauvais temps". At the
telecabine each morning, the operative would warn us of the
"risque d'orage", as he smoked another Gitane.
Up on the mountain, we became expert at finding flat walks.
Cross-country ski routes were best - wide, grassy tracks
through fir trees and along ridges. Signs saying "balcon"
also lifted our spirits - foretelling an easy stride under
the lee of a mountain, with spectacular views. Thrillingly,
after our humiliating progress on Day One, our pace on these
horizontal paths matched the Alpine Commando's timing. It
felt marvellous to be three times as fit as a few days
The weather forecasts were uncannily accurate, and we often
plodded through brouillard, bruine, nuage and grisailles. We
ate lunch perched on grassy ledges, as banks of mist wafted
past us, our soggy greengages and bruised grapes like
nectar. In periods of sunshine, we were treated to sightings
of the crenellated Dents d'Oche, or a slice of the
shimmering Lake Geneva with Lausanne on its far bank. The
flowers did not seem to mind the unseasonal weather -
delicate harebells nestled in the dewy grass, with blue and
yellow autumn crocus and vivid gentians. Even better, wild
strawberries, myrtleberries, and wonderful wild raspberries
glistened in every hedgerow, ripe and exquisitely sweet.
We hardly passed a soul all week. When we did, every enquiry
about gradients brought us new words to dread - escarpe,
accidente, pentu, raide, une escalade difficile or pic. We
longed to hear the comforting plat, horizontal, en pente
douce and au même niveau.
At teatime each day, Gila and I rode down in the cable car
(no charge, but more alarming than the ride up, lurching
down the 3,000ft cliff), and then lingered in the café over
mugs of hot chocolate. Each evening, we dined on local
specialities, such as la véritable raclette - an eccentric
mountain dish of melted cheese, potatoes, gherkins, pickled
onions and salami - for which a two-bar electric fire
arrived on our table to scorch a semi-circular hunk of
cheese, clamped to a wrought-iron bracket.
On our last day, we attempted our longest walk yet. We
ascended in the telecabine, and marched off. Six days of
chattering had exhausted our gossip, and we had successfully
sorted out each other's problems, so we were striding along
in companionable silence when the path abruptly stopped at a
Nervously, I shuffled towards the edge, peeped over and
gasped. Jagged rocks 50 feet below signalled certain death.
I stepped back and Gila glared at me accusingly. I have
always prided myself on my map-reading. I know how to use a
compass, and I hardly ever have to turn the map round to
fathom out which way I'm going. How could I have missed
I put on my glasses and peered at the map again. And there
it was - inscribed across a dense cluster of hitherto
unnoticed contour lines - one dreadful word, échelle. "It's
very small print," I blathered. "Anyway, would we have known
what échelle meant?" Alas, Gila is well educated. "Une
échelle, la scala - cognate with scale, escalator, stairs,
ladder!" she pronounced.
We inched towards the precipice again. Rusty rungs, wet and
gleaming, disappeared into the swirling mist far beneath us.
I felt giddy just looking at them. "I don't think I can do
it," I gulped. "Nor can I," mumbled Gila, retreating towards
The detour, meticulously planned and double-checked with our
glasses on, successfully avoided all densely clustered
contour lines, and instead featured many zigzags, an
escarpment, two cols, a balcon, and five gentle inclines.
After two hours, we found ourselves near the ladder again,
but this time safely at the bottom. As we ate our baguette
and squashed tomatoes, we spied four ancient hikers
approaching, their white heads bobbing above the bracken.
"Game old things," Gila whispered.
"Bonjour, mesdames," I ventured in my schoolgirl French, as
they pounded up to us. "Avez-vous vu cette échelle
terrible?" The old ladies' shorts displayed sinewy calves,
which disappeared into canvas gaiters, their necks were
festooned with binoculars and maps, and an impressive ski
pole dangled from each sweat-banded wrist.
"Mais oui, mesdames! Bien sur! But yes, of course, we have
just come down the ladder," called the old dears, as they
stormed past. "It's no problem." With wry grins, Gila and I
heaved ourselves to our feet, and stepped out on the last
leg of our walk. As if by magic, the fog suddenly lifted,
and to our astonishment we found ourselves standing in
brilliant sunshine, beneath a clear blue sky. All around us,
a breathtaking panorama emerged, of snowy peaks, steep,
thickly forested mountainsides, flower-strewn meadows, and,
far below, the sparkling lake, dotted with tiny white sails.
Cowbells tinkled merrily, and a warm breeze brushed our
"This is a nice flat bit," I said. "Let's come here again.''
First published by the Telegraph