Last summer, Tim and Kathy Turner took a break from the Mont Blanc hiking circuit for a night at Refuge des Mottets, a French backcountry lodge decorated with cowbells and old iron cookware. The Turners, from the United States, were the only trekkers there besides the jovial members of a French hiking club. All enjoyed a hearty, family-style dinner of beef bourguignon, tomato salad, and homemade bread. After the meal, the lodge’s owner pulled out an accordion, and the club burst into song. “Everyone was swaying back and forth, locked arm and arm,” says Tim. “These were classic French anthems—tunes that every Frenchman knew.”
For more than 200 years, hikers from Europe and farther abroad have explored the ancient hunting and trading routes that make up the 112-mile Mont Blanc trail. Named after the highest peak in the Alps, the trek winds through France, Italy, and Switzerland, looping around the Mont Blanc Massif range, past conifer forests, glacial waterfalls, and alpine meadows covered in bright blue gentians and golden buttercups.
The co-owner of tour company Distant Journeys, Andrea Ellison Mulla, led the Turners on the 12-day trip. “Andrea often knew three generations of locals at spots along the route—the grandmas, mothers, and daughters,” says Kathy. “We’d stop by a hotel or shop whether we needed to or not, just to say hello or have a coffee.” At night, the travelers stayed in comfortable mountain village lodges, some with wooden balconies draped in red and pink geraniums, or at rustic, family-owned refuges. Tim recalls, “Cultural barriers break down very quickly at the refuges. Everybody comes together to wash the day’s hiking clothes in tubs and string them up on clotheslines. Then you sit down at big, communal tables for a meal of risotto or polenta, plus plenty of beer and wine.” As the Turners experienced, sometimes a spirited round of singing follows.
What the couple will remember the most, though, is the way the Europeans approached the trail. “They know how to hike. They just slow down and enjoy it all,” says Tim. “In the States, we’re too damn fast. You don’t need to get there as quickly as possible. Talk to people along the trail. Stop, take off your backpack, have a snack. You’re on vacation.” —Kelly Lack
Distant Journeys, (888) 845-5781, from $3,175 for a 12-day trip, including lodging and most meals. This appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.