Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28, 2011: Saint-Hilaire du Touvet - Hiking, Down, Funicular, Pork Ribs

For Mark's birthday weekend I planned a last-minute get-away to Saint-Hilaire du Touvet. It had the advantage of being fairly easily accessible by TransIsère bus. It is also well-known as a destination for parapente (paragliding) so I figured that might make it a lively place to visit. I'd had a brief glimpse of its location, up in a dramatic escarpment (hopefully with good hiking), on our trip to Albertville earlier this week. There is also a funicular railway, which seemed pretty unique. And it looked like the weather would be fantastic.

So we were off. We packed hiking gear, clothing, and that was about it. I'd arranged for us to stay at a gîte, which was essentially a bed and breakfast. We got on the bus (after a bit of difficulty trying to find the right change for the driver - he patiently waited while we asked around at the bus stop to see if anyone had change). The drive was fairly dramatic as we got close to the village - there was a long one-way tunnel for which the bus had to sound its horn, to warn any cars at the other end not to enter until we were through.

The wind today was apparently not quite right for parapente take-off from the village. But we did see several people learning how to use the parapente in the practice field. You wait for the wind to fill your parachute, then start running - and if you were at the edge of a precipice, you would run right off the end and glide through the air. There are two take-off areas in Saint-Hilaire. It's a perfect spot for it, since it's high on a plateau on an escarpment with a steep drop-off. There's yet another escarpment up beyond Saint-Hilaire, and we saw some parapenters up in the air there, so there must be another take-off point we never encountered.

We had an easy hike through a wooded area, seeing the remains of an old mill and a smallish waterfall. Then we came back and decided to hike down the escarpment, so that we could take the funicular back up. St-Hilaire got its first claim to fame as the site for a tuberculosis sanitorium. The air is fantastically clean and clear - I can see why it was chosen as the location. A funicular railroad was built up the "least steep" portion of the escarpment in order to provide access. Even so it has the steepest track of any funicular railroad in Europe, with an incline of 83%. The car is built like a staircase, with the rows of seats steeped up on an angle.

The sign at the beginning of the trail said it would take 1.5 hours to reach the bottom. It was just 1.5 hours until the last funicular departure, so if we didn't get there in time we would be stuck having to walk all the way back up again (about 800 m). My experience so far with French hiking signage was that time estimates were conservative, so I was fairly certain we could make it down in about an hour. We started down the very steep trail (at times it was a set of steps next to the tracks, at other times switchbacking through the trees). The further we went the more we questioned our wisdom (or Mark questioned my optimism), as there were no distance markers to tell us how close we were getting to the end. We picked up speed, going faster and faster until suddenly Mark stopped, feeling quite ill. It was probably just the exertion, but I joked that we'd descended so quickly that we'd given him the bends. We took a short break at the remains of a château, then kept going, only to find that we were, in fact, close to the base. As it turned out we'd made the descent in just 45 minutes.

Taking the funicular back up was a pleasant break from hiking. The train at the bottom is counterweighted by the train at the top, running on one single track except at the halfway point, where the track splits in two so that they can pass each other. The incline is truly impressive - you get a real feeling of vertigo looking off the back of the car to the descent below. At one point the escarpment is just too steep, so the builders had to make a tunnel to lessen the angle. It really is an impressive achievement, but when it was built in the 1920s there was only a narrow mule track to the village, so you can see why the effort was justified.

After dinner at the funicular restaurant (mmm, pork ribs) we wandered about trying to find the juggler's festival. There were flyers, but we didn't have any luck figuring out where the park was that it was being held in. For a small village it still held some mysteries.

The take-off for parapenters

A graphic warning about not getting too close to helicopter blades (I love the carefully drawn sectional views showing glimpses of sliced organs, especially the tops of the lungs - surprisingly accurate!)

Getting started with parapente

The plateau fields and the escarpment up beyond St Hilaire

The fields were filled with flowers and animal life (including ticks, as I found one two days later attached to my shoulder - ugh; luckily he was still tiny, so it seems he must have just latched on after riding around in my clothing)

Mossy stream

Remains of the mill

The waterfall - not much water, but a dramatic drop

Almost a waterslide at this point

One of the steeper portions of the funicular track - the fellow on the suspension bridge above is climbing the via ferrata trail

Mark walking down the trail steps alongside the funicular track

Crumbling château remains

At the base, looking up at the funicular track (you can see the tunnel entrance in the middle of the photo)

The split at the midway point for the trains to pass each other (you have to wonder how reliably each train always chooses its appropriate track - hopefully it's foolproof)

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