OUR mountain guide in the French Alpine resort of Morzine is Cathy Gallioli and she’s teaching us to walk. Learn to walk? Haven’t we managed that already?
Babies usually morph into toddlers by 12 months, so why on earth would we need to re-learn such a basic skill?
But this is no ordinary hike. We are to become masters of Afghan walking, a sort of mobile meditation in the mountains.
Our base is Morzine, an authentic town that oozes Savoyard charm, traditional timber architecture and window boxes groaning with blooms.
It lies in the heart of the Portes du Soleil ski area, with mountains towering to 2466m. If you are a cycle nut Morzine is a mecca for spring and summer mountain biking and hiking, and by winter it is famed for its great skiing and boarding. Throughout the year you can depend on glorious gastronomy, death by cheese and chocolate and a hectic schedule of events.
The Tourist Board is active and innovative, promoting festivals and activities that keep visitors and locals entertained with everything from foodie festivals, magic and motorbikes to wellness, walking and workshops for beauty.
I was there for the Festival Monumental Art Recup, an impressive array of works of art using found objects, old timbers and metal fashioned into weird and wonderful sculptures. There’s a flavour of Tate Modern meets Steptoe’s Yard as artists wield chain saws and blow torches to complete their masterpieces. Every morning as I left the Hotel Airelles on the main square a huge pile of wood grew into a magnificent beast with gaping jaws big enough to walk into.
This open-air workshop turning junk and recyled materials into items for auction was judged such a success that another festival is planned for 2014.
There are plenty of accommodation options from modest guest houses and rented flats to starred hotels and swish catered chalets. Also on offer are trips round the local slate works, La Fruitiere cheese makers and a chocolate shop that organises children’s workshops.
In the Vallée des Ardoisières (The Valley of the Slate Quarries), one of the last working slate mines in France) Franck Buet demonstrates the skill that has been honed over centuries crafting the slate into everything from kitchen work tops to drinks coasters and garden tables. It still keeps the church roof in tiles.
Town centre cheesemaker Nicolas Baud daily transforms 700 litres of fresh cow’s milk into distinctive Reblouchon, Tomme and Abondance. The process is fascinating, from watching the cows being milked at the Plateau de Nyon, to seeing huge copper vats of rich, yellow milk stirred, skimmed, sieved through muslin and poured into moulds for pressing, then visiting the maturing cellars stacked to the rafters. And if cheese really is your thing the adjoining restaurant will provide meals heavy on raclette and fondu.
(A word of caution: when you buy a cheese and store in what you hope is the shady cool of your hotel verandah – DON’T. I misjudged the heat of the midday sun and had to rescue a molten mess, which I revived by sticking into a sink of cold water. M. Baud would not have been impressed, but the cheese survived abuse and was still delicious).
To walk off the excesses of seriously lovely food – including goodies from Au Delice Chocolate courtesy of twinkly-eyed chocolate maker Thierry Thorens – I needed some physical activity. I declined the canyoning at Nyon Cascade, which looked brilliant fun if wet and scary, in favour of mountain walks. One highlight was an expedition with experienced guide Cathy Gaggioli that put a spring in our step while calming the mind with meditation.
Forget about chanting, om-ing and high altitude yogic flying. This was a down-to-earth approach to meditation through walking that eliminates the huff, puff and weariness of the long-distance hiker. It’s a skill that requires concentration. And while you concentrate on the mechanics of each step and each breath you leave everyday worries and concerns behind.
Afghan walking means listening to our bodies. We’re not going to rush. The walk itself is our only goal, not how fast we’ve ‘attacked’ the steep slope. This novel approach is good news for hurried town dwellers forever frantically rushing from A to B. Nomadic tribes as far afield as Afghanistan can teach us a thing or two about walking. Their breathing techniques allow their bodies to be efficiently oxygenated so they can walk better, for longer and without suffering exhaustion.
And it works. You are so busy concentrating on matching your breathing – always through the nose so there’s no gasping and heaving of chests – to your strides that the ground just flows beneath you as if you’re aboard a travelator.
Cathy Gaggioli, a beacon in orange, leads us in single file up stony tracks, among whispering trees and gushing streams against the backdrop of majestic mountains.
We concentrate on our breathing: in for three steps, hold for one and out for three (3-1-3); then 4-4-2; 5-5-2; 3-1-13; working up to 6-6-2, 7-7-2 and 8-8-2 on the flat and downhill, increasing the rate to 2-1-2 on steep uphill stretches. Always breathing through the nose, without chattering, with regular rest breaks for water, we take in the majestic mountain scenery and sounds of birdsong and bleating goats.
The key is being mindful of each step, says Cathy. We take short, soft strides, aware that heavy footfalls jar the body. We try to relax our legs between the steps, clearing the mind as we heed the sensations of the body.
“You learn to leave the big rocks of worry behind you,” says Cathy, 46, who fell in love with the mountains at eight and has been a guide for 15 years. She lives in Morzine with her paragliding husband and their children aged 20, 19 and nine. “When you are concentrating on your walking you are out of your everyday mind, not thinking of working on your computer, housework or personal family problems.
“It’s very calming. With our busy, stressed lives this walking makes us in the moment. It’s a way of de-cluttering, of washing everything from the mind.”
Cathy became involved in Afghan walking seven years ago through a friend, Daniel Zanin, who was so impressed by the ability of tireless Afghani tribesmen to walk 700 km through the desert in ten days, regulating their breathing to oxygenate their muscles. He evolved a similar technique that Cathy is now trying to teach us.
I return relaxed and energised, determined to employ the Afghan walking technique on the way to the bus stop, successfully blotting out the grey suburban landscape of pebble-dashed semis and sound of police sirens.
Pig of a traffic coneTourist office: www.morzine-avoriaz.com
Hotel Airelles: email@example.com
Cheese making: www.alpage-morzine.com
Slate workshops: www.ardoise-morzine.com
Transport: Geneva Airport is 75km away. Frequent scheduled and budget flights available from UK airports. Shared taxi – Skidy Gonzales: www.skidygonzales.com
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