Around Mont Blanc and other mountainous areas in Europe, you will find refuges. Most refuges sit high in the mountains, remote from any towns. They tend to feature dormitory-style rooms, with bunk beds or simple mattresses on a rudimentary bed frame. Depending upon your perspective, refuges either seem like roughing it or like the very lap of luxury.
When you get to a refuge, you are greeted by staff who often know a little bit of many languages – enough to tell you what you need to know for a pleasant stay. Everywhere we went, the people spoke a little English, but told us their French was better when we told them we liked to speak in French. They will explain the rules of their particular domicile. Most ask you to take off your hiking boots in a boot room. They have communal shower clogs for people who don’t bring their own. I strongly suggest bringing a pair of cheap shower clogs to wear in the showers. They can double as shoes for mealtimes with a cosy pair of socks.
After you remove the boots, you can take your pack and find your room. Some places have designated beds and others let you choose. Note that if you are the last to arrive for the night, there may not be much choice. Either way, when you get to the room, you can carve out a small space for your pack and get settled. Many afternoons we would arrive early, and we would leave our things in the room and find a place to do some yoga. After that, we would typically set out our sleeping sacks, fish out our evening clothes and take turns finding the showers to wash the mountain off of our skin.
Sometimes you find the showers separated by gender, often in the women’s or men’s toilet area. Other times, the showers and bathrooms were co-ed, with a small private changing area right outside of the shower. They all had hot water, which felt soothing on tired muscles.
After a shower and change of clothes, we would look for somewhere to sit and read. Often we arrived well before dinner time, so we would have a lot of time to do so. Other groups would have a pre-dinner drink if one was available. Still others would explore the area a little on foot, lighter without the packs on. Then everyone would gather for dinner.
The refuges serve breakfast and dinner at set times, usually 7 am and 7 pm, and you can order a simple sandwich for lunch the next day if you ask at dinner time. They serve the food family style. You sit at a designated table with other hikers and eat family style. The meals consisted of several courses, sometimes soup, sometimes salad, an entree, sometimes cheese and dessert. We had many memorable meals, from a simple steak with fries and salad to spaghetti bolognese. The soups were warm and hearty and cooked all day. For people who have allergies or special meal requirements, it’s always best to let the refuge know in advance so they can be sure to prepare something appropriate, but they do ask about it when you arrive.
Conversations at dinner can be animated or somewhat challenging depending upon the language capabilities of the table. One night we ate dinner with a French woman who was a Spanish teacher and a Spanish couple who spoke no English or French. We had a conversation in Spanish, all of which I understood, but my Spanish is not strong enough for me to add to the conversation. Another night we had dinner with two adventure athletes from Britain. Still another, quieter night, we ate at a table with people from Norway and Sweden who could better converse in their native tongues than in English. No matter what country people hailed from, we all shared a common experience of being on the mountain.
Many of the refuges have quiet hours starting at 9 or 10, but most people, worn out from the exertion, are quiet long before that. Emile and I would retreat to the bedroom after dinner and read our Kindles. We would soon be asleep. The snoring of other people never kept me awake, although I know there were others who found it troublesome.
My son and I are early risers, so we would often get up and quietly pack our bags well before breakfast was served. We would get dressed in our hiking clothes so that we would be ready to go after we ate. Then we would head to the dining room.
Breakfast usually consisted of a variety of breads, yogurt and granola, and often some kind of cheese or meat. Butter and jam accompanied the breads, and they offered coffee and juice to drink. If we had requested a lunch the night before, we would ask and they would have them ready for us. Then we would say our goodbyes and head out for another day on the trail, until we made it to the next refuge.