Aprica, Italy and Chamonix, France; July 29 - August 2

We left the Dolomites and drove across the northeastern Italian Alps, primarily through an area known as South Tyrol, to reach the small mountain town of Aprica. The drive was long but beautiful. We crossed several dramatic passes with 40+ steep switchbacks on each side (conveniently numbered every time), and passed by numerous old castles. Though we never left Italy, much of the area is effectively Austrian, with German as the primary language and more bratwurst than pizza. Alex, who lived in Salzburg for a year between college and graduate school, got several compliments on his German. Too bad he probably won't have another chance to use it on this trip.

Aprica is about 2½ hours northeast of Milan, near the Swiss border. It has a large ski area, but it's a booming vacation town in the non-winter months too. Jennifer's long-time Italian collaborator, Stefano Ceri, and his wife,Teresa, have a vacation apartment in Aprica. More precisely they have two apartments occupying the eighth floor of a round building, with a wrap-around balcony and stunning views. Stefano and Teresa were in one apartment and graciously offered us the other for as long as we liked. We might have stayed for a while, were we not feeling motivated to stick with the rough schedule we already had in mind.

As it was, in our short stay we had a wonderful time. In addition to seeing Teresa and Stefano, and being in a comfortable apartment in a nice town in a great setting, we enjoyed a glimpse into the Italian way of life. The apartments in Aprica are just one of many vacation properties in Stefano and Teresa's families -- the accumulation of properties over generations seems to be fairly common among Italians. Stefano's friends when he vacationed in Aprica as a child are now the parents of his children's Aprica friends. Bonds within and across extended families last for generations -- very unlike the United States, and very nice.

Among their long-time friends are an Australian-Italian couple with 10 and 12 year-old bilingual children. Recognizing the potential, Teresa and Stefano arranged a "playdate" that ended up lasting just about the entire time we were in Aprica. Tim, Emily, and their two new friends hiked (photo 3), played soccer, played Monopoly, played with a new puppy (to Emily's great delight -- she's been talking and blogging about getting a puppy since the day we left home), ate meals, ate junk food, and generally had a grand time.

From Aprica, we drove to Milan, returned our rental car, then rode the train -- three trains actually, including the famous Mont Blanc Express --  to reach Chamonix, France. We spent two days in Chamonix (more specifically, in nearby Les Houches -- photo 5 was taken from our hotel), preparing to embark on the Mont Blanc Circuit, locally the Tour du Mont Blanc. Described as "one of the world's most famed walks," we'll circle the mountain massif through three countries, staying in mountain huts and occasional villages. We're leaving enough stuff in Chamonix that we'll only need two backpacks plus two small daypacks, great for the kids as we expect some of the hiking days to be fairly challenging.

Despite being busy with trek preparations and general "travel maintenance" tasks (laundry, shopping, reservations, money, etc.), we enjoyed our time in Chamonix. The kids got another dose of ice skating, and they also tried out a downhill luge ride. Jennifer, who lived near Paris for a year when she was 12, became the spokesperson of the family. Her French isn't anywhere near as good as Alex's German -- it's a crime to even make the comparison, and she certainly didn't get any compliments -- but it is passable in certain circumstances, and for the first time on the trip there are circumstances where English, or English plus wild gesticulation, simply doesn't work. Emily has taken an active interest in learning French; she's lobbying to spend more time in France after we leave the Alps.

The Mont Blanc Circuit should take us roughly two weeks. We're bringing one computer along, so if we happen to pass through any towns with internet, there may be a travelog or two along the way. Otherwise, look for a long one on our return to Chamonix around August 17.

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