The word refuge in English is often associated with a place to take shelter by those who need it. Although the word looks the same and is pronounced in much the same way in French, the meaning here in the French Alps relates mostly to that of a typical mountain hut that provides food and shelter for travellers. Some are literally just a hut with bunk beds and some form of running water , working on an honesty box system to cover the cost of wood for heating and maintenance. Others are fully-operational restaurants that provide big meals, a sip from the typically Savoyard bottle of home-made booze with a dead snake inside, and heated accommodation with an indoor toilet. The indoor toilet is particularly handy in the cold winter months.
The refuge I went to last week was somewhere in between these two extremes. Refuge de Bombardellaz provides hearty food without the gimmick of a snake in a bottle, although I didn’t see what the accommodation was like as the refuge only took us an hour to get to from the car park at Les Confins. The refuge is only open in summer, which explains the outdoor tables, but I can’t help thinking how at least some of the wide path to the refuge would be great to slide down on a snowboard.
Having never been to this refuge before, my friends and I were equipped with a map, which was handy, because although the way is marked at most track intersections, the signs are missing from some, and we needed the map to check. The first signpost at the car park said the refuge was 55 minutes away. We had a lunch booking in half an hour, but we figured the sign’s time estimate was for the elderly, families with young children, or injured people. No worries: half an hour is plenty of time! After half an hour, we passed a sign that said the refuge was 35 minutes away. What? At this point, I realised that we were, in fact, lower than the lowest common denominator of walker: we were the unfit. On we marched. After a further 30 minutes, the next sign said it was only ten minutes away, and to be perfectly frank, it would have been only ten minutes away had the road been flat. It was not flat. It was all uphill to the refuge. Ten minutes of walking up a hill turned into five minutes of walking, five minutes of stopping to catch my breath after pretending to be interested in a nearby flower, three minutes of walking, another few minutes of stumbling, and then a final push once the refuge was in sight. Now quite late for lunch, I felt cheated by the signs — and perhaps a little guilty about my level of fitness. The staff welcomed us warmly despite our tardiness.
As the wide-angle photo here shows, the refuge provides views of the peaks of La Clusaz, the neighbouring valley of Le Grand Bornand, and the mountains all around.
Lunch eaten and heart rested, we walked along a more narrow path that led down towards Le Grand Bornand until a crossroad gave us the choice to climb back uphill to Les Confins. Despite both walks ending in these treacherous uphill challenges, they were otherwise easy and enjoyable. Chuck in the reward of a hearty lunch with beautiful views and you’ve got a pretty good day out.