Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rain, Snow and Fondue

The last full day of our vacation in France dawned gray and rainy, but not too cold.  Still, our plans to go to the Aulps Abbey in Morzine were shot (it's no fun to poke around ruins in a driving rain) so we puttered around the house, organizing our stuff for packing (we had to leave the house at 7am the next morning to make our 10am flight in Geneva) and generally being lazy.

After a clean-out-the-fridge lunch of cheese, fruit, bread, olives, sausage, and rose, we decided we had to get out of the house, so we drove east about a half hour to the village of Sixt Fer à Cheval which is dominated by the Cirque du Fer à Cheval, a horseshoe shaped outcropping of rock that is apparently just breathtaking.  But we could only see maybe about 100 meters up, as the tops (ranging between 500 to 700 meters) were completely shrouded in fog.  But it had its own beauty in the rain, along with the added benefit of being completely devoid of other tourists.

Low clouds along the Cirque du Fer a Cheval
The Cirque du Fer a Cheval and waterfalls in the rain and low clouds
We went back into Samoëns to a cafe to add to the blog using the village wifi connection, watch the rain fall, and have a coffee.  After an hour or so, we had finished posting and the rain had eased considerably, so we drove home.  As we climbed up to our little hamlet, we could see the clouds had lifted at the higher elevations and were surprised to see snow on the tops of the local peaks.  Just a dusting, but still.  The day before in Montreux we had been sweating in the 85-degree sun, and today we could see snow just above our chalet!
Clouds above and snow on peak above Samoens
Snow dusting across the valley, as the clouds lift
Valyn had to have fondue before she left the Alps, so we saved it for our last night.  Really, what's not to like about a big pot of melted cheese with stale bread and a green salad?  Especially after a cold, rainy day!  I make it at home (you can see my recipe here) about once a winter and Craig, not a fan of fondue but a good husband, suffers through it with generally good humor, and humored me again on this trip, as fondue is usually a minimum-of-two order.   We had our fondue at the restaurant at Le Relais Septimontain, at the recommendation of the tourist office, and they didn't steer us wrong.  It was great and Valyn was happy.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Day Trip to Switzerland

In our previous visits to Switzerland, we had visited Château de Chillon, a castle on the shore of Lac Léman or Lake Geneva, near Montreux.  Craig in particular was taken with the place, and when we figured out we could drive there in two hours, we decided to drive up, have a nice lunch and visit the castle.

The day dawned sunny but hazy (it had been getting hazier by the day all week), so we took off north, heading to Chillon via Morzine, St-Jean-d’Aulps, Évian-les-Bains, and finally across the Swiss border at St-Gingolph.

We hadn’t had a lunch out at all, so we looked in the Michelin guide for a nice place serving traditional French plat and found a likely candidate in Restaurant de L'Etoile in Noville, a little village in the Rhône river valley just where the river meets Lake Geneva.  High mountains slope steeply down to this narrow valley, which is crammed with crops – the soil must be especially rich because every last square inch was cultivated – corn, winter squash and pumpkins, hardy greens, onions – it smelled great!

The village was literally in the middle of all this, and after a detour due to road construction down one-way lanes through fields, we found the restaurant in the middle of the village.  It was just what we were looking for – small, full of locals (as was usual, we were the only English-speakers in the place) serving great food:
  • Mozzarella with tomato pudding-like thing, potato and black olive tapenade with a watercress and shaved celery salad (Valyn) and terrine of foie gras (Craig)
  • Small pan-fried steak with mixed veggies and rice (Valyn) and lamb chops with mixed veggies and hash browns that looked EXACTLY like what you get at Waffle House
  • Lemon sorbet (shared)
Then it was onto Chillon.  I won’t go on about the place; you can read their web site for yourselves, but here are some pics:
Château de Chillon on the shore of Lac Léman
View from the clock-tower in Chillon
Looking out an archer’s window
Semi-circular tower, for the defence of the Château, with the moat below
Bonivard’s prison, which Byron immortalized in “The Prisoner of Chillon”
“Emergency Exit” onto Lac Léman in the event of the castle being over-run
Craig loves to drive on the mountain roads and we have a great Audi rental car that really drives well.   The high passes are all still open (most are closed due to snow over the winter) so Valyn found a route down the Rhône valley to Martigny (Switzerland), across the Col de la Forclaz (the pass at 1,526 meters), across the French border and back down into Chamonix (1hour and 15 minutes of awesome driving!), then a quick 45 minute drive back to Samoëns from Chamonix, and back up to our lookout point to watch the light of sunset on Mont Blanc.

Back Up in the Mountains

We decided to go back to Chamonix for another excursion up into the mountains, and maybe do a bit of sightseeing.

Chamonix is a sports town, no question about it.  The main street is lined with sporting goods shops selling everything from skis to snowboards to rock-climbing and mountaineering equipment (Craig bought himself a nifty new daypack).  Ski lifts run year round, carrying skiers and boarders in the winter, and hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and paragliders in warmer months. 

Not all lifts run all year though, and our first choice of hike was denied when we learned the lift to the starting point (Le Brevent) was closed.  So we settled for the cable car (téléphérique) taking us up from Les Praz just outside Chamonix to La Flégère (1,877 meters) then via open chair lift (télésiège) up to l’Index (2,385 meters).  The téléphérique was standard issue cable car – a big box where 60ish people (less if there are a lot of mountain bikes) get crammed in by the operator and the thing glides to its destination, where everyone spills off.  The télésiège was a large chair lift – six padded seats across (no cold butts in Chamonix) – that runs constantly.  It’s exhilarating hurtling along in the open air at 2,300 meters, but it must be freaking cold in January!

Chair lift, headed up…
Mont Blanc behind as we rise
We hiked around l’Index, had some lunch, watched the paragliders run off the side of the mountain and launch themselves into the air (no thank you!), and watched some climbers haul themselves up a needle to the top of Aiguille de la Floria, a climb mostly straight up of another 500 meters.  We saw a helicopter hover close to another rock face far above us, first picking up supplies of some sort then picking up a few people.  It was too far away to see clearly so we don’t know if it was a rescue or just a regularly scheduled pick-up.  The local governments probably do a lot of both.

Paraglider taking off
Paraglider high above Chamonix, Mont Blanc beyond
The range we were on was on the opposite side of the Chamonix valley from Mont Blanc (our earlier hike was under Mont Blanc) and the Mer de Glace so we had some great views of the massif and all its peaks, needles and glaciers, as you can see.

Mer de Glaee  and Refuge Hotel du Montenver from opposite side of the valley
After the drive home (about an hour) we went up to the viewpoint above our house to watch the sunset colors on Mont Blanc, to listen to the horns calling the cows in for the night, and to hear the cowbells of the moving cows.  Very nice indeed.

Every Vacation Has One...

A day of miscues and wasted time; not every day on vacation can be perfect.

The good things:
  • A blissful lie-in after our exertions on Mont Blanc
  • A beautiful drive through the Col de Joux Plane, the pass up the mountain from our little hamlet
  • The discovery of an overlook on the mountain above our house with picnic tables and a view of Mont Blanc
  • Poking around through Morzine, a cute little ski town
The miscues:
  • The only laundry of any sort in Samoëns was closed for the off-season (the rental house has no washer or dryer)
  • The restaurant we picked out for lunch was closed for vacation (the nerve!)
  • A so-so lunch of salad and pizza at a restaurant run by Brits
  • No laundry soap, and the only market open in town was closed for lunch
  • Killing time waiting for the market to open
  • Guess what?  The laundry had washers with soap dispensers built in so…
    • We didn’t actually need to buy soap
    • OR wait for the market to open to buy it
    • We could’ve been done and home at least two hours earlier!
    • Grrrr.
We finally got home, clean laundry in hand, and decided to take a bottle of wine up to the overlook and finally do what we wanted – nothing!
At the overlook, waiting for sunset
Samoens in the valley as the day fades
Mont Blanc massif from our overlook

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hiking Mont Blanc (well, not really Mont Blanc)

We’re less than an hour away from Chamonix, the town at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest peak (at 4,808 meters) in western Europe, and we had to go see it.  We are in the off-season so not all ski-lifts are running but most were, which allowed us to get up to high elevations and do some hiking.

On Monday, we chose a hike that would take us from the Aiguille du Midi (3,842 meters at the peak), a jagged rock outcropping a few peaks over from Mont Blanc.  A cable car took us up to the peak in two stages, and it was fantastic! 
The Alps stretching into Italy and Switzerland from the Aiguille du Midi
Parasailers preparing to launch from 3500 m
Mont Blanc with the Glacier des Bossons below
We took the cable car back down to 2,310 meters and hiked east just above the tree line along the Mont Blanc massif, from the Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille to the Refuge Hôtel du Montenvers (refuges are like the overnight huts on the Appalachian Trail but on steroids; some are just dorms, some have bars, cafes, and spas but all are at high altitude throughout the Alps to accommodate through hikers.)  We hiked from glacier to glacier, from the Glacier des Bossons to the Mer de Glace.  We stopped for lunch and to take photos, so the entire hike took us three+ hours. 

Refuge du Plan de l’Aiguille
Chamonix from the trail
Looking back on Mont Blanc (center) and the Aiguille du Midi (left)
Mer de Glace
Aiguille de Drus above the Mer de Glace

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


On Sunday in the off-season in rural France, not much is open.  What is open closes at noon, and might, just might, open again at 3pm.  We slept in, finished unpacking, poked through the rest of the chalet (cellar, shed, etc.), giving the bees in the eaves busy preparing for winter a wide berth, and generally made ourselves at home.

After lunch, we went down to Samoëns to familiarize ourselves with the town.  The tourism office opened at 3pm so we went in with a bunch of questions (laundrette, internet access, market days, ski lifts still open for day-hikers, etc.) and came out with answers to most of the questions.

Then, using the maps provided by the tourist office, we walked the village, admiring the old architecture in the beautiful sunlight and getting the lay of the village.  The stone masons of Samoëns are famous, with many examples of their handiwork to be seen in the Village Centre.
Town center church
Town center residence

River Giffre
River Giffre
Samoëns is in the next valley over from Chamonix-Mont Blanc, so the surrounding mountains are less rugged, but still very beautiful.  The valley was glacially formed, with the River Giffre winding through it.  Although the peaks are not as high as those of Chamonix-Mt Blanc, there are many ski lifts and chalets – a skier’s paradise in the winter.  As seen in a sunset picture, we can see the peaks of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc range poking above some of the smaller peaks in the Samoëns valley.

Sunset picture from chalet - Mont Blanc massif in the distance

Grapes to Alps

On Saturday, we moved, once again, from our urban apartment in the town of Beaune to the Haute-Savoie department in the French Alps.  After a week of crowds and vineyards, we were ready for the quiet and drama of the off-season in the mountains.

The drive from Burgundy to Haute-Savoie is surprisingly quick although the topography could not be more different.  Those who grew up in western North America will better understand the quick change of scenery – less than three hours drive – from the low rolling hills to craggy peaks.  Those of us who grew up in the eastern US have nothing to compare it to and the change can be quite disconcerting.  There’s a hint of peaks on the horizon, or maybe it’s just the clouds, you can’t really tell, and the climb along the autoroute is so gradual that it’s almost unnoticeable, then you round a curve and suddenly there’s a 2000-meter peak in front of you. 

We left Beaune at 10:30ish, after a quick visit to the massive Saturday market there to restock and to the gas station.  By 1:30 we were in Samoëns, the closest village to where we’d rented a chalet for the week.  It was Saturday during lunch and during the off-season, so we didn’t expect to find much open and we weren’t surprised.  The office du tourisme was closed but had helpfully left some town maps available which we took to help navigate our way to the wide spot in the road where our chalet is located. 

We found the chalet in that wide spot called Clos Parchet, basically a collection of chalets and farms (less than a dozen) along the road to Morzine, about five kilometers out of Samoëns.  It’s an old place, small but cozy, and a bit of juxtaposition.  In the kitchen is a very nice Bosch dishwasher but a clunky Swiss stove.  There’s not the most attractive linoleum on the floor and the cabinets must date to the original construction, but there are modern windows and newish front door.  It’s charming but quite small, smaller than we expected, with no wi-fi and no laundry (probably due to septic constraints). 

However, its rusticity was more than made up for (after a glass of wine) by its charm and the beauty of its location.  We’ll let the photos speak for themselves…
Almost 1/2 of Clos Parchet...
Our Chalet
View out the kitchen window
View out the back
And another big change – we cooked dinner for ourselves!  The entire time we were in Beaune and its outskirts, we had dinner out every night because everything was close and there were lots of good restaurants to choose from.

Here in the sticks – beautiful as they are – it’s the off-season and even in-season, the skiers/boarders/etc. who show up seem to care more for pizza and burgers (based on the menus posted on closed restaurants) than for gourmet fare.   Plus the closest restaurant is 15 minutes away down a tortuously twisting road, not the best for driving after a big dinner and a bottle of wine!

We expected this too, so at the market in Beaune, we bought onions, garlic, parsley, a whole roasted chicken, haricot verts, cheese, fruit and bread, then at the local Carrefour (a national grocery chain in France), eggs, milk, Arborio rice, chicken stock, amongst other stuff, and prepared to eat at home three meals a day for the foreseeable future.

With all rentals, the kitchen is always an unknown.   Will there be enough cookware, and will it be usable, or even clean?  Will the stove and oven work?  How?  In our case in Clos Parchet, the oven and stove worked fine, but the cookware left a lot to be desired.  Once we washed the pots, they were in better shape but we stayed away from the non-stick as it was flaky and chipped.  I like to control what’s in my risotto, thank, you.

Anyway, after some work, we made a very nice roasted chicken risotto with haricots verts with our takings from the various markets.  It was a nice way to inaugurate our first night in the mountains.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune and a Wine Tasting

On our last day in Beaune, we visited the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, one of the main tourist attractions in Beaune and a beautiful place to boot.

The Hôtel-Dieu was built by a wealthy man, Nicolas Rolin, who some say was trying to buy forgiveness for his many sins by building a hospital for the poor. Begun in 1443, it was a hospital and shelter for the poor, run by the church and paid for by Rolin.  In the 1470s, it inherited the first of several vineyards, ensuring a perpetual income following Rolin’s death.   The auctioning of the Hôtel-Dieu’s wine (the grapes are harvested and pressed, and the juice is sold off to other houses for actual vinification and bottling) is still the biggest commercial and social event in Beaune every year.

At any rate, the Hôtel-Dieu was a working hospital from 1451 to 1971, and still houses a retirement/nursing home.  The Hospices de Beaune, which runs the Hôtel-Dieu, runs the retirement home as well as another retirement home and a modern hospital located elsewhere in town, all paid for by their annual wine auction.

Because the Hôtel-Dieu was in continual operation all those years, it was maintained well and much of its original architectural character has been preserved.  It’s a pretty stunning place, as you can see.

Main hospital ward - looking toward altar
Beds along main hospital ward
One note about the roof – the Duchy of Burgundy (before it was a part of France) for many years reached well up into northern Europe through marriage to a wealthy Flemish family.  The colored tiles on the roof of the Hôtel-Dieu reflect the impact of Flanders, and these tiled roofs can be seen throughout Burgundy.
Flemish roof tiles in courtyard

Gargoyle roof detail in courtyard

Finally, you can’t go to Burgundy without going to a wine tasting.  Now wine tastings aren’t exactly our thing.  It gets to be too much wine to taste in too short a period of time (it all starts to taste the same), and it can feel pretentious.  We know lots of tourists spend their entire Burgundy vacation going from one vineyard to another, but not us. 

But we had to do one, so we picked a company called Patriarche Pere & Fils (father and sons) that bottle and store their wine from several different appellations in Burgundy right in Beaune, about a five minute walk from our apartment.  We could taste lots of different types of wine without having to drive and without having too far to go as we carried wine home (because of course we would buy a few bottles).

Housed in an old convent confiscated during the French revolution, the original Patriarche, a wine grower in a nearby town, bought it from the government in 1796 mostly for its cellars that could be used to store wine. It has five kilometers of vaulted cellars that store millions of bottles of wine, and the best thing about the place is the self-guided tours through the cellars.  There are self-service kiosks every so often that allow you to listen to a bit of info in one of many languages, but mostly you just get to wander through a seemingly endless warren of cellars, each low-ceilinged and very dim.  Not the place for claustrophobics!

Typical wine cellar view
Old dust-covered bottles ripening...
It was an interesting experience, wandering the cellars which dated back to the 12th century.  There were no security staff we saw and no cameras, and because it's the off-season, there were almost no other visitors either.  It was cool, damp, dark and quiet as a tomb.

Finally we came out into the candlelit tasting rooms, essentially more little cellars with wines to taste  set up on a series of wine barrels.  As part of the tour, each person received a tastevin (a small shallow silver bowl) to use for the tastings, and to take home as a souvenir.
Tasting station for the Gevrey-Chambertin

We worked our way through, and came out on the other end with several bottles to take home (for the rest of our stay in France), and a strong desire for a nap!

Our last dinner in Beaune was at Le P'tit Paradise, a teeny restaurant (nine tables) on a practically deserted side street.  It was so small you had to have a reservation, and the menu was limited but just great.
  • Beef carpaccio (Valyn); foie gras and king prawns in aspic (Craig)
  • Stuff chicken (Valyn); roasted pigeon (Craig)
  • Pineapple 'carpaccio' with sorbet (Valyn); rhubarb compote (Craig)
A very nice way to end our week in Burgundy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Beaune Remparts, etc.

Because our apartment is in the town of Beaune proper, we decided to take advantage of that by parking the car in a nearby lot and exploring Beaune on foot for the few days we're here.  It's not that big, easily traversable on foot.  The weather could have been better as it was overcast and cool, but it didn't rain so we spent the day outside.

Beaune was around in the middle ages and there are some remnants of that time, including the old ramparts (remparts en francais) that still exist around about two-thirds of the town.  They've been paved over and are about as wide as a single lane.  Houses and apartments now line them, along with a few towers and bastions used for defense in the old days, but they are public ways and we thought it would be nice to walk them. 

Here are a few snaps:
Remnants of one of the chateau's two original towers
Archer's window
Entryway into a bastion

We also took a peek at the main church in town, the Collegiale-Basilique de Notre Dame, first built in 1120 and added to over the next four hundred years.  It's a classic medieval cathedral spanning multiple architectural styles, with nave, aisles, transepts, side chapels, altar, a massive organ, stained glass, gothic arches, buttresses and whatever else they thought to throw into the pot.

Nave of the basilica
Gargoyle on exterior
While out and about, we did a bit of shopping - we needed a shower mitt, and a working corkscrew as the one in the apartment was a piece of junk.  We're also considering what, if any, souvenirs we might want.  We aren't junky souvenir buyers, unless the thing has some function to it.  There are candle holders made here which were used by the Burgundian wine merchants (rat-de-cave in French, cellar rat in English) which we like and might buy, and perhaps a wine coaster.  And of course our shopping included our regular market visit to get fresh bread and local wine for lunch.

And finally we had dinner at La Ciboulette, a restaurant recommended to us.  Thursday was the only night this week they had availability and we had an early spot (for the French) at 7:15.  So early that the staff were still enjoying their dinner in the small main dining room and looked at us like we were from Mars when we walked in.  I told them we had a reservation and the maitresse d' leapt up like I'd poked her and was all apologies, and she was nicely attentive to us during the evening.  That's one way to get good service, I guess.  Anyway, here's tonight's menu:
  • Foie gras and beef compote (warm) on salad (Craig), and escargot in a parsley/almond broth (Valyn)
  • For both, filet of Charolais (a breed of cattle in Burgundy) perfectly cooked with lots of vegetables in an au jus (Gevrey Chambertin along with the first two courses)
  • Cheese plate with brie, reblochon and epoisses (a truly stinky cheese) with a nice glass of Nuits St George 1st cru Rouge
  • A dessert 'sampler' for both, including a tiny creme brulee, a small pot of chocolate, a scoop of cassis sorbet and shortbread with strawberries. 
All in all, a very nice dinner, and day!

Mid-week moving day

Wednesday was moving day, from our beautiful little village house to the apartment in Beaune, about 15 minutes away.  Why, do you ask (and rightfully so), would we move from one to the other, especially when we liked the little house?  Because we had no choice, alas; the house was booked later in the week, and the apartment was booked earlier in the week.

But we didn't have to vacate the house until late in the afternoon, so we did a bit of house-keeping in the morning.  Beaune has a market day on Wednesday and we needed to restock on fruit, cheese, etc., so off we went with a straw bag in hand to market, to market.

Valyn has used quite a bit of her bad French on this trip, and generally she's understood.  She's sure her accent is just awful but she knows enough to make dinner reservations, buy stuff and deal with the unexpected (more or less!).  We carry two small dictionaries, one for food and one for general terms.

We have been surprised by how many locals here do not speak French, especially in the restaurants.  After all, we're in Burgundy, probably the most heavily touristed area in France after Paris.

Anyway, after the market and a picnic lunch, we went to the Citeaux Abbey, the site of the original Cistercian abbey (also known as Trappists) who split off from the Cluny order in 1098.  A contingent of Cluny monks felt the Cluny order was way too fat and happy, and longed for a place to serve God without accumulating undue wealth.
Saint Bernard, who was the driving force behind the expansion of the Cistertians in the 11th and 12th centuries
We didn't fully understand beforehand that the abbey had been almost entirely rebuilt in the last hundred years (after being wiped out by unrest caused by the plague and the French Revolution), so there were only a few minor ruins that could be seen only with a guide (it's still a working abbey) and there were no English speaking guides available.  We were able to see the entirely modern but austere church (think cream paint and blond wood) built in 1998 and walk some of the grounds.  But as it was gray and rainy, we retreated back to our little village house.

Then we packed up the suitcases and moved to Beaune, into a modern apartment in an old building just inside the city walls at the Porte Saint-Nicolas entry.  Beaune is a lovely town which has seen its ups and downs since being established as the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy and the center of the wine trade in the thirteenth century.  Here's a good web site with history if you're interested.
Porte Saint-Nicolas, as viewed out our 3rd floor apartment

We ended the day with a nice dinner at Cave du Paradoxe, a casual place recommended by our landlord.  The restaurant has a ground floor dining room as well as a dining room in a cave, also known as a wine cellar.  Beaune is criss-crossed with underground wine cellars, some still in use by the big wine merchants and some in private hands of homeowners and restauranteurs.  Generally not recommended for those with claustrophobia, they can be quite nice on a chilly rainy night, especially when eating a completely yet local dinner, consisting of jambon persille, or ham in parsley aspic (it's not quite as bad as it sounds) and beouf bourguignon, a comforting beef stew with onions, carrots and mushrooms in a yummy beef broth.