Saturday, September 09, 2006

France: Lost and Found 8.25.06

Leaving Basel, we had mapped out a plan that took us south from Switzerland into France, following the main highways and stopping along Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to the French) in a small town called Nyon, on the lake. The views from the castle, over the rooftops towards the lake, were lovely and I stopped to paint one of the charming shuttered windows with geraniums spilling out over the window box.
We stopped at the border again to have our passports stamped and crossed over into France at Geneve (Geneva).

We planned to stop for lunch in Annecy because we thought it was about half way between Basel and Villard de Lans in France where we had made reservations to spend the night and, because our Eyewitness Guide described it as one of the most charming towns in the Alps. How could we pass this up?? True to its description, the small historic center was indeed "laced with canals, flower-covered bridges and arcaded streets." Right in the middle of the canal is the 12th century Palais de L'Isle and the views at every turn were charming, charming, charming. Of course there were the throngs of tourists to go along with it and quaint little shops selling all manner of local products and kitschy souvenirs. We enjoyed a nice lunch at an outdoor café and the views along the lake.

So far, so good, we made our way from Annecy, passed Chambery driving through the area called "The Chartreuse" where, since medieval times, the monks have made a liquor of this color from a secret recipe of 130 ingredients, including the yellow and green plants that give this area its name. The monastery is still inhabited by monks, but not open to visitors and we continued on, in the direction of the Vercors, a gorgeous mountainous region in the Rhone Valley, south of Grenoble.
Here is where it got a bit tricky and we got a bit lost! Somehow, instead of skirting Grenoble we ended up driving right smack into it. We had decided against spending the night here since we did not want to risk getting lost in a big city and here we were, in the thick of it, completely unsure which direction to go, to get out!

Eventually we found the road that led to Villard de Lans but decided to take the smaller road that paralleled the highway, not wisely, because we thought it might offer more spectacular views. It did just that, but it took a few hours more to go what might have been only about an hour's drive and we did not arrive at the bed and breakfast until it was almost dark. We had planned to have our dinner there but found when we arrived that it was too late and so ended up going back down the hill a short way to a local restaurant and eating there. I also made the mistake of ordering the beef, which was delicious but a bit rare for my tastes and ended up with quite an upset stomach later on and did not sleep well because of it.

The bed and breakfast we stayed in for the night is called Le Val Sainte Marie ( and is the very charming home of our hosts and makes a great base for exploring this area that is a haven for hiking and all manner of activities for the outdoor enthusiast especially cross-country skiing. In the morning we took a short walk through the woods, coming upon memorials to the French Resistance, which was especially strong in this area during WWII.

Around 10am we left Le Val Sainte Marie with advice from our host that one of the roads we planned to take was closed due to road construction and were forced to take another more complicated route.

We had met Vincent's family (our "German daughter" Andrea's new husband) at her wedding in July. They invited us to come and visit while we were in Verona, as it was not very far away. Since we had planned to see Helena in Switzerland and could see on the map that a short detour into France would bring us south to the Rhone Valley, it was practically on the way home for us! We wrote to Emilie, Vincent's sister and asked if they were serious about their invitation, told them of our plans to see Helena and coordinated with them a visit that would include a stop in the south of France!

Claude and Marie Josèe have a farm in the Rhone Valley, in an area called the Vercors, a wilderness area that is one of France's regional parks and filled with pine forests, mountains, waterfalls, caves and deep, narrow gorges. The drive was completely breathtaking and we were completely lost!

This is an area with many tiny roads that weave through the mountains and every time we thought we were on the right path, we ended up in a completely different place. To make matters worse we didn't realize that the map we had purchased did not show all the tiny roads that crisscross this area and came to find out that there are many more than the map makers had chosen to represent! Not only that, in this very mountainous region our cell phones had no signal so we were unable to call for directions or let them know we were lost until hours later. A real game of telephone was played; I finally was able to reach Andrea and Vincent in Germany, who in turn called Emilie in France. I then was able to receive a call from Emilie but unable to tell her exactly where we were because we did not honestly know at that point! I doubt also, that we would have been any better off if we had the GPS because I felt certain we would not have been able to pick up a signal in this remote area.

Finally, with the help of a shopkeeper we found a very circuitous route that took us around the mountainous area and onto some larger roads and eventually made our way to the little town of Montlaur-en-Diois, where we were warmly met by Emilie and David and followed them to the farm where Claude and Marie Josèe were waiting.

They had prepared a wonderful lunch for us and we hoped that they had snacked while waiting for us because obviously they had expected us hours sooner and they would have been starving by the time we arrived! There was no sign of this however, as they welcomed us like old friends and with the help of Emilie's excellent translations and Marie Josèe's understanding of Italian, we got on just fine.

It was so relaxing to be there with them. People who grow up in an area know all the special places that a mere tourist would never know. We are always delighted when we can see an area through the eyes of a local, knowing our experience will be richer for it.

We saw the results of an earthquake in the 1600s where the mountain split and giant rocks rained down on the villages. We drove to the top of one of the highest mountains in the area, a favorite spot for hang-gliding and looked out from this bird's eye view of their farm in the valley below. Something about the stress and excitement of getting lost, the twisting roads, eating and drinking too much, caused me to have a real upset stomach and to leave my lunch, embarrassingly enough, on the top of the mountain! It was dark by the time we returned to the farm and I went right to bed, exhausted.

On Sunday, feeling fine again, but still a bit embarrassed, we went to a local Winery (Chatillon-en-Diois) for a tour and the chance to buy some French wines. While we were enjoying the winery, Emilie stayed behind and finished preparing the lunch she and her mother has started which consisted of the most tender and delicious leg of lamb I had ever tasted in my life and a side dish called Peti Pouis (not sure of the spelling, but this consisted of bright green peas cooked in a butter sauce with bits of ham - yummm), the wonderful french breads with a delicious salad and of course, red wine, followed by a tray of regional French cheeses and a yummy fruit tart. We ate well!

In the afternoon we drove through the Vercors to a museum of the French Resistance deep in mountains, that offered us a history lesson on what happened to these people during WWII. It was a fascinating bit of history that we were not completely familiar with and which helped us to understand why these people are so anti war. They lived right in the middle of it. When the Germans learned of the whereabouts of these Resistance fighters, just months before the end of the war, they bombed the entire area and entire villages, entire families, with women, children and the elderly were completely destroyed. The locals refer to the city of Vassieux, as the "assassinated village" because of the brutal way these people were slaughtered. It was a very moving experience and the museum captures this sad and heroic period in the history of this area with respect and sensitivity.

The drive through this area on the Route de Combe-Laval was nothing short of breathtaking with dramatic gorges and sheer cliffs, above a roaring river. Unfortunately, upon our return to the farmhouse, Marie Josèe learned that her father, who has been bedridden for the past four years and seriously ill, was not expected to live beyond the next days and she rushed off to be with him and her mother who has cared for her husband in their home these past years.

In the morning we gathered our things to leave and Marie Josèe, who had spent the night with her parents, came to see us off, along with Claude and Emilie. We hugged and kissed the three kisses that they give in this area (it is only two in Italy and other parts of France!) and invited them to come and visit us sometime in the states and again, we hope they will take us up on this offer.

We learned later in the day that Marie Josèe's father had passed away that very day and send our condolences to the family for their loss.

We drove the whole day across France and into Italy, stopping for lunch in Briancon, said to be the highest town in Europe (4,330 ft) in a valuable position since pre-Roman times as it sits on one of the most important passes into Italy. In the 18th century the town was fortified with ramparts and gates, which can still be seen today. It was during the riposo however (they seem to do this also in France and Switzerland, where shops and sights of interest can be closed for a few hours in the middle of the day, not only Italy) so the town was quiet except for the many, many restaurants. We found a small place off the beaten path and had Gallettes - like crepes but heavier and filled with meats and cheeses - an entire menu filled with possibilities and variations!

Anxious to get home now, we drove straight across Italy, driving past Torino, Piacenza and Cremona before turning north to Verona. The entire drive took about eight hours and by 6pm we were pulling into the parking spaces outside our apartment and carrying our luggage upstairs. Too tired to go out, we made do with a few things we had in the house and managed to put a light dinner together before falling into bed, worn out!

We spent the next week literally, just hanging out in the apartment, resting, sleeping late, going through photos, doing laundry, grocery shopping and beginning to write about our journey. It was incredible but we needed to rest and recuperate.

I hope I have not bored you with the intricate details of our days. I always remind myself that these writings are as much for us as they are for those who come and read because this is also our journal, our diary, of these days in Europe and will be what we read to ourselves when we are older and grayer and want to remember what we did when we came to live in Italy.

Thanks for coming along with us.

Con affetto,
Rosemary e Roberto

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