I was now in the department of Haute Savoie, also known as upper Savoy. The House of Savoy, made up of lower and upper Savoy, was the longest surviving royal house in Europe, and were power brokers alongside France, Burgundy, and Lombardy, to name a few. Savoy’s historical territory is now distributed across France, Italy, and Switzerland. The House was installed by Rudolph III, King of Burgundy in 1003. It ruled the County of Savoy until 1416 and then the Duchy of Savoy from 1416 until 1860. The territory was annexed to France in 1792 under the First Republic of France before being returned to the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1815. Savoy, along with the County of Nice, was finally annexed to France by a plebiscite, under the Second French Empire in 1860, as part of a political agreement (Treaty of Turin) brokered between the French emperor Napolean III and King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia that began the process of unification of Italy. Victor Emmanuel’s dynasty, the House of Savoy, retained its Italian lands of Piedmont and Liguria and became the ruling dynasty of Italy.
I hoped to try out my newly-acquired NeoAir mattress that night. Looking at a map, I decided to camp near Le Chapel du Chat on the west side of Lake Bourget. It was dark when I arrived at a panoramic view near the chapel where I decided to make camp. During the night some other campers arrived, yelling and slamming car doors and making enough noise to wake the dead. That would have been bad enough, but at 7am the next morning they repeated the ritual. So I got little sleep and awoke for a second time to the loud chimes of the chapel which sounded like they were a dozen feet away. I found out later that I had camped within 30 feet from the chapel which was hidden from view by some trees. I packed quickly and drove to a nearby village, where I walked up and down the hillsides, admiring Alpen style wooden homes, barns, and neatly kept yards. I continued on, hoping to arrive at the Abbey of Hautecombe between 10am and 11:30am when the abbey church was open to the public. The silver lining of my sleepless night was that I made it with ample time to drink in the beauty of the abbey church.
The abbey was founded by hermits from Aulps Abbey near Lake Genevan in 1101. Haute in French means high and combe means valley, which described its original location in a narrow valley on Lake Bourget. In about 1125 it was moved to its present site under Mont du Chat, which had been granted to it by Amadeus III, Count of Savoy, considered the founder of the order. Shortly afterwards it accepted the Cistercian Rule from Clairvaux. The first abbot was Amadeus de Haute-Rive, afterwards Bishop of Lausanne. Two daughter-houses were founded from Hautecombe at an early date: Fossanova Abbey (afterwards called For Appio), in the diocese of Terracina in Italy in 1135, and San Angela de Petra, close to Constantinople, in 1214.
For centuries, it was the burial-place of the Counts and Dukes of Savoy. Humbert III, known as “Blessed”, and his wife Anne were interred there in the latter part of the 12th century; and about a century later Boniface of Savoy, Archbishop of Canterbury (1245–1270), son of Count Thomas I of Savoy, was buried in the sanctuary of the abbey church. The abbot Anthony of Savoy, a son of Charles Emmanuel I, was also buried there in 1673. It was damaged in the early 1700s and later restored , though not to its former glory, by one of the dukes in 1750. As with the fate of most religious buildings after the French revolution, it was secularized and sold in 1792 when the French entered Savoy, and turned into a china factory.
A few years later, King Charles Felix of Sardinia purchased the ruins in 1824 and had the church reconstructed by the Piedmontese architect Ernest Melano in an exuberant Gothic-Romantic style. He restored the abbey to the Cistercian Order, and he and his wife were buried in the Belley chapel within the church. Some 300 statues and many frescoes adorn the interior of the church, which is 217 feet long, with a transept 85 feet wide. Most of the tombs are little more than reproductions of the medieval monuments. The Cistercians resettled the abbey from Turin, but the Italian monks soon left, and were replaced by others from Senanque Abbey, who remained until about 1884. The premises were taken over by the Benedictines of Marseilles Priory in 1922, but in 1992 the monks left for Ganagobie Abbey in the Alpes de Haute Provence. The buildings are now administered by the Chemin Neuf community, an ecumenical and charismatic Roman Catholic group.
After admiring the beautiful Gothic-Romantic style of the rennovated church, I wandered down to a behemoth stone boathouse on the lakeshore, where the exhibit entitled Par monts et châteaux: 1416, itinérance et résidences des ducs de Savoie was housed. The exhibit was created to mark 600 years since the creation of the Duchy of Savoy (1416-2016), and follow the itinerant journeys taken by Duke Amadeus VIII and discover the main chateaus (read castles) built or rennovated during the 14th and 15th centuries by the House of Savoy. These castles are now the subject of archaeological and historical studies. Most of them are open to the public. The exhibit offered a playful virtual tour of these emblematic buildings of the Savoyard heritage. I asked for information in English and was pleasantly surprised to be handed a multi-paged pamphlet, which I read in its entirety. It whet my appetite to explore these chateaus in person, and led to my visiting Savoy chateaus in Chambery, Clermont, Montrottier, and Annecy in France, as well as Chillon in Switzerland. I have to say that Abbey Hautecombe was a high point for me. I’d go back in a minute just to stroll on the grounds and take in the beauty of the countryside, let alone to view the fabulous architecture and interior of the church and other buildings.
From the boathouse, I walked to the lakeside and admired the underside of the stone building which allowed boats to be pulled in from the lake without the need for doors or hatches. People were waiting for a ferry that runs to Aix-les-Bains across the lake. It was a bit overcast, which I welcomed, as it had been in the 90s for weeks prior. I drove through the abbey’s vineyards and farmland to Chanaz, a quaint village located on the Canal de Savières. The canal is 2.6 miles long and was built in the 18th century to connect Lake Bourget to the Rhone River. Overrun with tourists, the town had few parking places. Nevertheless I prevailed and found myself hiking up the steep hill to the old mill which like almost all places in France was only open from 2 to 4:30pm. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I peeked in the window and admired the wooden cog mechanism which was connected via a shaft to the external water wheel still turning. On the way down, I spied the city hall housed in a former chateau built in the 16th century. The beautifully laid out French gardens framed by a carefully sculpted boxwood hedge added to the ambiance of the palatial home.
As usual I bought some bread and a patisserie in the local boulangerie- here the specialty was walnut carmel tart. I made it a practice of trying the local delicacies everywhere I went, providing that I could afford them. In Maussane, for example, I stumbled upon a truly artisanal cookie shop which made every type of cookie imaginable, from coconut meringues to lemon zest shortbread and dried fig sables. I stocked up with one bag of each and am still making my way through these. Lots of French glaceries and boulangeries claim to be artisanal, but only a few really are in terms of the use of local and fresh ingredients and small batch production.
Satisfied that I had seen Chanaz, I drove through hill and dale toward Annecy-le-Vieux where Nic Impex, the sea-to-summit French distributor, was located. It was great timing because I was burned out with my itinerant lifestyle and hoping to take a break, perhaps a walk along the lake and a swim. I found them without a problem thanks to Here, the handy GPS application that uses satellite and doesn’t require an internet connection. I arrived at 3pm on a Thursday. They were open till 5pm that day, then till noon Friday and closed on the weekend. My intuition to get there with a day to spare was a good one. They kindly took the pad off my hands and said they would test it that afternoon. I came back at 5pm and they said it worked like a charm and that they weren’t able to detect any leaks, as had been my problem. They had changed the valve and assumed that it had been faulty and that they had thus solved the problem. Something told me to ask them to keep it overnight and see whether it continued to hold air. Luckily they complied, and added 20 kg of weight to do a stress test of sorts. I went for a nice walk along the northeastern shore of the lake till dark, then found a campsite in the forest on the mountain above their facility.
The next day I arrived at Nic Impex at 11:30am. It turned out that the pad had deflated that night, and as they were unable to find any leaks, they replaced it with a new one. No questions asked other than my name and mailing address. I was very impressed with both the facility and the sea-to-summit brand at their impeccable customer service, and made a mental note to consider them for other products. I’d aleady bought a very lightweight sleeping bag/quilt from them and a bag liner and an inflatable pillow, so I was a good customer to keep. I decided to take a drive along the lake and headed down the east shore to Veyrier-du-Lac where I took a nice walk up the hill toward La Combe, learning that until recently the town’s main economic source had been vineyards and wine production. I found a few authentic homes and barns from the wine growing days and was disappointed at the nouveau riche architecture of the newer homes.
As I pulled out of the village, I spied a picturesque castle overlooking the south side of the lake and decided to investigate. I headed toward Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, and just my luck, it was had just opened for the day – did I mention that almost everything in France opens at 2pm? There would be a tour in English in 40 minutes, so I had some time to look around the grounds. I made good use of the time, then returned to the castle steps at the appointed hour and met the tour guide. She spoke French and English quite fluently, and was friendlier than most French I had met, which tipped me off to the possibility of her being from elsewhere (it turns out she’s Italian). We had a small group of 8 or so people, which gave me ample opportunity to ask questions. I found out that a simple wooden guard post, built to guard the ancient Roman road to Lake Annec, was erected in 923. The medieval fortress/castle was constructed between the 13th and 19th centuries.
Bernard of Menthon (St Bernard), the patron saint of alpinists and pilgrims, was born in the fortress in 1008. He later founded the hospice at the Great Saint Bernard Pass and several abbeys in the high mountains. From 1180 till the present, the castle has been occupied by the Menthon family. The origin of the family is uncertain but they came from Burgundy and constructed three towers. In the 15th century, Nicod de Menthon was ambassador to France of the Duke Amédée de Savoie, then Governor of Nice and admiral of the naval fleet sent by the Council of Florence to Constantinople.
During the Renaissance, the medieval fortress was transformed into a sumptuous residence, seat of the Barony of Menthon. Apartments took the place of the round walk between the towers and the Menthon family bought a large quantity of furniture. The general appearance of the castle was unchanged until 1740, when a dining room and grand hall with tall windows were added facing the lake. Then between 1860 and 1890, René de Menthon rennovated the castle: walls were raised, turrets were added, and a half-timbered gallery in the inner courtyard was built. Francois de Menthon, father of the present count, was a lawyer and member of the French resistance who represented France at the Nuremberg Trials. He worked for the creation of a united Europe and was Minister of Justice under De Gaulle.
After the tour I walked in the nearby forest, then drove to Thônes and into the forest to the mountain village of Montremont and a trail running along Le Malnant creek. I hiked to a large rockslide, then drove south to Serraval, and north toward the southwestern portion of Lake Annecy. Traffic was literally crawling at 6pm, so I turned off the ring road in desparation, hoping to take a break before continuing slogging through. I had turned off at Saint-Jorioz, a quaint town on the western shore of the lake that has a beaver and reed bed sanctuary. I walked along the lakeshore and found a good place to swim, savoring the cool water after the sweltering drive in my car.
I walked the long trail in the town that runs along the lake, then spied a poster for a Barbary coast-style organ grinder festival to be held the next day. I headed to McDonald’s once it was dark for my nightly internet fix, then decided to find a camping spot nearby in the mountains above Saint-Jorioz. I ended up sleeping in a large turn out on a seemingly quiet road. Unfortunately, cars zoomed past till the wee hours of the night, and even with earplugs I slept only a few winks. Early the next morning it started to rain. I hadn’t put the rain fly on because the sky was clear the night before and I don’t like the added heat from the fly. I was wearing earplugs so didn’t hear the rain hitting the tent and forest floor, but my 6th sense kicked in, and I woke in a flash, stowing the bag and tent lickety split.
I had decided to visit Chateau Annecy that morning, always a good idea in the rain. Parking was a challenge, but I ended up parking on a hill below the Annecy Cathedral, built at the beginning of the 16th century by Jacques Rossel as a chapel for a Franciscan priory. During the French Revolution it was used as a temple of the Goddess Reason. It was raised to the status of a cathedral in 1822 when the diocese of Annecy was created from that of Chambery. The grand organ was built by Nicolas-Antoine Lété, an organ builder of the French king, in 1840-1842. Outside a man was ranting. I had tried to give him money but he refused, and I felt a bit ashamed at presuming to know his intentions.
I walked down the steep hill past a Franciscan monastery and residence that were associated with the cathedral, and then along the neatly-cobbled streets of Annecy to Chateau d’Annecy, a restored castle which dominates the town. It was built between the 12th and 16th centuries and served as the residence of the Counts of Geneva and the Dukes of Genevois-Nemours. Several times the victim of fires, the castle was abandoned in the 17th century and later repaired to serve as a barracks until 1947. The town of Annecy acquired the castle in 1953, restored it with the help of Monuments Historique and installed a museum there. The chateau has two towers. One, the queen tower, was so named based on the story that a former ruler, fed up with his wife’s admonisments about his infidelity, locked her up in the tower. The other tower and the Logis Perrière have housed an observatory (l’Observatoire régional des lacs alpins) and exhibition on the limnology of the lake since 1993.
I paid my 10 Euros entrance fee and walked along the castle courtyard, surveying the medieval town of Annecy which lay below the castle wall. Inside, there were several exhibits: one on the history of the castle, and the other on the artistic influences on the artisans in northern vs southern Haute Savoie. For example, in the southern part of the duchy, there was a strong Renaissance influence which was reflected in the carvings of dowry chests and other furniture, while in the north part of the duchy near Mont Blanc, there was more gothic and high gothic influence. There was also a large collection of artistic renderings and blueprints of the chateau and planned rennovations from over the centuries. Many of the rennovations were never executed for financial or political reasons.
I then looked at the limnology exhibition in the tower. It was excellent and talked about the degredation of water quality over the years and ways that the community has tried to address the problem. There was an interesting exhibit about the archaeological hoax of the supposed Lake Annecy mermaids, and the dangers of believing something because it is presented as scientific fact. I headed to the old town and walked around for a while, making sure to stop at my now favorite gelato place (an ever changing title). Then I headed back to Saint-Jorioz for the organ grinder festival. It was raining, so when I arrived at the lakeside esplanade, there were none in sight. I asked a few people but to no avail. Just as I’d given up and was planning to leave, I asked an elderly gentleman, and he told me where they had moved because of the rain. I found the large grange hall and to my delight spent a few hours listening to the wonderful strains of barrel or street organs playing a variety of French and English tunes from the 1800s. I sat and listened to the 5 or 6 organ grinders performing one after the other, enjoying their singing and theatrical performance. After singing for an hour or so, they stopped for a 2 hour dinner break, and invited me to return at 8pm. One spoke a bit of English and suggested (perhaps a bit tongue in cheek) that I arrange a series of concerts in the US for them. He said they had just returned from South Africa on a concert tour and that all they needed was room and board.
I took my leave and strolled along my now favorite trail, looking for beaver’s lodges as I walked along the reed beds that bordered Lake Annecy’s shore at Saint-Jorioz. I walked till dark and then decided to drive east of the lake to Thônes and find an internet point where I could use the wifi for an hour or so. I asked at a cute hotel and restaurant in the old town and appreciated the chance to be dry and warm for a few moments. Then I drove back to my favorite mountain village of Montremont and found a camping spot along the Le Malnant creek. It was a wet night and I was glad for the rainfly, which I had wrong-headedly left at home last year when I traveled for 5 months in Georgia, Abkhazia, Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. The next morning was beautiful, and the sky was clear and blue, an idyllic day to take photos and admire the lovely villages in the area. I found a self-service car vacuum and had a heyday cleaning out the car and throwing out spoiled food (with external temperatures of 95 F, perishables only last a few days at most). I went to a local boulangerie and bought a patisserie with pink frosting and layers of cream and chantilly,then set off for nearby villages. I discovered Provenat and drove high up the mountainside to the end of the road and hiked a bit from there. The puffy white clouds against the preternaturally blue sky put me in a good mood, and I hummed a song as I walked in the rich green hills. I decided to take advantage of the good weather and take a drive south to Chambéry, which had been the historical capital of the Savoy region since the 13th century, when Amadeus V, Count of Savoy, made the city his seat of power.
Upon arriving, I found out that Chateau Chambéry is not open to the public other than a small exhibit on the history of the castle and a large coin collection and numismatic exhibition from the time that coins were minted there. I walked around the well-preserved medieval portion of the town, and especially enjoyed the Hotel de Ville and the elephant fountain. After several hours, I headed to Aix-les-Bains, a pretty resort town featuring thermal spas on the east side of Lake Bourget. I stopped on a lakeside trail and watched wind surfers dart like dragon flies to and fro, then parked north of the town and walked along another trail past a wild garden and beautiful forgotten villa. I spied a castle in the hills and wondered whether I could visit. It turns out that there are hundreds of chateaus in the Rhone Valley region, let alone in all of France, or Europe for that matter. As a starry-eyed American, deprived of a history of royalty, I fall prey to the allure and would probably end up spending the next 20 years visiting as many as I had time for.
I headed for a McDonald’s, where I could get reliable free internet, and was recommended to purchase a 2.99 Euro plan from free mobile. I later found out that the cheap plan was only for talk. I had to pay 20 Euros per month, plus buy a compatible phone, for the data plan. I headed toward Chanaz to find a camp spot and spotted a dirt track winding into the forest, which looked like a safe bet. I had a beautiful spot near a forest and pulled my car as far over as I could, using a tire jack to secure one end of my tent fly since the ground was too hard for a stake. And of course Murphy’s law: in the wee hours of the morning, 2 tractors and 2 trucks passed on the road. It’s a wonder they were able to squeeze by my car, and the last one honked, probably in disgust at the audacity of my camping on this path. No place seems virgin here. I drove to Chanaz, saw the upper part of the village which was less touristic then the canal-side part, then drove along the Rhone to Seyssel Ain on one bank and Seyssel Haute-Savoie on the other. The development of Seyssel is linked largely to the Rhone River. From antiquity to the nineteenth century, the town was the terminus for goods arriving by boat from Geneva, Lyon and Marseilles along the Rhone.
My final destination for the morning was the Château de Clermont, a Renaissance-style castle built in the sixteenth century on Mont Saint-Jean a few feet below an ancient castle fort built in the eleventh century, which was the capital and seat of a lordship of the counts of Geneva. With a panoramic view of almost the entire territory of Haute-Savoie, including Mont Blanc, the fort was later abandoned, and in 1576, an adjacent summer residence was constructed for the Duke of Savoy Emanuele Filiber. At the end of the sixteenth century, the duke sold the castle and grounds to Bishop Gallois de Regard, who had a palace constructed adjoining the duke’s medieval residence with stones from the ancient hilltop castle. The design was inspired by Italian Renaissance, but was more austere. The main building, facing west, was illuminated by large windows. A courtyard was created by vaulteed galleries with low arches and balustrades across from and to either side of the main building. A monumental gate inspired by classical Greece and Roman architecture opened to onto the courtyard from the outside.
As I had to wait 20 minutes for a tour, I walked to the top of the mountain where the ancient castle had stood and surveyed the view. Rarely have I seen such a panorama, and I’ve been to many mountain tops. Good real estate, especially for a fortress. The young woman who was to be my guide was very pleasant and helpful, and seemed happy to answer questions. This was in stark contrast to the attitude that I repeatedly ran into in Provence, where people often seemed put out even when asked a simple question. As a friend had warned, don’t go near the coast in the summer, as the locals will be perpetually irritated. Good call. The guide told me that they have musical events on Saturday nights all summer long. As it was a Sunday, there was some evidence of the previous nights foray. We ran out of time so were unable to see the second floor which contained a facsimile of life during the medieval age. I thought about coming back after their lunch break, but ended up spending several hours in Seyssel (both sides of the river) and decided to press on to Rumilly, where there was purported to be an excellent museum.
I drove through hill and dale, enjoying this part of Haute-Savoie. It was another blisteringly hot day, and I panted as I walked up to the tourist information office next to the museum. I had decided to go there first and learn what I could about the town and surrounding area before heading to the museum. The tourist office was very helpful, but unfortunately the museum was closed for vacation, not to reopen until August 28. They gave me a walking tour map of Rumilly and suggested some alternative activities, including Chateau de Montrottier, Jardins Secrets, and Gorges du Fier, a lovely river gorge trail at the foot of the chateau. So I headed off to the chateau and hoped it wasn’t also closed for the holidays. Luckily I found it open and full of interesting memorabilia. Unlike most of the chateaus that I had been in, this one contained in tact collections of the previous owners, including one room dedicated to lace, another to fine china and pottery, another to Asian antiquities, and another to weaponry. There was also a temporary exhibit of masks from around the world, particularly Africa and Indonesia. I eavesdropped onto a guided tour and found out that two Delft porcelain cat figurines in the lace room had been stolen by professional thieves two weeks prior. It reminded me of the theft in 1990 of thirteen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Among the stolen works was The Concet, one of only 34 known works by Vermeer and thought to be the most valuable unrecovered painting at over $200 million. Also missing is The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only known seascape. The high-profile crime remains unsolved and the artwork’s location is still unknown.
I really enjoyed the chateau and the changing light cast from various buildings onto the central courtyard during the day. As usual, I spent too long there and got to the Gorges du Fier at 6:20pm, which I thoght would be enough time as they closed at 7:15pm. Unfortunately, they prevented people from entering after 6pm, so I was thwarted from visiting the magical spot. The Jardins Secrets were also closed by that time, so I drove to Grenoble, where I was to stay with a friend of a friend for a couple of days. I arrived at Radu’s house at 8:30pm and was relieved that they hadn’t yet had dinner. He was welcoming and showed me the room, then I headed upstairs to meet his family. We had a nice dinner outside on the terrace, then I worked on my blog for a few hours. I decided to use the iWerkz keyboard I had purchased for my trip, but it stopped working after an hour. I had only used it for 2 hours since purchasing it new, and checked the website for suggestions. Per instructions, I charged it overnight and tried re-pairing it with my iPhone the next morning, but to no avail.
So I decided to head into town and see about buying another keyboard. I had contacted iWerkz via email and they were responsive, saying they could send me a replacement for the faulty keyboard, but not to France, only to an address in the US. I thought about ordering another one online but didn’t have an address to send it to. Plus it was unclear that they would ship to Europe, even with Amazon. So I went to downtown Grenoble and found an Fnac, a French retail electronics equipment chain. I explained my predicament to several salespeople, each one shunting me off to another one. One woman told me they didn’t have any bluetooth keyboards. Eventually, a sarcastic but helpful young man showed me the section containing Apple compatible keyboards. I had asked “Parlez vous anglais parce que je ne parle pas bien le francais?”. He had responded in a thick mock French accent “Oui I speak very good anglish”. We laughed. The Apple keyboard was 119 Euros, while the look-alike by Bluestork was 29 Euros. I took a chance on the cheaper one and made my purchase. I got home and found that the r key was almost non-functional. I had to pound on the key with 2 hands to get it to register.
I put up with this for a day, then decided to take it back and try to get another one. So I returned the next day with the keyboard in its box with all the trimmings and the receipt. I had tossed the box and plastic tray into the kitchen garbage and they had become covered with fish guts and skin from that night’s salmon dinner. I washed them as well as I could and left them to bake in the sun for several hours. It’s amazing what sunlight does to odor. It was a successful visit to Fnac. I demonstrated the problem and the sales lady gave me another one. I thought I should test it before leaving the store but didn’t want to appear rude, so I hoped for the best. From there I walked through the old town of Grenoble along the Isère River to check out the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Grenoble.
I wanted to visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Grenoble after reading that it was considered the premier museum of contemporary art in France. What I didn’t realise was that this statement was true in 1920 since the Paris museum did not open until 1947. In the 1930s, it was considered to be one of the premier museums in the world together with the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany; the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum’s representative collection of western art from the 13th to 21st century is presented chronologically, each period represented by stellar works. The audio guide was helpful in giving important details about pieces critical to the collection.
The museum’s permanent collection consists of 1,500 works in 57 rooms, specializing in 13th and 17th century paintings. They have a little of everything: ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman; paintings from the 13th to 16th century; 17th century (impressive collection of French, Flemish, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian painters); 18th century; 19th century, including regional art; sculptures; 20th century, and 21st century. There is also a sculpture garden behind the museum. After spending 2 hours there, I drove back to Radu’s home, then went for a walk around their quaint town of La Tronche. That night I had a nice chat with Radu who got back around 9pm from a meeting he’d had in Paris that day. The weather had been beastly, making Paris unbearable.
The next morning I’d planned to leave early to visit Chateau Vizille before heading to Zinal via Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. Best laid plans. I’d been tired and slept in, then needed to shower, clean the room, and pack my car. I chatted with Florence before she went to work and thanked her for her kindness and hospitality, then did the same with Radu before one of his many bike rides. Did I mention that the French are crazy about cycling? They are. As a fellow cyclist, I’m impressed by their tenacity. I’ve seen everything from the elderly on 3-speeds on highways to alpinsts spinning up passes like the one near Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. As I loaded my car, I noticed there was yet another parking ticket, strange as I was parked on a public street across from the house where I had stayed for 3 nights. So I now had 3 parking tickets (I had gotten one in downtown Grenoble) and 1 camera ticket. Seems I was starting a collection. I wasn’t sure whether I’d have to pay these when dropping off the car in Marseilles on November 1. Or perhaps I wouldn’t be able to enter France next time. Who knows. I don’t know how countries force foreigners to pay tickets. I’m sure they have a way.
After bidding the family farewell, I drove to Château de Vizille via Saint-Martin-d’Uriage, a route through the lovely thermal spa town in the mountains that Florence had suggested. The château is one of the most prestigious and important castles of the Dauphiné Region, which had traditionally been the homeland of the inheritor of the French throne. It was former home to the dukes of Lesdiguières (17th century), the Perier family (1782–1895) and the presidents of France (1924–1972). Today it houses the Musée de la Révolution française de Vizille, a departmental museum on the French Revolution established in the chateau in 1984. I didn’t have time to check out the exhibit, but took a stroll through the 320 acre castle park which was designed in the 19th century. The grounds were some of the prettiest I’ve seen and include French and English formal gardens, topiaries, large grassy expanses, flower beds, rivers and lakes, and forested lands furthest from the chateau that used to function as hunting grounds.
I drove along the river road to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, and was horrified at the crowds I encountered there. It’s always bad in a place like that, but that day was particularly bad as it was hosting an ultra marathon and most of the streets were blocked off and lined with spectators cheering the participants. I’m guessing there were upwards of 20,000 people there that day. Parking was impossible, though I eventually found a spot. I went to an exhibit in a small building featuring two French ethnographers who had lived in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc for many years, one who lived with the Inuit in Alaska and Canada, the other who lived with indigenous people in Greenland. It was a fascinating exhibit and included the books they’d written, as well as photos and video footage. I spoke with the woman curator who had grown up in Chamonix and bemoaned the changes she’d seen since the 1950s. I’d like to spend more time getting to know the place. Maybe I’ll double back on the way to Geneva to see the Alpine Museum, located in the first of 3 palaces built in the town in the early 1900s.
I hopped back in the car and crawled through miles of traffic over the pass to the border at Martigny, Switzerland. It is one of the smallest Swiss borders, so no one stopped to demand that I buy the 40 Franc Swiss Vignette, a sticker that must be purchased once a year in order to drive on Swiss highways. I decided I’d try to avoid them if possible. Dropping down from the high pass into the valley below, I felt the sweltering heat gather around me, making it hard to breath. I drove onward until I found the road heading back up into the mountains toward Zinal. The road was one-lane at best in places, and very treacherous, but thank the gods I made it in one piece to Zinal. I arrived around 8pm and found a nice bar with free wifi from which I called my mom and had a good conversation. Then I drove to the end of the road and surveyed campsite possibilities, deciding that it would be better to find a more remote site as there were at least 40 cars clustered together. I found a good spot by a trailhead and had just started to set up my tent when a 3 wheeler came down off the trail and parked next to my car. A little startled, I asked whether they planned to camp. They said no, and relieved, I continued to make camp. Another 3-wheeler arrived 20 minutes later, but they were just parking their rig to be used the next day.
The next morning I was awoken early and decided to hike the trail ahead of a group of 6 hardy elders with poles whom I didn’t want to get stuck behind. So I struck out in flip flps as I didn’t have time to change footwear. It was a pretty trail, the air smelt fresh and sweet, and spring water ran down the mountainside. The sun had cleared the ridge and was casting a shadow of the mountain peak on the other side of the valley. I listened to the tinkling of the cowbells and imagined that I was in the Sound of Music. Except for the lack of edelweiss dotting the hillside, I might have heard highlanders yodelling. I made a mental note to get some fromage alpen later that afternoon, as they didn’t open till 2:30pm. The trail looped down the mountain and I decided to head back. I wasn’t crazy about the cows heavily grazing the fragile alpen meadows, and wondered what would happen to the biological diversity if they continued to tear it up. I know that cattle grazing in the US has reaped tremendous damage, especially in sensitive alpine areas.
I decided to walk through the old town in Zinal and admire its alpine architecture. At noon I took a gondola from 1600 to 2400 meters near the top of the mountain shared with Grimentz. I love the silence of the high country and took lots of photos of tiny wildflowers clinging to the rocks. I hiked for 2 and half hours up a scree-covered slope and arrived back at the lift out of breath. There I met a lovely Bostonian, Claudia, whose mom purchased a retirement home on Lake Geneva, and in which Claudia now lives much of the year. She loves ethnic festivals like I do, and mentioned a few for me to explore. Swiss National Day, August 1, celebrates the signing of the Swiss Federal Charter on Rutli Meadow above Lake Lucerne in 1291 between the original three cantons (now there are 26), which marked the beginning of the Swiss Confederacy. This year she was in Zermatt, and experienced traditional music including alpine horns and pipes, drummers dressed in traditional military uniforms, fresh baked Augustweggen bread, local dignitaries’ speeches, barbeques and an evening bonfire and fireworks display, as well as candles and Valasian wines.
She also recommended the Désalpe (literally, descent from the alps), a traditional mountain festival celebrated in September in many parts of the Alps, especially in the regions of Semsales, Charmey, Schwarzsee and Albeuve. After more than four months of grazing in alpine pastures, the cows make their way down to lowlands for the winter. A grand procession of shepherds in traditional dress and cows sporting highly polished bells and adorned with wildflower wreaths, winds its way down the mountain side. The parade is accompanied by traditional music and the sale of local produce. I found out that the Désalpe in Grimentz is September 24 this year. Maybe I’ll come back for it.
After descending the mountain via gondola, I bid Claudia farewell and headed to buy fromage alpen. I had a few Swiss francs and some Euros, which the cheese maker graciously accepted (Euros are currently worth more). For the next few days I lived on alpine cheese and bread. I bid the cheeseman farewell and drove out of quaint Zinal towards the other side of the valley in Grimentz. Something told me to head up the mountain. The road was one-way at best, and I had decided to turn around when I saw a bus with a sign saying Moire Glacier chugging up the hill behind me. Now that my curiosity was peaked, I had to investigate.
After cresting the summit, I drove through a rock tunnel – literally. The Swiss are expert tunnel builders, and this one was particularly interesting as it bore through rock. I immediately came upon a preternaturally blue lake, the glacial melt from Moire. Further up the road was a trailhead and I set off in my flip flops, too excited to think about footwear. I walked for half an hour, loving the feel of the cold air on my skin and the absolute quiet. I have hiked several glaciers, including the Comox glacier on Vancouver Island and the Kennecott glacier in Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark in Wrangell-St Elias National Park in Alaska. Each time is magical and epic. As I was footwear-challenged, I didn’t make it to Moire, but admired its river-like wake from below.
I wish I had taken time to admire Grimentz, but was felt rushed to get to Zermatt that evening. Bad idea. It was Friday at 6pm. I got stuck in commute traffic and heading for the mountains for the weekend to escape 95 F weather traffic. Double trouble. After an exasperrating hour, I pulled into a pizza place in Visp to use the wifi. My trusty GPS phone application had stopped working, and I wanted to download the Switzerland map again as I didn’t know how to get to Zermatt. A friendly waitress encouraged me to slog through the additional hour of traffic to Zermatt. After learning that I had to leave the next morning, she suggested that I drive instead to Andermatten, further up the Rhône River valley (in German, the Rotten River). Seemed aptly named as I drove through the fairly industrial area in traffic on a hot day.
Thanking the waitress, I continued on the highway running up the Rhône River valley towards Grimsel pass. At dusk I stopped at a roadside parking area. Crossing the street to stretch my legs, I discovered a seemingly unending suspension bridge and decided to cross it. As they say, curiosity kills the cat. I’d be dead more than 9 lives ago if that were true. The Hängebrigga suspension bridge is 280 m long and 92 m high over the Rhône River, connecting the villages of Fürgangen to Mühlebach (Fürgangen has a stop on the Furkabahn railway). After crossing, I walked into Mühlebach, with Switzerland’s oldest wooden village centre complex, some dating to the 1400s, which I would visit the next day.
Five minutes later I came to the Café/Bed and Breakfast Hängebrigga and was wecolmed by a friendly young woman. She asked where I was staying and I said I wasn’t sure, and offered the possibility of staying the night in one of the rooms of her family’s bed and breakfast for 70 Francs for a room with a shared bath. It was a lovely spot but I was feeling a bit tight on money and asked if she knew of camping nearby. She suggested trying Binn, a small village in the mountains. I felt a great sense of peace, and perhaps reading my thoughts, she commented that this place has a good vibe.
Little did I know that I was talking with Patrizia Kummer, gold medal winner in the snowboard slalom and silver medal winner in snowboard giant slalom at the 2016 Olympic winter games in Sochi, Russia. I probably would never have found out except that I decided to return the next morning for a cappuccino, as I had been impressed the Italian-made Faema espresso machine I’d spied on my first visit, plus the fact that their beans are locally roasted by small family roastery. On the way to the bathroom, one of the most elegant I’ve seen thus far, I spied a case full of trophies and a photo of a young woman holding an Olympic gold medal high in the air. Upon closer inspection I realised it was the same one I’d spoken with yesterday at the cafe. That morning I found out that she was at a cancer fundraising event, pushing a cancer patient in a wheelchair up the pass near Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
For weeks after, I reeled with the knowledge of her humbleness. She had given no indication of being a famous athlete and had been very kind to me, a stranger. Rather than being self-aggrandizing, she used her fame to better others lives (she had sponsored the cancer fundraiser). Quite an inspiration. It made me reflect on something I attributed to the Dalai Lama, the idea that if one is truly secure in themselves, there is no need to boast or self aggrandize. The meeting gave me pause.
After my auspicious visit, I walked back across the suspension bridge and drove past Fiesch, home to the Altesch glacier, the largest in Europe, to Ernen. If I had known about the glacier, I probably would have taken an aerial tram that day to see it. But instead I drove to Ernen, arriving around 8:45pm. I was very lucky, as I had arrived on the first of three nights of the Beethoven festival, which marked the end of the Musikdorf, a summer festival of classical music in Ernen. In 1887, the great Hungarian pianist Gyrgy Sebök founded a chamber music festival in Ernen. Since then, in August every year, a special and inspiring meeting for chamber music takes place. Performing musicians, composers, and an audience of nature and music lovers from around the globe meet. Affinity with nature, profound music and the exchange of ideas are the focus. This summer there were 5 chamber music concerts and 2 orchestral concerts in the beautiful church in Ernen, as well as many rehearsals and lectures. The cellist Xenia Jankovic has been the artistic director of the festival since 2008.
I heard strains of Beethoven emitting from within the Tellen house, the former gallows and later court house built in 1447, when the high court for the entire tithing of Goms was assigned to Ernen. Not all thieves were immediately condemned to death here: most of them escaped with prison sentences or fines, while some were put in the pillory or branded on the shoulder. The facade is ornamented with frescoes from the 1447 date of construction.
I asked a passerby in French if it was a public concert and could I enter. He told me “oui, mais attend un petit peu”, which means yes but wait a bit. So I waited about 10 minutes, and when I heard a break in the playing, I entered. All eyes were upon me and I felt very awkward in my shorts and flip flops, but hadn’t realized it was a formal concert. I had been mesmorised by the playing though, and was unable to resist siren’s call. Da Sol Kim performed three Beethoven sonatas: Piano Sonata in F minor op. 2 no. 1; Piano Sonata in E flat major op. 27 Nr. 1 “Sonata quasi una fantasia”; and Piano Sonata B flat major op. 106 “Grand Sonata for the pianoforte”. I got there to hear the third sonata. I was in a revery, and speechless by the end. And glad I’d been brazen enough to enter. I found out later that Da Sol Kim, a south Korean, is one of the finest young pianists on the international stage, having debuted with the New York Philharmonic. Audiences are wowed by his astounding interpretations, remarkable tone, and utmost clarity. So I had stumbled onto a gold mine.
In a trance effected by the music, I left the small hall and drove into the night toward Binn, in search of a camp spot. Unlike France, Switzerland has few places for wild camping. I was about to give up when I spied a small dirt road to the right of a tunnel. The road was blocked off a few meters ahead for foot traffic, but I had just enough room to set up my tent and park the car on the shoulder. I was still reeling from the music when I fell asleep to the roar of glacial melt from the gorge below.
Early next morning I had just pulled on my shirt when two cyclists road past exclaiming “guten morgen”. I returned the salutation and after packing, decided to investigate the trail high above the Binn River. Little did I know that it would be a stunning walk along a deep gorge lined with intriguing “nature” art. There were pine cone dolls, bronze pipes in the shape of bamboo emitting steady streams of water, driftwood hanging 50 feet up between gulleys and hung on invisible line, white plastic wrap that looked like snow emerging from rocky tunnels. The sun didn’t warm my face for an hour, giving me plenty of time to revel in the cool morning air. I noticed occasional memorial crosses nailed to the rock walls, and wondered whether they were for workers who had died building the trail.
From there I drove through the tunnel to Binn, getting out and walking around the quaint town. Finding an unlocked garbage receptacle in Switzerland is about as difficult as finding wild camping, and I walked around the village for 30 minutes in search of one. I had given up when I found a tiny garbage can that served as a cigarette ashtray. Determined, I shoved the bag of spoiled fruit and veggies through its narrow opening, then drove as far up into the mountains as I felt comfortable, parking just past the small village of Fäld. I walked up the road a ways, getting choked out by the dust of passing cars, then headed up the other side of the valley, reading the signs describing geological features of the rocks and valley. There was a wooden xylophone that was fun to play, and I noticed not for the first time that the Swiss seem to value creativity and art. My kind of place. It probably doesn’t hurt that they have a lot of excess capital.
I drove back to Mühlebach to the cafe of Olympic gold medal winner Patrizia Kummer’s family and had a lovely capuccinno. As I said, I found out her true identity that morning but was unable to speak to her, as she was participating in a charity event for cancer patients. I walked up to the center of the village to admire the oldest wooden building complex in Switzerland, and walked up to the small chapel to a memorial plaque dedicated to a man who loved this place and had been instrumental in establishing Musikdorf Ernen in 1974. I didn’t wonder at his love of this special place, and wandered back to my car and on to Fiesch for a short walk. It was another blisteringly hot day, so I kept it short, also knowing that I had a long way to go to get to my dad’s cousin Janusz’ family in Anglikon by 8pm. The only other time I had last visited them was 9 years prior.
I continued toward the source of the Rhône River to Grimsel Pass, happy that I wasn’t behind a slow trailer. What a spectacular view! I got out at the pass and hurriedly snapped some photos, worried that I’d end up behind a slow poke. I wish I’d taken more time there, and perhaps will go back to see what I missed and do some hiking. The drive down was stunning, with a myriad of spetacular views. I didn’t stop until I reached Interlakken, which I’d heard about and wanted to see. It was too touristy and cutesy for my taste, something between Disneyland and Las Vegas. I only had half an hour, and it was raining, so I walked along the river and to glimpse historical hotels and villas. There is a funicular on the other side of the river which gives one a good view of the town. Apparently Felix Mendelssohn, who lived in Interlakken at the time it was proposed, was one of its many opponents for the environmental impact it would have on the area. Unfortunately, far more ugly and impacting development has occured in the area since. I have heard that Grindelwald is a beautiful alpine village located in the mountains across from Interlakken. Sadly I didn’t have time to investigate, but hoped to come back on my circular tour back to Geneva. So I continued on toward Zurich for a visit with my dad’s cousin Janusz Karpinski and his family.