Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fromage Foray

Probably the most anticipated of my mini holidays within the mega holiday was a jaunt to France and Switzerland. Whilst I have dabbled in Geneva before, five days provided the chance to visit some new sights, eat some smelly cheese, and be whizzed around winding roads just like old times in my brother's car. Like climbing Mont Blanc, the following account is an arduous undertaking, somewhat immense, partly (bad) French, ultimately rewarding.

Un: Ou est le soleil?
The day dawned with the red sun reflecting in the salt lakes of southern Spain as I left Alicante and boarded a plane full of French looking people bound for Geneva. Two hours later, and after being surrounded by kids playing group petanque on their Nintendo DS-es, we landed at a grey Geneva airport where I was met by Allan, Vero and le bump. Through the suburbs we managed to cross into France despite the rigid border control (I think there was a flag and maybe a little shed) for some snags and cheese at chez frere.

The first jaunt of the trip took us to Yvoire, beside Leman or Lake Geneva to the uninitiated or majority of the world who are not actually French or Swiss. Here, things were gloriously quaint despite the tourists and the rain. unbelievably the first serious rain I had seen for two weeks.

Wrapped up in my classy plastic mac it was ideal weather for an ice cream. almost tempted for the seven scoop challenge, my survival instincts kicked in and I instead opted for three, topped with a healthy dollop of Chantilly cream of course!

Later in the day, as the rain continued, I was entertained with a trip to the Casino, where the gamble is whether you will survive the smell of old socks in the cheese aisle (it's the name of a supermarket you see). Why do Frenchmen need such big noses I mused?! Cheese was turned into more cheese back at the ranch, where we indulged in the sublime cholesterol fix which is raclette, mmm mmm mmm.

Deux: Allez Allez
On the cards today was a sugary fix for breakfast courtesy of the local Boulangerie and innumerable goodies from the cupboards as we awaited the arrival of Vero’s brother, Philippe. Yesterday’s rain had cleared to leave a bright day, through somewhat cool up with the cowbells and Tour de France slogans around the Col de Joux Plane. The plan was for a little wander and I went off seeking one of those typical alpine flower and mountain shots, a la Heidi.

If munching on baguette and cheese on a hillside wasn’t French enough, Philippe quickly zoned in on scores of little frogs climbing up from the small lake, probably escaping a coachload of peckish visitors. Inexplicably this seemed to keep everyone amused, me included, for a good half hour or so. If nothing else, it mean I could sincerely tell the world here I am in France and I have seen lots of frogs today…

With snatches of Mont Blanc identifiable in the distance, we wound on down through more classical Alpine scenery, past towns whose names I can’t remember, through forests and alongside streams, stopping briefly for an ice cream and sighting of some animals whose names I forget (hmm, does too much cheese induce memory loss I wonder?). Quite suddenly, the roads straighten, cities appear and Leman stretches on in the distance. At Thonons les Bains we meandered beside the lake as Frenchies enjoyed their summer holidays on the plage - I was taught at school that plage means beach, but here it was more like a series of swimming pools, manicured parkland and the odd pebble beside the lake. There was also the sight of chateaus and vineyards and people wearing berets cycling with onions round their necks I think (again, my memory may be lacking somewhat).

From French clich├ęs to Swiss stereotypes as the cuckoo clock chimed and we packed our army knives to cut some chocolate while watching fireworks in Geneva. The weekend happened to coincide with the Swiss national day and they celebrate by wearing Roger Federer cardigans and indulging in loud fireworks resembling gunfire, probably the most likely they actually ever get to battle. The fireworks sure were grand though and were accompanied by scores of rides and tents and thousands of people speaking thousands of tongues.

Trois: Allo Allo
The height of my trip? Certainly in altitude and quite possibly in experience. Today was super clear and simply incredible and we whizzed along for 45 minutes or so, mountains steadily rising on either side to reach Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc. Chamonix itself was a typically touristy Alpine resort and, on a stunningly clear Sunday, understandably full to the rafters with day trippers. Like many, our destination was a cable car ride rising nearly 3000 metres or so to the Aguille Du Midi, at 3842 metres in altitude, up in the snowline and less than a thousand metres short of the summit of Mont Blanc itself.

I could complain about the wait for our cable car but it simply meant I had a fantastic chocolate cake creation whose name I also cannot remember. Whether that was a good idea as we ascended rapidly, swinging on a few wires from time to time, I’m not so sure. Perched atop a high peaked rock cluster, the Aguille Du Midi is a complex of tunnels, lookouts, ice caves and cafes, with 360 degree views of the Alps, glaciers sweeping down to meet carved out valleys dotted with chalets, climbers zig-zagging like ants to distant summits, and exposed looking chairlifts transporting the adventurous across the mountain to Italy.

Intoxicating views, although the altitude (above 12,000 feet in old money) itself was enough to induce a drunken-like stupor, making every step a challenge, feeling like you are on the verge of passing out and, once back at a reasonable level, the inevitable hangover. Unlike many a drunken night out though it is definitely not something to regret though it could seriously get addictive.

Quatre: Tournez a gauche, et gauche, et gauche
Vero and Philippe were back at work today so it was left to two Rosbifs to explore some more of this most scenic corner of France and I was taken on le grand tour of the region. Our first stop was the town of La Clusaz, another charming Alpine resort, complete with a morning market and wholesome summer activities such as ice skating, crazy golf, mountain biking and, of course, walking. Being wholesome chaps ourselves we partook in a decent length walk, beginning with a little assistance from the cable car up to Beauregard leading to a land of alpine meadows, pine forests and small, rounded summits.

High on the hill were a lonely goatherd, along with a timely bar-restaurant where I was able to correctly interpret some French and pay the correct money for our drinks. The cable car down was ideally timed to munch on a cheese filled baguette, fuelling us for further meanderings towards the cooling waters of Lac D’Annecy, a seemingly favoured holiday spot and you could see why.

There were a few more stops on the way home, first at Les Ponts de la Caille, where not one, but two bridges spanned a small gorge which somewhat resembled the type of thing you often stumble across in south east Australia. A small tear formed in my eye and I clutched my heart, but after all my eyes were tired from staring at all the scenery and I had been eating a lot of cheese…

Surely there couldn’t be many more mountains left to climb, but wherever you turn round here there is another set of hairpins leading to another massif or range. The elongated ridge of Mont Saleve which rises just above the Geneva conurbation was the final stop on le grand tour and we arrived at the summit just in time to look to the east and catch the last rays of sun on the Mont Blanc massif and all the gorgeous country in between.

From another vantage our proximity to Geneva was all too apparent, looking down on the town, picking out the giant jet fountain and watching the fairground rides light up for the night. Somehow we had to get down there and this led to more hairpins and a steady descent to Annemasse for a well-earned pizza and beer

Cinq: If only I had an army knife
Today was the day to let the public transport take the strain as Al and I headed into Geneva before my late afternoon flight back to England. I’m not one to shirk public transport and it’s always a way of doing what the locals do and seeing the sights and sounds of a place. Somewhere on either the tram or the bus however my wallet decided it wanted to stay in Switzerland and vanished into the ether. Whether it clumsily fell out in a melee of bags and pockets or whether that guy who got rather intimate with me getting off the bus put one hand in my pocket I’ll probably never know. What followed was the calls to banks who strangely all seemed to be having problems with the mysterious “system” today and an exemplary French textbook scenario in action over at the police station. Annoying, but it didn’t totally cloud a rather nice day by the lake, plus it turned into Al’s shout for the rest of the day!

Being destitute it seemed to make sense to head to the United Nations, to see if they could pass some resolution or something which would probably be totally undermined by the USA who would go ahead and take action against wallets of much distinction regardless. It turns out they couldn’t help, but I took solace in the fact that I encountered a ‘big thing’, a giant chair outside the flag lined, fountain land of the UN.

From the UN, we headed into the nearby Jardin Botaniques, something which is turning into a regular habit of any big city I visit. Here there were a number of frogs laying about doing little and displays of flora from across the globe, though very little from the exotic realms of Rooty Hill.

The Jardins blended into more parkland beside the lake, territory which became increasingly familiar from a previous day spent in Geneva. Familiarity was all around as we crossed the lake and walked out to the imaginatively named Jet D’Eau, larger than Canberra’s Captain Cook Memorial Jet but equally as deserving of the question why.

Crossing the lake once more, we left the shores to head for some late lunch, a delicious pizza type thing (whose name I forget!), only thinner and made with a creamy, oniony base accompanied with a cold crisp beer. Very satisfied, the only thing left to do which could top this, and end my time in France and, briefly, Switzerland, was to pop into the local department store, taste and buy (courtesy of Allan’s wallet) a cowshed load of Swiss chocolate.

Feeling all continental, it was time to leave the sun, muster up all the sarcasm and irony I could manage, and return to Great Britain.


Al said...

OK just to help with some details - clearly the cheese induced dementia has not yet worn off..
From Joux plane we passed through Morzine and St Jean d'Aulps. We saw two 'chevreuils' on the rocks
The cake was a 'Succes' (and far and away the best cake in the world) and the 'pizza' was a Flammenkuche (call it a pizza again and you will probably end up in swiss jail)
Still some cheese left if you wanna come back

Anonymous said...

Me name eez Alphonse Le Gruyeres et I would like to zank you for ze wallet.
I buy my muzzer some fleurs and my cat some livers of the rabbit (before I ate ze cat and sold eez fur on ebay).
Merci et bonne journee - allez Roger federer