Cham’ and me

Chamonix, France

We are fortunate to live between two chains of mountains. I awake to views of the Jura, the older, gentler slopes just across Lake Geneva on the Swiss side. In the other direction, to the southeast in France, are the Alps. They aren’t far, although we don’t get many views of the Alpine peaks from here.

Visitors are a good excuse for us to get out and see the Alps close up. That is just what we did when my sister and her family came to visit the other week.

Outside of ski season, it’s easy to forget just how close we are to Chamonix – Cham’ to the locals – home to our highest mountain, le Mont Blanc. We drove about an hour to Valorcine, then parked the car and took a series of chair lifts up. It’s fun to take a chair lift in the summer as you can see all the detail of the green slopes just below. And I enjoy it more when my fingers aren’t frozen.

We couldn’t figure out why so many chairs had spots blocked off but decided it was for all the people with bikes. This is a popular spot for the sport and just below us, we could see mountain bikers descending the narrow dirt trails at break-neck speed. I can see why they take the lifts – riding down must be a lot more fun than going up.

Chair lift near Valorcine

At the top, the views open up to the valley below in a way that soon had us singing, ‘The hills are alive…’ Thankfully no one started yodelling or the Swiss, who share a border just a few hundred metres away, might have changed their minds about staying neutral.

We could see the glacier called La Mer de Glace – the Sea of Ice – and a little bit of the Mont Blanc peak, although there were a few clouds. There were wild flowers and a few mountain cows – although we argued as to whether they were cows or bulls. Do cows have horns? And are there male cows? My daughter the future veterinarian would certainly have a few things to say on that subject.

From the top, we hiked downhill for half an hour to a small mountain refuge that runs a restaurant. This was my favorite moment of the day.

thumb_img_5605_1024It’s enough to make me want to come back and do it again – but don’t tell ZFrenchman, or he’ll soon have me up and out the door to Cham’ every Sunday morning.

 

When was the last time you were in the mountains?

Se sentir bien

thumb_IMG_3421_1024 This is a postcard from my morning run.

Pictures can capture the beauty of this place but not the way it smells. Close your eyes and join me on a virtual tour around our corner of Lake Geneva in the Haute Savoie.

Take a deep breath. The first thing you will notice is the lake smell. Wet, musky, a hint of freshwater fish. Lac Léman is just a few hundred metres away, and on days with a bit of humidity in the air it feels like you are breathing the lake.

There is a large farm field between our house and the lake. As we pass by it the smell of fresh-cut grass rises – heady and pleasant. Then something stronger overrides it. Manure has been spread to fertilize the land and its odour hangs heavy in the air.

The road crosses through the woods and the air changes. Suddenly it is cooler, denser. The smell of wet leaves and spices tickles your nostrils as you are surrounded by myriad shades of green. If you hear a rustle up ahead don’t be surprised. Sometimes a deer will cross – un chevreuil in French. I am always caught in amazement to see them so close but they are gone before I can get my camera out.

The road turns up towards the Château de Beauregard, stately on its perch above the lake. The trees thin out and you can see a few brown and white cows grazing in the neighbouring field as the forest smell mingles with a grassy note of dung.

We continue up the road until we reach the village centre. The bakery emits a warm, yeasty advertisement of bread just out of the oven.

Cutting across the main road, we cross behind the church and up through residential streets. There is a sudden sharp smell of onions cooking in someone’s kitchen, reminding us that it is almost lunchtime.

thumb_IMG_3432_1024A leafy green hedge with tiny white flowers gives off intense bursts of crisp musk. Then the houses give way and we are in a field of yellow. Colza, rapeseed or canola, in full flower gives off a perfume that is delicate and honeyed. We pick up speed as we pass it. The sheep next door give us a curious stare.

Now it’s back down through more houses to the main road and home. We come to the roundabout where traffic flows from Evian to Geneva. Fumes of diesel exhaust are like grey ashes in the nose, an unpleasant reminder that the city is not far off.

To feel and to smell are two different sensations but in French they are described by the same word: sentir. Every time I go for a walk or a run around my village, there are so many things that smell wonderful, or simply memorable. Most importantly, je me sens bien – I feel good.

How do you feel?

 

Visite du Musée d’Orsay

horloge-gare-orsay-02While most people think of the Louvre as the must-see museum in Paris, for me it’s the Musée d’Orsay.

When we lived in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay was still under construction, being transformed from its former life as a turn-of-the-century railway station into a magnificent art museum. It finally opened just as we left, and since then we had never managed to return for a proper visit. We decided to put that right this time around.

The Orsay museum hosts a vast collection of paintings from 1848 to 1914. I had previously seen some of them in their former home at the Jeu de Paume museum, now dedicated to modern photography. I have a penchant for realism and who doesn’t love the Impressionists?

Orsay clockBut first: the building. To me, it is worth a visit just to see the clocks. The ornate gold clock inside the main hall and the amazing view from behind the big exterior clock through to Sacré Coeur atop Montmartre.

We signed up for a guided tour. I find that having a real, live guide who is able to bring the art works to life with stories makes all the difference. Our French guide was full of anecdotes and amusing details about the artworks and their masters.

Musée d'OrsayWe lingered awhile over this particular painting, by Edouard Manet: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Our guide told us the story of how the painting had been initially rejected for exhibition, not so much for the nudity but for the way it was portrayed, the woman so shockingly naked amongst well-dressed men, implying that she was a prostitute. He added something about how this would never have been accepted in America, given that country’s notorious prudishness. We all nodded, except for one woman, who seemed surprised. He explained that les Américains were not too keen on portrayals of love – l’amour.

That was just wrong. Not love, I interrupted. Sex. L’érotisme. He acknowledged my point, a bit sheepish. He hadn’t wanted to use the word, he explained, given the presence of children. I thought that was rather odd: so now who was being the prude?

I could have spent the entire day just wandering around, and if I lived in Paris I would surely get an abonnement, or membership, so as to be able to come and be with these works on a regular basis.

Or perhaps just to sit in one of these amazing chairs.

Poulpe chair

La Parisienne à vélo

Vélo, bicycletteSee that girl? The blonde in the cute hat, blithely riding her bicycle on the streets of Paris? The one who smiles with an air of insouciance as she rides across the cobblestones, coolly skirting pedestrians and scooters as she crosses the Seine? That girl is not me. I’m not even sure she exists except on this bottle of beer. Which, by the way, I enjoyed down to the last drop. Right after my harrowing experience of riding a bicycle in Paris.

That is, getting hit by a car while riding a bike in Paris. Husband shook his head, amazed. “It could only happen to you,” he said, as if somehow it was my fault. Which we both agreed it was not. The driver didn’t think it was his fault either, although we begged to differ.

The light was green and I was in the bike lane, one of the rare ones that crops up from time to time at the busier intersections. The driver was turning right and assumed he had the right of way. He cut in front of me as I sailed forth, knocking me off my bicycle in what must have appeared like a moment of pure slapstick comedy. I hit the pavement in slow motion, getting up and dusting myself off a few seconds later, nothing worse than a few bruises and a scraped knee. Horns began to honk and the traffic flowed around us.

Husband rushed over and the driver got out of his car, checking it for damages. No one asked me how I was, apparently a moot point as I was already back on my feet. There followed an authentic French shouting match, replete with curses and insults. I tried to get a word in edgewise as husband threatened to call the police, to take a picture of the license plate. The driver, who seemed to believe the best defense was a firm offense, did not apologize but instead insisted he had the right of way, that he had done nothing wrong. He had stopped, as the law required. He was clean.

I finally managed to get their attention long enough to say that I was fine, merci for asking, that there was no serious harm done but that an apology would be nice. The driver mumbled something and husband backed off. We found a pharmacy and cleaned up my knee.

Then we went for a drink and they served me this. Irony?

In recent years Paris has been taken over by cycling madness. It’s called Vélib – a system of inexpensive bike rentals on every major street corner. It’s all very well for tourism. Who has not dreamed of riding around the city of light like a true Frenchman? Only true Frenchmen don’t ride bikes much – they prefer to drive cars. Along with motorcycles and scooters, buses and taxis. And you want to keep out of their way.

It takes nerves of steel to ride a bike in Paris. If you’re looking for a thrill, you could try bungee jumping instead.

 

Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?