Above the Clouds in the French Alps ~ Chamonix

On a rainy day we left Beaune for Annecy, where the terrain along the way changed from fields and rolling hills to forest-covered mountains and cascading waterfalls.  There was not a room to be found in this crowded, difficult to navigate city and we were becoming a bit concerned this might be the case in Chamonix as well (our next planned stop).

I quickly got online and grabbed the last two rooms at Le Faucigny Hotel in Chamonix, perhaps two of the few remaining rooms to be found in the town.  Seems our lack of luck in Annecy was to be our good fortune in Chamonix, as we had the most amazing experience above the clouds in this little town.  Le Faucigny was a beautiful little boutique hotel with a Scandinavian feel.  A scrumptious breakfast spread was laid out each morning, with tea and cakes served in the afternoon.

Chamonix, the largest of five villages at the base of Mont Blanc, is the sister city to Aspen, CO.  We had researched hikes earlier so knew which trails we hoped to explore.  Since our first day in Chamonix was a bit overcast, we decided to stroll the town, do the Riverbank Walk, and visit the tourist information office for hiking maps and info on the gondolas and lifts.

All hikes we were interested in required a lift up into the mountains.  Sadly, two of the lifts and the cogwheel train had already closed for the season, so strike two hikes off our list.  But the Aiguille du Midi lift, one of Europe’s most popular, was still running.  All hope was not lost. 🙂

Refuge at P
Refuge Plan de l’Aiguille, along our hike, serves up great meals and knockout views on the patio.

Before leaving on our European adventure we had read about a gondola ride from Chamonix over to Helbronner Point, an Italian border station.  In a gondola built for four, you glide silently for 40 minutes over glaciers and snow-capped peaks into Italy.  It sounded fabulous but unfortunately this lift had closed the previous week due to an “incident”.  And we learned that incidents of this nature are not so uncommon.  It seemed that high winds crossed the cables, stranding 110 people over the glacier.  French and Italian workers were able to rescue all but 33, who spent a cold night dangling over the mountains.  Yikes!

The next day still looked a bit grey but the sun was shining above the clouds so we walked to the gondola and purchased tickets.  Our plan was to get off the lift midway and switch to another gondola that took us up to the tower at Aiguille du Midi, 12,6oo feet above the floor of the valley.

Drop-dead gorgeous scenery enveloped us as we stepped off the gondola, high above the clouds.  Stately Mount Blanc, standing at 15,771′, was on display, as well as the Swiss Matterhorn in the distance.  We could see Chamonix far below, as well as Plan l’Aiguille du Midi, halfway down the mountain.

Once we breathed in the views from the platform we hurried over to the Pas dans de Vidi, where we “stepped into the void”.  Stepping into a 5-sided glass case, and looking down into the abyss, 3,000′ of snowy emptiness greets you.  I loved it!  

The glacier as seen from Le Signal
The glacier as seen from Le Signal

From here it was back into the gondola, where we glided halfway down the mountain to Plan l’Aiguille du Midi, hopped on the Grand Balcon Nord trail to Le Signal, overlooking a beautiful glacier and more heart stopping views.  Along the way we heard a noise like a small jet and saw a very fast-moving object zip by us, a base jumper.  He looked like a giant orange flying squirrel doing a fly by as he rapidly headed to the fields of Chamonix far below.  This past June we learned that a man flying solo died before he made it to the landing field, when he flew into bad weather.

Our time in Chamonix was marked by so many remarkable moments.  Terry and I both agreed that this would be an area to visit again, as the hiking trails are so abundant, many at higher elevations.  We soaked in some of the most exhilarating views we have ever experienced.

Coming Full Circle ~ the Burgundy Region

Our time in Paris was over and we were ready for a new adventure in the French countryside.  Terry was in charge of planes, trains, and automobiles and after extensive research felt that leasing versus renting a car was made sense since we planned to have it for five weeks.  We picked up our SUV at the Orley airport and headed for the country.  With GPS guiding us, we thought we would never get out of Paris as the female inside the GPS box seemed to keep looping us back in a circle.  After dumping her and getting the British guy on board, we were at least heading in the right direction.  This would not be our last mishap on the road as we saw several of the same roundabouts more than once.  All part of the adventure, right? 😉

With limited time we decided upon the rolling hills of Burgundy, as we were making our way to the Dolomites, and this region was in the same general direction.  We’d read that Burgundy’s claim to fame is their superior wines, cuisine, spicy mustard and sleepy little villages swathed in alluring landscapes, crisscrossed with canals and dotted with vineyards.  Along with Bordeaux, Burgundy is why France is renowned for its wine…great fruity reds and dry whites.  We planned to sample many along the way.  Our goal was to stay in Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital, but not before a stop at France’s best preserved medieval abbey, Fontenay.

” It is said that you can see a lot in a big city but in a small town you can feel a lot.”  ~  Anonymous

Fontenay Abbey, in the small village of Montbard, was founded in 1118 by St. Bernard, one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in the world.  The Cistercians wanted to reform monastic life, immersing themselves in the rule of 5th century St. Benedict, to “live a life of poverty, self-sufficiency, and solitude”.  It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, complete with lovely grounds.

Continuing on into Beaune, our first goal was to secure a place to rest our heads for the next few days.  We settled on the quirky Hotel Rousseau, once the Rousseau family home and still run by 88-year old delightful Madam Rousseau and family.  Kitties roam the hallways and colorful pet birds welcome you as you climb the stairs to your room.  Dinner our first evening was at Le Belena, where we dined on some of the region’s specialities, beginning with escargots de Bourgogne…sightseeing for our taste buds!  And of course we sampled a couple of Burgundy’s luscious wines.

Dining at Le Belena
Dining at Le Belena

Over breakfast the next morning we met Roland, a friendly gent from Germany, who was solo trekking his way across France on foot, taking one of the Camino de Santiago routes in sections.  This pilgrimage has been a dream of mine for many years so I was all ears.

Once nourished we headed out on foot to explore Beaune, keeping our ramblings to the town center, within the ring road surrounding the town.  Our first stop was Hotel Dieu.  Now a museum, it was once a charity hospital built for the poor, more commonly called a “palace for the poor”.

Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins put their hearts and souls into this project, using only the finest materials to ensure its existence for centuries.  It was classified as a historic monument in 1862 and has never veered from its principles of charity and care of the poor.  The self-guided audio-tour is fascinating.

Another day of sightseeing took us to the Collegiale Notre-Dame Cathedral and out into the vineyards to sample the grapes.

Our final day in Beaune was reserved for taking the southern Grand Vineyards Tour, where we traveled  through quaint villages of red-tiled roofs, surrounded by rolling hills of vines, many of which we stopped to explore.  Along this route lie the Château de la Rochepot, one of France’s smallest castles, now a museum, which we toured as well.

We found the Burgundy Region to be enchanting, the cuisine divine, and the wine luscious.  I had read that the French food is so good because it is “made with love”.  Love was in the air at every meal.

The City of Light ~ Part Trois

The Montmarte neighborhood, in the northern part of Paris, was on our agenda so a Rick Steve-like tour, led by hubby, became our urban exercise for another day of exploration.  For me, the highlight of our visit to Montmarte was a tour of the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica, sitting atop Paris’ highest natural point at 420-feet.  On a clear day this five-domed Roman-Byzantine-looking basilica can be seen from many vantage points in the city.

Although this spiritual center has an ancient air to it, it’s only a century old, taking 44 years to build.  We had heard that the views from the tower were not to be missed, so although it was a warm day we decided to tackle the 300 steps up a narrow circular stone staircase, this after climbing the 288 steps up to the door of the basilica. As I wound my way upward, I found myself wondering who else had traversed these worn stone steps over the past 100 years.

Back at ground level, we wandered through a local art fair, down intriguing little roads and alleyways, stopped by the Moulin Rouge nightclub, which has quite its own history, and strolled through Pig Alley, the red-light district. A local creperie became our lunch of choice before we left the Montmartre neighborhood.

After visiting the Louvre Museum we weren’t anxious to rub elbows with thousands of other tourists again, but we also weren’t willing to leave Paris without visiting Versailles, now a wealthy suburb of the City of Light, dating from the 11th century.

Versailles, once a center of government, is now a national landmark.  First built by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge and private retreat for his family in 1623, it was later enlarged into a royal palace by Louis XIV.  The Grand Trianon, a smaller château that sits on the grounds and within its own park, was built at the request of Louis XIV, a quiet little place where he and his guests could enjoy light meals.

Although it was interesting to tour the royal palace, we literally walked shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow tourists throughout the château.  It was not surprising that we all breathed a sigh of relief as we moved into the huge gardens.  Although rain was threatening, the groves, gardens, and fountains were delightful.  We visited on one of the Garden of the Spectacles days, when the myriad fountains spout to the rhythm of the classical music being carried through the gardens.

We have found Paris to be magical, filled with romance, culture, beautiful sights, and fabulous foods and wines, but we were anxious to get out into the French countryside and explore some of the small villages. Our five days in the City of Light had come to an end.

Touring the City of Light ~ Part Deux

Gaining a bit of confidence that we could navigate through Paris by foot and metro, we set off to explore the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Elysées.

Planned in the mid-19th century by Baron Haussmann and commissioned by Napoleon, the magnificent 165-foot Arc de Triomphe was built to commemorate Napoleon’s 1805 victory at the Battle of Austerlitz.  At the foot of the arch, two centuries of Parisian history unfold, from the funeral of Napoleon, the arrival of the Nazis, and the triumphant return of Charles de Gaulle after the liberation of the Allies.  Beautiful carvings on the pillars and an eternal flame that marks the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier grace the arch and the base. Once inside we climbed the 284 steps to the observation deck, where we took in the panoramic views of the city and the 12 arteries (roadways) radiating out from the arch.  This is the only place in Paris where, if there is an accident, each driver is considered equally at fault. No matter the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs 50/50.

Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" ~ Orangerie Museum
Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” ~ Orangerie Museum

We took the lift back to the base of the arch and strolled the Champs-Elysées, the internationally famous boulevard that has become Paris’ backbone.  When we entered the Tuileries Garden, we made our way over to the Orangerie Museum, another of our favorite museums in the city.  It is the closest you will come to stepping into an Impressionist painting. Although we enjoyed many of the various artists’ paintings, Monet’s Water Lilies were the most striking.

We had an adventure planned for that evening so decided that a midday rest was in order.  After strolling through the Tuileries Garden we hopped onto the metro, where Terry was to experience a different kind of adventure.

Everywhere we went we heard “beware of pickpockets”, particularly on the trains, metro and other crowded public spaces. While standing next to him on a crowded metro, hubby was suddenly surrounded by three young (12-13 year-old) girls, one making eye contact with him, while another went for his bag. As soon as I noticed the little one maintaining steady eye contact, I heard a very stern “What are you doing?” coming from hubby as he grabbed a little hand.  The one with her hand in his bag scurried away as quickly as she could, not successful on this day.

Before leaving Paris we all decided that an evening Seine River tour was a must.  The company we chose provided a lovely one-hour cruise filled with interesting historical facts.  One of the more interesting facts we learned about the Eiffel Tower was that it initially was intended to last only 20 years.  Since it now has become the symbol of France it is routinely painted every 7 years, requiring 60 tons of paint and 3 years to complete.

This wrapped up another incredible day in the City of Light.

Touring the City of Light

Terry & Frank outside our apartment

After much anticipation we landed in Paris, spent after a very long night, with just our adrenaline to keep us moving.  We hopped on the Easy Bus at Charles de Gaulle airport and, after Elan (our driver) traversed the side streets to avoid rush-hour traffic, we arrived at the apartment we had rented.

In five days we know we will barely scratch the surface here in the City of Lights, the most dense city in all of Europe, (with 20x’s more density than New York City) but we are planning to give it our best shot.  Since we will be on the go so much I have decided to write “mini-posts” while in Europe, then go back and add more detail when we return to the states.

Our first two days in Paris began with a leisurely breakfast at a local boulangerie, where I was able to practice a little of the French language – emphasis on little.  Once fortified we walked along the Seine River to tour Sainte-Chapelle, a royal Gothic-styled chapel, built around 1238, once the residence of the Kings of France.  It houses some of the most extensive stained glass of the 13th century anywhere in the world.

From there it was a short walk to Notre Dame (Our Lady of Paris), a medieval Catholic Cathedral.  It is among the largest and well-known churches in the world.  We had hoped to climb to the top of the tower but the lines were too long and we had much yet to see.

Lunch was in the Latin Quarter at LouLou’s, a must-top for this Lulu…délicieux.

Since we were enjoying the local fare so much, we agreed that walking was needed to burn off the calories  so off we strolled to the Louvre Museum.  Crossing over the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the Seine, we stopped to take a few photos of some Locks of Love before continuing on our journey.

Although we had purchased a 4-day Museum Pass, which allowed us to skip some of the longest lines, once inside the Louvre it is impossible to avoid the crowds.  You’ve got to just shoulder your way through the massive surge. We all agreed that for that reason alone, some of the smaller museums were more to our liking, but the architecture, the paintings, and sculptures were magnifique!

We rounded out our first day with an evening reservation at the Eiffel Tower where the views from above are breathtaking.

Day two took us to the Orsay Museum, which we all agreed was incredible.  Build around 1900 and housed in an old railway station, the architecture and the clock towers are impressive.  It holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in the world, including artists such as Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Cézanne.

A walk to the Trocadéro for another view of the Eiffel Tower and a stroll through the Rue Cler market and day two was a success.