“I know it’s somewhere!” she cried out in frustration as she flipped through a stack of twenty full size trail maps, each showing a mess of trails that slipped between valleys and up endless snow-capped peaks. They were some of the best trails in the world. “He’s like a little kid here,” she said as she held up the stack. “This is like his playground. I swear, if he knew where we were going today,” her eyes widened, “he’d go nuts!” She ran up the stairs and came back with a new stack of maps. “Here it is! Etienne was trying to keep this one all to himself!”
So as it turns out, France is a wonderland.
It far exceeded my expectations, to say the least. It’s a playground of snow capped peaks and crystal clear rivers, a gastronomic delight, an architectural masterpiece, and a land filled with—contrary to stereotypes mostly propagated by jealous wartime adversaries—wonderful people! Nestled in France are some really remarkable things and while it isn’t what I call my home, it’s easy to understand why so many passionately called it theirs.
What was surprising to us was that we’ve been to France four times in the past and after a series of unpleasant personal interactions our first impressions were quickly decided and we had tentatively decided not to come back. But I’m beyond happy that we did because this time we completely fell in love.
Soon after Brad’s quest to retrace Ernest Hemingway’s fishing hot spots on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees we crossed into France, turned northeast, and drove into the French Alps. Talk about living the dream.
A few years ago our friend Katie moved to France to marry the love of her life, settling in a century old home smack in the middle of the Alps. Her basement was a wine cellar with arched ceilings while the bathroom window offered an incredible view of an intimidating snow capped jagged peak called le Bec de l’Aigle, or “the Eagle’s Beak.” She said it was the best view in the house. She pointed out that her fairy tale living situation also had its downsides: there were few full time residents and limited job opportunities, meaning few young people to hang out with, but on the flipside they had a sack of topographical maps of the surrounding mountains that would take a lifetime to explore. And for an outdoor enthusiast life doesn’t get much better than this.
After a leisurely breakfast of chocolate croissants—fresh from the village baker—and strong coffee we packed a lunch of mixed nuts, dark chocolate, and French bread layered with fat slabs of brie cheese. From her home we took a short drive up into one of the many gullies between the mountains until the road became impassable from spring snow. I think we were the only ones in the valley without snow shoes or skies but we fought our way through the semi-packed snow, finally stopping to have lunch and watch the back country skiers dump off the sides of the mountains.
Back in the valley we stopped alongside a grassy slope backed by thick forest. A man wandered down the hill with a plastic grocery bag in his hand. It was weighed down by something inside.
“Shoot! I think this area has already been picked over but let’s try anyway,” Katie said hopefully.
We were all novice mushroom hunters and our skills definitely weren’t up to par with the locals. Despite Brad’s color blindness, which only added to the difficulty of finding such elusive fungi, he searched for longer than Katie and I combined. He eventually gave up and joined us in foraging for baby dandelion leaves for a salad and another plant whose soft leaves were delicious when coated in flour and fried. For dinner Katie prepared a tasty salmon casserole to go alongside our foraged items. Brad stoked the red enameled wood burning stove (which ironically was imported from America) and we all enjoyed a customary aperitif, a French sweet wine served prior to the meal.
The next day we explored the valleys around Katie’s house and went for a small trek up to an old fort that rested at the top of a hill. The view was spectacular, the fort and a two-towered church overlooking a town next to a beautiful turquoise colored dam. The town below survived on tourism but fortunately for us it was still off-season and only a handful of people walked the streets.
Like the hours prior to a big Thanksgiving feast we ate sparsely that day, anticipating a meal Katie warned we’d want to approach on an empty belly. We were in for a special treat. Raclette, a term derived from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape” is a meal made on special occasions with cheese taking the center stage. The cheese is served with petite boiled potatoes, sausage, and tiny pickles called gherkins. Simple, I know. Like fondue, raclette requires a special cooking unit, a two tiered table top grill plus individual small pans, known as coupelles for roasting the cheese slices.
Katie’s husband Etienne traveled extensively for work and as most French are passionate about food, he always returned home with gifts of regional French sausages and liquor. What a guy! Fortunately for us there was a surplus in the fridge, plus Katie had selected a few sausages specific to the Alps region.
With the table overflowing with wine, sausage, and cheese, we placed our tiny pans, each topped with raclette cheese on the bottom tier of the grill and waited until the cheese transformed into a semi-melted, golden roasted mess. We pushed the cheese onto our halved potatoes with scrapers and topped the creation with a chunk of sausage. It was something quite incredible.
Our days in the Alps were centered on the consumption and preparation of food; sampling handmade cheeses in the nearby fromageries, purchasing French wine for my growing wine collection, and making more delightful meals—boeuf bourguignon simmered over the stove top for hours, a quick bacon and leek quiche for lunch, and chocolate soufflé for dessert.
When we finally did leave Katie’s house we were green with envy at her fairy tale living situation. We continued on through the Alps for hours, our attention held captive every moment by snow covered mountains which never seemed to end. We rolled past old abandoned buildings like the Hotel des Glaciers, through avalanche tunnels and tiny mountain towns through which the Tour de France passes each year.
Despite not having bikes Brad was keen on driving the Alpe d’ Huez, a string of twenty one spaghetti-like switchbacks that make up the most famous climb in the Tour de France. I could hear Phil Liggett’s excited voice commentating as we climbed switchback after switchback, not because I have a good imagination, but because Brad was impersonating Phil Liggett, yelling words of encouragement to himself as Nacho sped up the climb.
“Nacho is doling out pain like candy to babies around these switchbacks, Paul. He’s out of the saddle and dancing on the pedals! He’s reaching into his briefcase of courage and coming down this finishing straight like a Grand Prix motorcar!”
Last year’s race graffiti decorated the cement guard rails and I could envision a tiny clearing in the road for the peloton to pass through, the remainder of the road overflowing with crazed fans swinging banners and running alongside their favorite riders until they could no longer hold pace.
While I had seen these same switchbacks from the comfort of my couch many times before, today they meant something entirely different. For the past couple of weeks I had been on a photo assignment, a challenge proposed to me by a friend, in which I was to create images that expressed my emotions. The switchbacks that I looked down upon represented life’s journey; the unexpectedness of it all and never knowing where the road will take you.
Up at the top of the mountain Nacho fishtailed to a stop, stuck in a slushy mess of snow. During the winter the pavement had cracked and fallen to pieces and now it was in need of some tender loving care. Star struck by all riders who’d passed by this spot in the past I pulled off a loose piece of rubble to remind me of this time and then we headed on back down the mountain.