The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Le Tour de Doug Part 3: Evian and the Alps

This next portion of my trip was mainly centered on the “Route des Grandes Alpes”—a famous drive (or bike ride, if you’re really hearty) through every pass in the French Alps. To get there required a very long drive nearly across all of France, which I did in two days with a night spent outside Lyon (see older blog entries for a visit to Lyon):

My first night in the alpine region—Savoie to be official—was in the town of Evian-les-bains on the French shores of Lake Geneva (which they call Lac Léman). Yes, this is the town famous for its water, which comes from the Source Cachat (so called because the spring was found on the land of one Monsieur Cachat). Today it is a popular spa and casino town near the Swiss border:

Evian City Hall:

Me at Evian City Hall...enjoying an Evian!:

As always, nothing says class like a vomiting duck:

Original headquarters of Evian water:

I’m not sure if this woman is sad because of the strife of war or because her child has lost his arm:

Proof of how far I was from home:

On a random note, I passed a pâtisserie selling “mega-meringues”, which appear to be the world’s largest. Note my size 12 sneaker for scale!:

It was a relatively nice day, and people, boaters, and non-vomiting ducks were all out to enjoy the lake and its hazy view of Lausanne, Switzerland on the other side:

As evening came, I arrived at my hotel, the Hôtel les Cygnes. It was a cute châlet-like establishment:

My room was a trip. Small hotel rooms are of course not uncommon in France, but this was ridiculous—literally about one foot of free space on every side of the bed! And to add to it, the hotel decor involved tons of cute accoutrements, including a canopy over the bed that I had no idea how to deal with:

Even the TV was tiny (again, note my size 12 sneaker for scale!):

And of course, the complimentary water of choice...:

After an awkward night under the “tent” I spent most of the next 3 days driving about half of the Route des Grandes Alpes, with some detours along the way:

The road twists and turns it way through and over the mountains with some truly hair-raising climbs and hairpin turns. The valleys were green and filled with farms (this is a major cheese-producing area) and lakes and streams; the high passes were hauntingly barren and often surrounded by dramatic, craggy, snow-covered peaks. I started out with a shortcut through Switzerland:

And about 10 minutes later, I was back in France:

In fact, the borders of France, Italy, and Switzerland are all in the Alps and at one point I came to a traffic circle where the 3 exits each took you to a different country. In these days of “one Europe” it’s somewhat anticlimactic, but still cool. In any event, I took what is actually a detour from the Route itself to visit Chamonix—a major ski resort, former Winter Olympic site, and the base of the Alps’ highest peak, Mont Blanc:

From Chamonix, you can take a cable car to the top of the Aigulle du Midi, a peak next to Mont Blanc and only a few meters (as we say in France) shorter. It starts out innocently enough:

Then you get past the smaller base hill and realize what is ahead:

There’s a break in the middle from which you had the option to parasail down!:

The cable car was scary enough for me unto itself, thankyouverymuch, so instead I continued on to part two of the journey, a nearly vertical ride up a single cable to the top, over the clouds:

The climb is precariously (and enthrallingly) close to the jagged peaks:

At the top, no doubt about it—you are in the clouds:

But the views are exhilarating:

The actual peak, accessible by a further elevator, was closed for repairs:

But it’s 3824 meters high...

...which according to my remarkably-accurate-but-ever-so-nerdly altitude watch was more than 12,000 feet:

The air was thin, and it definitely gave you severe fatigue. It was not as bad as the time I took a similar trip to the top of the Matterhorn in Switzerland—perhaps that was higher (and it was certainly colder). But it’s all part of the thrill of reaching places that few humans have been before. The passing clouds made for constantly changing views that were sometimes better than others:

And soon it was time for the even more precarious ride back down to Chamonix:

Of note, my hotel room at the Best Western had a fine view of Mont Blanc from both my balcony and the heated pool:

The next day I was back on the Route des Grandes Alpes proper:

This particular pass was the site of a great parachute landing by American soldiers in WWII, something the French have commemorated with the monument to the US:

The highest pass (“col” in French) is the Col de l’Iseran, more than 9,000 feet up (as confirmed by my watch). It’s near the Val d’Isère, another famous ski resort and former Winter Olympic site:

In this photo, note the crazy switchbacks the road took the get up there!:

Back through the valleys:

One thing to note is the preponderance of cows at all levels of the valleys. There are herds everywhere:

...and every single cow actually wears a bell! The net result of this is that whenever you get out of your car, rather than the silence of nature, the songs of birds, or the howl of the winds, you can always hear a distant chorus of cow bells! Christopher Walken would be proud. Even if you don’t see any cows, you will invariably hear the din of their bells and then notice some hiding here and there (I guess that’s the point). Just to give you an idea, here is a brief video clip where you can hear one of the bovine orchestras at work (click on it to play):

Finally, the last pass I went through is also quite famous: the Col du Galibier (8,677 feet). This is the highest point on the route of the Tour de France! I can’t imagine biking up here: driving it was hard enough, and the thin air once again adds to the challenge:

Note again the crazy roads in these the photos—I drove the first one up and the second one down:

There’s actually a lot of graffiti along the road (words of encouragement to the cyclers from their felonious friends):

And a monument to Henri des Grange, founder of the Tour:

Indeed, one hearty cyclist (who described himself as a “masochist”) came through while I was admiring the view:

I spent one night in the tiny town of Aussois. I would like to give the church honorable mention here because it is the only one I’ve ever heard with an apparent “snooze” function: every hour it would chime the time, and then chime it again about 5 minutes later:

This is also where I had a private Yom Kippor service on my balcony:

Finally, just two cool shots of the moon rising over the Alps:

So all in all it was a beautiful experience. I covered just about all of the northern half of the Alps—the Col du Galibier is actually considered the official dividing part between the Northern and Southern French Alps. From here the passes get lower and lower and the Route itself actually goes all the way down to the Mediterranean coast at Menton. But I had a slightly different plan for visiting the south, and after Galibier I headed south and west to Avignon...

Next up…we tour the south of France from the Bridge of Avignon to the cliffs of Cassis to the beaches of Nice and Cannes to the tax-free fun of Monaco!! BUT BEFORE WE GO…A FEW PARTING SHOTS!

Delicious dinner offering in Chamonix:

A few notes on driving in France...
• They do love traffic circles, though I still fail to see the benefit. At least I eventually figured out how to master them (after being yelled at by a French farmer on a tractor going 2mph who I still somehow managed to cut off).
• They love Renaults, Peugeots, and (to a lesser extent) Citroëns.
• They drive fast.
• They love to pass.
• They never ride in the left lane of a highway and only use it for passing.
• If they want to pass 3 slow-moving vehicles, then rather than get in the left lane, pass all 3, and get back in the right lane, they will pass each one by one—to a maddening extent.
• They ride right on your ass (but not in a mean way).
• For the first two years you have a driver’s license you really do have to have a scarlet letter “A” in your rear window to alert the world to your amateur status:

• They call diesel fuel (which my car used) “gazole”—which to me sounds like an insulting name for someone who drives a car with poor fuel efficiency:

• They have digital signs with traffic updates everywhere. But what I find entertaining is that when they have nothing to report—which is usually the case—they just show the time. As if to say, “We have nothing to report at this time, so we just thought we’d let you know it’s about 3:30.”:

Since this is a “family” blog, I’ll just let this one speak for itself:

Finally, here’s actual footage of driving over the Swiss border. Again, it’s somewhat anticlimactic, but if you pay careful attention you might notice a slight difference once we pass the customs booth:


  • Doug,
    Once again I find myself layghing at your comments. The pictures are great too. Just want to know why you creatives get more vacation time an actually take it than account services like Marcy

    By Blogger alannna greogry, at 10:54 AM  

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