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The French Alps, Finally

The French Alps had been on our list for years, always popping up on Best Of articles online and in travel books, in Instagram feeds, shows like Rick Steves’ Europe and Anthony Bourdain. Christine and I had canvassed much of France in the last decade, but hadn’t yet put our feet down in this majestic corner of the country. Covid only kicked the can farther down the calendar.

After a week in Ireland with my brother, I flew to London to meet up with Christine, where we spent the evening with our nephew Connor, who was there for a six-week study-abroad program. Having been in London before—and more interested these days in smaller, more scenic towns and villages than the big cities—we made London a one-night affair. The very next afternoon, we landed in Geneva, Switzerland, then caught a bus to our first of two three-night stops, in Annecy, France.

The French Alps marries two of our favorite European landscapes, checking a couple boxes at once. First, the French towns and small cities that we’ve grown to love, places like St. Jean de Luz in the Basque region, Strasbourg and Colmar in the Alsace region, Evian les Bains on the northern side of Lake Geneva. Second, the Alps, of course. In 2015 we visited Switzerland and stayed several nights in the tiny village of car-free Mürren, wedged high on the shelf of the Schilthorn peak, facing the dramatic Mount Eiger in the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps. So with this Venn diagram of a trip—the sweet-spot overlap of small-town France and the Alps—our expectations were understandably high.

Sometimes a town is so popular, so infested with tourists, that it suffocates under its own star-power. Venice comes to mind, of course, but so does Hallstatt in Austria and the villages of the Cinque Terre in Italy, Prague too these days. Annecy suffers this same fate. So busy, in fact, that it can be hard to see the town you’ve traveled so far to see, and I don’t mean just physically hard to see because of the sea of bodies milling about, but psychologically—emotionally—it can be difficult to be present and in the moment. The crowds are, of course, a distraction, a human fog that can make the landscape—the charming cobblestone streets, the ancient half-timbered buildings, so old and crooked I’m reminded of an elderly man—nearly invisible.

We countered this dilemma in a few different ways. First, Christine was wise enough to book us an airbnb apartment for this leg of the trip, so we had a comfortable relief from the crowds, a place of our own to stretch out, to relax, to escape. After our first night eating out, we did some grocery shopping the following morning and then ate all of our meals at “home.” We bought fresh baguettes and local wine, delicious meats and cheeses to create our own charcuterie boards, salad fixings and French biscuits. We never felt like we were missing out by avoiding the crowded and touristy restaurants; in fact, just the opposite: we were relaxed, settled, and felt like we were living like locals.

Our airbnb came with two bicycles, so in addition to riding to the market each morning, we also took an ambitious ride around the first half of Lac D’Annecy, the famous and striking lake on which the city sits. This would keep us out of the hot town center during its busiest and most oppressive hours of the day. The lake is ringed with a lovely paved bike trail, wide enough for two-wheeled traffic in both directions. We took our time, stopping frequently to sit on the shore of the lake in the shade of a tree and stare at its milky, turquoise surface, like something you’d see in the Caribbean. It’s known as Europe’s cleanest lake and treasured today much the way it was a century ago by the likes of artists such as Cezanne. We took another break to visit a church, high on a bluff with the vibrant lake spread out behind it. Later we stopped for lunch just outside the town of Diungt at L’abri Cyclette, a bicycle-themed casual spot with outdoor seating and views of the passing bikes on the trail. On the return ride, we stopped again so Christine could take a dip.

After dinner in our apartment, we headed into town to explore, but it was still early and the crowds were thick, meandering in clogged herds. We made our way to Finn Kelly’s, the Irish bar we’d passed the previous night, and had a couple pints while we waited out the tourists and heat. I’ve written in a past blog about Irish bars—how you can’t go wrong with one no matter what town you’re in, no matter what part of the world—and again it proved to be true. By the time we’d paid the bill and returned to the streets, the air had cooled and the crowds had all but disappeared. Finally we were able to enjoy Annecy—its soothing canals and elegant pedestrian bridges, the music of the corner buskers, the night sky above wide and clear. We could hear the churning water in the canal locks, hear the murmur of people sitting at outdoor café tables, the clinking of wine glasses. Christine fell in love with the local dogs—handsome large mountain breeds we hadn’t seen in the U.S., each eager for a little attention from a beautiful American girl. On our final night, we repeated the strategy: waiting out the crowds at Finn Kelly’s, then strolling Annecy’s quiet cobblestoned streets, the ancient magic of the city at last revealing itself and lighting us with its stardust.

* * *

The second leg of the trip was a one-hour bus ride east to the French mountain town of Chamonix. Renowned as a winter ski destination, the quaint village is equally as popular in the summer for its hikes and scenery. Annecy, by contrast, sells itself as a French Alps town, but in reality sits surrounded by green hills, a few of which are large enough to see paragliders dancing in the sky like colorful confetti, but by no means the rugged and dramatic peaks that surround Chamonix like a crown.

Annecy might be one of the prettiest cities in France, if not all of Europe, but it’s compact and therefore squeezes its visitors into a few narrow blocks. Chamonix, on the other hand, feels sprawling. While the village itself is cute, its real attractions are the mountains, dominating the scenery with its snow-capped peaks—even in August—and sharp shadows.

We traded in our Annecy apartment for Chamonix’s Alpina Hotel, a large fifth-story room with a balcony overlooking the village, a churning canal cutting the town in two and ominous Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, looking like an impenetrable wall. After a simple lunch, Christine finally gave in to her macaroon obsession. She’s gluten-free, so a French macaroon, an authentic macaroon, I think is one of life’s great simple pleasures for her.

One morning we rose early to take the gondola halfway up the peak of Le Brevent, then switched to another lift to reach the 8,000-foot summit. From here we hiked back down to the first gondola, the air surprisingly warm, the sun bright, and the looming face of Mont Blanc staring back at us from across the valley. We had lunch up here, a view of the village far below, paragliders launching one after the other just across the field from where we sat.

The following morning was the apex, so to speak, of the entire trip. We woke before six a.m. so we could take one of the first gondolas up to the summit of Mont Blanc, knowing that later in the morning it not only gets much more crowded, but clouds begin to sock the mountain in and strip it of its views.

At over 15,000 feet, it’s cold at the top. We wore heavy sweatshirts and jackets I’d been towing all around Europe for two weeks for just this very morning. Hats and gloves too. The air had a sharp chill, of course, but the sun still felt good and I was never uncomfortable. Christine seemed to have some trouble with the thin air, admitting to lightheadedness and a sensation she described simply as “feeling weird.” She sat on a bench for a bit while I looked around and took photos, and then we boarded a private gondola that stretched three miles—without cable supports—from our station at Aiguille du Midi to Pointe Helbronner in Italy.

For nearly forty minutes our red cable car glided over endless stretches of snow, ice, and ancient glacier in near silence. We passed the time in wide-eyed awe, taking photos, of course, but also just sitting and watching the peaks slide by. Sometimes I’d focus on the cable car ahead of us—try to see what those two passengers were up to, the only other human beings we could see for three-quarters of an hour. After a while I wondered aloud what would happen if it broke down, like sometimes happened when I went skiing. Usually those stoppages only lasted a few minutes, but what if it lasted longer? How would they retrieve us? In the middle of two massive mountains, we were miles away from anyone, aside from the guests in front of and behind us.

But that was just panic talk. Over on the Italy side, we took more pictures and turned ourselves in a 360-degree panorama, engulfed in the endless, dominating Alps. Eventually we went inside to the indoor observation decks and café, where we enjoyed a leisurely, million-dollar view breakfast. Then, after breakfast in Italy, it was back across the three-mile crevasse to France, and then a four-hour hike to the train back into town.

Late that night, we brought drinks up to our room from the downstairs bar and sat on our balcony, appreciating our last night here, our eyes drawn to the constant tower of the Alps. A half moon made an appearance at the crown of Mont Blanc, making the blanket of snow glow almost blue.

* * *

Our departing flight home was out of Paris, so we took the TGV speed train from Geneva into the City of Lights for our final two days. We’d been to Paris on multiple occasions, most recently back in 2019 with Christine’s parents, who had never been. So we took advantage of the opportunity, this time around, to spend our time in the city with no real agenda, no guidebook to follow, no list of sights to check off a list. Instead, we got late starts each morning, sat for long stretches at cafes, and meandered the city, sometimes hand-in-hand, taking an occasional detour to venture off down an interesting-looking side street, just for the hell of it. We strolled through a busy carnival one night, near the Louvre, and appreciated the fun everyone was having. On a first visit, with so many iconic sights to see, we may have skipped this little side-trip. Not enough time. We’ve seen carnivals before. But looking back, it was a relaxed, low stakes highlight of our two leisurely days, our bodies tired from the ambitious mountain hikes, the fresh Alps air, the endless good food and drink. We were ready for home, for our own bed, depleted, de-stressed, as though a reset button had been flipped.

We took in the bright lights, bells and sirens, the sounds of kids laughing, adults screaming on a too-intense ride. We were surrounded by joy, which, on this final night of a long and epic trip, seemed fitting.

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