Tag Archives: France

Annecy’s lake

Annecy is built alongside a beautiful lake, and to appreciate this lake, we cycle around it and paraglide over it. Atop our rented orange cruisers, Lindsey and I take to the lake’s bike path.  The path is crowded with other cyclists, walkers, runners, and rollerbladers.  The sun comes in and out of the clouds, making it really quite warm.  We stop frequently for pictures, cherries, and the occasional dip in the lake.  We end the ride hungry and sweaty, and ready to find a hearty sandwich made of mostly baguette.

Biking in Annecy

Annecy biking photo

The following day, we soak up the same view from a few thousand feet in the air tied to a parachute (and also tied to someone who knows what he’s doing).  This paragliding route is so popular that there is an air traffic control person on take-off and landing.  I calm myself a little by estimating how many gliders there must be every year, and decide that it has got to be safe.  But still with a lot of adrenaline, I run off the equivalent of an alpine black-diamond ski slope.  Shortly after, my heart rate slows just a touch as I settle into my seat, but given my intense fear of heights, I never totally calm until landing.  The rush of air around us, the view of the lake below, being at the same level as the alpine peaks, and sharing this rush together makes for an amazing 30 minutes!

Take off in Annecy

Lindsey in Annecy flight

Me in Flight in Annecy

Annecy

Annecy1

Annecy at its surface is a wonderful resort town nestled in the French Alps, fun in the summer, fun in the winter.  Filled with cafes, ice cream stands, old shop-lined streets, and picturesque little restaurants, the town is snuggled next to Lake Annecy and surrounded by the towering mountains of the Alps. When we try to describe the town in one word, “pleasant” easily comes to mind.  The weather is perfect, the sun is out, life seems slow but stimulating, and all seem to be smiling.

Lovers Bridge in Annecy

With all of this, it is easy to forget or not even acknowledge its profound history at almost any point starting all the way back with the Romans.  This little town sat at the crossroads of three Roman routes, and therefore a very strategic position both before and after the Romans ruled.  Then in the Middle Ages, it was part of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire.  In the 16th Century, it played a big role in the Protestant Reformation, when the historic diocese of Geneva moved to Annecy.  The area didn’t escape the French Revolution either – the ideas were well known among the bourgeois of Annecy and in 1972, French troops invaded.  During WWII, the area was invaded by the Germans and Italians, which eventually led to the Germans taking control over the whole area.  And today, it is one of France’s most visited cities, which we can attest to by the number of French tourists in the narrow streets.

Annecy2

Annecy roof tops

While here, we definitely have a bunch planned, but we are also hoping to slow down a step.  Spend a little longer at breakfast and lunch. Meander through a couple more streets than we may normally do. Sit on a stoop or next to the lake and just absorb our surroundings.  We love staying busy, but a couple deep breaths seem to be encouraged by this town, and we’re excited to do exactly that.

Delicious crepe in Annecy

Posing in Annecy

Vezelay on the way

After a wonderful weekend in Princeton, meeting my newest nephew for the first time and celebrating a milestone birthday for my pops, we continue eastward to France.  We arrive just after noon, rent a cherry red Fiat 500, somehow figure out how to escape Charles De Gaulle airport, and start heading towards Annecy in Southeastern France.

Window in Vezelay

With some French tunes playing through Spotify’s French Café Lounge playlist, we are getting ourselves in the spirit.  Along the way, we have planned to enjoy the French country, the terroir of some of the most valuable and delicious wine in the world.  Driving through Burgundy, we find ourselves in Vezelay. Vezelay is a small hilltop town around since ancient times, and its famous Romanesque Basilica of St. Magdelene has made it a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Vezelay France

We wander through town, step into the main church to warm choir music, and sit down to enjoy a meal outside of an enchanting green-painted restaurant.  We quickly learn that the menu isn’t too helpful without an English speaking waiter, thus we wait a bit for someone to come by.  Although the meal is complete with some salad, well-prepared fish, and wine, we are easily most thrilled by the cheese plate.

Paris and Constance, Part II

When determining the best way to get from the Saumur in the Loire Valley to Cecina, Italy, we figure out that training back to Paris, then flying to Pisa, and eventually training to Cecina is the best route. Once the path is settled, we start finding accommodations. We email back Constance, whom we had rented the art studio apartment from on our way out. She responds that her apartment is booked but that we can stay with her and her daughter in their own Paris flat. We arrive at the flat, settle in to her children’s rooms, and ask how much we can pay for the room. She explains to us that she cannot charge someone to stay in her flat and we are made speechless by her generosity. We had chatted with Constance over tea and snacks for about an hour when last in Paris, and all of us got along very well, but this act of kindness was so far and beyond anything that we expected.

Gabe and I stay in her son’s room, which was better decorated than I have or ever will get my room. He had historic coca cola bottles from all over the world to go along with his guitar collection, bike parts, music posters and great sports memorabilia. Gabe and I were impressed by the son’s room. In the evening, “we” cook dinner. The “we” deserves to be in quotes because there were a couple conflicting kitchen philosophies melding. I stick to opening up the wine and cutting up a couple vegetables and then I stay out of the way. That said, the vegetable medley we had hit the spot. We had eaten a lot of cheese and a lot of bread, but our diet had been missing those colorful vegetables. While we wait for the vegetable medley to bake, we play Crazy Eights using Katherine’s seemingly made-up rules. (We later confirmed that there are a lot of possible rules that can be used in this game, and Katherine happened to be using at least semi-true rules.)

In the evening, Constance is somehow able to convince Katherine that she should go out. Before Constance’s help, Gabe and my powers of persuasion were being tested. We have a fun time, return before its too late, and wake up to Bach playing and a table set with croissants, jams, juice, and tea. As a thank you gift, we give Constance some nice tea and several jams; however, there was no gift that could show how appreciative we are for Constance’s generous hospitality.

Despite loving Constance’s flat, the three of us did explore the city some.  We walked around, enjoyed the park outside the Louvre, swung by Notre Dame, and tasted fun snacks including crepes from a small street side window and macaroons from Laduree.

Flat in Paris

Team Dégustation

Of utmost importance is how to pronounce our team name. Start out with a normal sentence like, “Right now, I am in the mood for…” or “Does anyone want to…” or “What do you think about…” or “Shall we find a…”. Make sure to prolong the last word of any of the above phrases, and then pause. Here comes the trickier part. Without mumbling and with an impeccable French accent, follow with DEGUSTATION said as quickly as possible. A benefit of mixing languages is that we get to use this word as almost any part of speech. Therefore, Team Degustation will degustation a degustation in a very degustation fashion. Degustation!

team degustation

Now for the varieties of degustation throughout the Loire Valley. There is Chenin Blanc degustation and Cabernet Franc degustation and Cabernet Sauvignon degustation and a little Chardonnay degustation. During each degustation we made sure to appreciate the color, nose, and taste of each wine. Katherine would flirt with the degustation server while Gabe and I would very gracefully swirl our degustation in our glasses. If there was a particular degustation that we enjoyed, the three of us would purchase a bottle to drink during our next picnic opportunity. Then we would be able to have a degustation picnic.

To save me the future trouble of recounting, I have used “degustation” 18 times or 7.5% of my total word usage in this entry, and I almost forgot to mention degustation means tasting in French.

Ode to Cheese

Camambert, Brie and Roquefort,
Chevre, Boursin and Munster
So many types, they’re hard to sort
And after time, they’re only a blur.

And when inside France,
Not any bread will do.
We never took a chance
And had baguettes brand new.

All I need is cheese and bread
My preference of course being goat
And with shops so widespread
The meal becomes almost rote.

more cheese

Destination: Loire Valley

Bicycling through the Loire Valley occasionally stopping at vineyards and chateaus, feasting on French cuisines, and staying in cute hotels is about as enjoyable and romantic as it sounds.

Day 1: Getting to Tours

Accommodation: Hotel le Manoir in Tours

After picking up some more bread and cheese (and a couple pommes so that we felt a bit healthier), Gabe and I head towards the train station to meet up with Katherine, another friend who will be joining us at school next year. We had met Katherine only a couple brief times before, but we figure if she is brave enough to travel with us, we will probably be a fun group. We eventually find each other in the maze that is the train station, sit in a great pod on the train to Tours, and catch up on each other’s lives. After almost exiting the train at the wrong station, we make it to Tours, meet our trip manager and receive our bicycles. We have signed up for a self-guided tour and therefore are also given maps, directions, hotel names, restaurant suggestions, etc.

Tours is a cute even if touristy city. Many consider it as the main passage way from eastern to western Loire Valley. We cover most of the city after walking around for about thirty minutes, in which time we walk into the town’s 12th century cathedral and through its old city. There is a picturesque square in the old city where we find a cafe, order a couple drinks, and reflect on the French youth sitting around us.

Tours, France

Day 2: Tours to Azay le Rideau

Accommodation: Hotel de Biencourt in Azay le Rideau

Meandering through bike paths, the three of us stumble upon a small town where we find some more of the usual bread, cheese, and pommes. And after a short break, we continue on to our first chateau of the trip, Villandry. The castle is nice, but not as nice as the gardens with their well manicured mazes, vegetable gardens, and water presentations. Although most of the rooms come with descriptions of how and why they were used, we decide that it will be more fun to speculate about each room’s use. As a result, we end up passing through places such as the billiards room and the wine-tasting room. The rest of the ride takes us to Azay le Rideau, a very small and photogenic town where we enjoy a great dinner and a very nice hotel called Hotel de Biencourt.

Gabe on a bike

Villandry, Loire Valley

Day 3: Azay le Rideau to Chinon

Accommodation: Hotel Diderot in Chinon

Now with soarer butts from spending copious amounts of time aboard a bicycle, the tour through Loire continues on day three. Disappointed by our lack of degustation yesterday, we begin the day by tasting wine within the first hour of our ride. We stop at Pascal Pibaleau Vineyard, located at 68 route de Langeais just outside Azay le Rideau, and instead of trying several wines, we are poured a sample of what seems like 15 wines. The wines are locally grown, so we buy a bottle because the bottles are inexpensive and the tastings are free with a purchase. Afterwards, to be careful not to bike under the influence, we walk around the vineyard for a little while enjoying the sunshine before continuing on our way.

Next stop is Château d’Ussé. The approach to the castle is as magical as even Disney could’ve dreamed. We bike down a long straight road surrounded by green on every side and the castle growing as we near. And any castle that inspires one in a Disney movie is worth at least checking out. As we walk through the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, we are bit concerned by the excessive use of manikins in each room, but eventually we realize that the displays help us piece together what we remember from the old movie.

After arriving in Chinon but before finding our hotel, we stop for one more degustation in a wine cellar that has been carved into the mountain next to Chinon’s large fortress. As we taste the big red Cab Franc wines from M Plouzeau Vineyard, which is located next to the Chateau de la Bonneliere, Katherine chats with the server in French and Gabe and I try to stay warm in the chilly cellar. One château, two degustations and a day filled with more bread, cheese, and pommes makes us very happy as we arrive at Hotel Diderot in Chinon , from which we can see pieces of the Vienne River.

Playing in the vineyard

Chateau d'Usse

The view from the bike

Day 4: Chinon to Saumur

Accommodation: Hotel de Londres in Saumur

We get a bit lost at the beginning of today’s journey; however, we make sure to at least keep biking in the correct direction and eventually we find the path. Our first stop is at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud and its surrounding town, where we meet an aesthetic refugee. He enthusiastically approaches us with a book in one hand and his other outstretched, and then immediately offers that he labels himself as an aesthetic refugee. The three of look at each other, think the same thing, and then ask what exactly that means. Apparently, when he has lived in other parts of the world including northern California, walking around felt like having forks stuck in his eyes. The architecture was all haphazard, ugly, and incoherent. France on the other hand, and even more specially Fontevraud, is his escape from all that is aesthetically unpleasing. After a short talk about what makes French architecture so appealing, we part ways confused as to what has transpired because he did not try to sell us anything, convince us of anything, or capture any of our contact information.

The clouds loom as we leave this small town, but just as it starts to rain, we find another conveniently located degustation, where of course we stop for a taste. With pouring rain outside, we taste a couple more Loire Valley Cabernet Franc wines. We try to buy a bottle and set up a picnic in the winery; however, this apparently is not allowed (the picnic-ing that is). We are then forced to put on our rain gear, mount our bikes, and ride maybe 100m to the nearest cafe, where we each enjoy a hot drink with our previously purchased bread, cheese, and pommes. Our French touring meals had a very distinct pattern– bread, cheese, pommes, repeat.

We finish the afternoon by bicycling through the Saumur-Champigny vineyards before arriving at the medieval town of Saumur where we enjoy one more degustation before going to the grocery store to purchase some food for dinner at our hotel.

Wine tasting in the Loire Valley

Day 5: Leaving Saumur

Katherine, more than anyone, is a bit anxious to get back to her long lost love, Paris. Gabe and I could’ve used some more Saumur (pun intended), but we are flexible and so we all board an early train as we leave the Loire Valley behind us.

Three Amigos on Bikes

Figuring out France

Deciding where to go in France is not an easy task as France is about 80% the size of Texas, and Texas is a big state. Not only that, France also has enormous variety in its different regions and the only narrowing factor I began with was that I wanted to go somewhere that included wine. In France, this criteria is only slightly limiting. But then the challenge became to decide between the many regions that served such historied wine: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, and Corsica. Before deciding where, in my bad habit of being distractingly methodical, I needed to figure out how I was going to pick. Should I choose based on the type of wine? Was I more interested in the big Bordeaux reds or in the classic Pinot’s from Burgundy? Should I choose based on scenery, on ease of travel, on reputation? Maybe choose Burgundy because my favorite wine tasting fact is that they have long-necked bottles, and when I see them I immediately guess Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, depending on white or red. I’m kidding about this one, but figuring out where to go was initially a struggle.

Therefore, it felt natural to take a step back and instead of deciding where to go, I should decide what I wanted to do for my tour de France. And that’s when I realized what I had just said! It’s my tour de France, and it probably makes most sense to do something that involves being on top of a bicycle. Ever since the “extra bone” in my right foot got too much for me to run, I’ve gotten more and more into cycling. Also, having lived in the Bay Area for a while, it turns out that bicycling is the thing to do, so in the year before this journey, I got myself a pair of those attractive compression shorts, a bright cycling shirt, and a bike. Taking this passion to France made a lot of sense and I was going to try and see if I could make it work. My first step, as it has been for many areas of my life recently, was to consult Amazon.com. I found Lonely Planet’s “Cycling France”, hit Add-To-Cart, and with my Amazon Prime account, the book showed up on my doorstep two days later not having to have paid tax or shipping. (Sorry for the Amazon endorsement, but I’m a bit of a fan.)

Back to the issue at hand, I figured out how my new book was organized, stared at the map on the front cover for way too long, and continued to narrow down my options. When all else fails, my practice with standardized testing has taught me that I should start with the process of elimination. Although Champagne will always be one of my go-to drinks, the region for which this sparkling wine is named did not offer the diversity in terrain that I was looking for. Maybe if Dom Perignon was having a sale, I might be able to be convinced otherwise. I could rule out Lorraine because why go visit the side kick when I could go to the main event, Alsace. Who chooses Robin when Batman is an option? The Bordeaux region was also eliminated early because although it probably offers my favorite varietals, it will probably also be the place where many wineries require reservations and no price tag looks anywhere near reasonable. Also, the climbs in the Pyrenees region were probably more than I was hoping to scale. This left the following possibilities still in the mix: The Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, and Provence. Somehow, I was I able to condense the whole of France into four regions. Now for the hard part.

A couple days after narrowing my choices down, I was watching my favorite television show, Chuck, and it became obvious. My favorite C.I.A. Agent had his next assignment take place in the Loire Valley of France. Coincidence? Probably, but I went with it anyway because at that point I needed some arbitrary way to choose.

Constance’s Art Studio

Instead of finding a hostel or a nice bed and breakfast, Gabe and I use airbnb.com to find our one night’s worth of accommodation in Paris before heading to the Loire Valley. Gabe found us a small apartment located behind a small art studio. The pictures and reviews on airbnb looked promising, so we were prepared to take our chances.

The apartment is more than perfect. No one is there when we arrive, but we drop off our things, find some baguettes and cheese, and when we return, Constance is in the art studio waiting for us. Constance is gracious and welcoming, and over tea, the three of us end up talking for about a half an hour before her daughter also joins us. Both of them can speak perfect English as we discuss what the rest of the day holds for everyone.

The apartment is filled with knick knacks and the like. There are drawings on the chalkboard and the shelves are made from vintage wine boxes. Anything that can be is organized in old jam jars. Supplies such as egg cartons, wine corks, pastel colored yarn, and ink stamps of all sizes sit waiting for the next creative inspiration. There are matchbox wind chimes, drawings and paintings pinned on the walls, and photos secured on a line with clothes pins. The apartment has charm, character and a convenient laundry mat just next door.

Enjoying dinner in Paris art studio

Right around the corner from the apartment in almost any direction we can find fresh baguettes. And when we venture a little further, there is a delectable smelling cheese shop and other markets. To start our French experience off correctly, for lunch, dinner and then breakfast, Gabe and I enjoy bread, cheeses, foie gras, and fig jam. This reunion with cheese strongly confirmed how much it has been missed over the last couple months.

Cheers to good food, good accommodation, good company, and good fortune.

Cheese shop in Paris

The Inspiration Eiffel Tower

After settling into our rented art studio apartment, Gabe and I head towards the Eiffel Tower. We know we are getting closer by the density of black market small Eiffel Towers being sold on the street. We walk underneath, quickly decide that waiting in line to get to the top is unnecessary and continue on to the grassy area in front. To our left we see someone attempting to stand on their head and to our right we find a couple with one on the other’s shoulders. After sitting down, we find two people attempting the superman pose, which consists of one person lying on their back with their feet up and another person balancing with their stomach on those feet. There are cartwheels happening, there is someone practicing bartending tricks with bottles and mixers, and there are the groups of people jumping up and down in unison. Of course, all of this doesn’t even include the people who look as though they are leaning against an imaginary wall or stepping on an imaginary stone or pressing down on an imaginary pole or climbing an imaginary mountain. From the circus in front of the Eiffel Tower, the only explanation that Gabe and I can provide is the tower must be inspiring acrobatics and that it must rank near the top of all monuments or landmarks in the creative photography category.

Gabe and I in front of the tower

(The man we gave our camera to indicated that we should do something mas cool.  We weren’t sure what was happening and responded by holding out our arms as pictured above.)