Friday, December 31, 2010

Scenes from the auto-route

I intended to be on the road about 8am this morning for the long drive back to the farm. Waking before 6, I knew I wasn’t going to get back to sleep so ended up hitting the road soon after for a few hours of pre-dawn driving. I chose a more northerly return route, swooping past Lyon and then following the E70. When I drove back from Lyon in October I chose the middle path – extremely scenic, but adding many hours of winding secondary and tertiary roads. And so with another dozen life-stories from Desert Island Discs to keep me company, we were highway bound.

Some parts of the road had the thickest fog I’ve ever driven through. Breaking out of one such patch I saw the beautiful structure below: the Chavanon Viaduct with its suspension cable running down the centre of the bridge

Chavanon Viaduct

IMG_0421 An hour or so later, refilling car and self at one of the big autoroute centres, I found this room at the rear with projected images and sounds of the area to relieve driver stress.

VOIRON & beyond: itineraries

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The maps sets out the itineraries for the two day-trips we did out of Voiron. The first is the small loop over the Chartreuse massif through to Grenoble, and the second follows the road up to Annecy and back. I’ve included Lyon and Geneva as reference points.  Click through here for more detail.

VOIRON & beyond: Chambéry

Fontaine des Éléphants Fontaine des Éléphants

Fontaine des Éléphants

Chambéry, capital of the Savoie department, is the last visit on our brief trip to Voiron and the Chartreuse massif. We had a nice evening strolling around the town, but it would be foolish to ignore the elephant in the room: the four elephants which make up the landmark fountain in the centre. Not complete elephants, although the visible portions are extremely lifelike. They are nicknamed les quatre sans culs (the four without arses), which puns on the famous film title Les quatre-cent coups (The 400 blows).

If you think you’ve seen something similar before – there’s the Sicilian Fontana dell’Elefante in Catania, which precedes this one by a century, although there’s only one elephant, and it definitely has an arse.

Pachyderms aside, what was most remarkable for me in this modestly-sized city of 60000, is the number of chocolatiers who ply their trade. The French love their chocolate and are prepared to pay for it.

We hunted around for a cafe for hot chocolate. I stepped up to one called The Faithful Sheepdog, but it had a big “no dogs” sign on the door. Sacre bleu! Settling into a bar, I ordered a greencho, only to be told a few minutes later that they were out of Chartreuse – and less than an hour from the source! Incroyable!

Château de Chambéry more ******* elephants

VOIRON & beyond: Aix-les-Bains

Lac de Bourget

As the day was getting on a bit, we didn’t end up stopping in the spa town of Aix-les-Bains but just did a short drive around its centre, and passed along the side of Lac du Bourget, pipping Lake Annecy to be the largest lake in France. I guess we’re in the French lake district.

PC301868-870_stitch le dent de chat

The little peak above is Dent du Chat - the cat’s tooth.

VOIRON & beyond: Annecy

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Savoie Libre Today’s itinerary comprised a set of towns on a NE axis from Voiron : Chambéry, Aix-les-Bains and Annecy. We started with Annecy, the most distant at 100km. Geneva is only another 45km after that. Over the last thousand years, this territory has moved between the county of Geneva, the House of Savoy, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and finally back to France in 1860.

Judging by the graffiti on the plaque (left), the Savoyard Liberation Front are keen to free the territory from its current oppression.

Lake Annecy, the second largest in France and reputedly the cleanest in Europe, sits next to the oldest part of the city (unsurprisingly). It reminds me of Lake Lucerne.

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PC301837  what a silly idea 

 Keep the lake clean, leash your dog, and don't eat the ducks Preserve us from the savage fauns

Oppressive regulations: keep the lake clean, leash your dog, and don't eat the ducks. Apparently being eaten is dangerous to a duck’s health. Who knew?

Obligatory picture of the Palais de l'Isle (centre)

Swans

The old town is very touristy – a Franco-Swiss blend of Venice and Brugges if you will. One can choose to be appalled by that, or by how very ordinary the streetscape becomes as soon as you exit through one of the old city gates.
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A word from my sponsor

Thursday, December 30, 2010

VOIRON & beyond: Grenoble greencho

2010-12-29 VOIRON - 6 GRENOBLE

Grenoble sits at the intersection of three valleys: the French Alps, Chartreuse massif and Vercors massifs surrounding a surprisingly flat river plain. With a nearly 700-year old university, and a refreshed infrastructure after hosting the 1968 Winter Olympics, it’s now a major high-tech centre.

PC291801The city centre, still decorated with seasonal lighting, is similar to Lyon. It was nearly dusk so I couldn’t appreciate the snowy peaks looming all around. I did want to appreciate a good hot chocolate, and found a tea house with many enticing fruit tarts in the window. On the menu I found a greencho – linguistically a curious mashup of English green plus phonetic French cho ( chaud ) to make “green hot [chocolate]”* – which is a mug of hot chocolate to which a teaspoon of green chartreuse has been added. Yum. I suspect more than one teaspoon was present from the intensity of the taste, so some home experimentation is in order. Extra yum for the chocolate raspberry tart that accompanied it. Poor Munson just got to be loved.

*Greencho may also appear on menus as Greenchaud or Verte Chaud. The combination of chocolate and chartreuse has reached outside of metropolitan France as may be seen here and here. Infusing nougat and marshmallows with chartreuse are other possibilities.

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VOIRON & beyond: la Bastille

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We’ve checked off a monastic frolic, chapel exhibition, orgy and cheese fondue lunch and it’s only mid-afternoon! It’s onward to Grenoble with a small detour up the mountain overlooking the city. It’s a really crappy narrow pot-holey road of switchbacks and steep turns to get to this point, but it’s more than worth every straining engine noise and tooth-grinding frustration when you’ve got to back out of a section of road too narrow to accommodate passing cars.

As one crests onto a large open space, there seems to be just a big car parking area splayed out in front of the incredible Alpine panorama. If you walk on from there you reach la Bastille de Grenoble, a fortress built in the early 1800s to defend against attacks from the Duke of Savoy. There are older paths and structures going back at least 2000 years. You could probably spend a day or two visiting all this part of the mountain has to offer.

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Unfortunately my camera battery lost power very rapidly as we rounded the summit to the Bastille entrance, so I was left to capture a few pictures with my phone camera and stitch those together.

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The cable-car from the city below is the first urban line constructed anywhere in the world. It’s just celebrated 75 years of operations …. but you’re not going to get me in one of those things. I remember the one time I had to use a cable-car, and it got stuck for 20 minutes or so on a cold windy evening descending from Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia, leaving us swinging around in the dark like a forgotten Xmas tree ornament.

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VOIRON & beyond: chien de fondue

Asterix-1

I’ve been preparing for my European travels for most of my life. Essential reading for anyone negotiating this part of the world is Asterix in Switzerland (that country being but a menhir’s throw away). At an early age it introduced me to a very fascinating pastime that I knew I would have to indulge in when I was a little older and further away from rural NSW. That is of course  the Roman orgy  cheese fondue.

After the monastic and sacred excursions of the morning, it was time for an orgy good lunch. More or less at random we selected a brasserie by the road as we descended into the valley on the other side of the mountain. Even with snow all about, many people were sitting outside in the bright sunshine, so Munson, myself and our friend Olivier found a spare table. The waitress was none-too-bright; I suspect she was hired for her ability to put on some cute boots and not for reading comprehension or table-service ability. Even the manager seemed to struggle to identify what the daily specials might be. We settled on a shared fondue and a bottle of what turned out to be quite awful Savoyard wine. The wine had to keep us going for an hour or so while we waited for any sign of food to arrive at any of the tables around us. I hoped my visa would be valid until that time came.

The fondue heating base (rechaud) and some bread chunks came first, and then the actual pan trailed along almost as an afterthought. The flame had gone out on the base by that time, so the manager took it and the fondue back inside to get it going again. He returned with the base, and then realised he’d misplaced the fondue and had to go back inside to hunt for it. Eventually it all came together on our table.

Sappey-en-Chartreuse (lunch)

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that the eating experience wasn’t exactly as depicted in Asterix in Switzerland but at least I wasn’t hauled off to be thrown into a cold lake each time I lost the bread in the pan. Munson sat by the table straining for an opportunity to intervene between pan and mouth as I alternately attempted to knit a cheese scarf in mid-air and to extricate myself from a reverse frommage-fishing manoeuvre.

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The Savoyard version of fondue mixes grated Comté, beaufort and a third cheese like Emmental or Fribourg in a local wine, poured into a garlic-rubbed pot. Some starch thickener is added towards the end. The last thin crust of cheese at the bottom of the pot is known as la religieuse – “the nun”. I’m not sure of the reasoning for that, but it’s easy to attack a pot of fondue until there’s none left.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

VOIRON & beyond: Eglise Saint-Hugues de Chartreuse

2010-12-29 VOIRON - 3 Eglise St Hugues

A thoroughly unexpected discovery on this beautiful mountain was to be found inside this church with a rather ordinary exterior. Over a thirty-five year period (1952-1986), the artist Arcabas filled the interior with this massive outpouring of sacred art.

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As you enter through the main doors, you can almost feel all the bright but earthy tones burning into you – you could get cooked by all this! It’s quite organic too: the dimensions of the works feeling just right for the space they enclose.

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Interspersed with the paintings are tapestries, stained glass and sculptures, all executed by the one man. It’s a bright architecture of human form and theatre as an oratorio of colour, that to my mind speaks more to the capacity and inspiration of humans than to any supernatural element. The imagery is sometimes akin to that of the Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers, crossed with the colours of Hundertwasser.

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VOIRON: playing at the Grande Chartreuse

Munson likes to view his own exploits:

Munson watches himself on video

VOIRON: Le monastère de la Grande Chartreuse

Been there, done that

Last night’s romp in the snow was curtailed by the rapid fall of darkness. This morning we headed up into the mountains proper to the base of the Grand Som peak where the Carthusians HQ lies. The public road ends about a mile below the monastery. The rest of the morning has these photos to speak for it…

to the mountains  grand conformance

2010-12-29 VOIRON - 2 Monastery Chartreuse

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laser turrets

Le monastère de la Grande Chartreuse

cloud balancing  PC291636-5

PC291636-4  snow heart 

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zone de silence

Flickr slideshow