Thursday, August 14, 2008

Into the Alps and Lakes

Briancon to the alps and on to Besancon

We have travelled over the highest pass in Europe, Col de la Bonette, along more fairly daunting roads to Briancon where we stayed in the shadow of a huge fortress, built by Vauban in the sixteenth century to protect France.

The road

Col de la Bonette

Composting toilet

The scenery to get to Briancon was very rural, small croppings mainly and often including a cut flower plot. The architecture of the houses was quite spectacular, chalet style with geraniums or petunias in front of all the windows and usually three stories high. The back of the house however, was a huge barn where hay is stored in the loft in those big rolls and animals or machinery can be placed below in winter. Sometimes they are converted into offices or hotels because they are really very big. They also have these great stacks of firewood, all cut to length, split and stacked neatly, but each house might have four to six stacks, each six feet high and twenty feet long. I guess it gets really cold... Certainly as we climbed the roads patches of snow were still visible and the houses became rare, though it was often fields, sometimes forest. Some weird rock formations too...

Demoiselles coiffees (girls with hairstyles)

The hotel was modest and was providing accommodation for groups of cyclists. The cyclists were everywhere and while I admire their fortitude and athleticism, I prefer a more comfortable mode of travel. We walked into the old, walled town and ate in the church square below the fortress.

Vauban Fortress

The road then led on through more ski country and some mountains with rock avalanche potential as well as obvious geological formations in twisted, folded and upthrust rock.

Ski lift sites

Lake Annecy

We stayed on Lake Annecy at a pretty little town called Talloires, taking a boat trip on the lake to Annecy itself which had a river flowing through it from the lake. A lovely little town with a castle and an old prison and pretty little medieval streets geared mostly to the tourist dollar these days. Still, a lovely trip and a nice way too spend a day.

Annecy, old prison

Castle Duingt on Lake Annecy

There are some very expensive hotels in Talloires for such a small village. There was a grand wedding at the local church followed by a reception in the garden of one such hotel, everyone looking very pretty including the children. Weddings seem to last several days.

We ate twice in the garden of Hotel des Fleurs in the twilight as we watched lots of parapenters descend from the limestone peaks behind the lakes. I tried a photo but it just looks like commas in the sky. We went sightseeing in the local area, a lovely little church high up with a cemetery next door, still in use and the Menthon Chateau with pretty turrets and gardens, with a family in residence. Chateaux aren't usually museum pieces in France.

Menthon Chateau and limestone peaks

Then off to Spietz on Lake Thun in Switzerland where I am ashamed to say I had absolutely no German and was quite helpless with things like menus or directions. We passed through Chamonix Mt Blanc and had lunch there, with Mt Blanc above the town looking pristine and beautiful.

Mt Blanc

A river fed by snow melt flows fast through the town so I imagine it would be spectacular and a bit frightening in the spring melt. At several places we saw huge concrete chutes for directing the melt water over the highways. We saw the glaciers and the glacial rivers which give the lakes their spectacular blue as they grind rock to powder. There were also lots of "telecabines" to high points of the mountains, some still running in summer to carry tourists up for the view.

From our room in Spietz we looked out on the Jungfrau covered in snow and we had at least one meal on the lake edge with the mountains all round.

Sunset over the Jungfrau

Each evening however, a storm swept in with spectacular thunder and lightning and even hail. We were on the lake for one of these and the rain made an impenetrable curtain about 100ft behind us. We visited Thun at one end of the lake

Bridge and weir, Thun

and Interlaken at the other, always with the background of snowy and rocky mountains and a blue lake or river as well as difficult roads along the lake.

Road beside the lake

For one trip we returned on a gracious paddle steamer, sitting in the dining room area which was rather swish.

It was raining hard in Besancon, a lovely little town in the Franche-Compte, and this prevented sightseeing as we were just getting soaked. So instead of sun and glasses of wine we had an adequate but unexciting room in a hotel in the town. The good news was the sales were on and that kept us occupied for some time, trying on shoes and clothes. I will write a separate blog on the meal we had that first night. Unforgettable!

There was another Vauban fortress here, up above the town and a town in itself originally, with high walls, still complete, and barracks and gun emplacements and so on. In town there was also a display of his works and a movement to have him recognised for the contribution he made to French patrimony; a bid for World Heritage listing for the collection of his magnificent works. I had never heard of him before this visit but he was certainly a talented man with a great vision to protect his country.

Entrance to fortress

The interior of the fortress was in excellent condition, including the old well which was so deep (130+ metres) that it needed men in a treadmill to bring the water up.

Well and Treadmill

We visited an extensive and moving exposition on France during the war, the Vichy government, the government in exile and the resistance. It paid particular attention to the effects on Jewish people and the build up of sporadic actions to formal and planned annihilation. After seeing Oradour sur Glane, it brought home how fortunate we are in Australia to not have had war on our soil.

We spent some time visiting the cathedral and looking at the old Roman remains, an arch, a nymphaeum and the end of an aqueduct and a rather good museum of archeology with its art gallery.

River and Barracks

The vista along the river of old barracks is charming. There is a strong historical perspective to the town but it is not just a tourist town like some others we visited. It is the centre for the community.

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