Weekend In The French Alps

This past weekend we stayed at a beautiful mountain chalet, Les Campanules, in Les Houches near Chamonix in the French Alps. We were close enough to Chamonix for all of the activities, but had a quiet place to relax. On the outside Les Campanules looks quaint and traditional, but the inside was a surprise of what could be called rustic mountain chic. Our room was simple, but the public lounge areas were amazing. The hotel was a great find and inexpensive.

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We arrived in the late afternoon to sunny views of Mount Blanc, but it was too late to go up on the Aiguille Du Midi tram in Chamonix.

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The next morning there were clouds around the peak, but we decided to take the tram nyway for the experience (how often can you ride a tram to 12,602 feet) and for the views – while they lasted on the way up.

Views of the valley and surrounding peaks were stunning up to the first stop. There we were told the top was fogged in and there would not be much to see if we continued on. We had come this far and weren’t about to stop. We decided to continue up even if there was fog with zero visibility. We expected to see nothing, but didn’t expect the eery feeling of the swirling fog and the silence. What was astounding to me, was that even with no visibility people were preparing to go hiking, while others would suddenly appear out of no where, walking out of the dense fog at the trailhead. To me this was crazy – icy trails, sheer drop offs and no visibility.

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It would have been great to see the incredible views from the top, but in the fog it was also an experience we’ll never forget.

Our tram ticket included a cog train up to the Mer de Glacé, the largest glacier in France. Leaving from Chamonix, it takes the vintage red train about 30 minutes to climb 1000 meters to the glacier and hotel located near the station. The train goes through forest and tunnels cut into the rock. At the station is a large viewing area, restaurant and gondola down to the glacier. Nearby is the historic Grand Hotel  du Montenvers, which opened in 1880, when visitors were brought up to the site by mule or sedan chair.

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Beaune in the Heart of Burgundy

I forgot to mention that before Annecy, on Friday morning we took the TGV to Dijon and picked up a car for the rest of our trip. Since I’ve been driving cars with a shift since I was 16, I decided it would be fun using one again. I wasn’t disappointed when we picked up a 6-speed Renault. It has been a few years and I forgot how much fun it is driving a stick.

It’s been a great day driving in France and stopping for the night in Annecy . But before telling you about today, here are a few photos of Beaune, a beautiful town located in the Burgundy region of France. We stopped here briefly for a walk around the town before heading to Annecy.

 

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Annecy at Dusk.

We arrived in Annecy early in the evening. It’s a town in the French Alps on a peaceful sparkling lake with the mountains as a backdrop. Little canals and the river Thiou wind through the old town.

The Isle Palace in Annecy is located in the center of the river and has a long history. First a residence for the Lord of Annecy from the 12th century on, it then served as administrative centre for the Counts of Geneva and finally a prison until 1865. It is one of the most photographed buildings in town, but in France.

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The warm glow of Annecy is particularly beautiful at dusk. Here are a few photos from a walk we took through the old town before dinner at an outdoor cafe next to the river

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Annecy

 

Paris In A Day

Yesterday was our one full day in Paris, and we were determined to see as much as we could. After a breakfast of fresh strawberries from a market on Rue Cler and pastries from the bakery next door to out hotel, we walked 3 blocks to Champ du Mar, the large park in front of the Eiffel Tower. We had decided this was not a day to wait in lines and passed on going to the top. I did take photos from every possible angle, as well as things that caught my eye in the park.

From there we crossed the Seine and walked to the Arch de Triumph – Matt kept track of the embassies along the way, and I photographed beautiful doors. At the Arch we jut sat and watched the traffic for awhile. It is utterly amazing how all of the cars, trucks and buses go around the circle with no marked lanes and not run into each other. You have to see it to believe.

After walking down part of the Champs-Élysées, we crossed back over the Seine, and back to the hotel for a break. But instead, we decided to ride the Metro to the Louvre to see it just before closing. We made it in time to see a few exhibits, and discovered if you arrive late enough it’s free!

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First Impressions of Paris

Arriving at Gard du Nord

We arrived in Paris yesterday evening by Chunnel. The ride was incredibly smooth and I slept for most of the trip, missing everything between London and Paris, including the tunnel and the French countryside. Hopefully I’ll stay awake on the return, although Matt said I didn’t miss much going through the tunnel – it was shorter than he expected.

In just over 2 hours we arrived in the chaos of Gare du Nord Station. I had no idea what my first impressions of Paris would be. The size of the station was overwhelming with stacks of luggage, throngs of people, noise and an abundance of shady looking characters. The waiting line for a cab stretched for a block and we were told it was about a two hour long wait. The Metro seemed like too much to deal with after a long day and we opted for a shuttle/limo. It was a big SUV with a driver who spoke some English – anything for a quick escape to our hotel! We gladly paid the higher fare and were soon on our way, winding through the streets of Paris in the rain.

Drive Through Paris

The drive through Paris was a memorable one filled with swarms of motorcycles and scooters, breath-stopping maneuvering by the driver and what seemed like several near misses with anything that was in our path. He was soon pointing out the House of Chanel, Place de la Concorde, the Paris Opera, The Eiffel Tower…   even with the rainy, gloomy evening and wild ride, the beauty of Paris came through. We arrived at our hotel, Relais Bosquet, during a thunderstorm. The hotel was small and the staff were warm and welcoming. We checked in quickly and went up to our room which was small and cozy with a french balcony on the courtyard. The rain stopped quickly and we decided to walk to Rue Cler, a block away, for dinner at an outdoor cafe.

These are my first impressions of Paris, taken during a walk after dinner. Black and white photos seem appropriate for a rainy evening in Paris. It fits the mood of the evening – a bit arty and mysterious.

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When Making Hotel Reservations For Paris….Be Patient

As I mentioned yesterday, making hotel reservations in Paris can be particularly challenging and patience comes in handy.

We’ve decided to stay near the Eiffel Tower in the 7th, and I’ve seen several reasonably priced hotels listed in Rick Steves’ book on France. One is quaint, close to Rue Cler and the price is reasonable – in fact for Paris it’s great. They don’t use a booking service like Booking.com (which I used for several hotels) so I sent them an email requesting availability. After a day or so and plenty of leeway for the difference in time, I sent it again, and then again and again. Six days – no answer.

By now I was determined. I was not going to give up! I had heard booking French hotels could be difficult, especially if you don’t speak French. Was arrogance at play here? I decided two could play this game. I copied my email into Google Translate and immediately had it printed out in French. I had no idea if it was good French, bad French or even if it said what I hoped it would say since I don’t speak a word of French. But now I had something in French , so I pasted it back into the email and hit send. Two very short hours later I received a reply. Back to Google Translate to find out what they said. And so it went for 4-5 emails as I reserved a room, and worked out details. I sent one last email requesting a final written confirmation, to which I received this reply, “ Madame, Your reservations is now confirmed. And by the way, you speak very good French.” The reply was in English.

I almost wrote back and said, “ Thank you for the compliment. However, Google Translator speaks very good French.”

I did further reading on the hotel and found terrible reviews on Trip Advisor that I had missed. Several people mentioned arrogant, rude staff, reservations confirmed and later denied upon arrival and luggage moved from the room to the hall when they decided your stay was finished and someone else needed the room – and paid a higher price. While one or two negative comments don’t bother me these left me feeling uneasy. I didn’t want to arrive in Paris at night, with no room, traveling with a 16 year old who is already a bit leery about not being able to speak the language.

I ended up canceling the reservation and reserving another room, well, actually several rooms, but I finally found a hotel with excellent reviews, Hotel Relais Bosquet, and staff who have been gracious in their correspondence in English. It is located a block off of Rue Cler and looks, small, charming and right where we want to be.

When in Paris I plan on making an attempt to speak French. I have a phrase book and iTranslate. My French may be barely passable, but I’m willing to give it a try.