Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Our way back to Nice

A tunnel on the way to Nice - one of 17!
The highest point on our trek through the Alps to Nice.  Finally some actual snow to play in!  We also saw some ermines running around.
Blue butterfly mud-puddling by the snow melt seep
Finally, a guard-rail!  This was what the road looked like most of the time.  Fine for me, driving, but Ethan was REALLY nervous.
Men clearing fallen rocks off the road.
A meadow beside the snow melt creek where we stopped
Children playing in snow-melt river.  Very cold.  Ethan kind of freaking out still, because it was a little dangerous.  The roads were not good for him.
Saprophitic plant in the pine forest.  I'm sure I spelled that wrong.  They are also in Florda (different kinds) and called Indian Pipes.  They are parasites and have no chlorophyll.
Snow-dotted mountain peak
Our round of Tomme
Lovely alpine wildflowers
Rose and Clothilde on the top of an alp.  We could see Mont Blanc in the distance
View from the mountain in Annecy. I forgot it's name already, and I've been there three times!
Clothilde in the Alps

We were still a day ahead of schedule and had a reservation for the Auberge in Aix-les-Bains for out next night and it was only about a half hour from Annecy, so we decided to take it easy and let the kids play after the day in the car. We had petit dejeuner with the German family and agreed to meet them in the afternoon at a swimming area a little way down the lake from Annecy. Angie had taken a bus to the top of Les Semnoz, the mountain behind the hostel, when she was here last, so we decided to drive up and look around. It was a really windy road up, and Rosie and I were both queasy. I was a victim of translation, too. It turns out that all cereal is called muesli in Germany, even if it's Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. It looked like muesli, but it was definitely not muesli. I ate some anyway because the other option was bread, and after the Pentecost, I wasn't sure I was ready for bread again yet. It did not sit well on the way up the mountain. I thought it might be better if I was driving, and it was, for me. For everyone else and the transmission, not so much. If the mountain had been steeper I would have been okay, but we needed to go up it in third (of six), and my limit seems to be two shifts before I stall out, so by popular opinion I went back into the passenger side.
The top of mountain was nice, and just above the tree line, but it was really cold, and no-one except Angie was dressed for it. We walked around a bit and Angie talked to a couple of farmers who were repairing their fences that went right over the summit. They raised dairy cows for Roblechon cheese. We told them about our cows and they enjoyed the break. On our walk, Mirin was showing Angie how he was practicing math by throwing rocks and something to do with adding the ones he skipped over. We didn't get the full explanation because of course, the example toss bounced off a rock and  hit me in the hand. Not hard enough to damage anything but hard enough to leave a mark, and he took off in a funk. Everyone else was cold so we went back to the car, but Angie had to go find Mirin. 

It was almost time to meet the German family, so we went down the mountain and tried to find the swimming area. It took a couple tries because the map just had a big square with a swimmer over the waterfront of Saint Jurioz. We found them eventually and the kids played for a while and we had picnic. The water was cold, so there wasn't much swimming, but they all went in a bit. The wind was really ripping and kite boarders were coming out of the woodwork. Mirin was really inspired and got some yarn and a plastic bag and made a little kite of his own. He and the German boy Tristan played with it until the wind got so strong that it kept breaking the yarn. 

About five o'clock we said goodbye and started towards Aix-les-Bains. We took the back roads instead of le autoroute and passed a farm with a sign saying that they made Tomme there and sold it direct. By some miracle we were even passing by when they were open, so we turned around and pulled in. They were in the middle of milking, but one of the farmers came out and talked to us. He led us around the barns to the cheese cave under his house. There were probably 200 rounds of cheese there in all stages of ageing. There were some that still looked like the fresh pressed curds, the finished ones, and the ones that had three inches of furry mold. Angie asked him what it was called and he said it was "le peau du chat", or " the hair of the cat". We bought a whole wheel bigger than our heads for under 13€. While he was getting change we got a quick tour of his barns. The hay barn was designed for loose hay. There was a big pit on one side that a dump trailer could back up to, and then a big claw mounted on a rail that ran the whole length of the barn to distribute it to all the cows when they were in there during the winter. Some of his cows had just calved and we talked with the farmer's sister for a bit while she bottle fed the colostrum to the day-old calves.

Once we were on our way again to Aix-les-Bains we got there in no time and found the street the GPS said the hostel was on, but there was no hostel. We did a few circles looking for signs and eventually asked someone. They gave us directions to a completely different part of town, but they were hard to follow. We squinted at the way zoomed out google maps directions we had and eventually just scrolled around the GPS until we found a spot that looked similar, and it worked.

We went into the hostel and it was empty downstairs but full of French schoolchildren upstairs, but someone else came in and we waited with him. Angie started speaking French with him but it turned out he was half French half English, so I could talk too, not just listen. After a bit we heard the commotion increasing upstairs. They were going over the fire drill and the receptionist was up there with them. She led them all around up there and deafened everyone with her whistle. We finally got out room and got situated. We had stopped at the Carrefour after the beach and loaded up on bread, cheese, fresh sausages, potatoes, asparagus, and the forever popular with the children "Petite Suisse". 

The hostel was nice but there kitchen was lacking. There was a microwave and two hot plates all plugged into the same power strip. The hot plates couldn't both be on high at the save time, and when someone wanted to use the microwave they both had to turn off or blow the breaker. It was so sparse we had to bum a corkscrew off a another British guy. He was really nice and had been riding his motorcycle around France. Every holiday he got he would come down and stay in hostels. While dinner was cooking the kids tortured the schoolchildren by playing in the big field behind the hostel while the French kids had to go to a class. Dinner was a welcome meal after all of the restaurants and snacking we had done, and the kids played until it was dark. There was quite a party on the terrace for a while with the two British guys ( one and a half, technically) and an older French couple who was thinking of moving to Aix-le-Bains from Lorient and were scouting it out. The lady seemed pretty tipsy and we had to rescue Angie from her, so we went to bed. ***correction - the guy had been talking with the kind of crazy French lady when we got there, and as we finished dinner he got up to go to his room. He passed Angie in the kitchen and peeled the crazy lady off on her, saying he thought he was leaving her in good company. She had kept saying how handsome Mirin was and there was no was he was only ten, and he teased her by humming "here comes the bride." So I had assumed that when he said " By the way, that's not my wife" that he was only teasing her again, but he was actually making that as a disclaimer. Angie also talked with her the next morning and she hadn't been that tipsy the night before, just loopy.***

  At breakfast the next morning Mirin played volleyball with the French class which was all his age. They all wanted him on their team since I guess he was the ringer. We talked to the motorcyclist again and asked him about routes down to Nice. We didn't want to do le autoroute since it tended to be hectic, expensive, and boring looking out the windows. He said to go down to Grenoble and get on the N85, the Route Napoleon. We did and the driving was quick and really pretty. 

The roundabouts make driving the back roads so much quicker than in the states. The road was a French equivalent of US27, but without the two or three stoplights every time you go through a town the size of Fort White. After we went through gap, the Route Napoleon went off a different direction and the GPS sent us down the D902 and over the Col de la Cayolle. At first it wasn't too bad, and there was a gorgeous river of snowmelt alongside us. We pulled off and found a path down to the bank. There was a cool sapprophytic plant down there like a purple version of the one that grows on the pine roots at home. The spotted Lily that we'd seen near Premanon was just blooming there, too. We found a not to fast and deep spot and played for a bit before going on.

We passed a sign down the road saying that all the passes were open, and turned down the road over the Col de la Cayolle. It quickly became little more than a donkey path that had been paved.  Occasionally there were guard rails, and every few hundred meters there were spots where if one car had half a wheel over the edge, and the other folded in their mirror and hugged the rock, two cars could pass without trading too much paint. Other than that the road was between 1/2 and 3/4s of a lane wide and all blind corners. The views were breathtaking, and also heart racing. 

We kept passing road crews that consisted of two guys in climbing harnesses with pry bars on the rockface above the road, and another guy with a bobcat to push it all out of the way after they had sent it down. The road kept climbing and the river of snowmelt kept shrinking beside it. We passed over a little torrent (actually the French word for creek) and stopped and played for a bit. The water was icy but felt nice on our feet. There was a seep coming out if the bank that was covered in tiny purplish butterflies. We tried to get the best pictures we could for Marc. We loaded up again and the GPS said we only had 38 more kilometers on the tiny road, and we were beginning to wonder what we'd gotten ourselves into.

 We kept going up and up, from 1000m, to 1500m. The mountains kept getting taller with more snow on them as we went. We crossed three stone bridges over waterfalls and kept going up. We went through an unlit one lane tunnel around a corner and came out above the tree line on the other side. The pass was just ahead and we were well over 2000m at this point, and getting closer to the snow line. Sure enough we went around a corner and there was a snow drift next to the road. We squeezed as far off the road as we could and the kids got a minute to this throw some snowballs before we went off again. The top of the pass was in sight and we resisted the demands to get out at every patch of snow until we made it to the top. There was a parking area and an obelisk with the elevation on it - 2326 meters. We walked around a bit and played in the snow. There were wild pansies along the path and a couple times we spotted briefly some sort of marmot looking creature that turned out to be an ermine. Again, no one was dressed for the altitude, and it was getting past 5, so we headed down. It turned out we had gone up the really hairy side first, and after we had gone down the first 750 meters of elevation or so the road widened out to a luxurious one and a half lanes. After a small town it went out to two lanes, and there was a sign saying we were on the Route of the seventeen tunnels. The kids counted them and sure enough there were seventeen. They were really wild ones, too. Some were short and had traffic going both ways. Some were long and only had our direction, or any combination thereof. The only constant was that none of them were lit. Pretty soon we were at 200m and joined the main road into Nice.

We had managed to recharge the little French cell phone and called Gaby. She answered and was happy to hear from us. We agreed to meet her that evening when we got into Nice at around 7:30. The only problem was that we had planned to drop the rental car off before we went to the hostel so Angie wouldn't have to drive and park it in Nice, but to meet Gaby before she went to bed we'd have to drive straight to her apartment. After five minutes of Nice we all wished we were back on the donkey path with the blind tunnels. The road kept forking and spitting us off in weird directions. Then there's the whole thing with French honor not allowing anyone to merge properly, so we ended up going off and on the main road. We finally got to Gaby's street and looked for a place to park. Everything was taken right to the end of the street except for a tiny little spot. I got out to make incomprehensible hand signals while Angie parked and the parking assist feature beeped at her. It never was the same since the hostel in Colmar where a bush had grown into the parking space. Maybe a leaf or some mud had gotten on the sensor, but whenever it thought we were parking it would let out a high pitched whine. Maybe it just wanted to help the kids fill in the gaps. Despite trying to turn it off in the settings console, it beeped at us faithfully every time, even as we parked the car at the rental return.

Anyway, we managed to get the car into the spot, and as soon as we got everyone out we realized that it wasn't a legal parking spot after all. Looking around the street, though, it seemed like about 2/3rds of the cars there were parked illegally. We were at the end and wedged in so tightly that they'd need a crane to lift us out, so we decided to risk it.

We rang the buzzer at Gaby's and this time she answered and rang us up. She was so happy to see Angie, and had a whole dinner ready and laid out for us. She and Angie talked for a while as Clo dissected the strawberries. Gaby even remarked at how calm Clo was. The trip had definitely had a calming effect on Clo. She is usually shy when she firsts does something new, and new things have been coming thick and fast for the past two weeks. Gaby was also comparing her to Titouan, who was very energetic and past the shyness age. After dinner Gaby had some presents for the kids. Mirin got an American history book that had been a gift from Claudia and Papy to Aurore in 1993. Rose got a bag of old American coins, with some west German coins thrown in for good measure, and Clo got a pinwheel that she is very possessive of. The big kids also got huge chocolate bars, which will go to Sam and Gus when we get home.

We left Gaby's and headed for the hostel, this time through Nice in the dark. We found it despite the GPS not knowing the street and parked in the little road in front while Angie went in and asked if the two parking spaces out front were for guests. Of course they weren't, so we were midway through unloading our stuff when a car turned into the street and wanted past. Clo was still buckled and so Angie jumped in and they disappeared off into the night. After waiting about five minutes we set off to find them, fearing the worst. But as we went around the corner there they were, and squeezing into a parking spot no less. We did the hand gesture and beeping routine again. It was a pay spot, but not charged until the next morning, and at the hostel they said we could pre-feed the meter. 

We unloaded everything and tidied up the car as best we could without an industrial vacuum for the kids bread crumbs. We were in an identical room but the floor above when we'd been there before. It was great, because this one didn't have a balcony luring Clo to her doom. We tried to enjoy our last shower not at home, but our room apparently didn't have any cold water, so it was more scalding than anything else. We got Marc's news about the no go on pork products coming into the states but cheese being okay, which was good because we'd been hauling the Tomme and Roblechon for a while. It turned out to be a good thing that we'd kept the car because Marc had quite a time getting to the airport. He was waiting at the bus stop for a while when he overheard a Danish couple asking about the 98 bus. Some French ladies got very excited and pointed to a little flyer saying that the 98 bus was on strike. He ended up having to string several buses together and then walk the last stretch. After checking the farm news with the first wifi for a couple days,   I went up to the room. Angie read Heidi until Rose feel asleep and we ask went to bed.

 This morning was uneventful. We were all sorry to be leaving France and planning our next trip. We got up early had breakfast and checked out right on time. The morning driving in Nice is just as bad as the evening and night driving, but the airport was signed much better. The rental car guy didn't even bat an eye when he saw the car, and the one new tiny ding on the back of the passenger side mirror went unnoticed. Getting through security was easier than in the US and the Petite Suisse made it this time. The only difference was the pimply young soldiers standing around with machine guns that was a little unsettling. Clo was the only baby on the flight to Copenhagen that didn't cry at all, and she slept most of the way. She didn't even cry when the cruel flight attendant said she had to be woken up and strapped into her seat. Of course that means we're probably in for it in the next flight, but she's playing in the Copenhagen airport playground now, and we're keeping a strict watch on her purple French shoes.  

Ste-Marie-aux-Mines and Ribeuvillè - Castles

woodland wildflower
Me and Rose at the real ruin
Cool ruined castle in Alsace
Climbing up to see the ruined castle.  It was pretty steep.
My dad's train to take him back to Nice
Mirin saying goodbye to Smoozie the sheep dog at Bernard's.  They really got along well.
A view of the extremely touristy rebuilt castle.  It was pretty, but they treated you like sheep.
Mirin peering out of a castle window at the touristy castle

Still at Ste-Croix-aux-mines.  We had the rest of the afternoon off and only had to be home in time to help make dinner, so we went down the valley to a castle. The picture I sent a couple days ago that was the view towards Germany has the castle on the right. We drove up some switch back roads and found the parking area. We charged up the mountain and ended up doing the circuit around the castle with Marc bringing up the rear with the camera. The castle itself had been rebuilt from 1903-1909, when Alsace was part of Germany, essentially as a way to thumb their noses at France. It turned out to be a massive tourist trap, but cool anyway. We were late enough in the day not to have to pay full price. We went up into the high part of the castle into the imperial rooms and there was a giant German tour group there covering the exit so we went back down and felt gypped. Mirin had spotted the way through, though, so we charged back up into the keep barely in time before they closed it and sure enough, the tour group had moved on and we saw the way forward. It was a good thing since we had only done about a quarter of tour. We got to see lots of medieval weapons and a whole ramparts full of cannons. Mirin had us take lots of pictures for Sam and Gus. It was nice, and we got to go to a castle for Mirin, but the overwhelming touristyness left a bad taste.

We had to rush back to Bernard's to help with dinner, but still got passed by crazy motorcyclists on the way down the switchbacks. We got back in time and the preparations for dinner began. Bernard had defrosted a leg of one of his lambs, and he put it in the oven while Angie made a potato dish with some of the cured bacon we had gotten at the market in Ste-Marie-aux-Mines that morning. Some friends of Bernard were coming for dinner so it was a special occasion. They were archeologists that worked for the government overseeing construction sites. We asked them what counted as old enough to be considered historic here, since the cultures have been using stone and iron for so long here. They said that they were really excited because the limit was 100 years, so WW1 was starting to be protected. They had three girls all around the same age as Bernard's daughters and after dinner all the kids went out to pay tag, even Clo. Clo played for two minutes and then made a beeline for the hay loft and went to bed. Marc and I took turns sitting with her and we finally went to bed. We set the alarm for the first time on the trip because Marc had to catch the train in Colmar at 9:20.
We woke up early and herded the groggy kids into the car. We said bye to Bernard, his girls all left with their friends the night before, and Schmoozie the sheep dog tried to get on the car with Mirin and had to be held back by Bernard as we drove away. We made it to the Gare Colmar in time to figure out the self serve ticket counter and see Marc off.

After we waved goodbye to Marc, we went straight to the hostel since we were hoping to stay there a day early. We found it and there was a full sign on the door, but they made room for us, I guess since it was still early yet. It was just as well we were there a day early since they had lost our reservation for the next night anyway. With that sorted out, we headed out of Colmar, which turned out to be more like Detroit than the pictures online. We went to Ribeuvillè, which we had driven through on the way to Ste-Croix-aux-Mines, to try and find out way up to the castle ruins we'd seen. First we went into the downtown to find some pain au chocolate, and then we found the road up to the trailhead but the tiny parking lot was completely full. It turned out that every parking lot in the whole town was full because it was the weekend of the Pentecost, so we ended up parking about a kilometer out of town and walking to the trailhead. The trail up to the castle put the forced march up to the Roman ruins to shame. It was just a rocky path up the side of the mountain, with wild roses and beautiful oak forests. The worst part was that we had seriously underestimated the amount of water to take, and it was all gone before we got to the top.

The ruins were really cool. There were a lot of people up there, but it was very much a ruin. There were some stairs up to the remains of the keep, and there was the occasional guard rail, but other than that there was just a sign saying that by order of the mayor, the city of Ribeuvillè would not be responsible for any injuries. Clo was in the backpack, and had just woken up, and Mirin and Rose were sufficiently awed by the drop not to be careless. Mirin had insisted on the way up that we would go to all three castle ruins, but the lack of water forced us down again. Mirin had been motivated by the castles on way up, but the way down was almost to much.

Luckily there were wild roses growing by the side of the path and he was able to munch on the petals to keep his spirits up. As we got down toward the town there was an old man filling up his water bottles at a fountain marked non potable. We asked if it was actually okay, and it had the non party scratched out, but he said it had made him sick once and pointed us down into the town. We found that fountain and it didn't say non potable, tasted great, and so far so good. We ducked into a nice tucked away restaurant right before they closed at 2 for the break before dinner, and got a local style charcuterie plate. It was really different since we were so close to Germany, and 100 years ago it was Germany. The whole thing came on a bed of warm spiced sauerkraut, and had three different sausages, two types of bacon, one cured one just brined, and ham. We finished up and walked back out of town to the car.

We went down to Colmar from there and tried to find the part of town that looked like the brochures, but all we saw was one of those little tram things made up to look like train to take tourists around. The rest of the town looked like the set for Le Haine. We drove over to the west to the spurs of the Vosges and went up into the foothills a ways on Le Route du 5 chateaux, but after the morning no one had the motivation to climb to any of them so we just found a picnic area and had a snack. By now we were low on water again, so we headed back to Ribeuvillè to the fountain. It was getting on dusk, so we found a spot close to the fountain to park, got water, and went back to the hostel.
The hostel was by far the worst of the ones we've stayed in. It was actually really empty except for some cheerleading team, and the worst part was that out of our window you could see a huge playground. Clo got really exited, and the big kids too, but after investigating, we found the hostel shared the building with a kindergarten and the playground was closed.  We also didn't find the tiny, almost-invisible button to close the blinds, and spent the night with light pouring into the room.  Clothilde woke up at 5, as the sun was just rising.

Monday was our first big travel day without Marc, and we were worried about the kids. My stick driving is no match for the French mountain roads, so Angie was driving, and with all the roundabouts and turnoffs I had to nagivate, so there wasn't really anyone to wait on the kids. It turns out that wasn't what we had to worry about. Monday was Pentecost, which France being a Catholic country, is apparently big deal. Like everything is closed big deal. We did find an open boulangerie on our way out of Colmar and got a couple baguettes, my coffee, and more pain au chocolate. We headed out towards Aix-les-Bains and were making good time when we needed to stop for gas. All of the stand alone stations were closed. The stations in front of the supermarkets were open for pay at the pump, but American credit cards don't have the chip in them so they don't work. We ended up going on a hour long detour past lots of either closed or card rejecting gas stations. We ended up trading someone cash to use their card for us. It only took another half hour to get back on track.

The next problem was food. The pain au chocolate was long gone and the bread baguettes were dwindling fast. The butter was all used up at Bernard's, and again, the water was getting low. We passed another open boulangerie and got more of the same, that was all they had. Nothing else was open anywhere, I guess they kept the boulangeries open since the last time no one could buy bread in France, people lost their heads over it. Even Mirin was getting sick of bread. We were going back up into the Alps by this time, and the quick way was to go through Switzerland. Apparently if you don't cross the border on le autoroute, and act disinterested when you pass the border guards, they assume you're a local and don't look twice as you go by. As soon as we crossed the border there was an open gas station, and since we were still traumatized, we filled up and bought water. Unfortunately we were going through in the afternoon, and the Swiss still observe the no open restaurants from 2 to 6 rule, so we were still in bread and water.

We were still a day ahead of schedule, and had to go through Annecy on the way to Aix-les-Bains, and one of Angie's favorite hostels from her earlier trips was there, so we went into town to try and find it. We ended up asking someone, and got there just after it reopened at five. We managed to snag a family room and they said there might even be a restaurant open at the camp ground around the corner. Sure enough, it was open. It wasn't the best meal we've had, but the steak frite was hot and the wine was decent, so after our day of bread and water, it tasted wonderful. After dinner the kids played at the little playground (accessible this time) and we met a German family that had been at the beach in Spain for two weeks and was headed home. They spoke very good English, and the kids enjoyed playing. Their kids were 5, 3, and 4 months. We played for a bit and went to bed. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Cured bacon from the market in St. Marie-aux-Mines, the little Alsatian town where my great-grandmother lived.  I discovered from the Archives that my family lived there since 1675 at least.
A really wonderful duck pate en croute.  It had three different layers, and raisins and almonds in aspic on top.

This was the ladder up to the hayloft where we slept.  We got five mattresses up this thing.

Blood Sausage - it was really good.  I want to learn to make it.
Bernard's sheep
Some kind of cool wild flower.  My dad probably told me what it's called, but I can't remember.
The boldest sheep.
Looking at the sheep with Bernard.  I felt bad he didn't have more for us to do.
Purple columbines in the meadow
All around was meadow with beautiful, forested mountains all around.  Lovely views.
Me standing by the stone water trough with a bowl to pick nettles for lunch
We didn't do too much yesterday, mainly the drive from Aurore's to Bernard's sheep farm where we're WWOOFing for the next few days. The drive was pretty smooth and uneventful, traffic wise, but except for the middle part on le autoroute was pretty hairy. First we had to come down out of the Alps, and then we had to go up into what I think are the Vosges. The goat track up to Bernard's farm wasn't even on the GPS or the Google maps we printed out, but we managed to drive straight there anyway. I think we must have good dirt-track-to-middle-of-nowhere-farm karma. We were a little worried about the WWOOFing, since sometimes they have people stay in a wiki up or teepee, but it's really nice. We're staying in a room in the hay loft. We covered the floor in mattresses so it's just like home with the super wide bed. The only thing it doesn't have is heat. We all froze last night until we got up and put on all our clothes.

It's incredibly beautiful here, and the wild strawberries are just ripening. Bernard's three daughters have been really nice and have taken to the kids. So far all the work we have had to do is cook dinner last night, and we're on the hook for lunch today. He uses the same netting we use, and his other fences are familiar, too. We'll get to move fences with him later and see how he does it. Between his limited English and the tiny bit of French I've picked up it's hard to talk shop, though.

We spent yesterday roving around Bernard's farm. For a couple hours in the afternoon Angie and I went with Bernard to move his sheep in the various pastures he rents up and down the valley. It is almost exactly the same as at our farm, except instead of the oak branches making it hard, it's the hillside, and finding a place with few enough rocks to get a post in. Marc spent the day rambling and went through both camera batteries. Angie has been cooking for everyone, and Bernard's daughters looked very surprised that everything tasted really good. I think they have had some WWOOFers who can't cook. There has been hardly anything to cook with, mostly just potatoes and onions, with a bit of prosciutto like ham. We have eked it out with some of the wild nettles and dandelion greens. Mathilde ate three bowls of the nettle soup last night. They seem to trust Angie's cooking now, because Bernard came back from Ste-Marie-aux-Mines yesterday with tons of groceries and is defrosting a leg of lamb for dinner tonight, and we have mutton sausages for lunch. We're going to the market in Ste-Marie-aux-Mines now, so here's some pictures. They're all pretty self explanatory, but the one at the bottom is Angie be the water trough in front of Bernard's house. The whole thing is carved from one block of stone and is constantly fed by a trickling spring that has been piped down the mountain. 

Saturday was our last day at Bernard's. In the morning we went to the market in Ste-Marie-aux-Mines. It took us a while to find it, but we got a nice tour of the town while we were looking for it. We might have gone a little overboard, but it was okay, since we felt like we ate more than we worked at Bernard's. The charcuterie stall was amazing and we got a couple different types of pate en croute, one duck, one chicken, a cured blood sausage, and a truly cured bacon that didn't need refrigerated. We loaded up with that and some vegetables and bread and went back to Bernard's. There was an exciting moment in the way home when said "If we want to go the back way to Bernard's, turn here". But Angie heard "turn here", and we had to turn around with a twenty point turn on the side of the mountain.

We made it back the usual way, which is crazy enough by itself, and had lunch with Bernard and his girlfriend Nadine and son Paulo, who was home for the weekend. He is in the French version of the 10th Mountain Division. After lunch Mirin played with the dog, Schmoozie, and we helped Bernard catch some sheep that he was selling to a couple from down in the valley. They were vegetarians who just wanted them to keep their grass short. We were all driving up to the pasture and got to the turn where Bernard would go half way around, back up, put on the parking brake, shift into first, gun the engine, release the brake, and peel out up the mountain with a cloud of stones flying out behind us, when the lady buying the sheep said "These aren't moutons, they are chamois!" We caught the sheep and helped Bernard hobble them so the couple could drive them home in their tiny little Peugeot hatchback. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The alps

Captions will follow someday, but now it's bedtime.
Escargot.  There were millions of the things all over.  I don't know how they could stand the cold.  Aurore said it was their breeding season, and forbidden to collect them right now.
Mirin and Rose on the top of La Dole mountain.  It was cold.
Beautiful little fairy pool in the snow melt creek
Rose heading up to the top of La Dole.  We were walking on the rocks beside the snow melt.
Clothilde and I finally caught up with the big kids.
Jean-Francois the snow man.  There wasn't much snow, obviously, but my Florida kids were desperate.
Three local cheeses in Premanon
The beautiful milking cows in Premanon that make milk for Comte cheese.
Clothilde playing near my cousin's house in the Alps
Some lovely girls ruminating on the fragrant pasture.  They all had bells and it sounded beautiful.
An interesting wildflower.

The drive to Premanon was pretty normal at first, but after dark we started getting up into the alps and it was really white-knuckle driving. The GPS kept trying to send us the "short" way, over the mountains on cow paths. We finally got there and fell into bed, except there wasn't room for Marc and he had to follow Fred into Les Rousses to an apartment they had there. He could barely keep up with Fred's little sports car. It was a small miracle that he was able to find his way back to the house the next morning.

Tuesday we woke up after Aurore and everyone had gone to work or school and went into Les Rousses and had fondue at a fromagerie that made Comte cheese. This time the menu confusion meant we had twice as much food as we needed, but we could at least take the charcuterie with us. We went down the road to a couple different lakes, and into Switzerland. We made sure to have our passports all ready at the border, but it was deserted, so we went on. We walked along the lake a bit while Mirin tried to make a reed boat to float across and climb the cliff on the other side. We left before he could depart and went grocery shopping on the way home. The co-op biologique was a bit of a disappointment, but we restocked on diapers. It was like Mother Earth grocery on a bad day, but the check out line was quicker. The Intermarche was much better. Everything is more expensive except the cheese. Forty dollars at Dorn's is about 12 euros, and the selection is much bigger. We also found some soft purple shoes for Clo for only 6 euros, so she's back in action.

Back at Aurore's everyone was home so the kids played. The language barrier just seems to make them play louder and crazier. Aurore gets raw milk from some friends of hers with a farm down the road that you can see from her house. We went to pick it up for her while she finished dinner. Rosie stayed to play with Flore, and Titouan  came to play with Mirin and give us directions to the farm. He's five and only speaks French, so it took some finding. We would approach a place to turn and Angie would ask if we had to turn. There would be a flood of French that crescendoed as we got closer to the turn. Then we would turn and the crescendo would either end with a quiet "no no no" if we got out right or a squeaky "oui" if we got it right. After trying almost all the turns on the way there we made it and met Fred, Aurore's husband there. They were just finishing up milking and Aurore's milk came straight out of the huge bulk tank /chiller. As they finished milking we got a tour of the farm. They milk what we would call red Holstein cows, but they have a special name for them we couldn't catch. All of their milk from their hundred cows goes to make the Comte cheese. That breed of cow has been raised in the area for the past 900 years to make the cheese. To produce milk for the Comte cheese they have to abide by really strict standards. They get less than a kilo of grain and they can't have any silage, only hay because it changes the taste of the milk. The Comte is only made when the cows are on their summer pasture so the milk is as sweet as possible. They also have to rotate the pastures, but not very frequently, only a couple times a week. All of the farms in the area use electric fences, and you could tell that about a quarter of them rotationally graze. It wasn't until today that we saw any barbed wire. Anyway, we finished the farm tour and went back to dinner.

Dinner was vegetable soup with cooked sausages, and then bread and cheese. Aurore had bought the three main cheeses that are made in the region, the Comte, a lighter, younger cheese with a line of ash in the middle, and a blue style cheese that was more grey than blue but really good. It didn't have the same sweet tang of a blue cheese but had more of a brie funk to it. After dinner we took the kids on a walk along the cow paths while Flore and Titouan got ready for bed. After about forty five minutes we went in and put everyone to bed, and Marc went off to the apartment.

I almost forgot, but Tuesday evening with Aurore we went on a walk through the forest around her house and picked nettles and wild spinach for soup. We played a game where the kids pair up and one of them close their eyes. The other leads them to a tree and with their eyes still closed they have to feel around the tree and it's immediate surroundings. Then they are led back to where they started and can open their eyes. They then have to find the tree that they were led to. On the way back there was a old man scything some grass for his rabbits. Aurore said he was a little crazy and always thought that the neighbors were trying to poison his rabbits and chickens. The first picture is his pile of grass and wooden wheelbarrow.

Today we woke up earlier and had a quick breakfast. As we were finishing it started to snow. Mirin and Rose must have set a record for the most excitement about snow in May for the alps. After it stopped we drove a little way to the base of La Dôle. Mirin, despite his whining about the stairs in Nice has been excited to run up things as long as there's snow or a castle at the top. Aurore teaches at the mountaineering school nearby and pointed us in the right direction and gave us a topo map. We parked and asked a local the way to the trailhead. He took a long skeptical look at our shoes and pointed us up the alp. Mirin and Rose ran most of the way up, Angie and I took turns with carrying Clo. Marc brought up the rear with the camera. We made up it past the snow line, although there wasn't much snow. It did snow on us a bit, and we made a tiny snow man. There were also some snow balls whizzing about. The clouds started closing in, so we headed down. Our legs were like jello by the time we got back to the car, and we went back to Aurore's for lunch. Flore and Titouan were waiting for us and once the kids had eaten more cheese and whined for more bread with butter and jam they all went outside and ran up and down the road on bikes and scooters and climbed the rocks by the neighbors house. Hopefully they'll sleep on the way to Ste-Marie-aux-Mines tomorrow. Angie took a long nap while I was writing and Clo played almost quietly. In a moment we'll have cake for Flore's seventh birthday. The other new is that Titouan lost a tooth recently and a little mouse (the French version of the tooth fairy) brought him a candle powered boat. We have been attempting to sail it in the sink with very limited success. It's cake time now, so until tomorrow


Nice to Crest

A view of (I think) Nice from up high near an old cemetery
Clothilde running up a cobblestone road in Crest
Mirin, my dad, my friend Vincent, and me walking in old Crest
(I think) a picture of the rooftops of Crest with mountains in the distance.  Mirin couldn't wait to get to the Alps.
My dad and Clothilde in downtown Crest.  Pollarded trees are very popular for landscaping there.
One of the many beautiful roses growing in Crest
An old prison (Vincent said built maybe around 1000 AD for the Protestants) in Crest
The beaches in Nice are pebbles, not sand
Playing in the Mediterranean.  It was cold.
Rose at the Roman-Gaulish ruins in Nice.  We ended up walking up a crazy number of stairs to get there.  It looked so short on the map.  Mirin almost didn't make it, but it was good because by the time we got to the Alps, he didn't complain at all.
The view from the crazy long staircase on the way to the ruins in Nice

Hey everyone,
No internet until late last night, but here's what we did.
We left the gite and met Vincent for lunch in crest. Then we walked up winding covered streets to the big jail/castle on the hill. This time Mirin and Rose ran on ahead and Clo on my shoulders kept shouting "Catch Mirin Rosie!". Her new shoes give her blisters so she couldn't catch then herself. They are Nice shoes, so they are very stylish, very expensive, and not practical at all. By the time we got to the top we didn't have time to go in, and it was tres cher anyway.
On the way down, there was a spring coming out of the wall with a non potable sign on one side, and a historical plaque on the other explaining that people had been drinking there since the 1300s and that it was famous for tasting so sweet that it was called the sap spring. Vincent said he drank there all the time and it was fine. It was the best water we've had the whole time, even the alpine springs aren't quite as nice.
We finally left Crest after stopping by Vincent's apartment and wading in the river, about two hours later than we planned.