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.  

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