Au Revoir, France... Bonjour, Suisse!

Dear friends and family!

I know it has been almost a week since our last post, and I would say that I'm sorry, except that I'm not, really... we've been having too many incredible adventures for me to spend time typing on this Kindle!  (and also, we have very rarely had consistent wifi over the past week).  But that just means I have so many stories to tell you!  Brace yourselves, because this will be long...

Monday, July 10:
This morning, we had to say goodbye to the Goeminnes as we left Lyon.  It is always heart-wrenching for me to say goodbye to them, since they are so dear to me!  I still can't believe that Henri-Jean drove himself and Catherine for SIX HOURS from Tours and then six hours back, just to see us for the weekend!  Words can't express how grateful I am to them, and how sincerely I consider them my true French family.  I just hope and pray that they make it to Boston someday so I can begin to repay their hospitality and generosity in some small way!

Our departure from Lyon was incredibly comfortable, thanks to the adjustments we had made to Buddy and Charlotte.  My butt no longer is sore (hooray!), nor does my right pinky finger get numb from gripping the handlebars anymore.  It was warm, but not in the 90s as it had been a few days earlier, and so we cruised along as quickly as we could in order to beat the thunderstormms that were supposed to arrive by late afternoon.  I have to tell you that, now that we were exiting the major metropolitan area and getting into truly rural France, I really felt that we were cycling through a scene from "Beauty and the Beast"... picturesque mountainside villages, deep forests, and even people saying "Bonjour" in singsong voices as we passed, just like the song in the beginning of the movie.  I'm not kidding, it really is THAT quaint!

We arrived at our destination of Serrieres-de-Briord, a small village surrounded by farms, and got under a lavoir (old washhouse) for shelter JUST as the torrential rain started.  Our lodging that night was going to be our second WarmShowers host, but he wasn't going to be home for a few hours, so we waited it out and also bought extremely expensive sunscreen in the local pharmacy.

We were amazed when it was time to go to Pierre's house and he welcomed us into a MANSION:  an old printing house turned into a giant home, surrounded by gardens and beehives (he is a part-time beekeeper and part-time artisan who makes Hermes bags.  Very random.)  Pierre does not do bike touring himself, but he got involved with WarmShowers after picking up a cyclist who was crying on the side of the road one day in the pouring rain.  He is literally THAT generous!  He also really wanted to expose his daughter to foreigners so she wouldn't be frightened of them, which I found interesting.  He was simultaneously hosting Philip, a German guy about our age who is probably the happiest person I've met, and we all enjoyed some homemade moussaka and regaled one another with stories about our respective countries.  Philip, for example, was amazed at Americans' prude attitudes ("You mean you and your parents don't walk around the house naked??) while I was shocked at how often he went to nude beaches with his family.  This is one of the reasons I love to travel!

Tuesday, July 11:
Because Pierre is incredibly trusting, he left early for work and left Philip, Adam, and me to have free reign in his house until we left.  It is extremely difficult for me to imagine Americans being this open and trusting with complete strangers in their own house!  (Maybe that's the New Yorker talking, but still!)  It is something that Adam and I truly admire, this deep commitment to hospitality, and something that we are going to continue to try to emulate when we get home (though, as all our friends and family already know, we do LOVE to host people already!).

After a delicious breakfast featuring Pierre's homemade honey, we hit the road again!  Our host in Valence, Claire-Marie, had recommended an incredible hike that would require a slight detour from our ViaRhona route, so the tiny mountainside town of St-Jean-de-Chevelu was our destination du jour.  The scenery was getting dramatic, with impressive cliffs lining both sides of the Rhone, and the ride was getting dramatic, too, as we rode through a narrow gorge with tunnels, winding roads, and beautiful old bridges!  It was our first real climb of the trip and we were fully exhausted and hot by the time we reached our gorgeous campground at the base of the mountains, literally surrounded by Savoyard dairy farms (all making Emmanthal and other delicious cheeses!  YUM!).  A quick dip in the pristine mountainside lake took our breath away and restored our energy -- it literally looked like we were in the Sound of Music, and we're not even in Austria yet!

Wednesday, July 12:
Today was our "rest day".  I put that in quotes because we were using it to complete the hike recommended by Claire-Marie:  La Dent du Chat (the cat's tooth), a hike that left directly from our campsite and went up (and down) 1 kilometer of elevation over a 12-km loop.  It was INTENSE.  I swear that the French don't believe in switchbacks, or even much in trail maintenance -- in many spots, the trail climbed steeply straight up, with a base of slippery dirt or loose gravel that would plummet endlessly down the steep mountainside if you accidentally kicked some loose.  The last 300 m of ascent featured a series of cables, rebar steps, and ladders that essentially helped us mountaineer up to the narrow stone platform on top.

BUT... WHAT A VIEW!  It was a spectacular day with an incredible view of the huge, blue, and gorgeous Lac du Bourget (and surrounding resort towns of Chambery and Aix-les-Bains) to the east, with the Rhone valley and farmland to the west, and mountains all around.  It was absolutely stunning.  We scaredy-cat Americans cautiously ate our baguette sandwiches in the middle of the platform, while the French families with young kids casually wandered close to the edge (there was no railing!).  It was an absolutely unforgettable experience!

The descent was exhausting and rough on the legs, so we cooled off with another dip in our pristine lake and some ice cream.  We ended our rest day not having rested at all (in fact, our quads would be BURNING for the next few days), but feeling exuberant at having conquered La Dent!

Thursday, July 13:
Our descent from our mountainside village, the first real descent of our trip, was pretty thrilling, and soon we were back in the lovely Rhone Valley.  We stopped for lunch in the adorable little town of Chanaz, called the Little Venice of Savoie, and ate delicious escargot (yum) and local cheeses (double yum) next to a lovely flower-lined canal.  We had gotten a very late start that day, and also did not want to go too far after our exhausting hike of the previous day, so our target was our third WarmShowers host in Challonges, France.  Of course, this host family happened to live on the very top of a very long hill, and our host, Ralph, actually passed us in his car as we slowly struggled to the top!  With at least 50 lbs of gear on each of us (bike + luggage), it sometimes feels like we are cycling through quicksand.  I often wonder when I've gone uphill on this trip:  do I have air in my tires?  Is something wrong?  No, nothing is wrong... we are just WICKED SLOW when we're touring!  And that's why we call this blog slowexplorers.com :-)

Ralph and Sophie, our hosts, were like angels at the top of this endless hill.  Their house had a huge open yard overlooking a dairy farm and the rolling hills in every direction, and they welcomed us with open arms (as did their two daughters and their cute dog, Frodo).  They cooked us a delicious French BBQ for dinner and exchanged stories of travel (they met in the Canary Islands!), languages (Ralph speaks four fluently!), politics, and all sorts of other things -- they were extremely outgoing, friendly, and fun.  Moreover, they helped me fulfill a longtime goal of mine by taking me and Adam to see fireworks in a local village (Clermont) for Bastille Day!  The show was great and the scene was really fun, featuring a biergarten, dance hall, and all sorts of delicious food vendors.  I am so glad we went!!

Friday, July 14:
Happy Bastille Day, the French national holiday (and also my sister Megan's 25th birthday!)  Appropriately, today would be our last day in France, as we were planning to camp in Switzerland that night.  We took our time chatting with Ralph over breakfast on our way out, picked up some sandwiches at the ONE store that was open on Bastille Day, and set off into the rural mountain pass below the Mont Jura mountains.  We had some thrilling descents on this route, and even the climbs were fun as they took us past crumbling chateaux, huge forts, and (my personal favorite) hilltop statues of the Virgin Mary, which are very popular in mountainous French villages.

Sadly for us, our border crossing into Switzerland just before lunch was completely anticlimactic.  So anticlimactic, in fact, that we missed it at first, and only noticed 100m later because the lines painted on the roads had changed!  I do love the openness of the EU and the Schengen Zone, but I really would have liked a passport stamp (or at least a picture of us on our bikes at the customs station!).  Alas.

From the border, we passed into Geneva fairly quickly and watched in awe as people swam in the Rhone right in the city center!  (You definitely wouldn't dream of doing this in the Charles or Hudson...).  Switzerland has always seemed incredibly clean to me.  Even the public toilets on the riverbanks were so spotless that someone was washing an eggplant in the sink for their picnic in there!  Amazing.  We loaded up on some Swiss Francs and hustled out of there -- though it would be cool to see Geneva sometime, city touring is not quite what this trip of ours is about (unless we are visiting particular people)... and it's difficult to know what to do with the bikes when we stop in large cities.

Our campsite was a few miles northeast of the city in a tiny lakeside town called Tannay, where the municipal campground is run by the nicest man in the universe, Andre.  When he saw how exhausted and hot we were from our ride, he offered to let us use his own tent (already set up by the marina) so we wouldn't have to do it ourselves.  Incredible!  And this spot was truly incredible, too:  literally right in the marina of this town, right next to a very fancy and expensive restaurant (which shared a bathroom with us grungy campers, haha), complete with our own private beach where we could tiptoe down giant stones right into the crystal-clear blue waters of Lake Geneva.  This lake is AMAZING.  It is huge, surrounded by dramatic mountains, filled with beautiful sailboats, and just the most beautiful lake I have ever seen!  We pulled together a gourmet dinner using convenience store food (we were too far from grocery stores) and enjoyed a cool dip in the lake before settling down to sleep!  We could see no fewer than TEN fireworks shows on the south side of the lake (the French side) for a continued celebration of Bastille Day and Megan's birthday.  It was magical!

Saturday, July 15:
After bidding farewell to Andre and our campground friends, we enjoyed a mostly flat ride around the north side of the lake, through vineyards, past mansions, and around immaculate Swiss resort towns like Nyon and Rolle.  One downside of Switzerland is that the food here is extremely expensive, so we are trying to avoid eating out and are searching out cheaper grocery stores wherever we go!

After making our way through cosmopolitan Lausanne and eating lunch by a lakeside chateau (casual), we arrived early at our campground in Cully, located in the wine-producing Lavaux region that was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  So there are literally terraces of vineyards above us, the enormous Lake Geneva right next to us (our campsite is LITERALLY right on the water), and Alps across the river from us.  I have definitely never been in a more scenic campsite!!!  If we take 5 steps down the rocks next to our tent, we are in the wonderfully refreshing lake.  It is just absurdly beautiful.

Today we are enjoying a much-needed TRUE rest day here in Cully after taking advantage of morning Mass (with an incredible men's choir!) and the local market!  We've got some steep climbs ahead of us, so it is important to chill out now and let our muscles recuperate a bit before we get up into the Alps.  Soon, too, we will be in the German-speaking section of Switzerland, which makes me nervous because neither of us speaks German... but it's all part of the adventure!

Now that we are out of France, it is time for me to reflect on our 2+ weeks there.  If I could live in any other country in the world, it would be France (and I HAVE lived there!  But I would go back in a heartbeat.)  There are just so many things about this country that I love:  stunning and varied natural beauty, from beaches to mountains to rivers to farms; a deep commitment to delicious, local, and fresh food; a fascinating history that dates back to ancient times; and, most importantly, a people whom I have never found to be anything but extraordinarily generous, family-oriented, hospitable, kind, and forward-thinking, all while guarding their magnificent traditions.  I will really miss being in France, but I am excited to see what the next 2ish weeks in Switzerland have in store for us!  A tout a l'heure!!

Pierre's home, a former printing house



La Dent du Chat from below

What a hike!

Top of La Dent du Chat



Escargot



Sophie and Ralph

Finally going down

Border?

First dip in Lake Geneva


Our campsite

Lunch spot

Our new campsite!

View from our tent

We love signs

Looking back at our campsite



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Where are we now?

Legend

  • Red = We're going to bike that
  • Purple = We're biking that now
  • Grey = We biked that!
  • Black = We decided not to go that way
  • Yellow = We took a train
  • Magenta = We took a plane

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