It is probably obvious that if one wants to spend a month tootling around Provence, one should double check to ensure the cities where non-refundable hotels have been booked are in Provence. It is likely equally obvious, from the title or if you have read this far, to realize I failed miserably in this task. It wasn’t until I passed a road sign declaring Auvergne-Rhone-Alps before I realized I was no longer in Provence, although the foothills of the Alps, the chalets and the fondue restaurants should all have provided a clue. A quick check on the map of France confirmed that none of my next 3 cities were in Provence, but there was no going back unless I wanted to lose those non-refundable charges.
In any event, the cities I had chosen each had their own attractions. Valence simply to break up the drive between Avignon and Annecy; Annecy as a highly recommended pretty Alpine city and Lyon, the second largest city in France (Marseille disputes this but no one had a definitive answer) and self-described culinary capital of the world.
Everyone is entitled to their mistakes, and Valence was mine. It’s a pretty city with an historic old town, but when I googled Things to do in Valence, not a lot came up that didn’t involve a day trip to Lyon, Avignon or Annecy, cities already on my agenda. No walking tours were on offer and I had had my fill of historical museums. So I did what I always do when uncertain as to the sights. I looked up TripAdvisor, programmed its Top 10 things to do in Valence into my GoogleMaps walking application and started at # 1. It is a bandstand made famous in a French program I never heard of and was surrounded by fencing preparing for an evening rock concert. # 2 was Park Jouvet, conveniently located next to the bandstand. It was a nice park and I was enjoying the shade of a tree near a park bench until the band in attraction #1 started rehearsing, completely ruining the serenity of the park.
The Things to do List wasn’t proving particularly engrossing. I gave up and walked down the two pedestrian streets, reminding me I had some shopping to do (replace Apple headphones I had lost) and laundry. Valence was as good a place as any to get those things done, so I did.
Nestled in the Alps around a lake (Lake Annecy, what else?) lies the city of Annecy. It calls itself the Venice of the Alps, thanks to canals that run from the lake through the old city. Venice has little to fear as competition; Annecy has only two canals, they are only a few hundred meters each and neither gondolas nor gondoliers are present. What Annecy’s canals have are pretty as punch bridges, cobblestone paths on either side of the canals for walking and restaurant patios and the Palace d’Ille, formerly a prison, now a museum.
Three days a week, local farmers and merchants set up a market on the cobblestones, slowing pedestrian traffic to a shuffle. Food of every sort is available, including my go-to lunch, roasted chicken, and my newest favourite, white peaches so juicy and sweet you’d think sugar was added.
Twice a year, Annecy gets inundated with tourists flocking to its annual fireworks festival – the biggest in France- and its Animation Film Festival. Neither were on when I was there, so Annecy was just very crowded with mostly French tourists coming for their week at the lake vacation.
On a hill overlooking the old town is Chateau d’Annecy, a 12th century fortress and chateau used by the counts of Geneva for protection and a residence. The buildings are a museum, but I entered the main one to be greeted by an exhibition on the woodcarving techniques used for making flat bottom boats that plied Lake Annecy, complete with a life size replica. As shipbuilding is not something I find fascinating, I quickly exited and went to the real attraction of the Chateau, its panoramic view of the city and lake.
The lake itself is emerald green. Measuring about 42 kilometers in circumference, it is home to Annecy at one end and thousands of holiday homes perched in the foothills around the lake. A bike path circles the lake, but the gentleman in the bike rental store warned me to go only halfway to avoid the hills at the other end. I took his advice and had a lovely 15 kilometer bike ride (each way), passing through farms where the tingling sound of cowbells announced the presence of cows, cottages, tents and caravan parks all filled with people enjoying the beach and every manner of water sport, from paddle boats to canoes to water-skiing.
I spent an idyllic 3 days in Annecy, going for bike rides each day, walking along the lake and dining in the restaurants along the canal.
Car versus Public Transit
I was debating whether having a car was preferable to using public transit. For a single person, it was much more expensive after car rental, gas and tolls, but it allowed me more freedom to see the countryside and visit small villages which would have been near impossible to reach by public transit.
It wasn’t all positive. As I needed hotels with parking, I wasn’t able to stay in or near the old, car free, city centres, my usual preference. I had made peace with GoogleMaps, so getting lost was not a problem and the French are relatively courteous drivers (in comparison to, eg, the Albanians). I was even starting to appreciate the ubiquitous roundabouts.
I was going back and forth on this issue as I drove from Annecy to Lyon. To save money and to enjoy the countryside, I turned on the “Avoid Tolls” feature in GoogleMaps and was rewarded with picturesque villages, fields of grapes and sunflowers and an absence of trucks. At one point, I exited a tiny village and started up a high mountain on a single lane road with a thick fence made of stone to protect the cars from the precipitous cliffs. At the top. I passed through a rock tunnel and emerged into the sunlight to be greeted by the most fabulous view, the lake of St. Germaine la Chambotte far below in the valley. As I wasn’t able to stop at the top of the mountain, the photo was taken in a turn out about 1/3 the way down.
After this view, renting a car won hands down!
Lyon, like many other cities, is shaped by its geography. Its highest hill, the Fourvière, was first inhabited as a colony during the Roman period. Below the hill is the oldest part of the city, the areas of St. John and St. George, which boast more Renaissance buildings than any other city except Venice. Next is the River Saone and between the island separating the Saone from the Rhone River is the typical neo-classical French city with wide boulevards, Haussmann style buildings, parks and squares and a main pedestrian street called Rue de la Republic. On the other side of the Rhone is the new city, with 20th century high rises and parking lots and a large immigrant community.
Lyon’s early fortune as the capital of Gaul floundered with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Always a trading hub as a result of its rivers and closeness to both Italy and Switzerland, it regained its earlier prominence in the Middle Ages as the center of silk weaving. Francois Jacquard, of the Jacquard weave, used punch cards on his looms to replicate tapestry patterns, the precursor to the punch cards used by computers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The silk industry disappeared from Lyon with the import of cheap Chinese silk, but a few shops still demonstrate the looms and resulting silks.
Also during this time, the aqueducts which had supplied Roman Lyon dried up. People living in the town needed easy access to the rivers, made difficult because the houses were built right next to each other, with no roads leading to or from the rivers. To solve this problem, over 600 tunnels or passageways were built under, between or through buildings, providing direct paths to the waterways. These passageways, or traboules as they are called, still exist today and many are open to the public.
During WW2, the traboules proved useful to both the French resistance and fleeing refugees, as the locals knew of their location but the Nazis did not. This also gave rise to one of Lyon’s darkest chapters, the tyranny of Klaus Barber, the Butcher of Lyon, who as head of the Gestapo in Lyons was responsible for clearing the passages, torturing and murdering thousands of French citizens along the way. Despite this, the US counter-intelligence agency recruited him and later assisted in relocating him to Bolivia. He was finally extradited back to France in 1984 to stand trial for crimes against humanity. His trial was held in the Appeals Court in Lyon, where he was convicted. He died in custody in 1991.
Lyon boasts it has 21 Michelin starred restaurants, but obtaining a dinner reservation for one on short notice proved impossible, so I did the next best thing. I signed up for a gourmet food tour, accompanied by 8 Americans and our guide, Olivier, a native Lyonnais. We started at a cheese store, where we sampled numerous cheeses including goat and sheep cheeses and those made from unpasteurized milk. Our next stop was at a Lyon institution, the Bouchon. Bouchons originally began in the 16th century as cheap eating houses for the silk workers. The wealthy Lyonnaise used the best parts of animals, thus typical Bouchon fare is heavy on chicharrons (pork rinds), offal and intestines, all considered waste by the upper crust. We sampled all three along with copious amounts of local red wine. The third and fourth stop featured similar foods, with the addition of beans and my favourite, saucisson brioche, a sausage cooked in a brioche pastry. We finished with ice cream and a very sweet praline cake, a fitting end to a 4 hour gourmet journey.
Next: More problems staying in Provence