June 20-21, 2013
Another motorcycle trip was in the works, but this time we thought that we’d spice it up a bit and do some climbing at our destination. Bob once again agreed to join us and we scouted out likely places on our map. The type of climbing that we were interested in is called “via ferrata” (“Klettersteig” in German) and while it involved a climbing harness and carabiners, there aren’t any ropes or belaying involved. We were originally looking at Grenoble (FR), but then Dan mentioned that the town of Annecy (FR) was supposed to be nice, so we settled on that for our destination. I booked a couple of hotel rooms and then proposed a fairly direct, yet scenic, loop for the journey. I really had no idea of what we’d see along the way – I just knew that it wasn’t the main motorway. But everyone was happy with the plan and it was just a matter of waiting until Saturday morning to put it into action.
When we hit the road at 7am on Saturday we took the motorway to Biel. It was the best way to “get out of town” and make sure that we had time to relax and explore once we got to Annecy. The weather didn’t cooperate very well either, as there was a heavy fog over most of the valley once we crossed over to the Aar River valley near Olten. This fog followed us – and the Aar River – all the way to Biel. We made a quick stop for fuel, learning yet another foreign pumping system as we tried to pay with our bank cards and trying to read the pump’s display. Someday we’ll get it right the first time!
South of Biel
After Biel the weather started to clear up and by the time we reached Neuchatel we could see bits of blue sky poking through. I suggested that we stop in Neuchatel, as the city has a rich history and is beautifully situated on the shore of Lake Neuchâtel. We never made it to the lake, but we did find a fantastic open air market to explore. The fruits and vegetables were the most beautifully displayed I’ve ever seen, and everything looked more vibrant and bigger than I would have thought possible. We ate fresh strawberries and some fresh-made rolls as we sat and watched the people do their shopping. It was a refreshing break.
Market in Neuchatel
Weighing out the vegetables
Back on the bikes we decided to leave the lakeside motorway and instead explore more of the Jura Mountains. This is an extensive range that follows the Swiss/French border from Basel to well south of Geneva. We agreed upon a way point to stop at before confirming our next leg and began the exit from the built up motorways of Neuchatel.
Then we lost Bob.
He got caught behind a large truck and didn’t see us exit, and by the time he realized his mistake, he was well past the point of catching us. Dan and I waited for a little bit along the route, but then Dan left him a text message stating that we’d just meet him in St-Pierre. It looked to be a small village and it would be easy to find each other there. Dan and I took off on 10, our new best friend. This road was excellent! There was very little traffic, the surface was smooth and clean, the turns consistent and plentiful and with the lifting clouds, the views of green rolling hills and forested slopes were enough to keep me smiling from ear to ear.
One of the many Swiss tunnels
The GPS suggested that we had reached St-Pierre, even though neither of us had seen any signs indicating such. We parked the bikes conspicuously on the side of the road and Dan walked down the block to look around. Ten minutes later Bob pulled up, grinning from his run down 10 as well. Dan joined us and pointed to the building across the street: The Distillerie Les Fils d’Emile Pernot. Absinthe! We had to check it out.
Inside it was small and looked how I would imagine it looked 100 years ago. The equipment was rudimentary but clean and surprisingly minimal. The two people who appeared to work there spoke only French, so we let Dan loose and he translated the proprietor’s comments. The process is surprisingly quick (about 24 hours for 60L) but the ingredients were fresh and various. The final products included lavender, pine or berries, to name a few. We went into the tasting room where a traditional absinth dispenser (does it have a name?) was set up, as well as two dozen bottles to chose from. The guys tried 3-4, and I tried two. Not surprisingly, absinth is NOT to my liking. Another couple came in while we were tasting, so we picked out a few bottles to take with us and took our leave. I love coming upon such surprises while on a trip – it really makes it memorable.
Note the resemblance to the castle outside?
The tasting room
From St-Pierre the plan was to head for the town of Gex (FR), cross over into Switzerland and skirt Geneva as best as possible and then just go direct to Annecy. Our hours were being eaten up quickly and we were running out of play time. But before we could get on our bikes we were approached by a woman on a heavily packed motorcycle, looking for a nearby town. Surprisingly, she was traveling without a GPS or a map, relying solely on a print out of turn-by-turn instructions. We had to consulte both our GPS and map before we could give her an answer, and ended up giving her a copy of one of our maps to make sure that she didn’t have any further problems.
How the couple in the distillery got to St-Pierre – there are pedals in there!
A lost traveler finds her way
The mountains were beautiful. The traffic? Not so much.
Unfortunately, the GPS thought that we wanted to get to Annecy IMMEDIATELY and set us on an unhappy route directly to Geneva. We realized this while in the town of Vallorb (CH), which was very fortuitous timing – the new route to Gex would send us back into France through some very pristine countryside on narrow mountain roads. Lac Brenet marked the change from the arterial roads used by most people to the less-traveled roads that we’d be taking. I saw more hikers and bicyclists than I did motorized vehicles for the next hour. The countryside was either wide open green fields or stands of fluffy pine trees. The pavement, unfortunately, did not lend me a lot of confidence and I often found myself choosing my lines carefully to avoid gravel, rough patches or just sketchy-looking surfaces. But the beauty around me, as the road went in and out of forests, up and over the hills and around corner after corner meant that I didn’t really care. I rather felt like I was in Oregon for a bit, near the John Day forest for those who are familiar.
We came out on the other side of a ridge and dropped down into a wide valley. It was time for lunch! The small village of Chappelle des Bois came into view as did a couple of motorcycles parked in front of a hotel. This was a tiny village, with about a dozen buildings visible from the main road, so our choices weren’t that great anyway. We parked our bikes and Dan asked the hostess if we could order lunch. The woman led him to the signboard near the door and pointed to a single line of text. If we wanted the one item on the menu, we could have it. So we ordered three servings, some cold beverages and sat outside to watch the world go by. When our food arrived, it was a light assortment of lettuces, meats, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots and a couple helpings of unfamiliar foods. It was all surprisingly tasty.
Chappelle des Bois
Considering the size (or lack thereof) of the village, I were surprised to hear a boisterous group of guys making their way towards us. They were slow in their progress but when they finally came into view I learned why: it was a bachelor party. Five guys surrounded the soon-to-be-groom, him decked out in a fancy hat while a cowbell and jug of beer hung from his neck. He dragged a plastic sled behind him, loaded with various objects and boxes. They were thrilled to hear that we were from out of town and excitedly told us that we were to buy them all a beer! Or if not beer, then to donate something to the new husband. We all laughed at this and I grabbed a bag of mixed nuts from the tank bag. Since nothing was truly expected of us, they were genuinely pleased and took up renewed interest in their enthusiasm. They told me I should kiss the bachelor, which I thought would be the fun and polite thing to do. After they threw an egg at the poor guy they all made their way (slowly) to the next building. Apparently the tradition is to go from door-to-door throughout the village, replaying the same antics at each one.
The bachelor party
And off they go to the next house
We finished our lunch and prepared to go to Annecy. We didn’t have anything planned between here and there and would just take whatever the roads threw at us. The day was getting warm and the closer we got to Geneva the thicker and slower the traffic was. Travel campers once again took the position of “rolling road blocks” and the cars usually weren’t much better. It was a shame about the traffic because the roads were fabulous. Plenty of corners and the pavement had improved greatly. But then I hit a corner where the scenery opened up and there was nothing but Lake Geneva and the Alps. Dan heard my audible gasp through the Sena and then I heard his just a few seconds later as he took the same corner. From here on to the bottom of the mountain it was an amateur racetrack, with bikes zooming up and down, passing however and whenever they wanted.
Lake Geneva with the Alps in the background
Dan and Bob
We finally reached the town of Gex and from there it was a torturous route through small towns, traffic-ladened roundabouts and then the French toll road. The road was fast and in excellent condition, but there wasn’t much more to remark on it. It was a complete pain to pay the toll when we finally took the exit to Annecy – one more reason to avoid them while on a motorcycle, I guess.
Annecy was a hopping place! There were hundreds of people milling around in the old town and along the lake’s shore. We found our hotel, right in the heart of the old city, unloaded and then parked our bikes. It was time to explore on foot.
Dan in Annecy
Annecy has a varied history, starting about the 12th century, and managed to retain a lot of its charm over the years. The lake is spectacular and heartily appreciated by a number of people for swimming, boating and fishing. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the narrow streets and then along the lake. Bob and Dan decided to go into the lake to cool off and while I was tempted to join them, I was not convinced. There were lovely parks all along the waterfront, either heavily treed or crowded with flowers. Either way, there was always room for people, whether they be sunning themselves or playing volleyball. Or performing the female version of the bachelor party, complete with bunny ears as they went from bench to bench.
Annecy is also referred to as the “Venice of France” and I can see why: the town is riddled with small rivers that flow into the lake. The town was built carefully over and around them, letting them channel down between buildings and under walk ways. The waterways were kept clean and flowers decorated the edges, giving the town yet another festive aspect to it.
Throughout our walk we saw an unusually high number of expensive bicycles and signs in shops about the Tour de France. I figured that the locals would be pretty interested in the race, it being run in France at the time, but as we walked back along the lake we realized what was going on: there had been a leg of the Tour de France run in Annecy that day! We saw car after car leaving town, each loaded with racing bicycles on the roof racks and plastered with sponsor’s logos. That explained the sheer number of people in town and the various Tour related items we saw.
We laughed at the coincidence of ending up in town on a race day, but glad that we came late enough to have missed the race itself. Nothing like closed roads and detours to make the heat and traffic even more miserable. We spent some more time wandering the darkening streets and then enjoyed a bottle of wine lakeside before calling it a night.
Continue to Part II