October 13, 2013

Exploring Grenoble

After our first few days in this area of France - skiing, visiting Lyon, and more - we spent some time exploring our host's home town - Grenoble. Wandering around this small city is a delight! We began our day checking out the shops and architecture around the center of the city. The tight, narrow streets give the picture of a quintessential old European city. Old churches and houses still stand guard around small squares and the map is a labyrinth to explore.

We stopped at a small cafe for lunch - salads with mustard vinaigrette and bread - before going to my most anticipated stop of the day, a chocolaterie. Le Buchard is an adorable boutique chocolate shop and tea salon. With the brisk, winter chill outside, it was a perfect day for hot chocolate. We sat down in the salon and placed our order (classic hot chocolate for me and coffee for Jonathan). When our beverages arrived, they were presented like works of art - and they were delicious! My chocolate was rich and creamy with the perfect balance of chocolate flavor and sweetness. Before leaving, I went to the shop and purchased several bars and confectioneries to bring back home with me.

On a hill overlooking the city of Grenoble is an old fort, called the Bastille, that is now a park and a cafe. In the later part of the afternoon, we took the gondolas at the base of the hill to this park. The gondolas, referred to by our host as the "eggs", bring you on a short ride up the hill. As we rose in elevation, the city street view was replaced by the setting sun and mountains around us. From the Bastille, you can see the mountains that encircle this city. While we were up there, the snow covered peaks were painted intense oranges and pinks by the sun.

The view from the Bastille at sunset.
After it became dark, we met our host back home and headed out to enjoy our last evening in Grenoble. First, we went to a local wine bar, Le vin au verte, for a drink before dinner. Here, the proprietor serves local, organic wines (or biodynamic, as they refer to them in France) with cheeses and charcuterie. He recommended a wine from about 20 kilometers from this city. We relaxed and chatted alongside the other local patrons. The atmosphere was cozy and welcoming - it was the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine and the company of friends.

For dinner, we went to one of my friend's favorite restaurants - Café Louis. To begin, we had a squid and salad appetizer. The seafood was perfectly cooked and the salad - like most salads in France - was tossed in a simple, but delicious vinaigrette. Next up, we shared a creamy green vegetable soup. Simple and delicate, a perfect soup for a winter evening. For the entree, we had grilled fish over vegetables seasoned with herbs de provence. The meal perfectly represented what I enjoy about French cuisine.

Grenoble is a city that I look forward to visiting again. Not only is it home to friends, but it is also a welcoming place where the beauty of French cuisine and culture is enjoyable, not distant or overwhelming.

October 6, 2013

Skiing in a Post Card

One of the things we were excited about doing in the Alps was skiing. Both Jonathan and I love the mountains, but neither of us had skied outside of North America before. So, even though it caused us to bring considerably more luggage, we hauled our ski (for me) and snowboard (for Jonathan) gear across the Atlantic with us.

The first mountain we visited was Alpe d’Huez. This is about an hour and a half drive from Grenoble and was home to the 1966 Olympics. My friend accompanied us and we left the city after breakfast and drove the winding roads into the mountains. After an hour or so, our GPS directed us to turn up a narrow mountain road. It was only one lane in each direction, appeared to only lead to a small village, and switched back precariously as it gained altitude. We followed the crazy curves back and forth and I dared not peek down the steep cliff at the edge. I think I held my breath the whole way...

Eventually we emerged at a large alpine ski resort. There were lodges, shops, cafes, and ski lifts and trails heading off in all directions. We unpacked, got our tickets, and headed up the mountain!
It was a perfect day - sunny, not too warm or cold, and not very windy. And the snow was perfect too - soft, groomed flakes and no ice. We started on the area of the mountain in front of the main lodge. After a few runs there we took a lift to another mountain peak. This ride to the other mountain has to be one of the most unique (and unsettling) chairlift rides I have ever experienced. First the lift brought us up over some buildings, parking lots, and flat terrain. Then it began descending sharply along the mountainside into a valley before reversing direction at the bottom to bring us up to the other mountainside.

Sometimes it felt like I was skiing into a post card!

This mountain peak had my favorite run all day - a long winding blue trail that circled the mountain giving you a panoramic view of the spectacular surrounding alps. After skiing for a few hours we stopped for lunch at one of the several lodges in ski resort. Lunch was definitely not what you’d get at a cafe at an American ski slope - fresh salads, pastas, and other warm entrees all served with beer, wine, tea, cocoa, or other non-alcoholic beverages. (Definitely a more civilized meal than bad pizza and burgers I’m accustomed to in ski lodges on the west side of the Atlantic!) We ordered salads with hot chocolate or tea and enjoyed our meal with fresh bread and a view of the alpine slopes.

After lunch we spent the afternoon skiing and enjoying the opportunity to be in such a beautiful place! I hope to be able to return to Alpe d'Huez sometime soon...