Cruseilles, France – On a steep, narrow country road at 1,150 meters above sea level, my travel partner accelerated the engine aiming at the waggish sound of alpine bells. As herdsmen rallied the cows to graze on the undulating pastures of the Haute-Savoie, the soft hues of the early morning sun tinted the landscape that overlooks the crystalline peaks of Mont Blanc.
It was the last week of May. Although the powdery snow that once covered the summit of the Aravis mountain ranges had melted, the nearby lake in Annecy was still sponged in melancholy. Right below us, were several wooden chalets that opened up to flower-brimmed meadows.
Had it rained that day, it would have made the drive even more difficult. Low lying mists are known to mantle these highlands and temperatures can drop rapidly. On a cloudless night, the moon could illuminate twice as bright as a lighthouse and instead of looking after bobbing sailboats, its powerful beam acted as a guard to the fertile grounds beneath. One could only harken back to the days when pilgrims ascended from these vertiginous foothills. How brave they were to walk along perilous mountain passes on foot and without safety harnesses. Yet, unlike the monks, the nuns of the surrounding abbeys or the Hindu astronomer who came to Cruseilles before us on a quest for spiritual emancipation, we came to this region simply to escape the maddening crowds of the glitzy French Riviera.
Although there are many ways to avoid the mob in late spring or early summer, I latched on to the idea of going up to the mountains. To leave the big city behind for a small village in a cow country, reasoning that the long toilsome drive will be a journey in itself. The climate will be cooler and certainly a quiet time awaits for those who brave the terrain and elevation.
On our arrival in Cruseilles, a small commune in the Haute-Savoie region in the southeastern France, it instantly became apparent that it was not as sexy as Saint Tropez or Nice. Nevertheless, my travel partner and I gravitated to its simplicity and unpretentious nature. And unlike the coveted Cote d’Azur, with its endless color of blue and salty breeze fanned by the Mediterranean, this region of Haute-Savoie thrives on the subtlety of the snowcapped mountains, lush vegetation and pine-scented zephyr of the countryside. Here is a different side of France. It’s a geographical point of intersection where three countries meet and sometimes collide. On the east is Italy, Savoie on the south with its imposing French Alps, and Switzerland to the north crossing Lake Leman (or Lake Geneva).
The Savoyards are known for their superior cheese and cured meat. Once you’ve fallen under the spell of the “typiquement Savoyard”
lifestyle, it’s a hard to resist the welcoming change. So it was when Nicolas Odin opened up his maison
to escaping pilgrims like us. The charismatic convivial proprietor of Domaine des Avenières
, a Relais and Chateaux property nestled in the mountainous outskirts between Annecy and Geneva.
“I have always loved to live here. Cruseilles might be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but I grew up in this village and there’s nowhere else I can consider a place called home”, tells Odin with his French accent while holding his wife Laurence’s hand.
Odin’s first childhood memories were of the Alps, green pastures, deep glacier beds, lakes and an eerie looking 20th century manor house sitting remotely on a knoll. Interestingly, it was the image of the house that struck his curiosity – the austere weather-beaten roofs, the alabaster stone walls and brick chimneys, which at times were the only things visible when the fog came rolling in. Back then, most of the children from the village avoided playing or going near the “haunted house” (as they called it, but the house was not really haunted just scary looking) except Odin. Before long, after working at a restaurant in Paris and getting his pilot’s helicopter license, he embarked on a mission of restoring the old manor. He gained the approval of the council and by the time the painstaking renovation was completed, he was able to open the doors to Domaine des Avenières to guests who would like to partake of the highland flavors and experience the ways of a Savoyard life.
That afternoon, the sunny weather turned its back as an approaching rain cloud raced to cross the horizon. The thick pine forest of the Salève countryside that creeps from behind the manor beckoned us to take cover. But instead, I decided to wander around aimlessly leaving my travel partner behind.
A few meters from the hotel, hiking on a small twisted pathway, there were trees and whiskered hay in all directions. I rather liked it that way. With the absence of the swarming crowd, one can simply relish the silence to one’s own content. It’s been almost half an hour since I started walking and only one car had passed in addition to a farm tractor. Further ahead, my gaze finally caught a lovely sight of Alpine wooden houses. Montbéliarde cows were happily grazing on the open pasture oblivious to the cacophony of the clanky bells they wore around their neck. Somehow, I grew to love it. Why not? It was far better than fighting for a parking space in the French Riviera or hearing old men swear as they clean up after their dog’s merde.
Up and down and around the hills, and after soaking the full spectrum of the Haute-Savoie landscape, I headed back inside and went to see the chapel. I was told that it was built in honor of Mary Wallace Schillito’s sister and her Hindu husband. She, a well-heeled American, who traveled the region, fell in love with the landscape and decided to build a haven on the edge of the forest. Her husband, Assan Farid Dina was an astronomer and contributed to improving the life of the little village of Cruseilles through financing electric programs and bringing safe drinking water to the nearby hamlets. The chapel displayed a golden mosaic where the Zodiac, the Kabbalah and Egyptian tarot interplayed against a manicured garden.
The rain started to pelt down. Even before my stomach could complain, my travel partner was already waiting at the dining table and just finished chatting with the waiter. A minute later, drinks came. Our palates soaked from the transportive bubbles of the pink Champagne, the fruity zesty whiff of local wines, Apremont and a velvety tinge of Mondeuse d’Arbin. The crusty warm bread arrived, then the foie gras, steaming fresh water cod and so on. There’s nothing quite as pleasant and surprising than the Savoyard cuisine on a quiet evening when all you hear is the hurling rain and the theatrical waiter saying “J’arrive!”