High up in the French Alps and away from the crowd, ordinary afternoon walks become sublime experiences with soul-rousing natural beauty playing the ideal backdrop.
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 smeared 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 soaking in melancholy. Below us were several wooden chalets punctauting the flower-brimmed meadows.
Had it rained that day, it would have made the drive even more difficult. Low lying mists mantle the highlands and temperatures drop rapidly. On cloudless nights, the moon illuminates twice as bright as a lighthouse. One could only harken back to the days when pilgrims ascended from these vertiginous foothills 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 surging summertime crowds headed to the French Riviera where we live.
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 coastal city behind for a small village in a cow country. I reasoned that the long toilsome drive will be a journey in itself. The climate will be cooler and a promise of solitude awaits for those who brave the terrain and elevation.
On our arrival in Cruseilles, a small commune in the Haute-Savoie region in southeastern France, we immediately gravitated to its simplicity and unpretentious nature. Unlike the 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 snow capped mountains, lush vegetation and pine-scented zephyr of the countryside. It’s a geographical point of intersection where three countries meet and commingle. On the east is Italy, Savoie on the south with its imposing French Alps, and Switzerland to the north crossing Lake Geneva. Here is another side of France.
When Nicolas Odin, the charismatic proprietor of Château des Avenières opened his doors to escaping summertime pilgrims like us, what better way to briefly forget about the coast, cast any notions of the Riviera aside and make room for the ‘typiquement savoyard’ lifestyle.
“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 Nicolas in his soft yet reassuring French accent.
What was once a haunted house, as his friends used to call it in their childhood days, is now an intimate 12-room boutique hotel that he and his wife Laurence lovingly both run. A Relais et Chateaux property nestled in the mountainous outskirts between Annecy and Geneva, the 60-hectare estate is big enough to find moments of summertime calm.
That afternoon, I decided to have a walk. The sun turned its back early as an approaching rain cloud raced to cross the horizon. Hiking on a narrow bent pass, there were trees and whiskered hay in all directions. 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 caught sight of Alpine chalets bedecked with blooming geraniums, white puffy smoke crawling out of the chimneys before dissipating into the cool air. Montbéliarde cows were happily grazing oblivious to the cacophony of the clanky bells they wore around their necks. I grew to love the sensation. Why not? It was far better than wrangling for space in a crowded beach, wrestling yourway in and out of a crammed supermarket or encountering boisterous drunk tourists staggering out of pub at midday.
Up and down and around the hills, and after soaking in the sedating fix brought on by the landscape, I slowly headed back only to make a prescribed stop to see the hotel’s chapel. I was told that it was built in honor of Mary Wallace Schillito’s sister and her Hindu husband. A well-heeled American, who traveled the region, fell in love with the tranquil landscape and decided to build a place 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 which still exists at the present. The chapel displayed a golden mosaic of the Zodiac, the Kabbalah and Egyptian tarot, a merry mix set against a manicured garden.
The rain started to pelt down and so was my urge to find some quick nourishment. But even before my stomach could complain, I saw my travel partner already waiting for me at the dining table and chatting with the waiter. Minutes 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 caught from the nearby lake in Annecy and so on. There’s nothing quite as pleasant and surprising as the Savoyard cuisine on a quiet evening when all you hear is the hurling rain and the theatrical waiter saying “J’arrive!”