Observation: Ever since arriving in Provence (i.e., when we got to Cassis), I noticed lots and lots of airline contrails. In Cassis, you could usually see around 3 contrails at any moment. I think I counted up to 5 or 6, at one point. In Roussillon, there were fewer contrails, but they were still usually there.
Observation: Provencal pronunciation, Peter Maille ("A Year in Provence") and Kristen tell us, is a bit different than in the northern or central sections of France. My ear for French isn't good enough to hear much difference. The one exception is that I am hearing a lot of "mercee-sh" instead of "merci".
Observation: Provence sure does remind me a lot of California. It has some of the best weather in France; Its weather is occasionally screwed up by strong winds (Mistral vs. Santa Anas); Lighter cuisine, emphasizing vegetables...
Anyway, breakfast was la même chose (same old, same old...).
I spend some quality snooze time on the bus, interrupted only by a brief rest stop just short of Sisteron, just below a hydroelectric facility powered by the Durance river.
Sisteron has an imposing fortification on the west side of a narrow neck of the Durance. Apparently, this was the site of strategic march on Paris by Napoleon, after returning from his exile. Mostly, we are here for the views from the fortified château.
And the whole thing was capped off by a pear-flan tarte. Not bad, but not really worth noting.
Okay, and we're back on the road to Chamonix. After Sarah offers us a chocolate tasting (Milka, 76% dark, and 86% dark -- my vote is for the 86% stuff), we are treated to a game of France Jeopardy (without the "answer in the form of a question" rule). After helping my team (the front of the bus) in the first few questions, I try hard to sit on my hands as much as possible for the rest. We end up creaming the guys in the back. Is there some correllation between the folks who choose to sit in back, and their ability to answer questions? Hmmm...
Observation: This particular day brought a lot of aviation sightings. As we left Roussillon, we saw a brightly-colored hot air balloon at around a hundred feet up, and there were reports that another one was in the process of being inflated. As we left Sisteron, we saw a high aspect ratio ultralight aircraft soaring parallel to the bus. A couple of paragliders (parapente in French) were riding ridge lift. When we reached the Haute Alps, one particular ridge was supporting a swarm of at least 18 paragliders at the same time! While passing through the northern outskirts of Grenoble, we saw a couple of conventional gliders under tow. Finally, in Chamonix, there are always a few paragliders in the air, shuttling between Mount Blanc, L'Aiguille du Midi, and the other side of the Chamonix valley.
As we arrive in Chamonix, we learn of the various recreational options for our free day tomorrow. There are cable cars to 12k feet (Chamonix is at around 3.5k), almost as high as Mont Blanc, just a few miles away; a hike from halfway up over to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice, a glacier); a cable car, on a single-leg, 3-mile-long cable, to Italy; and even paragliding. To my dismay, I learn that Brigid is very interested in paragliding. As it is, we are probably going to be spending our day apart. She, at least, wants to go up to the top. I'm too concerned about altitude sickness (after a mild bout on Haleakala, many years ago, I'm wary). I also don't want to risk a panic attack. We shall see what happens tomorrow.
Our room, number 46 in Hotel de L'Arve, is wonderfully situated. From the balcony, we can look up at the Aiguille du Midi tower, and at paragliders hanging right above us. Looking down, the Arve river is rushing by, right below us, milky from glacial deposits. As I write this, with the windows and doors shut, I can still hear the river.
Dinner is in a restaurant on the main drag. I forget the name (La Calèche, perhaps?), and I'll probably forget the meal as soon as I can. Our choices are the regional Alpine specialties: Fondue or Raclette. You know what the former is -- a mixture of cheeses, some kirsch, some garlic, some bread cubes and meats to dip (drop your bread cube and tradition says you have to kiss everyone at the table). Raclette is something Brig and I had tried as an appetizer at Royal Gorge's Wilderness Lodge. Here, it's to be the basis of our entire meal! It's a half wheel of raclette cheese, under an electric broiler. You broil the cheese until it bubbles and browns, then scrape off the results onto a plate, and thence onto boiled potatoes or sliced meat, such as ham or carpaccio. I was instantaneously finished, with my first bite. It's melted cheese on potatoes. A whole meal? Why?
Brigid's fondue is a little better than my raclette. However, her table has to deal with a rather uptight waitress. One of her tablemates rearranges her own silverware to her preference. The waitress notices the out-of-place pieces, scolds her in French, and restores everything to its proper place. Yikes!
Happily, the utterly leaden main course is sandwiched between a lighter entrée and a very refreshing dessert.
The entrée choice was between a very conventional lettuce-and-tomato salad (which appeared to be nice and simple) and a traditional french onion soup. Brigid and I both had the latter. The soup was served in a surprisingly tipsy bowl. Unlike the very winey onion soup we had in Chinon, this has a very concentrated beef broth. It also has a lot more onion strips, and a toasted slice of bread, covered with melted cheese, floats on the soup. The toast, it turns out, is darned tough to break up and eat, and the cheese has been over-broiled, and is leathery! Sarah uses a fork, and I persist in cutting it against the side of the bowl.
After the heavy-duty melted cheese, Kristen asks, kiddingly, whether we are ready for some dessert -- cheese cake, anyone? She laughs, and tells us to expect something light. Jerry opines that he hopes it won't be more pear. We've had pear at dessert for the last couple of days. Me? I don't mind, so long as it's light. Well, it turns out to be scoops of two different sorbets. One is a berry sorbet, and the other is -- yes, you guessed it -- pear! Sorry, Jerry. It's good, especially with the tiny blueberries and their associated sauce. Very refreshing.
I'm hoping I haven't been too much of a drag on conversation this evening. Poor Sarah is pretty much stuck with me as dining/conversation companion (the raclette grille isolates our part of the table from the remainder of our group). I'm distracted by the anxieties presented by tomorrow's activities, and I fail to mind my social graces, allowing conversation to stray where it probably doesn't belong. And I inadvertently push a couple of problematic buttons with another table companion couple. Sigh. Life is a process of learning. As with most things, perhaps I'll get most things straight shortly before I can no longer use them...