A Holiday (or Two) in the French Alps

Leaving the frigid city blocks of Oslo, it was time to head south and gain some altitude. We took a short plane journey over to Paris for the next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be spending anytime in my favorite city, as not long after our plane landed, we were on a high speed train headed across the country. The Train Grande Vitesse, or TGV, is a high-speed rail service connecting France’s major cities as well as some neighboring countries. Conventional services on routes can get up to 200 mph, but despite this incredible speed, there has never been a fatal accident in TGV’s operational history, thanks to one of the most advanced safety systems in the world. As we clipped along, the ride was smooth, and we watched France race by. Most of the French countryside we saw was flat farmland, though as we got further south, we started seeing rolling foothills and verdant forests. Our train’s route was from Paris to Geneva, but we wouldn’t be going the whole way. We were headed towards the majestic French Alps for the holidays, just south of the border with Switzerland. Our first official housesit!

Since we’re traveling for quite a long time, Clayton and I constantly look for ways we can maintain a reasonable budget. We WWOOFed twice in the United Kingdom, trading our manual labor in organic gardens for free room and board with some days off to tour each week (see WWOOFing at Huntley B&B and Barrow Castle). We absolutely loved it, but as the winter chill set into Europe, we weren’t as keen to spend 30 hours a week outdoors with fingers in the frostbitten earth. Enter house sitting. House sitters will “live in” a house while owners are away for long periods of time, maintaining the property and taking care of anything that might come up while the owners are away. However, most of these homeowners have pets that they can’t bring with them and don’t want to kennel, so in reality, it’s petsitting that’s in high demand.

Both Clayton and I have a lot of experience with animals, both through personal experience and professional dog-walking services back in the States. On top of that, both of us were missing having pets around as we toured Europe. There is something to be said about coming home to a wagging tail or a rumbling purr. As house sitters, we would be able to have a free place to stay with animals to cuddle with, while owners on vacation had peace of mind that their animals and home were being looked after while they were away. We built a profile on the website TrustedHousesitters.com and crossed our fingers that someone would choose first-time house sitters on the site. As incredible luck would have it, a family in the French Alps chose us. On top of the usual pet care experience, they were looking for a couple familiar with winter driving. With plenty of Wisconsin living between us, we fit the bill. This would be our first foray into official housesitting, and we were counting our lucky stars that we were chosen for such a sought-after location.

It was dark by the time the train pulled into the train station at Thonon-Les-Bains. Our host, Antonia, picked us up and we began the windy, narrow drive up into the mountains. We won’t dwell here on the chances of our first WWOOF host and first house sit host both having the same name, as well as our second WWOOF host and second house sit both having the name Judy… but I’m getting ahead of myself. (And dwelling.) The road followed a river, and looking out the window we couldn’t see much more than the white rapids to our right and steep earth towering over us to the left. As we turned off the main road and began gaining elevation, the track became narrower and narrower, rockier and rockier. We passed numerous buildings and homes in the ‘chalet’ style, and finally, pulled into a driveway.

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The living area and kitchen of our cozy Alpine home

Our home for the next three weeks was perched halfway up a mountain overlooking the small village of St. Jean d’Aulps. St. Jean d’Aulps itself is just down the road from Morzine, a popular ski town that is frequented by an astonishing number of British holiday-makers and expats. So many, in fact, that you’re just as likely to hear English spoken on the street as much as French. The surrounding mountains aren’t messing around, as is typical for the Alps. Majestic and towering, they were all constantly snow-capped despite the bizarre warmer temperatures during our stay. Below the tree line, pine forests abounded and kept the landscape surprisingly verdant despite being winter.

The house itself blended in nicely with the landscape, as it was also in the chalet style. Chalet style houses are generally made of wood, with gently sloping roofs, overhanging eaves, grand balconies, and expansive windows. This house was no exception. The main level of the house, where the kitchen and living area were located, was open concept and one entire wall was made up of floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out across the valley (see the top photo of this article for the full view). The landscape was stunning at any time of day, unless a cloud rolled in and engulfed us, and then the view was rather white and fuzzy. In clear weather, we could just make out the ski lift and slopes of a small ski lodge across the valley- the one that we would visit before our stay was over.

The animals were a dream come true. One dog, two cats, and five chickens. Purdey, a picture-perfect Golden Retriever, was one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met. She had the most gentle, sweet demeanor, would listen to just about any command, and loved nothing more than to play fetch until her legs gave out. She’s the type of dog that wags her whole body with her tail. Luke and Leia, the cats, were both lap cats and lovingly kneaded their claws deep into our flesh as they purred madly every time we sat down. The chickens provided us with fresh eggs every day, and joyfully gobbled up our food waste. A perfect relationship.

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Purdey (left), Luke (top right), and Leia (bottom right)

The family showed us how to care for the house and animals, then packed up and were off to Australia. We had the house, animals, and car to ourselves. Clayton got reacquainted with driving a manual transmission…fast. Nothing like refreshing your memory for it on the steep slopes of the wintery Alps! Oddly enough, after the first day, the weather became unseasonably warm and we didn’t get any snow. This was slightly disappointing as we wouldn’t have a white Christmas, but it did make for much safer driving. Most of our driving consisted of short trips down the mountain for groceries. A large supermarket down the road towards Morzine provided most staples, but we always made sure to stop in the little bakery in St. Jean d’Aulps. Shockingly affordable baguettes and tantalizing pastries were hard to keep away from, and we were down there to pick up more at least every other day, trying something new each time.

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Mountains for neighbors, and a very happy dog

Exhausted after whirlwind visits in Iceland and Norway, we spent many of our days stoking the wood fire, walking Purdey up and down the mountain roads, and cuddling with the cats while playing video games. Chilly as it was outside, the wood fire stove heated up the entire main floor of the house so well that we walked around in shorts and tee-shirts. The dog and cats were strangely attracted to the fire, and would lay so close to it, they’d eventually start panting and we were afraid they were giving themselves heatstroke. We’d entice them away from the fire so they could cool off, but they’d inevitably end up back in the heat to gently broil themselves. I can’t imagine Purdey ever felt truly cold, even on our walks. Within the first twenty seconds of leaving the house, Purdey would inevitably have found a stick for us to throw, and during the course of the entire walk up and down the mountain, we would throw the stick as far as we could for her and she would sprint off to catch it and return it. No matter how far we walked up the steep slopes, Purdey would do at least three times more with all her running back and forth, and by the end of the walk, she was throwing herself in the snow to cool down. Then it was back inside to roasting in front of the fire.

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A packed Christmas concert in St. Jean d’Aulps

We did manage to tear ourselves away from the incredible view and warm wood stove to explore some of the surrounding area. Nearby villages were each celebrating Christmas in their own ways, be it markets, shows, events, or simply decorations. One of our first evenings, we drove down the mountain to attend a Christmas concert at the local church. A local brass band followed the church choir, then they both performed Christmas carols together. The performance was typical of what you’d expect from a small community group – slightly off-key and off-beat in the most wholesome of ways. Clayton and I adored watching one particular elderly gentleman singing in the back row. He had on a giant bow tie, and his face crinkled with delight as he sang full force, beaming whenever the audience applauded. It was heartwarming and made the performance feel more personal. I was really impressed by both conductors. I suspected they both went to school for music, since their style was very classically based. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how many people attended – it was a full house! – and I’m sure the performers were pleased as well. Many of the people attending were vacationers, and it was nice to see them get involved in the local scene instead of solely sticking to the ski slopes. The general atmosphere gave me a pang of homesickness for my church Advent concerts back home, though I realized that this really wasn’t all that different. This was someone else’s church that they adored, with their annual Christmas concert. It then became familiar, and instead of reminding me of what I was missing, it became a little slice of home.

 

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Thonon-Les-Bains and a view of Switzerland across Lake Geneva

Several days later we drove to nearby Thonon-Les-Bains to check out their Christmas market. The town is on the banks of Lake Geneva, and on a clear day you can see Switzerland on the horizon. We parked the car, crossed the train tracks and headed to the center of town. A large part of the town center is pedestrian-only, and the array of shops, bakeries, and restaurants reminded me of a Parisian neighborhood. We wandered the streets and lake shoreline in search of the market, and found it just after it started drizzling. We were clearly early, and the market didn’t really get into full swing until evening. This wasn’t like the Oslo Christmas market, which seemed to never close. Only a few stalls were open and we looked at some of the crafts and decorations on display, but ultimately continued on to see what the rest of the town center had to offer. We ended up buying pastries as consolation prizes and heading back home.

 

On Christmas Eve, we went to attend Mass at a local church. The parish website listed when and where Masses were being held, and we went to attend the 8 o’clock Mass at the same church where we’d heard the concert. It was a chilly, drizzly night, and as we drove up to the church we were perplexed as to why there weren’t any cars about. We parked and went up to the imposingly shut wooden doors to read the sign, which advertised the 8 o’clock Mass. And yet, there was no one there, and the doors were locked. We stood uselessly for several minutes, hoping something would happen. That something came in the form of an Englishwoman who bustled up to the doors, thinking she was late. She asked us about the Mass in broken French and seemed relieved when we told her we spoke English. She was just as confused as us, and we eventually gave up and decided to all go to the 10 o’clock Mass in Morzine. We never solved the mystery of the 8 o’clock Mass.

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Before Christmas Eve Mass in Morzine

Christmas Eve Mass in Morzine was well-attended, and the church was brightly lit. Clayton and I understood most of the proceedings simply because we’ve attended church so many times back home, and the flow was quite similar to evangelical services. After Mass, we admired the nativity set up in a chapel along with dozens of other families, and drove home to a rather quiet Christmas Eve and Day full of cuddly animals, hot tea, and good movies. New Year’s Eve was just as quiet for us, party animals that we are. The view from our living room worked in our favor, luckily, and we watched the fireworks display in St. Jean d’Aulps in the comfort of our own home, sans crowds. After New Year’s, we were sure to try the Galette des Rois, a traditional frangipane tart with a small charm hidden inside. Whomever finds the little charm in their slice becomes the “king” or “queen”. Our small version didn’t have a charm hidden inside, alas, but we still felt like royalty munching on the buttery, flaky goodness.

Lucky as we were for our private New Year’s show, crowds were a fact of life in Morzine, the popular ski resort town up the road. We visited several times for errands and the markets, and were astonished at the number of skiers and again, the number of English-speakers. The holidays being over, we’d expected the number of tourists to die down but we were far from correct. We learned later that this was the most busy week of the year for skiing due to the school holiday. Throngs of skiers packed into the restaurants, car parks, and sidewalks, doing that funny walk skiers do in ski boots. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped by,  musical carousels spun in parking lots, and little children squealed in delight. It would have been quite pleasant if there were half the people. We went to the market first, located at the lowest place in the valley. Merchants shouted their wares in French and English, and we smelled pungent cheeses and succulent sausages. Many vendors also sold local honey, which seemed to be a popular product. We were surprised at how large and delicious the vegetables looked, and wondered where they were brought in from. After wandering through the stalls, we climbed up the valley to go into some brick-and-mortar shops selling fine chocolates made into Christmas scenes, local artisanal pottery, and fancy gift shops interspersed amongst all the ski gear stores. Les Gets, the next town over, had a similar vibe on market day, right down to the absurd number of skiing tourists. The most notable difference was that Les Gets was quite behind on parking accommodations, and we decided that we’d finally do the European thing and create our own parking space at the end of a row. We held our breath, but no one said anything.

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The busy streets of Morzine

There were only so many skiers, ski shops, lifts, and ski resorts signs we could see before we decided to try it for ourselves. I had never been skiing, and Clayton had only been once, so we opted to get a one-hour lesson to make it worth our time. We went down to St Jean d’Aulps to rent our gear. If you’ve ever been skiing, you’ll know how heavy everything was. I was astonished at how heavy the skis themselves were, and then we had to carry the boots, helmets, goggles, poles…all while swishing down the street in our ski jackets, pants, socks, etc. I mentioned to Clayton that it was a little ridiculous for a hobby to have so much gear. “Imagine dealing with all this every time you want to go skiing. What a process!” Clayton looked at me wryly for a few seconds until it sunk in. Coming from someone who carried Elizabethan noblewoman garb and accessories across the country every weekend, I didn’t have much to stand on with my statement.

We drove up the mountain to the smaller ski resort that our house sitting host had recommended, since it wasn’t as busy as the one in Morzine. We bought our lift tickets and lesson, then got on the ski lift. This was my first ever ski lift, and I loved the thrill of it. Rickety, swaying, and steep, it pulled us up the mountain. I suavely got my ski pole stuck in the door so it didn’t fully close, sharply increasing the adrenaline levels in the little cable car. Clayton was not amused.

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Riding the ski lift up to the slopes in St. Jean d’Aulps

Skiing is a popular sport, so no doubt many of you reading this will have done it and are, in fact, quite good at it. All of this  will be familiar to you. Now, it would be really lovely for me to be able to eloquently describe to you how it felt rushing down the slopes, turning on a dime and spraying snow in a picturesque arc. How Clayton and I raced down the hills, completely mastering the slalom. Let me clear that right up. I was pretty brutally bad. Skiing is clearly not a natural talent of mine. We met our instructor at the base of the hill, and she first taught us to put on the skis and walk around. Clayton was rather good at it, maybe because he’d done this once before. For me, the skis were clunky and cumbersome, and I probably could have gotten much farther in swimming flippers, and more gracefully. Our instructor taught us how to stop and turn (pretty critical, if you ask me), then we took the lift to the top of the bunny hill. This was a lift where you sort of sit on a metal swing and it pulls you up as your skis slide on the snow. At the top, we yanked down on our respective lifts to pop off of them. We practiced skiing down the bunny hill several times. Clayton managed rather well, but I felt like a joke compared to the five and six year olds whizzing by me. I could do left turns pretty well, but my right turns were dangerously ineffective. Despite my ineptitude, I did really enjoy it. Even the bunny hill was a thrill, and I looked at the skiers flying down the real slopes with no small feeling of jealousy. Happily, I didn’t collide with anyone, and to my credit, I only fell once. Though to my discredit, it was on the little lift, arguably the easiest part of the whole afternoon. One second I was merrily making my way up the hill, the next second, I completely ate it in the snow. That’s skiing for you.

We managed a few hours of skiing before our aching legs and grumbling stomachs convinced us to head back down the mountain. I’m sincerely glad that we tried skiing – what better place than the French Alps? Though personally, I’m not so sure how often I’m willing to cart heavy equipment up a mountain just to slide back down again, for absurd amounts of money. Perhaps once in a blue moon.

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Enjoying breakfast at home on a lazy morning – with some Huntley Pear and Vanilla Butter!

Our time in the French Alps passed lazily yet quickly, and soon enough the homeowners returned to a clean house and spoiled animals, just as it should be. As we watched the jet-lagged and fatigued family relax back into their house, we realized that theirs was a luxury we don’t have these days. As they rejoiced in homecoming, we were packing off for the next unfamiliar place. There is nothing like traveling the world for a year to make you miss being home. Having a place to call yours, somewhere you can truly relax, familiar faces you can connect with. That’s not to say we resent what we’re doing in the least – these feelings will just make our own homecoming that much more the sweeter.

For now though, Italy would have to be home. Antonia drove us to the train station, and we settled in for a ride across the Alps to our next destination: Florence.

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So long, Purdey. We miss your well-trained ways!

 

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