Friday, April 20, 2012

The Grand Tour, Part 6: Climbing Over Mountains

We are having a few challenges on our Grand Tour, I fear. Several of us were highly tempted to remain in Paris but were finally persuaded to join us aboard our hired Voiturin as we set off across France for Italy. These hired carriages can hold four to six passengers and luggage, but the drivers appear to be rather new, and we’ve had a few near misses with other carriages, horses, and a rather fierce-looking bull. We’ve also had a few disagreements on which pass to take, finally settling on one of the more popular ones over Mont-Cenis and down into Turin. Unfortunately, that means we won’t be able to stop at Leukenbad as QNPoohBear had hoped, but she’s been a good sport about it.

And no wonder! The views out the carriage window are nothing short of amazing. We cross the high bridge over the River Orge and then a while later descend into the Forest of Fontainebleau, which our guide Mrs. Starke calls “gloomily magnificent” with its tree-shrouded rocky hills. One of our members is so entranced with geology that she insists we stop at the Grottoes of Arcy, where we climb through caves, torches held high, to view the stalactites and strange paintings made on the walls by ancient peoples.

After a night at the Hotel du Parc in Dijon, we continue on a road that is growing more difficult. Steep precipices fall into fertile river valleys; crusty crags grasp at the sky. In places, our drivers insist that we disembark and walk to save the horses, but who can resist gulping in great lungfuls of crisp, cool air. Marveling, we pick up handfuls of snow along the roadside even though it has long since melted away back home.

And we are not alone among the heights. Shepherds guide herds of cattle through the alpine pastures, playing on pipes that seem older than the hills. Other travelers pass on mules and horseback. Gentlemen try their luck in mountain streams, hoping to catch their dinner.

And there as we pass into Gex is Lake Geneva below us, a glittering jewel surrounded by glaciers! We crowd the windows of the Voiturin, setting our conveyance to shaking and one of us, ahem, to shrieking. Good thing we are descending into the valley, finally crossing a double set of bridges, their arches reflected in the lake. At the Gate we are required to surrender our passports (retrieving them again at the Bureau des Passeports), and then we are taken to the finest hotel in the city, Les Balances, for a fine dinner and a good night’s sleep.

I promise to sit in the middle of the Voiturin on our next leg of the journey, and I shall be happy to spend the evening mending your sleeve where I clung a bit too tightly on that last hill. Next, on to Turin!

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