“Là je suis bien, je vois clair, il y a de l’air.” — Paul Cézanne
It was good to be up high. It was good to breathe the fresh air perched atop Sainte Victoire overlooking the plains leading to Aix-les-Bains. Cézanne said as much to his friend Zola with whom he was out walking.
I know what he was getting at as nature and near-solitude help me to see things clearly, too. But, it was a different sort of exchange that took place between two strangers out cycling in the mountains above the Annecy Lake.
He had made it there a few minutes before her, had leant his bike up against the wall of an empty chalet and taken his drink bottle to enjoy a few quiet moments, the cool mountain air and the self-satisfaction of a climb well done.
It was natural that they acknowledge each other and in so doing, he had learnt that this was a regular climb for her. His was not a flash new road bike, but there was no doubt that it would have made the ascent easier. She was friendly, too; hence the invitation to come for dinner.
“When you call, just say it is Monsieur Vélo. I will take care of the rest,” she said.
“Very well, Madame. Thank you and I’ll see you tonight,” he replied.
At this, she nodded briefly, checked that her wide-brimmed hat was still firmly in place and cycled back down along the road from which she had come.
Pondering his new title, he watched her intently. There was no need to be discreet. Even though they would be dining together that night, this was not a friend for whom a final salutary wave over her shoulder would be forthcoming. She was dressed in normal street clothes and the largish wicker basket hanging over the handlebars suggested that her next stop might be the Annecy morning market.
Given that the alpine weather was in its clement phase, he had seen an increasing number of riders and bikes out and about… but never had he seen one like hers appear at the top of Mount Semnoz. She had toodled up the mountain on her street bike – no lycra, no 1000 euro road bike, no fuss.
She did not let him down and at 7:30 pm, Monsieur Vélo and his wife were shown to their specially reserved table, front and centre, and nearest the stage.
En route, they had come up with all sorts of possible endings to his brief encounter of earlier in the day, made more extreme by the fact that night had fallen and that the address was to an unknown and reasonably remote location.
La Grange à Jules was jumping. Literally. It was Rock ‘n Roll night and contrary to their fanciful drive stories, they were far from being the only ones there. They were amongst hundreds of others in the very charmingly renovated barn cum restaurant, owned and run by the lady he had encountered that morning.
Hours later and heading home, in the newly appreciated quiet and intimacy of their vehicle, it was time for a de-brief.
Monsieur Vélo: “Well, that was unexpected.”
Wife of Monsieur Vélo: “Unusual… but fun!”
Monsieur Vélo: “In fact, that was delightful.”
Wife of Monsieur Vélo: “And the food … first-class. Aren’t we lucky to be here!”
They talked about this night again and again, each time recalling with fondness the chance crossing of two strangers happily sharing a few words, and ultimately an evening; the mountain setting that was so full of mystery and beauty; that France was undoubtedly the country of the Tour de France but that equipment did not the man – or – lady maketh and that ‘out of the way’ could bring such sweet surprises.
Annecy is in the Haute-Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France. With a population of just over 50,000, it is the perfect Goldilocks village. Canals wind through the old town alongside pedestrian-only, cobble-stoned streets. Fed by Lake Annecy, the ambience here is intimate and close and provides a glorious contrast to the soaring peaks of the mountains that edge the lake.
Semnoz (Le balcon des Alpes) is part of the Bauges mountain range and lies to the west of Annecy. Its two major summits are the Crêt de l’Aigle (1646m) and the Crêt de Chatillon (1699m). Being the nearest mountain range to Annecy (allow half an hour by car), it is a favourite spot for family outings, nature walks, paragliding and cycling in summer and cross-country and downhill skiing plus snowshoeing and luging in winter. The ski station at Semnoz is geared more to beginner and intermediate skiers with 17 km of downhill skiing (45 km of cross-country). The prices and options are attractive allowing for as little as a 1-hour ticket for use of the three beginner slopes and a 2-hour minimum for the rest of the station. Perfect if you want a quick morning or afternoon escape. Note that buses leave from the main bus station in Annecy several times a day in summer, but the timetable varies in winter according to whether the ski station is open or not.
La Grange à Jules restaurant is mid-way between Annecy and Aix-les-Bains and 30 minutes from Chambéry. It hosts marriages, conferences and family gatherings as well as regular themed concerts and events to which all are invited: disco, jazz, rock ’n roll and folk shows are amongst the mix. Menus including entrée, main course, cheese and dessert begin at 29 euro. Address: Chemin Rural dit de Pelevoz, 74540 Chapeiry, France. Tel: +33 4 50 68 15 07. Website: www.auberge-lagrangeajules.fr