Friday, 26 December 2008

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like... (part 3)

In the past Brock has developed a bit of a reputation for waking up early on Christmas Day, even as recently as last year, 4am was considered by him to be a reasonable time to get up and start unwrapping his gifts. When Meg and Wayne were still undisturbed in bed at 7am on Christmas Day, it was as if a Christmas miracle had truly come. We had made phone calls to Australia the previous evening, to coincide with Christmas in that country, so once everyone was awake it was time to begin the process of removing wrapping paper.

Much to Brock and Quinn’s delight, Wayne and Meg had negotiated with the staff at the hotel to borrow the Christmas tree from the lobby the previous evening, so when the boys entered their parent’s room there were all the gifts spread out underneath a small, white Christmas tree. A highlight among the gifts was Marni (Meg’s Armani handbag, which she had actually made use of the day before) and which can be seen in the photographs of the floral clock in Geneva. Other favourites were a pink scrabble set raising funds for breast cancer research, and a collection of various delicacies from Australia including Cherry Ripes and Twisties.

As it was not snowing in Ville-le-Grand at that stage we jumped into Veronica and headed off for another explore around this section of France. Initially we headed up in the direction of Evian-les-Bains (where the water comes from) via the D1206. This took us through some very picturesque French villages to the town of Douvaine where we decided to stop for breakfast. This is part of the region of Haute-Savoie (which was annexed by France on the 24th of May, 1860) and which has within its boundaries Mont Blanc (the second highest mountain in Europe). This region has borders with Switzerland and Italy and contains some of Europe’s best ski resorts which might have been the prompt for the next change of direction that we made.

You can see from the photographs on our blog that the town was beautifully decorated for Christmas, with the town hall (which we parked outside) being particularly attractive. What astounded us was the number of businesses which were open on Christmas Day. We joined the locals walking to the bakery and, once inside, attempted to buy some croissants. Even trying to speak our basic French proved to be difficult here but eventually we were able to be understood and returned to the car with the sustenance we required.

Rather than continuing up to Thonex-les-Bains and Evians-les-Bains we decided to turn around and head down the A40 toward the Mont Blanc tunnel, connecting Italy with France. Once again the scenery was absolutely breathtaking; we drove along the valley with sheer cliffs leading up to enormous mountains peaked with snow, we passed ponds and rivers with were totally frozen over, while it was at times cloudy or foggy when the sun glinted off the mountain tops or reached down into the valley it was truly majestic. On the cliffs were perched chalets which must have had the most amazing views. The further south we went the more snow we encountered and eventually it was all around us.

As we were getting a little low on fuel we pulled off the road when we saw a service station connected to a McDonalds, however neither building was open. While we were out of the car, however, it began to snow and we were experiencing what we had wanted all along, a White Christmas. Near where the car was parked was a small snowman and this gave Quinn the idea to start throwing snowballs again. After one successful shot we jumped back in the car and drove a little further down the road to the town of Sallanches where we were able to refuel and look a little around the town.

Recent excavations have indicated the presence of a Christian community on the site of the town since the 5th and 6th century. Indeed, the presence of religious institutions dominated the city for hundreds of years, and included a Capuchin monastery and an Ursuline community. It was only with the turmoil of the French Revolution that this began to change and the focus of the town became the economics of spinning, beer and chocolate making. As Chamonix (the town at which the Mont Blanc tunnel begins) began to become a tourist resort, Sallanches benefited as people began to rest on their route in the hostels there. In 1840 (after a succession of floods, epidemics and fires over a number of years) fire destroyed the town which led to it being rebuilt with the assistance of King Charles Albert of Savoy-Carignan. It was in 1921, however, when the town was declared a “station de tourisme” and appropriate facilities were put in place to increase access to the ski resorts in the mountains which overlook the town that Sallanches took on the form it bears today.

There is a river that runs through the centre of the town and we parked beside it to take some pictures of the lovely buildings, the river itself, and the mountains which seem to hang right out over the town. Wayne went for a short wander to see if he could find an automatic teller machine but was unsuccessful. However, he did meet one of the largest dogs he had ever seen licking passers by while its owner chatted with some other people. Given that most of the signs in the town itself pointed up into the mountains to where the ski resorts would be it was decided that this would also be the direction that we would take.

As you might expect, the road up was winding and quite busy. Veronica proved her worth yet again, barely skipping a beat with her 4wd capabilities. Along the way we saw some of the most beautiful chalets; just like you see in the pictures at European ski resorts in the advertising brochures. The snow was thick by the sides of the road and we all remembered the show ball fight and snowman building of the day before. Consequently, when we decided to stop at one of the tourist information and lookout sites, a snowball fight eventuated, with even Meg getting involved. Brock and Quinn also lay down in the snow to make snow angels.

It wasn’t much further up the mountain to the ski slopes and we were all amazed at just how many people were up there. Coming from Australia, and having been part of families that always got together on Christmas Day, the concept of going skiing instead was a complete novelty. For Meg, the fact that it was also so cold would have been reason enough to avoid it. However, at the altitude that we were, we were above the clouds and the sun was shining brightly, making it a beautiful skiing day. We investigated the cost of going skiing ourselves, and then just sitting on a chair lift and travelling up into the mountains, but both were prohibitively expensive.

Two purchases were made, however, the first of these being a small green piece of plastic with a handle. This is a sit upon sled for Quinn, who is going skiing with the school in February. This is yet another point of departure for those of us raised in Australia. Quinn’s ski trip is in the Italian Alps (in fact, not that far from where we were at the time). The second purchase was some lunch, which we sat down to at a little café in the village. While English was readily understood, our understanding of what might be meant by some words in English proved to be inaccurate. When Brock and Quinn ordered hamburgers they did not expect a meat pattie, seared on both sides but still pink in the middle accompanied by lots of chips. We later discovered that they should have ordered from the sandwich menu.

Another interesting aspect of dining here was being able to hear the conversations of other people around us. While there were also lots of French, German, Swiss and Italian people around us, it was interesting to note that there were also a significant number of British people. Indeed, one family group of about 14 represented 3 generations of one family for whom this was a regular Christmas celebration. Should any of you want to participate in such a festivity at some time in the future, we would be more than interested in exploring the idea with you.

After lunch we descended back down the mountain, stopping at one point to allow Quinn to try out his sled. While it worked, it seems he should not be doing it in jeans next time because they got soaked through, however we have chalked this up to experience. Knowing that we had got almost as close to Italy as you can get without actually crossing the border we were happy that Quinn was going to be travelling to somewhere new with the school and we turned back toward Ville-le-Grand.

We had a nap in the afternoon before Wayne went down and set up the satnav ready for our trip back into Geneva that evening. Before we had left for Geneva a concern had been finding somewhere that would be open and reasonably priced for Christmas Dinner. We had the option of looking for somewhere which would do the more traditional Christmas meal, or do something totally different. Unsurprisingly, we chose the latter course once more and with Sally Satnav at the helm giving instructions (she was christened this after Brock found out how to set her speaking to English) we set out for the centre of town.

While Meg and Wayne had both been in cars (or taxis) which used satnav before neither had ever actually driven with one, so it took a bit of adjusting to the way it worked. After a couple of turns where we turned a little early (and faced the wrath of Sally) we soon sorted out everything and easily found the restaurant. Only parking looked to be as issue, as the centre of Geneva was pretty solidly parked out. However, the restaurant had some parking spaces down a very narrow alley, so while Meg and Brock went inside to confirm that we were dining there, Quinn assisted Wayne with parking Veronica (only a mirror was slightly bumped in the process).

The restaurant we had chosen was an Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant which specialised in pancakes and crepes, which had Brock feeling particularly dubious about whether or not he would enjoy it. When we arrived we found ourselves in a beautiful old building with weathered wooden beams, fabulously decorated in an African style which we could only suspect was representative of the nations whose cuisines were its specialty. When we met the owner, Helena Goodman, our suspicions were confirmed. She made us feel very welcome, produced brilliant food, and heightened our inadequacies about language; she speaks 5 languages French, English, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.

We could not speak more highly of the food. While it was not what we are used to as a Christmas meal it was absolutely fabulous. Meg and Brock shared an Ethiopian dish, while Wayne and Quinn both sampled Eritrean meals. They were very tasty, well presented and left us wanting more. Dessert was also special, with Meg deciding upon an apricot flambéed dish (largely because the Brock and Quinn had never seen a flambéed dish before. Wayne and the boys all had an amazing chocolate crepe with ice cream and cream. If you are ever in Geneva and need somewhere to eat, please go the ‘The Melting Pot’, we can guarantee that you will be glad you did.

After a fabulous evening, with wonderful food and good company, we eventually dragged ourselves out into the cold (it was below freezing) night ready to make the trip back to our hotel. This time, we turned the satnav back off again because we wanted to go back through the city and look at the Christmas lights for Christmas night. It was spectacular down by the lake, with all the lights we had seen the previous day now lit up. The city decorations (which again we had only seen unlit by daylight) were also very impressive and made for a fabulous trip home. Quinn sat in the back trying to take photographs while Wayne stopped when he could to assist this procedure.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel we were all still excited about the day, the gifts and the food. Consequently, even though we knew we would need to be up early in the morning to drive to the airport and drop off our bags before returning to the Car Hire Office to drop off Veronica, we still found it hard to get to sleep. It may not have been anything like any other Christmas that any of us had ever had, but the universal consensus was that it was one of, if not the absolute, best Christmas' ever.

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