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Alpe d'Huez

Apr. 12th, 2017 01:37 pm
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I just realized that I've been home from France for a month, so it's probably time to finish writing about the trip, before I completely forget all the details. I'm going to try to summarize a week in this single post, mostly because I doubt there's much value in a day-by-day account of our skiing. Instead, I'll try to cover the highlights.
  • Weather - While we did have several beautiful, sunny days, the temperatures on those days were well above freezing, which led to less than ideal snow conditions. It also meant that we were overdressed and soaking in sweat by the end of the day.  However, the early part of the week featured a full-blown blizzard, with very limited visibility, lots of fresh snow, and ugly winds.  At one point, my wife and I were stranded on a chair lift for about 15-20 minutes when the high winds forced them to shut it down.  My best guess is that the winds were gusting above 50 mph as we bounced around on that chair like a piñata at a toddler's birthday party. That was, no question, the scariest chair lift ride of my life.

  •  Food - One of the reasons I enjoy ski trips to Europe is the food. Our package included dinner each night in the hotel restaurant each evening, and we sat as a group, sharing stories over five courses of simply amazing French food, accompanied by plentiful local wine (Côtes du Rhône), both red and white. If I hadn't been getting such a workout each day on the mountain, I'm sure I would have gained several pounds!

  • Scenery - The other big reason to ski in Europe is the scenery. While you can argue pretty persuasively that the snow conditions in Colorado or Utah are normally far superior to those anywhere else in the world, the Alps possess a dramatic beauty that the mountains here simply cannot match. On the days when the sun was out, it was impossible not to stop frequently just to soak in the views. I took a lot of photos, only a few of which actually do justice to the beauty that surrounded us.
 




  • The location - The town of Alpe d'Huez is remarkably small, considering the size of the ski area that it serves. it is also pretty remote, at the top of a long, steep road that includes 21 hairpin switchbacks (famous in bicycle racing circles for the leg of the Tour de France that climbs it). We really didn't explore the town while we were there, focusing instead on skiing during the day, and socializing at our hotel in the evenings.  The ski area is actually a number of small ski areas that interconnect and operate on a single ski pass system that tracks the usage of the various lifts in some form of revenue sharing. Unlike the corporate environment that dominates ski areas in the US, where everything on the mountain is owned by the corporation that runs the resort, here the various restaurants and bars on the mountain were independently owned. The resulting competition meant that the prices for food and drinks on the mountain were surprisingly affordable by comparison to what we've become accustomed to seeing in the US.

  • Final thoughts - It had been more than a decade since we last visited Europe, and this trip was a reminder of how very much we enjoyed our earlier visits there. I have heard people argue that there is too much to see and do in the US, so that the cost and effort of travelling to Europe doesn't make sense. While I agree that there are plenty of great places to travel to in the US, I strongly disagree that this should be an excuse not to visit Europe. I love the experience of visiting countries with much deeper histories, as well as different languages and cultures, from what I can experience here. This trip has reminded me of the value of foreign travel, and I fully intend to do as much travelling as I can, both foreign and domestic.
When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.



And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!
After returning to the hotel after our day of exploring the region, we agreed on a restaurant for dinner, based on recommendations from our tour guide and from the hotel staff. We had a little time before the restaurant opened, so we went up to our room to relax for a bit, and met everyone in the lobby when it was time to walk to dinner.

The restaurant we had chosen had both a prix fixe menu and a la carte pricing. I opted for an a la carte pasta dish that was absolutely delicious. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, since we were there almost as soon as they opened, but by the time we finished our meal, it was crowded, and the bar area had gotten quite noisy. After a leisurely dinner, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine, we headed back out into the streets.

One of the sights I wanted to see in Avignon was the famous Pont d'Avignon, the remains of a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhone. I had seen photos of it at night and knew that it was spectacularly lit, so my wife and I set out around the city wall and along the river to the bridge. And we weren't disappointed. Not only was the bridge absolutely stunning in the lights, but the river was mirror smooth and we were, quite literally, the only people out there. I spent twenty minutes or so taking photos of the bridge from various angles, trying to get a perfect photo. But the best of the bunch turned out to be the last one, taken almost as an afterthought as we were about to walk away. I simply turned back to the bridge, framed the view, and snapped the shot.



We then strolled back along the river and around the city wall, back to our hotel for the night.
After walking along the banks of the Rhone river to our bus, we left Arles behind and drove north through the countryside of southern France. The endless vineyards were still in their winter dormancy, with the vines all pruned back and little green to be seen. Our guide continued to entertain us with her ongoing dialog about the region as we drank in the scenery around us.

Our next destination was the city of Orange, north of Avignon. It is because of this city that the Dutch sports fans all were orange when cheering for their national teams. The Dutch royal family belong to the House of Orange, which has its roots here in southern France. And so it is a connection between a city in southern France and the reigning royalty of the Netherlands that results in the color choice for patriotic Dutch.

Orange, like Arles, dates to the Roman period, and boasts of a Roman triumphal arch. The plan was for our bus to park so we could get out to take pictures, but when we arrived, the traffic circle around the arch was under construction and there was no where for the bus to stop. We had to settle for our driver going around the circle a couple of times, while we tried to snap photos through the windows.

After we were all satisfied with our views of the arch, we headed back through the city to our next stop, the Roman theater. As with the arena in Arles, the theater in Orange has been restored and is currently used for music and theatrical performances. In fact, upon our arrival, we couldn't miss the posters advertising the upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" that was soon to take the stage.
Once we were inside the theater, our guide spoke at length about the history of the theater and its restoration. We then were given a little time to explore the grounds before we headed back to the bus.



By now it was past mid-afternoon, but we had one more destination before we returned to our hotel. Between Orange and Avignon is a famous wine appellation, Chateauneuf-du-pape. The name comes from the castle that was built here as a vacation residence for the Popes when they lived in Avignon in the fourteenth century. Little remains of the castle itself, which was heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. However, we did stop briefly to explore the ruins that remain, before we headed into the village. Our tour guide had arranged for us to have a wine tasting at the Musee du vin Brotte, where we sampled three very nice Chateauneuf-du-pape wines, and learned a little bit about how the wines of that region are produced.

Finally, it was time to call it a day. We piled back into the bus for the final time and headed back to our hotel. As we approached Avignon, we found ourselves trapped in the late afternoon traffic, as we crawled past the city walls towards the hotel, but soon enough we were back and it was time to make plans for dinner.
When I began our trip to France, I had every intention of posting regularly during the trip, to record my thoughts and impressions while they were fresh. That fell by the wayside on the very first day, and while I did manage to post regularly on Facebook, I wasn't able to find (or make) the time to write any more detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, I do want to share more about the trip, so in the category of "better late than never", I'm going to do my best to remember what I wanted to share from the trip.

After arriving late in Frankfurt, we found that we had, indeed, missed our connecting flight onward to Marseilles, as expected. United and Lufthansa rebooked us on a later flight without any issues, but that left us with a long layover. We were all pretty tired from our long, overnight flight from Washington, and so, after getting some food (using the vouchers provided by Lufthansa), we eventually just camped out at our departure gate, with many of us taking naps.

When we were re-booked, the six people in our group were seated in the same row on our Airbus 319 aircraft, three on either side of the aisle. There was some discussion as to who wanted window seats vs. who wanted aisle seats, and somehow I got the impression that I wasn't going to have a window seat, so I packed my camera into my bag for storage in the overhead bin.

When it finally came time to board our flight, we learned that our gate didn't board directly to the aircraft. Instead, we were loaded onto a shuttle bus that seemed to drive us all the way around the terminal before pulling alongside the plane on the tarmac. We climbed the stairs onto the plane, and somehow, I found myself in a window seat. After boarding was complete, we taxied out to the furthest runway for takeoff. Seriously, it almost felt like we were going to drive from Frankfurt to Marseilles!

After takeoff, we climbed back through the clouds, so I didn't get to see any of the mountains as we flew over them. Only as we began our descent into Marseilles did I finally get to see some of the countryside. By now it was late afternoon, and the low angle sunlight was casting a beautiful glow over the landscape below me. And then, suddenly, I saw the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon River, glowing in the afternoon light in the valley below. Now I was mentally kicking myself for not keeping my camera out, because I could have captured some really beautiful aerial shots of the bridge. It wasn't until after it was far behind us that it occurred to me that I could have used my phone.

Soon afterwards, we passed over the city of Marseilles and flew out over the Mediterranean. The plane banked to the left as we circled over the bay, lining up with the runway, and those of us on the left side of the aircraft were treated to a beautiful view of the city. This time, I used the phone to snap a shot:



After landing, we made our way through immigration and claimed our luggage and set out to find our transportation to Avignon. By the time we found the bus and got our luggage loaded, it was dark, and so we didn't get to see any of the French countryside as we drove to our hotel, just outside the city walls in Avignon. Arriving about eight hours later than we planned, we checked in, grabbed a light supper in the hotel restaurant, and called it a night. Sightseeing would have to wait until morning.