On the last day of our (online) French class in Edinburgh I discovered that my French teacher comes from Annecy. I asked for suggestions of things to see and among other places she mentioned Mt. Semnoz, a small mountain just on the south side of town. I say small, it is roughly 6,000 feet in elevation (1,700 meters). That is relatively small compared to the other mountains around here, but not by Midwestern USA standards where driving over the levee is high excitement.
I don’t have a car but it turns out Annecy has a summer bus that will take you to the top, however it only ran through the end of August. Since I didn’t arrive until the 20th that didn’t leave a lot of time, but I still managed to go up twice – and I only had to die of embarrassment on the first trip, by the second time I had figured out the secrets of the electronic bus ticket thingy.
The view from the top is of course stunning and also completely impossible to reproduce with my simple photos, or probably with anybody’s photos. As an aside on the topic of photography, one can do a lot of research about tips and tricks and “the secrets of the professionals.” You can also spend endless hours researching cameras and endless dollars buying them. I have concluded the real secret to getting a good picture is having lots of time. In Edinburgh I had six months to wander around one small city every single day, which meant I could afford to wait for just the right sunset, just the right coronavirus lockdown, or just the right trickle of dried urine on the sidewalk. But if I only spend one weekend in Beauvais, or a couple hours on Semnoz, or a few minutes in Joan of Arc’s house, then whatever the conditions happen to be, that’s all I’m getting. Inevitably during these brief times the conditions are not ideal.
For whatever reason, maybe because it was the very end of the French summer vacation period, there was almost no one on the mountain when I visited. There were however lots of cows roaming the hillsides, each with a surprisingly loud bell, which all together created a beautiful and very alpine music. The cows are brought up in summer to graze but I have no idea where they are hidden for winter, and how do they make the trip up and down the mountain – do they have French cowboys? In addition to a few restaurants (closed of course), there is also a fromagerie near the summit selling reblochon cheese. The US has banned imports of reblochon because it does not meet their silly rules, which I guess just means more for the Europeans then.
But every country has their own rules. The irony was not lost on me, standing on the top of Semnoz, that while in Edinburgh I was never able to walk the two minutes from my apartment to the language school and meet my teacher in person, yet no one had any problems with me travelling across international borders, and rubbing shoulders with hundreds of people along the way, to visit her hometown.
Later I took a narrated boat tour around Lake Annecy which was quite relaxing and a great way to feel a cool breeze for an hour. The narrator, who also happened to be the captain, had what I call foreigner-friendly French – he spoke slowly (by French standards) and clearly articulated every word. With such assistance, and my vast reservoir of knowledge and intelligence, I was able to understand maybe ten percent of what he said.
Like everything I to do for the first time it took me several tries to finally get on the boat, in fact it took me three days. First the departure times on the website were not the same as the departure times in real life, as I discovered when I walked the half hour to the quay and the ticket office wasn’t even open. On returning at the correct time the second day I discovered they couldn’t take contactless payments: otherwise universally encouraged, even at my boulangerie. I tried my card the old fashioned way but of course my credit card company randomly decided to decline the transaction since this must be suspicious. At least I wasn’t trying to get out of a parking garage. Since cash is becoming universally discouraged I had not brought any with me. Finally on the third day, and after a combined total of three hours of walking, I came back with paper money and got a ticket and took my ride. (I have left out a description of all the eloquent French I had to use and how many people in line behind me had to roll their eyes.)
Yeah we learn as we go, but nothing ever gets figured out the first try, and everything always requires lots and lots of walking and gluing your shoes back together in the evenings. This is not a complaint, it is just a description of what life is like for a clueless idiot abroad. In case you wondered.
The city of Annecy claims their lake has the clearest and purest water of any lake in all of Europe. Some say it may be the cleanest in the world, if we only consider lakes in populated areas. I don’t have a way to verify that but when you walk along the shore it is not hard to believe, the water is nothing short of crystalline. It is considered safe to drink even without treatment, and testing shows it exceeds the standards for bottled spring water.
The lake was apparently not always so clean, but starting in the 1950s a collection system was built that encircles the lake and captures any runoff that would otherwise drain into it. Today the mountain streams and rain from heaven are the only sources of water that enter the lake. Ironically it has become so pure that little plant material or algae can grow in the water. Aquatic wildlife has declined, recreational fishing has had to be limited and today it is estimated there are only 30 or 40 swans left. However you can still see the swans – it is a big lake but I assume they like to hang out where people and human food can be found (of course you are not supposed to feed the swans but it happens all the same). For Annecy’s sake I will hope the swans do not disappear completely because they are a central icon of the city’s self identity, appearing on postcards and all sorts of other touristy items.
Some people say the French are not very fond of rules so I wondered what the real coronavirus situation would be like here, as opposed to what I read about before hand. I have found the reality to be a mix of adherence and laxity. The one thing that is strictly observed with zero exceptions is the wearing of face masks. If you like to wear a mask, France is the place for you, it is required not only indoors but many outdoors places as well; in Annecy that includes the entirety of old town.
Other rules however don’t seem to be followed too closely, to my great relief. The website said the summer bus to Semnoz was limited to 15 passengers at a time (it can probably hold 50 people). This concerned me somewhat as I could just imagine being the 16th guy trying to get on at the top of the mountain, and end up stranded there with not a soul on this continent to call even if I had cell phone reception. As it turned out there was almost no one taking the bus at the mountaintop, but earlier down in the city we boarded a lot more than 15 people and the driver didn’t care.
The website for the boat tour said that due to coronavirus we wouldn’t be allowed to go on deck and we’d have to stay glued to our chair inside the cabin the entire time, which didn’t sound like a lot of fun. But once we got underway the captain said do whatever you want, stand up, leave your seat, walk all over, the only thing you must do is keep your mask on. I spent the entire trip on the roof of the boat.
In general I have found in France you really can not rely on information found on the internet the same way you can in America. Stores can be closed any time for any reason no matter what some website says, less frequently I have even seen it go the other way, where a shop is open even though my phone just told me it was closed and am I sure I really want directions after all? Public transportation schedules are not necessarily what Google says they are and bus stops can differ even from the official published list. Confusingly there are two official websites for train schedules, SNCF.com and OUI.sncf.com and they don’t always agree with each other (best to go to the train station on foot to look at their ticket machine). Indeed the only way to know anything for sure is to walk all over creation and go everywhere in person, that or I guess live here your entire life.