Jura Mountains, sunset at Christmas near Lausanne Switzerland
The Jura Mountains (giving their name to the geologic period of the dinosaurs, Jurassic) wrinkle the skyline with a jagged ridge of freshly draped snow. Traveling the highway along their foot, temperatures this afternoon of New Year’s Eve are deceptively mild for the season. Spots of valley fog from time to time soften the light as we near Geneva on the busy approach by highway from Lausanne. The occasion and the misty light inspire a cloaked sense of anticipation. With resolutions beckoning and the calendar year poised to change; we found this the moment to revisit the town where we lived until one year ago, Annecy.
As we enter the lanes that channel traffic through the customs buildings at Bardonnex
, we slow for the bumps and chicanes. The holiday traffic is fluid in this often bustling passage to clear the border into France. As we return to highway speed, we begin the gradual climb that takes us up, out of the fog and above the Lake Geneva basin. The highway files under the abrupt, dark cliffs of Mount Salève as it progresses toward the double-barreled tunnel that breaches a place called Mont Sion (in French pronounced Zee-on, and related by namesake to Mount Sion of Jerusalem).
The three-kilometer tunnel burrows famously underneath
an amusement park, cum workshop-village, dedicated to Santa Claus (Le Hameau du Père Noël
). The theme park is open all year and offers a cheery commerce to Saint Nick. If you’re lucky, you can even catch a glimpse of the old boy along with his baby reindeer, which by any other name is a Caribou fawn.
It was by means of this power of suggestion that the tiny yellow guide lights running along the insides of the tunnel made me think of a hundred Rudolph noses that would lead us from the dark and foggy recesses. As it is, we re-emerge from the tunnel into brilliant sunlight and the expansive view of the river valley of the Usses (‘Oo-says’). It is this fertile valley of apple orchards and horse farms that returns our first, familiar taste of the region of where we once lived in the Haute-Savoie (Upper Savoie), in east-central France. Traveling further this flank of Salève Mountain brings us to even grander scenery in the approach to Annecy.
There is the span of Quail Bridge (Pont de la Caille) ennobled with its crenelated, nineteenth-century turrets, and beyond, the first glimpse of the snow-covered ranges of the Alps that undulate around the lake basin of Annecy (the forested Bauges Mountains and jagged buttes of the Aravis). The cerulean skies with swipes of cirrus create a dramatic, even celluloid, effect as the winter shadows lengthen in these final hours of the year.
Annecy Old Town with castle, canal (Thiou) and bridge (Perrière)
Strangely, we find our memory slightly blurred and enter town tentatively, to find some streets and traffic rotaries already changed since our departure. As outsiders now, we must pay for parking and so follow signs to a garage called Sainte Clair; as I recall, the closest to the Old Town (Vieille Ville) of Annecy. Our destination to start is a friendly luncheonette called “L’En-Cas” (which means literally, “The In Case” but more commonly translates as “A Bite to Eat”). We sally up as many others already have to join the chaotic line to order at the counter. Upon entering, I am initially pinned against the entry door and subject to the drafty comings and goings of wound-up children and smartly dressed adults. Many of them strike me as looking especially deliberate, resolute even.
K and I, on the other hand, are footloose, feeling ready for anything in our best, middle-aged spontaneity. It’s the start of a sojourn and an overnight visit to old friends, as well, to take part in some special, New Year’s festivities. With a long evening planned and a late dinner expected; the prerogative for lunch falls naturally to the simple, wholesome foods in this former haunt with its lovingly-prepared, organic fare. When at last we order, K takes the soup, salad and quiche. I choose the ‘formule Croque’ (literally, fixed menu of grilled sandwich) of tomate-mozzarelle and the generous side of salad. Dangerously, it includes a pear tart for dessert, which they give me to carry myself to the table, before the other food is brought. I ask myself who made the silly rule that dessert follows the meal?
The small restaurant buzzes though Tito, the cook and co-owner with his wife, always has time to look up and smile while we, and others, file by his work counter. It’s been crazy at the holidays, he tells me. Everybody’s in town, and hungry. He looks harried. “Congé demain” (‘day-off tomorrow’), he says, and the next instant, returns his attention to the knife he uses to dice orders of salad. I go to the table after saying ‘Ciao’ (‘See you’).
Taking my seat, I first notice the unframed print on the wall behind the table; a stylized depiction of a creeping vine and four, vibrantly colored birds perched in song. When the conversation turns, as the occasion compels, to resolutions for the coming year, the presence of the birds proves providential. As we wait quite a spell for the food to arrive, K asks what ideas I have prepared for a session of Vision Board
this evening. Hesitantly, I explain vaguely that my work as Hiking Guide must be addressed in my resolutions. I add, it is more than a little neglected. She asks me if I have given further thought to arranging something with the wildlife artist, John C. Pitcher
, whom we had met in August at his home-studio in Dorset, Vermont.
New Year’s day Promenade on Annecy lakeshore
Apart from a keen eye and uncanny brush stroke, Pitcher’s specialty is deliberate and detailed observations of animals in their natural habitat. His preparatory work, before returning to paint in the studio, is to create numerous sketches of flowers and animals and scenery while in the wild. The sketches are accompanied by detailed, written notes that fill elegantly and painstakingly dozens of field notebooks. Paging through some of them during our visit, it was like reading an Audubon guide. It was intriguing to learn that he enjoys leading group tours who accompany him to learn his technique of field guides and enjoy nature with this artistic perspective. Since his painting derives much of its accuracy and realism from the sketchbooks, the idea was to organize an outing for him in my neighborhood of the Alps. This is what K’s question provokes. Silently, I resolve to re-establish contact with John Pitcher to explore the possibility.
A cup of hot green tea arrives and eventually, so too, the food. K finishes before me and leaves hurriedly for her rendezvous with a friend. I sip the last of the green tea and I shake off the chill of the late lunch sitting next to the window. I watch beauticians who’ve come outside to shiver and smoke a cigarette at the shop next door. One taps intensely on the keypad of a phone as the slanting rays of the sun make prison stripes in the air around her.