Episode 4: The Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Hated
The Travel Architect had had her fun, and now the trip was all planned: four days in France’s Loire Valley for the Plantagenet history buff that resides inside me, then over to the Alps to meet The Belgians for several days of biking up and down mountains for the cycling buff that resides within the husband.
Then we came across the book. The one that changed everything.
There I was, innocently paging through Life’s Paradise Found that my sister had brought with her on a mutual visit to our mother’s house, when I saw it – a glossy picture of a gorgeous “olde worlde” European town.
A quick Internet search revealed that this charming village also boasted a clear blue lake with a storybook mountainous backdrop. It was called Annecy, it was in France, and I had to go there.
This meant I would need to readjust my carefully crafted itinerary. I would have to shift my travel planning back into high gear – so really it was a win-win-win: I was going to see this magical place, extend our stay in France by four days, and I got to do more travel architecture!
The new plan had us departing Chinon, one of the gems of the Loire Valley, and driving six hours to Annecy for a four-night stay. The beauty of this whole detour was that it was more or less in the direction we were headed anyway. After Annecy, we were to swing down to the town of Valloire, where the husband’s rental bike would be waiting at one of their many cycling shops, and then meet The Belgians in the tiny village of Bessans, which would be our base for the Alps portion of the trip. The Belgian patriarch had also mentioned offhandedly that if we found ourselves with some extra time, we should plan on spending it exploring Valloire, as it was a great little Alpine town.
Leaving the town of Chinon was not easy – we had had four magical days which included touring a Vouvray winery, Fontevraud Abbey, and several chateaux in the Loire Valley, and then coming to rest each evening in the quaint town full of great restaurants and friendly locals who happily indulged our attempts at speaking French. But, alas, we knew all good things must come to an end in order to move on to the next good thing… or so we thought.
As we made the six-hour journey, I reviewed the directions for getting to the little hotel in the Old Town section of Annecy: find the intercom on a pole, press the button to connect with someone who would remotely lower a concrete bollard, and then we could drive up to the hotel and drop off our bags before going to find a parking spot. Easy! Well, not so fast. First off, despite having GPS in the car, we had a bugger of a time getting to the Old Town – it kept leading us to a dead end street in a modern part of town. Once we finally figured that out, we went round and round the perimeter of the Old Town several times trying to find the intercom. I should mention that it was Bastille Day, and all of Annecy’s streets were jam-packed with parked cars and lots of traffic, making movement snail-like. On what was probably the fourth go-around (tension was mounting in the car and I lost count), we finally spotted the intercom. I pressed the button, the bollard was lowered, and we finally pulled into our much-anticipated French Shangri-La. However, we immediately sensed that taking our car into this pedestrian-only area was a mistake, despite the instructions and permission. Nevertheless, we inched ahead and turned left onto a narrow bridge, and that’s where things started to get really tense.
We slowly crept to the halfway point on the bridge but then couldn’t go an inch further. The town was flooded with Bastille Day tourists and a human blockade of merrymakers prevented us from moving forward, then started to surround us on all sides. We were the only car in the Old Town and we were painfully out of place. We endured several stares that ranged from curious to annoyed, as well as a few outright glares. If you ever watched BBC’s Top Gear, it was just like the kind of pickle Jeremy and the boys would get themselves into (only it was funny when it was happening to them). I can’t speak for the husband, but I instantly broke out in the cold sweats. Needing to act quickly, we made a game plan: The husband would stay behind the wheel, ensconced in the relative safety of the car while I would make what would end up being two daring herky-jerky dashes to the hotel on foot to ferry the luggage. Uttering, “Nous avons permission” to people near the car, but mostly, “Excusez-moi! Excusez-moi!,” while trying to avoid smacking people with our suitcases as I attempted to dart my way through what felt like a thick forest of butts and elbows, I eventually accomplished the heroic task.
Upon my final return to the sore thumb that was our car, I discovered that a kind tourist had taken pity on us and was clearing the crowd behind our vehicle so we could back up and get the heck out of the Old Town center. More frustration awaited as we tried to find a parking spot, but eventually our diligence paid off. After what felt like ages circling Annecy’s only free parking lot like a hungry vulture circling carrion, we pounced on a spot that opened up, and walked nearly a half mile back to our hotel. Though adorable on the exterior – our hotel room itself was mediocre at best. We got settled, then went downstairs in the world’s smallest elevator to seek out some sustenance. The second we exited the equally tiny hotel lobby, we were faced with a wall of humans. The place was absolutely heaving with tourists. Using a survival tactic we’d heard about called holding hands, we put our heads down and squeezed through the crowds semi-single file until we found a place to eat. (Because the husband and I are forty-somethings with the waking-eating-sleeping schedule of your average 90-year-old, we were more than happy to have a 4:30 pm dinner, and in this particular case it was useful because it meant there were actually seats available at the town’s numerous restaurants.)
The moment we sat down opposite each other, the tension that had been building in my chest spewed forth and I burst into tears. I said that I hated this place and wanted to leave, that I felt horribly guilty because I was the sole reason we were there, and that I felt ashamed that my planning skills were revealed to be sub-par since I’d had no inkling that Annecy would be like our state fair on a record-breaking attendance day… on steroids.
Wanting desperately to fix the mess I had caused, I hatched a plan to reduce our time in Annecy and escape to somewhere sane. We returned to the hotel after our early-bird dinner and I inquired as to their cancellation policy. We would be charged for that night and the following night, but the 3rd and 4th nights could be cancelled if we let them know that evening. I yelled, “Hold that thought,” over my shoulder as I ran up to the room, got on my tiny phone, and began researching where we could go next. Then, remembering The Belgian’s advice, Valloire popped into my head. Voila! I found a place that looked suitable, crossed my fingers, and made the call. After an exchange of pleasantries, I asked (in French) if anyone there spoke English. Alas, the only person who did was gone for the night. Without giving a history lesson on how the husband and I acquired our French, I’ll just tell you that he understands it well, but struggles with speaking it. Me, I’m just the opposite – I can communicate decently, but can’t understand a word. So, we tag-teamed it, and between the two of us passing the phone back and forth, we managed to secure a reservation. Feeling relieved, we watched as much of the Bastille Day fireworks as we could from our hotel room, then slept fitfully, as we were woken up several times in the night by drunk revelers in the street below.
When we awoke the next morning, we knew we only had to get through the next 24 hours in the breathtaking madhouse, but the Annecy Curse had had already been cast. The husband and I argued and bickered all day long. At one point, we
yelled said that we should spend the day apart, and one of us stomped off, leaving the other standing there, but after a little while, guilt, love, and the power of cellphone technology brought us together. Still, it was a tense day, and even when we were getting along, a quarrel was usually just minutes from bubbling to the surface.
Eventually, we got through the 24 hours, at times even enjoying ourselves and the things Annecy had to offer, but never once did we question our decision to leave. On departure morning, the husband brought the car into the pedestrian area once more – this time with greater confidence (mornings in Annecy are only very, very crowded, in contrast to the afternoons and evenings, which are very, very, very crowded), but intelligently, did not attempt to cross the bridge near our hotel. We loaded up and got the hell out of that town. The Annecy Curse lifted, and we had a magical time both in Valloire (why, oh why, didn’t we stay THERE for four extra nights?!?), and for the rest of our vacation.
And if anyone out there knows of a not too chilly month, week, or even a few days of the year when Annecy has a reasonable number of visitors, please let me know. It’s too gorgeous not to try again.