Friday, May 26, 2006

from le Bourget du Lac: choices


Une petite promenade – that’s French for a little walk, no? I asked at the restaurant what my options were in the area. Everywhere I look I see beautiful hills, forests, mountains. Une petite promenade is definitely in order.

Delphine, the wife of the chef here at Atmospheres (the name of the restaurant above which I am sleeping these days), suggested the forest behind their little chalet. I found the path. Uphill, to be sure, but where there are mountains there will be inclines. Up I go.

It is clear that the French are better at marking trails than the Italians. It is also clear that I should have read something about the terrain, the gradations of difficulty, the options before me.

Ten minutes into the hike, my petite promenade turned nasty. You know you are in trouble when you grab for anything -- holly bushes, berry canes, anything, just to keep upright.

I felt defeated after the first hour. Still, there was only forest around me. Surely I should not turn back until I reach something. It would be a personal failing to kill myself for nothing, not even a view. Around me, there was forest. And more forest.

Yes, occasionally, glancing back I would see this:

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looking up

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to the side

And on the ground, every once in a while I would spot these:

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Mostly, though, there were trees. And me, clinging to them.

Two hours into the ascent and I am at the stage of exhaustion where I am questioning everything about my life: why do I blog? Why am I doing this? Why did not bring water?
Because it was to be une petite promenade, I had neglected to take water or provisions of any sort.

I wondered how it was that the French managed these inclines. Of course, they are fanatics here when it comes to le sport. They bike on these roads, reaching the same elevation as I did (1200 m) without so much as a sigh. And then they crazily coast down again.

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When I firmly believed that I could walk no more, that I would have to hitch a ride down some paved road, even if it meant sitting in the lap of a crazed cyclist, I came across the only other hikers on this mountain – a family, with two little girls, aged perhaps 5 and 8. They had parked their car halfway up the mountain (smart French -- why kill yourself early on) and were on the trail just ahead.

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Two little girls, happy as anything, sauntering ahead, occasionally asking a parent for a square of chocolate.

When they finally paused for a snack, I had to pass them. But two steps later, my sanity returned. I had been hiking up this damn mountain for more than three hours. There is no summit in sight. I am tired, hungry, thirsty and I haven’t a single square of chocolate in my pocket. Time to turn back.

In passing la famille, I was hailed over for a brief forest chat. And saints that they were, without question, without comment, they took out their huge bottle of mineral water and handed it to me. Politely, I only took ten sips.

They were used to the mountains, they told me. Their daughters often went climbing with them. They were here on holiday (it’s a national day of no work, perhaps the tenth one this month), doing what the French do best: taking time off. The usual question came forth – where am I from, Germany perhaps? Sigh… it is not the first time. For some reason I look German to the French. I rushed to correct them. Ah, an American. Hiking without water, without a bar of chocolate. Hmmm.

I was grateful I was not wearing my denim skirt.

Refreshed, I sauntered down and spent my last bits of energy in search of food and water down by the lake, in the little village of Le Bourget du Lac.

Unfortunately, I had come down too late. Restaurants were closed in their post-lunch rest period. Stores were shut tight. National day of rest means that people want to get down to the business of resting asap.

Still, I am in France. No one will ever starve in this country. In the next village (yes, another hour of walking) I found a tabac-newspaper-bar place that also had food.

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It was off to the side of town and it had a smattering of locals, sipping their afternoon espresso or wine and it was happy to prepare a regional salad for me: the Salade Savoyarde. Magnificent! Lettuce, tomatoes, nuts, eggs, olives, gruyer cheese and freshly grilled tiny strips of bacon. Followed by fromage blanc with homemade fig jam. This late afternoon random meal was better than food served in heaven, of that I am sure.

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After that, even the hike back to my restaurant-with-rooms seemed a breeze. Total amount of time spent on la petite promenade (including the half hour at the tabac-bar): eight hours.


Alain and Delphine run the restaurant, Atmospheres, in the hills of the Savoie together. I can’t tell their age – they are younger than me, but then so is 75% of the world’s population. Last year, they converted the second floor of their chalet to four stunning little guest rooms. They live just above, on the third floor.

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I traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to stay here and to sample Alain’s food. I did not get his name off of some Michelin list of superstars. Instead, I have a treasured book that I randomly picked up on one of my previous trips to France and in it I have a listing of the author’s favorite country eating places. Hundreds of them, all around France.

Atmospheres is completely unpretentious (no one dresses up, there is no fine china or silver, they do not decant the red wines), but it is a serious eating place.

Watching the French select things from the menu is a story in itself. They take forever. They discuss the possibilities. They consult. I am on my third course and they still have their noses in the menu (which, btw, is always short, since freshness is de rigeur here).

As so often in these places, I opt for the tasting menu. There are no choices to be made: the chef presents, in this case, ten small courses that show off his talent.

I’ll say this much: of all the wonderful country restaurants in France, this is perhaps my all time favorite. Everything about it is stunning. I sit at my table looking out over the lake and mountains and I watch the two young waiters along with Delphine deftly attend to the needs of the diners at the ten tables and I think they have perfected it – the art of presenting food. There is no room for improvement.

Go ahead, travel here if you must. I admit, it is a rare find. The brand new rooms above the dining room sparkle, the bathrooms glisten, the price is geared to a French budget, not a foreign one (a room, a sumptuous breakfast for two, wont cross 100 Euros). But don’t tell your friends and neighbors. Atmospheres is a French gem. I don’t want to run into the likes of me (the foreign tourist) next time I’m here.

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predinner nibbles

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frothy carrot soup, young peas, onion broth with reblechon mousse

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shrimp on artichoke and tomato confit

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lake fish, diced peache, asparagus

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foie gras, grapefruit sauce

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veal on grilled polenta strips and mushrooms

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Savoie cheeses

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wrapped in mango

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100 per cent chocolate

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postdinner nibles