This was a day that I was both looking forward to and approaching with some trepidation. Before we had come to Europe, Gaetan and Lina, our hosts in Chambery, were visiting us in Canada. I had mentioned that I would love to do a bike ride while in France. Marc, their son, who’s a 21 year old rugby player and is in incredible condition, said he’d love to go with me. While very thankful for the company, I was wondering how I could keep up with someone half my age who was in better shape than I’ve ever been. We were being joined by some other relatives, Yves, a cousin who’s around my age and Gilles, Marc’s half brother, who was in his 30’s. I was feeling a little more confident about the bike ride, taking some consolation in the fact that I do a lot of bike riding at home. Marc told me he planned a ride around the Lac du Bourget, a loop of about 75 kilometers with the first 14 being straight up hill, climbing a local mountain called Le Chat. Fear again gripped my chest.
After picking up my rental bike, we rendezvoused and headed out, starting the climb up Le Chat. Luckily, I found I could hold my own and soon relaxed and began enjoying the ride.
It was an incredible experience. You just can’t have rides like this in Canada. The climb up was challenging, but the switchback carved it’s way up the mountain, much like what I’d seen on TV with the tour de France (although this wasn’t part of the actual route), past fields and small villages, giving incredible views of the lake and valley below, with a post card view of an abbey on the lakeshore. We took a break on the way and I felt the surge of the adrenalin and the amazing realization that I was overlooking incredible scenery in the French Alps. We soon reached the peak and headed down. This was a pure rush, zipping down the mountain into village after village, leaning into tight hairpins and hitting the gears just right to maintain pace on the infrequent climbs. I’ve gained a whole new respect for road cyclists. This is more than a sport, it’s an art form.
We dropped back down to lake level at the end of the lake, and then traded places breaking the wind at the head on the relatively flat last half of the ride back into Aix Les Bains. Marc and I parted from the other two for a quick tour through the town of Aix Les Bains, zipping through narrow streets and through priorities (round-abouts). One thing I noticed is that with the compressed scale of European streetscapes (everything seems smaller) even the moderate speeds I could manage made me feel like I was flying through the town. Jill (my wife) made the astute observation (while we were being driven through Chambéry) that it felt like we were in a video game, with everything flying towards us at accelerated speeds. Much better than any Disney ride!
After we went through town, we ended up at a large aquatic center where we met up with my wife, daughters and the rest of the family for a picnic.
It was at this moment that the second moment of fear overtook me. I was informed, as we entered the pools that I was not allowed to go swimming in my modest North American shorts/swimsuit. In France, you needed a real swimsuit, also known as a Speedo. If you’re not familiar with this particular article of clothing, it’s approximately the size of a rubber band, made of a fabric that’s less durable than wet tissue paper, with roughly the same ability to cover anatomy. But there was hope! I didn’t have such a swimsuit, so I simply wouldn’t go in the pool. I’d wear my safe North American suit, with its comforting 14 meters of ironclad fabric and watch the activities from the sidelines. And there was a bonus. This was a French swimming pool, which meant that at least some of the women would be topless. My luck was looking up, for about 14 seconds. Marc noticed there was a vending machine where you could buy Speedos for just 8 Euros. Not just any Speedos..but ones smaller than normal, so that they could fit in tiny plastic packages the size of a postage stamp.
Thanks Marc! No, really, thank you from the very bottom of my heart!
I went and managed to squeeze into the Speedo, looking around and taking some consolation in the fact that there were guys even larger than me, wearing similarly microscopic suits. Ah well, I sighed…when in France! I made it through the pools and as soon as I could, covered the suit with my trusty Canadian trunks. France is a beautiful country and I wanted to do my part to keep it that way.
During a quick trip to the coffee bar at the pool, I discovered it really is a small world. We met a lovely Irish lady named Sinead who had married a local and had relocated to Aix les Bains. But as a child, she had spent many summers at a resort in Kelowna, where I live, called Beacon Beach. Beacon Beach is no longer there, but it was right across the road from where my wife grew up and where my in-laws still live. Sinead was familiar with the house! We traded emails and I promised to send her pictures of Manteo, the new resort that sits on the former site of Beacon Beach. Who knows..perhaps a future home exchange partner!
After the beach, we headed to yet another ice cream shop, which sold huge scoops of incredibly delicious ice cream for less than a euro! And the theme continues.
Marc’s brother, Eddie, then took us for a tour of downtown Chambéry. The richness of the city centers in Europe far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen in North America. Even very vibrant urban centers like Boston, New York and San Francisco can’t match the perfectly balanced blend of culture, history, monument, parks, retail and residential areas you find in Europe. Chambéry is a little bit smaller that Kelowna, which has always struggled a little with the vitalization of it’s downtown core. Although Kelowna has made great strides in recent years, and is considered to have a reasonably interesting downtown compared to other cities it’s size in North America, Kelowna’s core was eclipsed by the enchanting pedestrian lanes, plazas, streets and parks of Chambéry. You could easily spend an entire day wandering from shop to shop, stopping for refreshments in the many bistros and picking up some culture in the museums and historic sites. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a full day to spend. This was our last day in Chambéry and we were packing in as much as we could. A quick 90 minutes exploring, and we were back to Lina and Gaetan’s for a quick bite, then off for a nighttime visit to the lake resort town of Annecy. Old Annecy is a fairy tale alpine village on the lakeshore, with canals similar to Venice and tiny little plazas that looked just a little too picture worth to be real. However, some quick checking of the facades convinced us that this was indeed a real place. A magical stroll through the streets and a quick drink at a café capped off a spectacular day (the ugly Speedo incident not withstanding).