Archive for the ‘france’ Tag

St. Pierre and Miquelon

This slice (officially an overseas collectivity) of France lies off of Newfoundland’s coast, a tiny territory that’s sparsely populated, and a bit surreal in that you find yourself landing in a place that flies the French flag, operates on 220 V and Euros, with the familiar French city and street signs, all of this a 40 minute flight from St. John’s. Weird. It’s evidently not that touristed, and there’s a general lack of English-language websites and literature on St. Pierre and Miquelon. So here goes, a few of my observations from three days on St. Pierre island. I took the short flight from St. John’s to St. Pierre, in the process going from chilly rain to a sunny, humid day. The signs were the first giveaway that this was France, in fact the sole remnant of New France still under French control.

Yes, you can walk to and from the airport into town. I was offered a ride by a lady, who dropped me off at the Hotel Robert in central St. Pierre. The hotel was nothing special, a rather bare-bones room (100 Euro / night) that was rather noisy since it overlooked the main thoroughfare in the city. Despite being around 6000 people, there are a lot of cars. No doubt it’s necessary to have one to get around during the winters, so instead of the small cars normally found in France, many of the cars were the large American trucks and 4WD vehicles.

Colorful St. Pierre

Colorful St. Pierre and harbor

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Houses, St. Pierre

St. Pierre is a remarkably colorful town, although with nothing especially notable or old. A 20 minute walk out of town brings you to the wilderness, which is basically lots of rugged hills, dense, ground-hugging vegetation that was very green when I visited in August, and sparse trees that grow barely above your head. It’s also covered in these small ponds (étang), some blooming with lilies and flowers, others stagnant bodies of water with frogs jumping around. This is not the grand scenery of the Rockies that I’ve gotten used to, but it’s genuinely subarctic.

Pond, St. Pierre "backcountry"

Pond (étang), St. Pierre “backcountry”

The food was a bit disappointing compared to what I had been eating in Montreal. St. Pierre is small town France, and it’s a pretty limited selection of restaurants and shops. The hours take some getting used to, businesses are usually closed between noon and 2 PM, dinners start after 7 PM. And the time zone is strange, west of St. John’s, Newfoundland, but 30 minutes ahead of St. John’s time. The sun rises and sets late around here. The TV channels are a weird mix, I got French TV, some Canadian TV, and US TV from the major network affiliates in Detroit and Rochester, go figure. There’s one bank, where I exchanged money at a crappy rate, and the ATMs don’t take debit cards, only credit cards. In other words, use your credit card, or bring cash to change into Euros. Don’t expect regular schedules, either, ferry docks are not posted, and transport is irregular. Reserve hotel rooms in advance, as accommodation is limited.

I covered several sections of St. Pierre island on a network of hiking trails. They all were similar in scenery, with the added bonus of sea views, and views of the cliffs of Miquelon. Newfoundland, despite being only 15 miles away, is not that clearly seen and usually lost in the haze. So it really does feel like a far-off, exotic island, even if it’s virtually surrounded by Canada.

On my final day in St. Pierre, I took yet another walk among the tundra and etangs northeast of town, then hopped on the short ferry to L’Îleaux-Marins (Sailors’ Island), located just beyond the harbor breakwater, and this was probably the highlight of the visit. It’s a semi-ghost town, once housing nearly 700 people, now just 60 houses and a handful of summer residents. Its last permanent residents left in 1965. The ‘streets’ are pedestrian grassy pathways that go from one end of the island to the other, past large swaths of stone fields (graves) once used for drying fish. So instead of wheat or grass fields, the plots are covered with stones and demarcated by little grassy medians. The houses are slowly crumbling, with lots of collapsed buildings and foundations, and the ones still standing are picturesque in their bright colors and peeling paint. It was a remarkably calm three hours drinking in the views, feeling the grass under my bare feet, and photographing the scenery. The northern end is marked by the crumbling, rusting shipwreck of the Transpacific, a German vessel which ran aground in 1971. The adjoining beach is unfortunately pretty dirty with all sorts of debris and garbage washed ashore. On the southern end is a little lighthouse decked out in purple. Everything here is a riot of colors, no doubt to brighten up the harsh winters and generally crappy weather.

View of St. Pierre from Ile-aux-Marins

View of St. Pierre from Île-aux-Marins

Wreckage of the Transpacific

Wreckage of the Transpacific

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Houses and fish drying stones (graves)

And that was the end of my visit, I gathered my stuff back at the hotel, and walked to the airport, a one-mile walk. A 40-minute flight later and I was back on Canadian soil in a foggy St. John’s.

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French Alps, March 2009

Hello there again, I’m back after a week’s absence, and also more than a week being sick with my yearly cold that drags on and on. Being sick and snowboarding don’t quite mix, although I was more or less functioning.

I flew to Geneva, waded through the chaos of the airport on a Saturday evening, and boarded a bus for the three hour trip south to the Tarentaise Valley, via Annecy and Albertville. I was picked up at the very quiet Bourg St. Maurice station by Steve McDonald of the White Room Chalet, and he drove me the remainder of the distance to Sainte Foy, around 20 km away, and 800 m higher. He and his wife Iona run an excellent operation in Sainte Foy, so a big thanks goes out to them for everything, from the transport to the food, and of course showing the secret stashes. So I settled into my bunk on the ground level, which would be my home for the next week.

Morning, looking towards Les Arcs

Morning, looking towards Les Arcs

Now if you’re looking for immersion into French culture and language, the Tarentaise valley is not the place. The region appears to be the domain of holidaymakers from the UK, with some French and Dutch folks mixed in there (although many are fluent in French). It’s not really what I came for, though. This area is the Alps in all its wickedness and awesomeness, dominated by Mont Blanc (4808 m) a few miles to the north, which is taller than anything else in the surrounding region. It cuts quite a different profile from the Tarentaise valley than the more familiar sight from Chamonix, though, but is one massive, awe-inspiring mountain. Mont Blanc was being a bit shy for much of the time I was there, though.

Mont Blanc, hiding

Mont Blanc, hiding

Arrivederci Italia, bienvenue en France

Arrivederci Italia, bienvenue en France

Being on vacation, I checked email and Internet a total of twice in nine days, and avoided all phones and crackberries, and even my lovely MacBook Pro.

Powder turn, Sainte Foy

Powder turn, Sainte Foy, following a 30 cm+ dump

Summit of Sainte Foy, with Mont Blanc

Summit of Sainte Foy, with Mont Blanc

View from the summit, Sainte Foy

View from the summit

Playing tourist

Playing tourist

I spent a very wonderful, powdery six days at Sainte Foy and in the surrounding area, Tignes for a day, and crossed into Italy at La Rosiere and La Thuile. Sainte Foy is a nice moderate-sized resort, with a mix of trees and above treeline riding, plenty of gullies and rocks and the like to explore, and given the right conditions, lots of off-piste stuff inbounds and out of bounds. At the end of it, my legs were jelly, I realized that my technique could use plenty of improvement after seeing it on film, but I got more or less exactly what I was looking for.

Tignes was particularly interesting geologically, with this nice little natural arch next to the lift station. The other highlight was manmade, this very speedy funicular that made the 1000 m vertical ascent in a matter of a few minutes, going at what I estimated to be 80 km / h.

L'aiguille percee, Tignes

L'aiguille percée, Tignes

Steve on the job!

Steve, working hard on the job!

And finally, a mention about Geneva. I’ve been here a few times for work-related stuff and the like, and it just doesn’t excite the senses. It’s got all the stereotypical luxury stuff, from ten star hotels, lots of expensive cars, banks, and watches, mixed in with a fair bit of sleaze near the train station. I did have a nice, filling meal of pot au feu in the old town (perfect winter food), and finished with a bottle of the local artisan beer, Calvinus noire, at the bar next door, for the undemocratic price of 8 CHF. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon or a day, but that’s about it.

Jet d'eau, surprisingly quiet.

Jet d'eau, surprisingly quiet for a 140 m ejaculation