France in the Country

“Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains; 
They crown'd him long ago
On a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds,
With a diadem of snow.” Lord Byron

I don’t remember too much about the drive from Paris to the Alps because I was focused on learning the rules of the road and navigating the narrow streets rather than enjoying the scenery. However, I do remember arriving at Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe just as the sun was setting and it was a pretty surreal moment.

The valley was full of cottages and looked like a model train town as the sunset casting a monstrous shadow, covering the landscape like a hobbyist closing his garage door. The slow creep up the mountain in our constantly bucking manual transmission caused quite a curiosity among the domestic wildlife surrounding us. Sheep, cows, dogs, and even alpacas would saunter up to the fence with their bells jingling to see what disturbed their quiet mountain daydreaming. 

Our host was a lumberjack who met us on the mountain with his bicycle, when I told him about our homeland he praised the Shenandoah Valley for its fine timber. The silence of the mountain was a welcome change to the bustle of Paris and the stargazing was second only to the volcanoes of Hawaii. My wife and I slept in with our down comforters in the cozy log cabin, but the younger kids woke up early to play in the Nordic bath and roam the mountain, while my teenage stepson was content in the cabin playing video games.

We made our way to the base of Mont Blanc, passing professional cyclists training for the Tour du Mont Blanc along the way, climbing hills made only for superhuman athletes. Chamonix was a small town nestled in a gorge with ski lifts and train tracks branching out in every direction. The air was fresher, the clouds were whiter, and the grass was greener in this land of skiing and hiking. I sat near a snow mound atop Brévent peak and watched para-gliders wipe the sweat from their palms as they leapt into the abyss. 

I chose to skip the Lac Blanc hike in favor of the Cinque Terre trail this trip, but if you’re spending more than a couple days in Chamonix I hear it has breathtaking views and you can even swim in Lacs des Chéserys, but only if you don’t mind the extreme cold. I remember finding bear tracks atop the mountain and wondering why they would venture this high, but then realized that the bear probably thinks the same thing about us.

After descending from Mont Blanc we took a train, that seemed straight out of The Polar Express, through the mountain to Mer de Glace.

We arrived to a gigantic glacier cutting through the rocky countryside like an icy lava flow. We descended the stairs and passed signs indicating the glacier size throughout the decades, growing more depressed with each step. We fought our vertigo on the mountain stairs, which resembled the open grates of a fire escape, until finally arriving at the mouth of the blue behemoth. 

The bright blue of the glacier resembled the iridescent pigment of Lapis Lazuli, which my son pointed out after paying attention during his tour of Renaissance art at The Louvre. We passed through the icy entrance and were baptized by mountain water melting from the sun-kissed ceiling. As we ventured further into the glass cave, it grew darker and the rain ceased, but the faint glow of daylight pierced the walls, lighting up the frozen treasures trapped over the centuries like layers of a prehistoric cake. 

The ice sculptures were intricate and we took dozens of photos, but the wonder quickly faded as I considered the temporary nature of the place we were standing in. 

My generation will probably be the last to gaze upon the mighty Mer de Glace, the second longest glacier in the entire Alps. On our way back to the train, I struggled to climb the hundreds of steps up the melted mountain, but it served as both a reminder and a punishment.

After riding the self-braking Alpine Coasters for a couple hours we headed back to the cabin where we we spent the night. Since it was the off season, the village was a ghost town and you could tell the people who stayed behind enjoyed their isolation, both digitally and physically. A restaurant owner I spoke with personified Mont Blanc and explained how she would never betray her glorious mountain by leaving to go to a Summer home. Mont Blanc was a respected deity in the forests of France to the locals, with numerous legends of dark fairies, trolls, and dwarves passed down through the generations.

We spent a morning at Le Maison des contes de fees, learning about darker iterations of fairy tales that have been continually neutered down for children over the centuries. The museum curator lived on the mountain her whole life and spent her time crafting elaborate papier-mâché characters with musical stages to immortalize these stories. It was a little creepy, but also inspirational.

The Fairy Tale Museum resembled a tourist trap you’d see off the highway of Route 66, but the closest main road was hours away, so the owner didn't create this world because it was financially viable. 

Her doll houses and handmade puppets took years to craft, and even though her efforts may be dismissed by a culture unable to commit to anything longer than a Netflix series, she was not content to be a spectator. In France, everyone wants to be a creator.

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