Alpine Autumn Randonees in France & Italy
Story and photos by Julie Maris/Semel
The music of cowbells, the sweet smells of mountain grass, the gentle breezes, and the crystalline vistas of spiky peaks overwhelmed my senses. I was fully awake but living a dream in the Alps.
Unlike summer excursions, September randonnees or rambling walks in the mountains of Megève and Chamonix, France and Turin, Italy have the advantages of fewer hikers, the ability to nibble wild blueberries, and to find yourself nose-to-nose with cows with black-circled eyes that reminded me of très-chic eyeglasses.
My friends and I stretched our legs on Megève’s cobbled streets, followed by an Alpine picnic overlooking wildflower meadows. My daypack, stuffed with farmers’ market charcuterie, pates, and local cheeses could nourish us for a week!
In France and Italy, the Slow Food movement is the opportunity to savor seasonal food and precious moments. At the Chalet du Mont d’Arbois’ 1920 Restaurant, we shared that moment with the richness of sautéed duck foie gras with a subtleness of dark chocolate in the crisp cocoa tuile and the moist, delicately flavored monkfish with meunière butter and curry sauce.
Chamonix, forty minutes from Megève, is its slightly older and more sophisticated cousin, with bustling streets filled with high energy. After our spectacular ear-popping cable car ride, we reached Aiguille du Midi’s summit. Crystalline air, royal blue skies, breath-taking views, and the snow-covered Mont Blanc were adrenaline to my soul.
Anxious to have lunch after our return to the valley, we caught the rack and pinion railway, Montenvers Mer de Glace. Excited and chattering school children filled the train for the twenty-minute ride through mountain forests to the glacier.
Sipping wine, as crisp as the air, on the sunny terrace of the Grand Hotel du Montenvers waiting for our Haute-Savoie comfort food, the traditional tartiflette, we could see cable cars descending to the ice grotto and overheard lectures about the jagged granite peaks surrounding us.
Daydreaming, I returned to my nest––the Hameau Albert 1er––three unique rebuilt Savoyard farmhouses. Dinner at its Restaurant de Pays, an extension of a country kitchen with an enameled stove, old walls, and antiques, was perfect. The rich boudin, seasoned with allspice––a hearty farmhouse meal and regional specialty––was followed with cheeses of Savoie and a fondant de chocolate.
The next morning, I was still living that dream, as Mont Blanc receded in the distance during our early drive to Turin. The ride past farms didn’t prepare me for the beautiful Baroque aristocratic buildings. Recognition as a World Heritage site attests to Turin’s importance. Turin woke me up!
The National Museum of the Mountain is a repository for historical films that includes Heidi––the movie that caused tears when I was seven––documents, and exhibitions relating to the Alps. I quickly put on my hiking boots after seeing the spectacular panoramic vistas of the Alpine arch from the top of the museum.
We hiked the Plaisentif Path in the bucolic Olympic Mountains near Usseaux, a jewel of rural architecture. Our lunch waited for us at Alpe Pintas, a mountain restaurant: bagnetto, a garlicky pesto; ricotta served with honey; and a creamy goat cheese with dried Muscato.
Turin, the heart of Piemonte’s gastronomy, is at the center of Slow Food that promotes artisanal food and consumer awareness. At Eataly, a market linked to Slow Food, I was in heaven.
In the morning to fortify us for our hike in the Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, established to save the ibex, we walked through quiet streets to Café al Bicerin, one of Turin’s numerous historic cafés. Bicerin, served in a glass, and made with a bottom layer of hot rich melted chocolate topped with strong espresso, then capped by frothy cold cream, inspired earlier patrons, Nietzsche, Dumas, and Puccini.
En route, the narrow road wove past hamlets of ancient stone farmhouses. Our guide assured us that we could reach our destination along a comfortable path. Suddenly, I wished I were that protected mountain goat! We easily scrambled over boulders to Rifugio Pontese’s hut with its yellow metal roof for our country lunch.
Back in Turino, we headed for the revitalized Roman Quadrangle. Young and hip crowds were shopping at cutting-edge boutiques and sipping wine at trendy bars. Still in our hiking boots, my friends and I joined them for one last glass of wine. Back at the hotel, I squeezed boxes of gianduiotti chocolates and grissini, those classic breadsticks, into my suitcase, packed my boots, and fell asleep dreaming, not that I was Heidi, but that I was one of her sturdy mountain goats.
If You Go:
Megève Tourism: www.megeve.com
Megève hiking guides: www.guides-megeve.com
Hotel Relais & Chateaux Chalet du Mont d’Arbois: www.domainedumontdarbois.com
Chamonix Tourism: www.chamonix.com
Hotel Hameau Albert 1er: www.hameaualbert.fr
Turin Tourism: www.turismotorino.org
Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso: www.pngp.it
Rifugio Pontese: web.tiscali.it/rifugio.pontese
Fort of Fenestrelle: www.fortedifenestrelle.com
Slow Food: www.slowfood.com
Café al Bicerin: www.bicerin.it
National Museum of the Mountain: www.museomontagna.org
National Cinema Museum: www.museonazionaledelcinema.org
Egyptian Museum: www.museoegizio.it
Visit a slideshow of Alpine Autumn Randonees