Of our three-month sojourn on the European continent, we spent a little more than five weeks in France. Today we’ll share our last week in this wonderful country. The week was split between a gorgeous jewel on the Cote d’Azur and a visit to the majestic Alps. In between, we were surprised to be so taken by the extraordinary achievement of a not-very-ordinary postman.
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We took European travel guru Rick Steves’ advice and chose Villefranche-sur-Mer over its larger and more famous neighbor, Nice, as our base to explore the Cote d’Azur. It is hard to imagine a place more stunningly beautiful than this harbor town.
The view from the terrace of our AirBnB apartment was nothing short of breathtaking.
From the terrace we could watch the ever-changing light paint the town different shades of beautiful.
The terrace was the perfect place to sip coffee while watching each new day begin.
To the east lies Cap Ferrat, some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
From our terrace we could see the surprisingly landscaped terrace of a private estate on the harbor.
The vivid blue of the Mediterranean Sea is what gives the Cote d’Azur its name.
The high hills let you look down to this inviting beach. If you look closely, you can just make out the tiny figure of a person in the water.
The water is as clear as a swimming pool’s.
The town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is a lovely melange of pastel-colored shapes.
It is fine town in which to wander and get lost.
The Rue Obscure (“Dark Street”) is a passageway that passes under the town near the harbor. It dates from 1260.
A citadel, built in the 1550s, now houses the town hall and several art museums.
Villefranche remembers France’s hero of the Resistance, Jean Moulin. We grew fond of him during our time in France, and always enjoyed encountering his dashing figure in memorial gardens and public squares.
Cliff Roads and Towns Nearby
Using Villefranche as our base, we traveled the three famous corniches, or “cliff roads.” We explored as far east as Monaco using the Basse Corniche (or Corniche Inferieure), which hugs the Mediterranean coastline. On the return trip, we traveled the Moyenne (“middle”) Corniche and the Grande (“high”) Corniche. The latter was built to provide passage for Napoleon’s army.
This view, from the Moyenne Corniche, shows a bit of the Basse Corniche far below.
The corniches provide a great view of the Principality of Monaco. This is the famous casino there. We drove through Monaco but it was so crowded and uninviting that we chose not to stop. I was mildly thrilled to drive on a bit of the Grand Prix of Monaco motor racing circuit.
The Corniches took us to the hill town of La Turbie. Here, the Tropaeum Alpium, or Trophy of the Alps, stands on the highest peak. It was built c. 6 BC by the Romans to commemorate Caesar Augustus’s victory over the local tribes. It is open to the public.
We had lunch in the pretty little hill town of Eze. This stop is also recommended in Rick Steves’ guidebooks.
Èze has been described as an “eagle’s nest” because of its location 1,401 ft. above the Mediterranean.
The ancient streets are a maze of stairways and alleyways. While the area has been inhabited since 2,000 BC, the oldest existing structures date from the 14th century.
Old, eccentric sculptural water fountains can be found all over France.
Around every corner lies a new view of the Mediterranean far below.
With some reluctance, we left the coast of France. We were on our way to the French Alps.
Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (The Ideal Palace of the Postman Cheval)
We had read of an “eccentric folly” located in the little town of Hauterives, and the picture we’d seen was intriguing. Since this was more-or-less on the way to Annecy, our next destination, we stopped in for a quick look. We ended up staying most of the afternoon and only wished we’d had more time.
Ferdinand Cheval was a hardworking, rural postman who lived from 1836 to 1924. (Photo by unknown, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)
As Cheval tells it, “In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it.”
One day when he was 43 years old and walking his 18-mile postal route, Cheval tripped over a stone. He went back and picked it up. It was, according to Cheval, “…a stumbling block of such a strange shape that I dropped it into my pocket in order to admire it at my leisure.”
In some mystical way, that stone, his dream, his imagination, and his exposure to the world through the postcards and magazines he delivered, converged. “I went back to the same place and found even more beautiful stones. I said to myself, since nature wants to sculpt, I will produce masonry and architecture.”
He had little education and no training in architecture or art. Yet he was inspired to spend the next 33 years of his life building a palace with his own two hands. What began by picking up stones along his route became an amazing hymn to the imagination and tenacity of the human soul.
Said Cheval, “Here is my unusual story, where a dream becomes reality.”
“I have been a rural postman for 29 years. Work is my only glory and honor my only joy.”
The inscription above the camel translates, “By creating this rock I wanted to prove what willpower can do.”
“I want to live and die as a son of the country, to prove that there are geniuses and energetic men in my class also.”
“This is art, it is the dream, it is energy.”
We wandered about the Palace, through tunnels, up stairs, into intimate chambers.
We were amazed anew in each sacred space.
From the Palace’s website: “An amazing bestiary – octopus, deer, caiman, elephant, pelican, bears, birds …
…but also giants, fairies, mythological characters, waterfalls and architecture from all continents.”
Cheval used a variety of materials, including limestone, cement, shells, and stones. On the palace he wrote, “1879 – 1912, 10 thousand days, 93 thousand hours, 33 years of struggle.”
On the north facade of the palace, the last to be completed, Cheval engraved, “I brought out the queen of the whole world from a dream.”
The east facade features the three giants of humanity on the left and Egyptian columns on the right.
Cheval wished to be buried in his palace, but French law prohibited that. Characteristically undaunted, he spent eight years building this mausoleum for himself in the Hauterives cemetery. He died not long after he completed it, and is buried there.
In 1969, the French government designated Cheval’s palace a national monument. We think it is more than simply magnificent folk art. To us, it is an inspiring testament to the power of imagination and creativity in all of us. And of course, to the power of hard work and persistence. It represents the potential of each individual to achieve something great, and to leave a lasting mark on the world.
The French Alps
We chose Annecy as our base to explore the Alps because it looked like a charming old town in the foothills. We stayed there and made a day trip to nearby Chamonix, a ski resort high up in the mountains.
Annecy is located on Lake Annecy, near Geneva, Switzerland. It is bisected by the Thiou River. In the middle of the river, the Palais d’Isle was originally the home of the Lord of Annecy. Since then it has served as a courthouse, a mint, and a prison.
Much of the activity of the town takes place in the parks along Lake Annecy. The Alps loom in the background.
The parks are beautifully appointed and well maintained.
Quiet canals are home to these colorful rowboats.
The canals lead to the big lake.
Feeding the numerous swans – and the faster interlopers – is a popular activity in Annecy.
The old town was crowded even in October. After visiting some of the sights and eating lunch in a fondue restaurant, we were ready to get up into the mountains.
If we had it to do over again, we would not have stayed in Annecy. At this time of year, it would have been a better experience to stay in Chamonix, and take a day trip to Annecy. This might not be true in high ski season, when Chamonix would be packed with skiers, or even in the peak of the summer season, but we were there in the off-season of early October. The aerial trams were either closed or operating on limited schedules. We got there too late in the day to make the last aerial tram. But we got our look at the Alps.
The landscapes of France are almost as varied as those in the much-larger USA. The Alps seem to me to be as impressive as the Rockies.
Chamonix was made famous as the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Chamonix has been described as “the death-sport capital of the world” because it is a base for the most extreme variants of ice climbing, rock climbing, extreme skiing, paragliding, rafting, and wingsuit flying.
Chamonix lies in the shadow of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s largest mountain. At its peak is the terminus of the Agile du Midi cable car system, more than two miles above sea level.
The climbers who who first reached the top of Mont Blanc in 1786 are memorialized in Chamonix. Here, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard forever gaze up at the summit.
Another statue of Balmat peers upward at the cascading glacier above the town.
We drove up as high as the roads would take us, following a route used in the Tour de France bicycle race, before returning to Annecy.
We returned the car the next day in Lyon and aid “Au Revoir” to France. We were on our way to Venice, Italy.