Saturday, 21 February 2015

Cordon, France

Am writing this from the dining/breakfast room of Les Bruyères, a two-star hotel above the small village of Cordon, about an hour's drive from Geneva, just before you get to the better-known ski towns of Combloux and Megève. Mont Blanc, which is across the valley from me and seen through a huge picture window, seems to be winning a battle with the clouds, so it looks likely to be another beautiful day in the Portes des Mont Blanc region.

I was looking for somewhere to skip away to for a quick few days of skiing, so I didn't want a huge long drive after we landed in Geneva. I'd been to Mefève twice before – once in winter, for a few days' skiing courtesy of Stanford Skiing, who run a number of chalets and a hotel there, and again last summer (also courtesy of Stanford Skiing, who run a summer offering as well, for those who want to hike and enjoy the Alps without the snow – definitely to be recommended!) – so I knew the area a little and, crucially, that it didn't take long to get there. I was paying for myself and grown-up son, which is why I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible, hence the two-star. Yes, the decor was old-fashioned; true, the hot water took a very long time indeed to get a reasonable bath at the end of the day and, no, no one there spoke English, but? Aside from the hot water (if you ski, you know how nice it is to have a hot soak after a day on the slopes), those things actually made it quite charming. The old lady proprietess spoke to me in French and I spoke back in Franglish, to which she didn't bat an eye; the cook (who makes a mean omelette and home-made French fries [that's chips, if you're a Brit]) was always smiling and friendly; and it was very relaxed and homey. Also, as we found out on our last day, literally around the the next chicane (remember, we were high up a mountain) and about a 2-minute walk away from the front door, was the green slope of the Cordon ski domaine. This, by the way, is very limited: a couple of greens, a blue and a couple of reds, none very long, but if you felt like just running out the door and warming up, it was there.

We ended up doing most of our skiing in Combloux, the next town along. You can buy a ski pass that lets you ski Cordon, Combloux, Demi Quartiere, Les Gettiaz and Megève. Only Combloux and Les Gettiaz are connected by lifts/pistes, and none of them are vast like, say, the Portes du Soleil or Trois Vallées ski domaines. But, personally, I liked them all the better for that and for four days provided more than enough skiing.

We did ski Demi-Quartiere one day, just because we felt we ought to make full use of the ski pass, but Combloux was so nice and close and, as my son pointed out, very pretty, with piste-side pine forests. Even when the French school holidays kicked in on our last day, we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes to get on a lift, much of the time we had pistes to ourselves; and there's nothing like a mountainside Alpine lunch.

I still remember the first time I enjoyed this treat: as a north American, winter to me meant freezing. But in the Alps, there you are, surrounded by snow in the middle of winter, sitting in warm sunshine, your coat, hat and gloves shedded, wearing shades and eating cheesy, buttery carbs and, if you like, a glass of wine or a beer.

Hell, you can even get up and start partying, if you're anywhere near one of La Folie Deuce establishments (they're scattered about the Alps). Mid-afternoon, they kick off with DJs, party-starters in animal onesies dancing on tables and urge you to get involved. Not like the old days of northeastern USA skiing, where you huddled over your cocoa, trying to warm your frozen fingers.

We had two amazing evening meals out: one at Chalet d'Emilie, which is both slopeside at Combloux, so you can jump off the blue Gentiane run and stomp over the to Airstream parked on its patio and order a sandwich; or drive up in the evening and have a scrumptious dinner inside by the roaring fire for about €30 a head. Not bad for the Alps.

The other night out was at l'Alpaga, one of two Megève restaurants to receive its first Michelin star last winter. This was a sublime experience: the dining room is in a cube-shaped room with non-stop glass around three sides, all the staff speak perfect English and are happy to talk you through your dining experience, which starts with an extraordinary amuse-bouche of three items: a slice of vegetable purée with a delicate crumble topping, a pumpkin ball with melted chocolate inside and a square bite of another vegetable concoction. At the end of your meal, after you've gorged on artichokes three ways, porcini ravioli and cheeses, plus chocolate pudding – boom, back comes the amuse-bouche, but this time an inside-out sweet version. So, for instance, the ball is chocolate with a  bang of pumpkin inside. Amazing.

However! Easily as memorable was the crêpe stall in downtown Combloux, just down from the tourist office. We went after skiiing twice because the sucre buerre salé version was like Alpine crack...

Final tip: we rented a car from Europcar on the French side of Geneva airport. No problems with the rental company, no problems with the car. But, trying to return it? Like one of those weird horror-film sequences when the characters are stuck in a loop of time. We went round and round and round, through the closed police check border, through the tunnels, past the World Trade Center sign, over and over, trying to find the entrance to Geneva's French aiport. At long last, we took the small, inconspicous side road with a little black and white sign saying parking for 151 cars and, voilà, there we were. Maybe simpler to rent from the Swiss side!

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Charmouth, Dorset

Go to the beach in February? It did seem kind of crazy, especially as this is turning out to be such a cold winter, but once we were below the clifftops, the wind dropped and the variations in light were worth it on their own. 
Charmouth is fossil central on the Jurassic Coast, as it's called, and there were a fair few people out with little hammers, knocking on rocks' doors, looking for those ammonites or – wouldn't it be amazing? – something even more exciting. 
I find, when I look up at the cliffs, I start imagining that every jutting rock could be a dinosaur vertebrae, but even if you don't find anything more thrilling than a broken belemnite, of which there are plenty, it's still a wonderful environment to be in. No wonder so many folk retire down here.

The thing to do is just go small. Stop, squat down and just look at the patch of ground in front of you. Interesting rocks, bits of sea glass, bits of fossil vertebrae of something... It almost doesn't matter. It's just the going small, the focus, the being there for a minute or two examining the world.

We didn't notice at first, but the tide was going out and, as it it did, these incredible clay flats emerged, sticky to walk on but not slippery or unsafe. It wasn't long before the sand beyond them became visible and dog walkers strutted out, throwing tennis balls.

Did we find anything?!!!! No. At least, not of the physical, pick-it-up-and-put-it-in-your-pocket sort. But a bit of beauty and peace? Plenty.

Sherbourne, Dorset

Head south-west out of London and, after a bit of Buckinghamshire and a slice of Hampshire, a serving of Wiltshire and just a taste of Somerset, you (finally!) get to Dorset, to my mind, one of England's nicest counties. Slightly wonky hills; beautiful, wild beaches; thick, high hedgerows lining the roads; and plenty of pretty towns, history and opportunities to go fossiling.

We've come down for a long weekend, staying in very sweet, thatch-roofed Mouse Cottage, courtesy of West Country Cottages. But, to break up the approx 3hr journey from town, we stopped in Sherbourne, also in Dorset, as it calls itself 'one of the prettiest towns in England'. Let's see, I said to companion...

Inside The George
I have to add here that, being that it's the first weekend of February when we visit, it's bitingly cold. The sun does something to take the teeth out of the wind, but not enough to make us want to spend too long outdoors, so it's going to be a quickie.

Cheap Street
We park in the pay-and-display car park, helpfully signposted as we entered town. It's conveniently just behind the high street, which is called, delightfully, Cheap Street. Our goal? Find a pub still serving lunch, as it's nearly 3pm. At the top of Cheap Street, we find two: The White Hart, which looks like it can't decide if it's open or not, even though the sign outside says it is, and, almost opposite, The George, which turns out to be the oldest pub in town.

This is the one we choose and yes, the waitress says, glancing at the clock, they're still serving. We quickly grab a table, get told the specials (variations on pork roast, lamb roast, beef roast and chilli with rice) and glance at the menu, which lists exactly what you'd expect from a pub: baked potatoes with various toppings; cod and chips, scampi and chips, and a ploughman's lunch (translated means: some form of bread, often a baquette, with Cheddar cheese, chutney pickle and sometimes a bit of salad on the side).

After lunch, we brave the cold with a brisk stomp down Cheap Street, which is, as promised very pretty, though the most arresting thing I see is a life-size statue of a bear on an upper terrace.

At the far end of the street is the Abbey (flying buttresses, very pretty, c-c-c-can we get back in the car now?), and then a quick trot back up the street, through the archway into the alley and round to the car park again.

The Abbey
Sorry, Sherbourne, I'm sure you deserve more time, but it will have to be on a warmer day.