With a big editing project turned in by mid-July, it was high time to think about a holiday! Rather last-minute, I agreed to join a couple of friends on a road trip from the farthest western province of Austria down to Marsaille and back — a 1100-mile loop down through Lichtenstein, Italy, and France’s Côte d’Azur to Marsaille, then back up through Provence, the Rhône-Alpes region, and then across all of Switzerland. The route showcased mountain vistas, expansive lakes, rocky ocean beaches, sunflower and lavender fields, quaint villages, and a host of other sights.
Although most of the journey was is a borrowed van furnished with camping supplies, I started out by train, making the jaunt to Innsbruck, where I spent a splendid evening with friends and got to meet their new baby.
The next morning I headed on to Vorarlberg, met up with a friend who used to live in Vienna, and then joined Anne and Rebecca, who had graciously agreed to my crashing their road trip (thankfully, not literally).
The journey was something of a geography lesson. For any of you who might also feel that your European geography needs some brushing up, here are a couple of maps — first of the train route from Vienna (notice how far east we are!) to western Austria (a bit longer train ride than the driving time between, say, Knoxville and Memphis) and then of the loop down to southern France and back:
The first leg of the road trip Rebecca routed us through Lichtenstein — so that Anne and I could add a country to our list. We enjoyed seeing the prince’s castle, nestled just above the tiny capital’s main street. After a coffee and posting a postcard, we headed on.
Close to our day’s destination on Lake Maggiore (in Italy), we took a side road up into the Swiss hills, where the roads narrowed, and old stone houses perched charmingly along the hillsides. A clear, cold stream, bounded by beautifully molded boulders, offered an idyllic accompaniment to a walk — and a perfect way to cool off from the July heat.
Later, after settling in at our home base for the next two nights, we took a stroll through the quiet streets of the small-town of Ghiffa and found our hearty appetites more than accommodated by the local pizzaria, the savory flavors enhanced by a view out over the calm lake (the bit we could see — it stretches for 40 miles!).
The next day we took a walk to the next town, enjoyed a swim in the lake, tried out the local gelato, and cooked a simple dinner. The following day we took to the road again. Rebecca’s driving skills were put to the test on numerous occasions — the large van was not made for the narrow roads of coastal Italy or the steep, busy, and narrow streets of Monaco. We gave up on the idea of finding a parking place for a coffee in our next “new” country — finding ourselves driving out of Monaco almost before we’d driven into it, and all a bit frazzled by the driving conditions. I did manage to document the local licence plate pattern.
We arrived at our campground, just shy of the French border, with time to enjoy the beach. I’ll have to admit, I generally have thought that a week’s vacation at the beach sounds rather boring (how much sun and sand can a person take, after all?), but this trip made me rethink that. A whole afternoon to do nothing but alternately jump into the sea, dose under an umbrella, and read Tolkien. Splendid!
The next day, which started with a dip in the sea, we drove on to Marseille, taking in a short visit to Cassis on the way. (Besides the obvious array of boats in a coastal city, note the professional parking job!)
Our friend Andrea had rented a house on the outskirts of Marseille and had invited a whole array of friends and friends-of-friends to come for as many days as we could. Over our few days there, we were seven friends from church in Vienna — five single women and one couple. (We got a lot of mileage out of one Frenchman’s assumption that the Morgans were on holiday with their many grown daughters!)
The first day a group of us ventured into the nearby national park, an area of striking coastal rock formations known as calanques. Because it was a long walk, there were very few tourists, as only the locals were allowed to drive in to the sleepy little waterside village. At lunchtime, we decided to try out the one and only restaurant. The other three girls were all intent on fish for lunch, which led to a very entertaining interaction with our waiter.
Finding that the prices coincided with the marked lack of competition, we attempted to ascertain what on the menu was actually available and affordable. Between our limited French (mine is non-existent) and our waiter’s limited English, it wasn’t so easy. In the end, he disappeared downstairs to the kitchen, only to reappear with a platter — decorated with the prerequisite lettuce leaves — showcasing the (raw) fish he could offer. Well, none of us had had that sort of menu description before! In the end, everyone was terribly happy with her meal, and I even managed the glass of Pastis I was hoping for.
The next day, we took a boat taxi into Marseille’s harbor, then jumped on another boat to go to the small islands just east of the city. With a small rocky cove practically to ourselves, we couldn’t have wished for a better spot…. I took an alternate path back to the boat to explore some slightly eerie ruins, which I think mostly dated to the WWII era, and which looked out over both Marseille and over the castle ruins that Dumas apparently used as inspiration for his Count of Monte Cristo. There were also some intriguing “sea dafodills” blooming in the formidably dry environs.
Nevertheless, Anne and I made the significant climb up to the main cathedral. The Moorish architectural influences were very interesting, as was the boat/ship motif inside. Perhaps local seafarers have a long tradition of seeking blessings for safe travel from the patroness of the church — Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard). The boat ride back offered the perfect evening light for some farewell photos.
Then it was already time to leave Marseille, now with Koni joining our crew. We said good-bye to our hostess Andrea — who was staying a few more days before moving back to the States — and headed north into the countryside of Provence. …Oak groves, presumably planted for the coveted truffles they attract, intermingled with undulating fields, some still boasting long rows of lavender and heavy-headed sunflowers. Towns with their terracotta-roofed houses and square church spires blended in with the surrounding landscape….
The next day, which dawned clear and promising after the previous afternoon’s rainstorm (you can’t have a camping trip without encountering at least a bit of rain, can you?), we visited a splendid farmers’ market in the nearby town of Riez, showcasing everything from beautiful soaps to tantalizing cheeses to cheerful table linens to perfectly ripe melons.
After a picnic lunch, we drove a little ways into the impressive Verdun Gorge before returning to lake level and renting canoes for a couple of hours. The man-made lake extends part of the way into the gorge, allowing for easy access to views of the cliffs shaped by the waters that apparently raged there in earlier times.
The next day we carried on north, enjoying views of the Rhône-Alpes, stopping briefly in Grenoble, and eventually landing in Geneva, where we’d booked a campsite right on the lake. The last day of our loop we drove across all of Switzerland, passing lake after lake, quaint villages, and even a glimpse of Mont Blanc in the far distance.
Arriving back in Rankweil at Rebecca’s home, we were greeted by her parents and their warm-hearted hospitality. To finish off the trip with the best of local cuisine, her mom even made a huge batch of Käsespätzle. The closest thing I can think of is American macaroni and cheese (made with small dumplings instead of macaroni and with very strong “mountain cheese”) — but perhaps the primary similarity is that both foods qualify as quintessential “comfort food.”