Date of trip: January 27, 2017 - February 1, 2017
Author: Craig Chapman
The moons of men pull like brothers. When we lived in the north woods, we caught frogs in ponds, threw cattails at cars, and hid inside bushes and tree forts. We played catch with all of the balls and wrestled to the point of screams and tears. Eventually, I grew facial hair and blazed a trail wide enough to see the world in front of me, and yet narrow enough to check my rearview and keep tabs on the one person closest to me: my brother. We experienced all of the ebbs and flows of brotherhood, from best friends to best enemies. Brothers are like boomerangs: you might throw them in haste, but they always…well, you know. Fast forward through all of the sibling chaos, and when your little brother turns 30, you take advantage of a small window in time to explore foreign countries together. For the first phase of our exploration, and hopefully not the last, we chose five days in France. One introvert and one extrovert, but both dreamers. As a guest writer for this travel journal, I will draw my best depiction of our short France excursion. While we both see life through a different lens, I imagine that our perspectives draw similar conclusions. The major difference between the Brothers Chapman travels and the Letsflysomewhere lovebirds? Definitely darts and death defying hikes.
- Day 1: Landed in Paris, walked to Notre Dame, Panthéon, and Louvre, went to Conor Oberst concert at La Maroquinerie
- Day 2: Train to Grenoble, Fort de la Bastille, Pub Shakesbeer
- Day 3: Drive to Pont-en-Royans, through Vercors, hike
- Day 4: Drive to Crest, through Die, through Vercors, back to Grenoble, Pub Shakesbeer
- Day 5: Train from Grenoble to Airport
On the eve of flight departure Friday, I came down with an angry cold that teased me throughout the trip, and hours before our flight from Reykjavik to Paris, I scrambled to prepare cold-cocktail remedies. My overall psych-level eclipsed the illness, so spirits were high. The rank smelling and transmission failing Uber experience on the way to MSP Airport presented more problems than my human ailment. Once we finally arrived at the airport, and after I almost forgot my passport on a pre-security check bench, our foreseeably combined efficiency efforts engaged its sequence. From our maximum legal carry-on bags to our one pair of warm, bulky, and uncomfortable walking for long distances hiking boots, we were ready to chase the sunset and to give a morning nod to Iceland.
After our plane parked on the tarmac, we were delighted to set foot on Icelandic land, even if for a brief moment. Chris experienced nostalgia of trips past and I envisioned a future return with my own family. Its pink skies and warm landscape sat on the horizon like a pastel painting. We did not have much time between landing and getting on the next flight to Paris, so we packed away our dreamer goggles and shoved into the shuttle bus like sardines with the rest of the universal travelers. Off to France.
Bonjour, Paris. We landed Saturday at noon, walked swiftly to board the RER train, arrived at Chatelet Les Halles stop, and then began walking toward the direction of our AirBNB, located in the Paris district of Les Marais (The Grand Marsh) in the 3rd arrondissement. We had about an hour to kill before meeting the host, so once we located the apartment, we sought the nearest place to satisfy our hunger. We waltzed into a cozy 12-seat pizza joint called Pink Flamingo with our bulky bags and roaring stomachs. Prince played on the radio and the aroma of brick oven pizza filled the air. Yes, we were in France ordering pizza for the first time, and I unashamedly admit, would not be our last bite of pie. I ordered the duck breast pizza, Chris ordered the marinara, and we stuffed our faces. DUCK BREAST PIZZA: without a doubt, a top ten pizza experience. After we paid our bill and awkwardly said thank you and goodbye in three different languages, we proceeded to meet our AirBNB host, Laetitia (who I greeted as “Latisha” – apparently the wrong pronunciation), and checked into our apartment. We regrouped, dropped some weight, planned the rest of our day, caught a second wind, and finally threw ourselves at Paris for the short remaining hours we had left. Our first stop: Notre Dame de Paris.
Paris is for brothers, it turns out. We had both visited Paris before this trip, but we both agreed that this 24-hour stay gave us a much better and more agreeable perspective than times past. When we approached the Pont Saint-Louis Bridge and stood atop La Seine River, the clouds opened up and the sun shone on the backside of Notre Dame, blasting a turbo boost in Chris’ already swift walking feet. I can easily keep pace with his long legs, but sometimes I just want to stop and smell the roses, man.
Chris has become a novice in the art of photography, so my apprenticeship of owning the same Canon DSLR began with Notre Dame as my composition; not a bad way to start learning the ins and outs of picture taking.
Photography elicits an excitingly raw perspective of the human eye, so the new Paris perspective presented an untried appreciation for the charmed city. From the Notre Dame, we stumbled into the neoclassical architecture of the Panthéon.
Again, the sun magnified our subject and guided us on our tour of the city. From the Panthéon, we planned to stop inside the Musee d’Orsay, but we unfortunately arrived mere minutes after the building closed. Looking back, missing the Musee d’Orsay was our only failed attempt at planning throughout the entire trip.
The time was 6:00 p.m., and we had about six more hours of Paris ahead of us, so we threw up our arms and proceeded to loop back towards our apartment. On the way, we found ourselves strolling through the brown, but not lifeless, Tuileries Garden, where we opted to order a hot soup and coffee from a nearby concession.
As the sun was setting, a shimmer of lights caught our periphery, and Chris exclaimed, “Well, there’s the Louvre.” We were in the heart of the city as the beautiful museum joined us in our coffee and sustenance warm-up. What a whirlwind adventure to be sitting with my brother drinking coffee and gawking at such incredibly historic architecture. Without any verbal confirmation, we both promptly stood up at the conclusion of our essential snack and walked in the direction of our apartment.
After a swift twenty minute walk, we arrived at our lodging rendezvous, where we quickly freshened up and contacted a French taxi, a.ka. Uber or, “Oo-Bear,” and headed toward La Maroquinerie, a music venue that one might find if First Ave., The 7th Street Entry, and the Depot made a baby from a strange 3-way encounter. We ate mediocre burgers and drank as-expected Jack & Cokes before we went downstairs to view the Conor Oberst show. Jack & Coke followed us down the stairs and remained close friends in the basement. Once we found a reasonable viewing spot, the show commenced, and what followed will be branded in my skull as one of the more intimately nostalgic shows that I have ever seen. I was fortunate enough to see Bright Eyes circa emo Conor Oberst at the State Theater in 2005, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to see the solo-acoustic clean-cut raspy-voiced and melancholic folk-rock Conor Oberst at a transitively mature point in his career. He blasted our newly elected president, apologized on the behalf of the U.S.A., and proceeded to name-drop Minneapolis preceding a cover to “Here Comes a Regular,” by The Replacements. Jack, Coke, and I felt awe inspired by this musical moment in time. After a really long set, we started thinking about our really long travel day behind us and our early morning ahead of us, so we grabbed an Oo-Bear and went home to sleep – not before enjoying a nightcap at a little dive bar called Café la Perle, of course.
Best night of sleep, ever. I awoke to the quintessential scent of Chris’ Old Spice body wash and him retelling a muddled story about how I laughed, cried, and held a conversation in French while in deep REM. Like I said, best night of sleep, ever. We moved pretty quickly out the door for a couple of 30-somethings recovering from a long day of travel and late night of imbibing. For the most important meal of the day, we both ordered a hot beverage, granola, and yogurt at a place called Manfreds. It was 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the city slept, and we strolled through a park, where we witnessed two elder Asian men playing ping pong on a beautiful table set atop sturdy concrete blocks. If you do not know Chris and me, we both love to play table tennis, so aside from growing up to look like two Asian men, that moment certainly foreshadowed our sibling future. We walked to Paris Gare Lyon train station, boarded the spacious bullet train, and drifted into blissful vacation mode, à Grenoble.
Fog rolled and teased just long enough to see small portholes of beautifully pastel winter landscapes. Yellows, oranges, and greens eventually fought through the fog, but not long before mountains and white snow caps protruded from the window pane. A large family/friends group with at least 7+ year-old-kids sat at a spacious communal seating area in front of us, and I could not help but miss my own family. I quickly snapped out of my melancholic state when an angry elderly French woman sitting directly behind us quite literally yelled in a startling tone at the kids for making too much noise. We eventually gathered our things, exited the train car, and b-lined to our next AirBnb rental.
Our host Jerome was very friendly and provided a tidy and modern space, with a lovely porch view of Mont Vercors. At the vehicle rental place, a salesperson name dropped “The Mighty Champions,” a.k.a., “The Mighty Ducks” after seeing our Minnesota licenses. On the way back to the apartment, we parked the car near a grocery store and filled a brown paper bag with snacks and lunches for the subsequent days ahead. It was somewhere within this moment where we both started to get into the groove of things. Upon our return from the market, we ate sandwiches on the patio overlooking Mont Vercors. After a relatively relaxing transition, we swiftly walked back into Old Town to catch the cable car.
When the mountains started to seduce the sun, capturing pictures became priorities and paces picked up. Once we arrived at the base of Fort de la Bastille, we transported from inside a Willy Wonka-esque cable car, up-and-over the city. At the top of the hill, we were in awe at the size of the city and the beauty of Earth’s life source. Chris brought his tripod and took the best city photo of the trip.
We rode one of the last cable cars of the night and returned outside a place called Shakesbeer, where we enjoyed a perfectly poured Guinness and observed locals fanatically celebrating a France victory in the World Men’s Handball Championship, defeating Norway. In the nature of variety, a misinformed Google suggested we look for a different bar, only to find a defunct, boarded-up building, so we returned to Shakesbeer and found refuge in darts and Jameson. We played about ten games and I won all of them, befriended our bartender Quentin, got advice for small town day trips, and made stumbling home look like a casual jaunt.
Chapman Bros. got an uncharacteristically late start this morning. Personally, I felt exhausted from winning all of the dart games the night before, but of course, the extra rest also helped alleviate some of the forehead pain. We packed ham and cheese sandwiches and snacks into the BMW before speeding toward Pont en Royans in the Vercors Massif. Driving on the interstate in France within an hour of awakening felt insanely surreal. I excitedly cued up the newest David Bowie album while we stoically panned out the windows, both understanding and appreciating the prodigiously beautiful mystery of traveling to foreign places. Mountains slowly emerged from the backdrop of countryside vineyards and exquisitely groomed dairy farms. Once we exited the highway and ascended toward the mountain for a few kilometers, we entered a small town with a promising bakery, where I instinctively screamed at Chris to stop the car immediately. The lack of food inside my body turned into a hunger monster. We sat at a patio table outside of the bakery and we each consumed two espressos, a small ham and cheese quiche, and most of a chocolate croissant. I felt complete happiness as the sun peaked through the clouds and the espresso ran through my blood.
When I noticed Chris eagerly installing his camera lens polarizers, I realized that shit was about to get real and remarkable memories were going to be captured. When we arrived at the town of Pont-en-Royans, we both experienced our first ‘wow’ moment: Chris’ moment unsurprisingly appeared through the lens of his camera, while mine propagated from a porcelain pot while peering out a picture window, with a view of a waterfall escaping the side of the massif. Part of the massif engulfs the town and runs parallel to a picturesque babbling stream, which minutes before glistening the hanging houses of the city, undoubtedly fell hundreds of meters from the mountain above. After we took a few photographic gems, enjoyed blips of solitude, and purified ourselves in the torrential rivers, we set off for Lans-en-Vercors park office.
Like most public facilities in France, the park office was closed for lunch. Oh hey America I have an idea, can we please close for lunch? Anyway, we were determined to summit Pic Saint Michael, so we rented some snowshoes at a nearby ski shop and navigated Google Maps as best as we could.
When we finally felt confident about the trailhead location for the hike, we opted to eat our lunch inside the car while waiting for the rain to pass. We were at the base of a downhill ski resort set into a snowy mountain range, and it was raining. The rain felt crummy to start, but we had food in us, rain jackets on us, metal traction cleats beneath us, a mountain ahead of us, and snowshoes behind us. We did not have any reason to complain, except when we got tired, which we did…every 10 minutes. We rotated the foolishly heavy backpack and ran into a scenic ridgeline about halfway up the peak. At this point, we both started to notice more snow, an unkempt trail, and days-old human tracks. We continued up the endless mountain and grew even more confused by the complete absence of trail markings.
We had been hiking for over an hour when we both noticed fog rolling in from the other side of the mountain. A fog, that by all accounts, could have been led by a hoard of White Walkers sent to turn us into mountain zombies. At any rate, the fog passed and we staggered up the mountain for another twenty minutes before recognizing the ominous low visibility and the enemy of time.
We decided to throw in the towel by turning back down the mountain. This had already been the most bizarrely adventurous hike that either one of us had ever been on, then we came to a point while descending the treacherous mountain when Chris came to a halting stop and exclaimed, “ohhhh-my-God, you’re not going to want to look down.” And I did not look down, of course. I took his word for it, but he reported that this unmarked 10-foot in diameter bottomless hole directly in our hiking path (we ended up making a wrong turn going down), had supposedly no end in sight. From the White Walkers to the canyon fall, death lurked, but we finally prevailed the descent. The hike took longer than expected and we would surely be sore until next winter, but we made our way back to Grenoble where we regrouped at our apartment, ate an outstanding slice of pizza in town (Comics Pizza), and had a mediocre French meal (Restaurant La Ferme à Dédé). We raced back to the apartment, had a single beer, crashed our heads hard into the pillow, and entered an untouchable dream world.
The last full day in France began with Emergen-C, a handful of ibuprofen, Dayquil, all of the world’s tea, and bread. The intensity of our mountain hike hit my already ailing lungs pretty hard, not to mention its unkindness toward every working muscle in my body. Thankfully, the next hour would be spent recovering from the passenger seat of a roomy motor vehicle. Chris seemed unrealistically spry for a person who just turned 30, but he also lacks the ability to grow hair on his face, so perhaps an unsurprising exhibit of youthfulness. For the second morning in a row, we packed sandwiches and snacks in our dent free rental car and took Quentin the bartender’s suggestion to travel South toward a small town called Crest in the Drôme region of France.
Once we arrived in Crest, we found a car park near the Drôme River and walked toward the obvious center of the city, governed by one of the highest medieval keeps in Europe: the Tour de Crest.
This truly majestic town on the Drôme immediately delivered at our first turn, as we stumbled into an alley that widened into a tiny plaza of food vendors, filling the morning air with decadent smells of meat and cheese, as families filled brown paper bags in a calmly orchestrated pre-lunch bustle. Chris snapped pictures and I mostly stood in the middle of the square, spinning awkwardly and salivating in circles while my brain experienced a sensory overload.
Upon our initial arrival to Crest our mission became coffee, so after I snapped out of my farmers market trance, I followed Chris around the narrow cobblestone street corner where he stumbled across a promising and petite café. Our hesitancy to enter, accompanied by our large backpacks, initially created an unwelcoming feeling which would soon be relieved by the overwhelmingly affable nature of the patron hosts inside of the café. As soon as the eclectically older café goers realized that Chris and I were non-Trump supporting Americans, a common thread sparked fascinating conversations about world perspective and leek-lentil soup. Chris’ photography inspired an older hemp smelling man to show off his brilliant landscape portfolio on a desktop computer atop a dusty desk at the back of the café. If we had the luxury of two more days in France, or even one, Chris and I would have ordered a bottle of wine (or three), had a conversation about cannabis, accepted their offer to participate in the English speaking class, and found a hotel or AirBNB to make it a day. Unfortunately, our itinerary limited relaxation and increased our forward movement and efficiency, so we took a quick tour along the Drôme River on the way back to the car, then drove toward Die.
While barreling through the mountains, Chris spotted a perfect opportunity in his rearview, whipped a u-turn, and stopped at a scenic picnic table just at the edge of a cliff to eat our lunch. This was easily the best dining experience of the trip.
After our lunch regroup, we drove deeper into the mountains and began our ascent to discover the best views at such great heights.
Confession: I get intense anxiety from not being in control of the vehicle while driving through mountains. Being a 6-year-old while riding in the back seat of a boxy Ford Aerostar van through the Rocky Mountains every other weekend, with a dad who thinks he is Mario Andretti, admittedly leaves scarring memories. At any rate, with the transition from recently robust snowfalls in the French Alps to the now warmer weather, I astutely watched for falling rocks and avalanches, as the signs suggested. We actually drove over a pile of basketball sized boulders at one point, which we would later find out scratched and dented our rental car (shameless plug: Chase Reserved credit card reimbursed everything).
We eventually arrived at Lac de Monteynard-Avignonet to capture one last sunset image, but roads appeared sketchy to reach Chris’ specific photog spot, and my hangriness put an end to the adventuring as we sped off toward the apartment in Grenoble.
After our final regroup at the apartment, we set foot for one last night out on the town. We pretended to look for interesting restaurants to satisfy our hunger, but we both knew in the deepest parts of our hearts that La Mandoline-Restaurant Pizzeria, directly adjacent to our favorite darts bar, would result in our final dinner decision. The wood-fired pizzeria did not disappoint, as we sat within arm’s reach of the oven and the pizzaiolo, who also happened to be part owner of the establishment. The pie was amazing, and once again we befriended a French person trying to simultaneously work and have conversations about politics. Eventually, we paid our bill and sauntered into Shakesbeer, where we became denizens of the cork board one last time. Somewhere in the midst of all of the cocktails, Chris claims to have finally won a dart game, which is entirely possible, but I have a difficult time remembering such claims. However, I do remember standing shoulder to shoulder with him at the bank of Isère River, absorbing one last memory before flying back home the next day.
Going home feels like an oddly satisfying combination of sadness and excitement, with a larger dose of the latter. Snow pelted our faces on the tarmac of the Iceland airport in an unusually long plane transfer; otherwise, no trains and no planes were missed in our travels home. I do not claim to have the best answers for how to travel France in five days, but I can confidently say that I gained the most memorable experience that I can possibly imagine, simply because of the fortunate opportunity to travel with my brother. The ebbs and flows of meaningful friendships might elicit numerous sources of companionship in one’s life, but reliable siblings are always constant. I feel grateful to have two of these constants in my life and the future inevitability of adventurous travels together, and akin to the lyrics from Daft Punk’s Pentatonix, wanderlust has no end: “…our ends with beginnings, what keep the planets spinning, the force of love beginning.”
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