I don’t know about you, but Fall is my favorite time of year. Cold nights and crisp air start to fill the air. Oversized sweaters come out from the back of the closet. Warm blankets now have a permanent place on our couch. Trees begin to change from green to vibrant shades of orange and yellow. It is our first Autumn in France, and we are on the hunt for the best fall foliage. In Lyon, the colors are just starting to turn shades of orange and yellow on the trees. In the alps, it is a little more vibrant right now!
After Jordan finished work last Friday night, we packed up the car and headed towards Briançon, our destination for the weekend. Briançon is the highest city in Europe and located in the French Alps. It’s close to the Italian border, and we had to change our GPS routing to avoid going through Italy on our trip there. The Italian border is open to visitors from France, but only if you can produce a negative COVID test within three days before arriving. We didn’t want to risk it. The alternative route to Briançon was only a minute slower anyway.
The road became more narrow and winding as we drove closer to the French Alps. It was only 7:30 pm, but it was pitch black outside already. There weren’t many other cars on the road other than us. The further we drove into the mountains, the more narrow and winding the streets got. Cue my motion sickness. As I get older, my motion sickness gets worse and worse (remember my story about the whale safari in Norway?). For the last half of the trip, the windows were down, and my head was hanging out, allowing the fresh air to hit my face. It didn’t help; I was so nauseous and ready to be out of the car!
We finally arrived in Briançon. Jordan had found a local hotel in the historical part of the town. The town is full of colorful buildings lining narrow and steep roads. A fortress was built around the city walls in the 14th century, and the ramparts still stand today. Today, Briançon is an excellent home-base for hiking and skiing.
We parked our car in a lot about five minutes away as residents were the only ones who could drive into town. First, we walked through one of the many entrance gates built to protect the city. This gate, the Porte de Pignerol, was equipped with medieval-style doors and a sharply pointed gate that could close from the top. It was a steep walk down the hill to our hotel on cobblestone streets. We had to carry our suitcases the entire time; the bags were not equipped for cobblestone!
Our hotel, Auberge de la Paix, is an old medieval style hotel located in the heart of town. The hotel is a former home, and it is the oldest hotel in the region. As we walked up to the hotel, there was a group of 20-30 people standing around outside. They all stared at us as we awkwardly walked towards the hotel with our suitcases in hand. The front desk was closed, but there was an envelope with our name and a key. We walked up three flights of stairs with our suitcase and settled into our room. We were only in the room long enough to set our bags down and then set out to find a restaurant for dinner.
Before arriving, we checked Google to find restaurants that would be open around 9:00 pm. We decided not to eat dinner on the road since there were plenty of open restaurants available. But, Google fooled us again! We quickly learned most restaurants are closed during the off-season in Briançon. We only saw one restaurant open, and we’re already planning on eating there on Saturday. As we turned a corner, we spotted an open bar with a pizza sign on its banner. We didn’t see anyone eating but still went inside to see if they were serving food. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving food but gave us a recommendation for an open restaurant right around the block.
I started to get hangry and was ready to eat anything. We followed the man’s instructions to another open restaurant. As we turned another corner, we ended right back at our hotel! Our hotel had a restaurant, but we hadn’t given it much thought. We don’t typically eat at hotel restaurants. But, with no other options available, it was this restaurant or our granola bars back in the room! We chose this restaurant.
And let me tell you, the restaurant was excellent! Our perception of hotel restaurants has been forever changed. We ordered a bottle of wine produced locally in the region and fondue made from local cheeses. The fondue came with charcuterie, small pieces of bread, boiled potatoes, and a side salad. I wish I had a better picture to show you, but we were so hungry that we didn’t waste any time before digging in! It was the perfect meal to eat in the French alps on a chilly night.
The next morning, we went on a six-mile hike in the area, but not before stopping at the boulangerie for our Saturday chocolate croissant tradition. The hike started in an open field that was definitely someone’s farm. About a hundred sheep and goats being corralled by a sheepdog were on a hill next to us. The trail headed towards the mountain, and the dog started to bark constantly at our presence. As we got closer, the path luckily turned away from the animals.
The rest of the hike provided beautiful views of the snow-capped French alps, a beautiful teal lake, and pops the trees’ yellow Autumn colors in a sea of green. We had the trail to ourselves the entire trip, except for one perfectly-timed moment. Jordan and I were having a conversation about how my knee was getting stronger, and we could enjoy longer hikes. I said with a laugh, “soon, we will be trail runners!” and Jordan replied with a groan, as he knows we will never be trail runners. Not a second later, a trail runner appears in front of us! Hopefully, he didn’t overhear our conversation.
After our hike, we went back into the old town of Briançon. The majority of shops were closed due to it being the off-season, but an eclectic art shop remained open. We had seen Christmas ornaments inside and planned to purchase one. We walk inside and notice all the hand-painted bird figurines inside. The shop owner notices us looking at one and immediately starts chatting us up. We tell her we are looking for a Christmas ornament, so she takes us around the entire small store and shows us every option available. Then, the shop owner goes back to the bird-figurine. She tells us all about the oiseus, but they weren’t very Christmas-y.
The woman continued to talk, and her colleague came out of the back (where she was painting bird-figurines) to join the conversation. We told them we were here for the weekend and lived in Lyon. One of the women told us our French was good, and we laughed. She said it’s always helpful when others can speak slowly, and we wholeheartedly agreed. I said to them that this was going to be our first winter in France. This got them really excited. They resumed speaking at their normal pace and started talking over each other. One thing led to another, and the next thing we know, the shop owner is handing us hand-written instructions for a waterfall that we have to visit.
So, we changed our plans for Sunday.
We had planned on going on another hike, we decided to find this waterfall instead. After all, the locals recommended it! Before driving there, we spent the morning walking through a park in Briançon. The Autumn colors were vibrant. We stepped on many crunchy leaves spread across the walking path. The walking path led us to a seasonally-abandoned adventure park complete with a zip line, mini-golf, and a paintball course. The pathway ended at the river, where you could see the remnants of a bridge that used to be there. After reaching the end of the path, we walked back towards the car to search for the waterfall.
There was an option for us to hike seven miles to the waterfall or drive and walk half a mile. The local shop owners told us exactly how to get there by car, and we chose the half-mile option. It was a cold morning, and snow was sputtering from the clouds above. We didn’t have the layers needed for a long hike in this chilly weather!
The drive there led us through tiny towns with narrow roads only wide enough for one car. There were pockets of vibrant yellow fall foliage along the mountainside. Throughout the small towns, multiple small churches were standing alone along the hillsides. They looked large enough to only fit a few people. I researched why there were so many churches in one town. The heavy snow would cut villages off from each other in the winter. A place of worship had to be accessible by all residents year-round. This resulted in the creation of many tiny churches. Unfortunately, many of them are now left unused.
After we parked our car, we walked the short distance do the waterfall. The whole mountain seemed to be a consistent shade of yellow. Even the pines were yellow! The waterfall was beautiful, as promised by the local shop owners.
Our French teacher has previously told us that Briançon “est un trésor,” and she was not wrong. Maybe it was the fondue, the colorful fall foliage, or the cute old women that kept talking to us about “oiseaus.” But we fell in love with the town!
As we leisurely drove back to Lyon on Sunday afternoon, we stopped multiple times along the way. We had missed out on seeing the vast mountains that we passed through on Friday night. The frequent stops helped keep my motion-sickness at bay.
This isn’t the end of our search for fall foliage. We have tentative plans for the next three weekends to try to see them at their peak in various areas. The curfew for Lyon kicks in this weekend, but there are no restrictions on travel within France. We leave this evening for another weekend in the French Alps!