The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Talloires, France: A Place Where I Ached
They fed us well,
they slept us well,
and I wish I could have staid there a few years
and got a solid rest.
Under the centuries-old trees at the café, I found a place where I ached to have those closest to me by my side. Talloires France is this place. I was fortunate enough to be invited by my college Alma mater to speak at a conference on the financial crisis and on a book I had written. The university, Tufts, had decades earlier acquired an old monastery in the French Alps, in the town of Talloires (pronounced Tal-WHAR).
I had been a guest of Paris in the late 1990s, but never the French provinces. Before my trip, I read that the town of Talloires sat high in the Alpine mountains at a busy crossroads of history: an outpost along the road between Rome and cities deep in the Roman Empire, such as modern-day Strasbourg. Benedictine monks founded an abbey in Talloires in 1016 A.D., planting a vineyard, handing out wine and food and generally making friends with the locals. They built an abbey in 1681 that was sacked by villagers after the priests evolved into rich and arrogant aristocrats, decadent and less than generous.
Talloires demands patience, and at least a week or two stay. I had only a few days, and walked around in a time-warp fog that I do not recommend. About the only civilized way to get there is flying to Switzerland’s Geneva airport and driving by taxi for about an hour — straight up into the Alps.
My flight from New York was about 8 hours on Swissair (and 10 horrible hours returning). Geneva airport is small and bland — never my favorite — but poses no hardships. The drive upwards to Talloires, however, is a stunner. Even jetlagged, I couldn’t sleep while passing hills full of dairy cows squeezing out the milk for “reblochon” cheese, organic farms, Tour de France cyclists training for the next race.
Enroute to Talloires you must pass through the Swiss-French border and then through Annecy, both a town and the name of the lake. At the base of Lake Annecy, the taxi sped through the village and past the Imperial Hotel, where one and all of Europe can gamble, then take a swim in a Speedo, sail a small sloop, picnic in the park or attend the international animation film festival held there every summer. The lake is massive and blue as the Caribbean, fed by springs running practically down the city streets and sidewalks from up in the mountains. I felt the urge several times to bend down and drink out of the drains as the spring water burbled down to home.
“Bonjour from Talloires!,” Gabriella Goldstein, the director of Tufts European Center, had piped in her e-mail a few weeks earlier. “Things have been very busy! We currently have 92 undergraduates and 12 faculty participating in our Tufts in Talloires program and as you can imagine there is a lot going on!” I would be staying at the Villa des Roses hotel overlooking the little bay of Talloires. The June weather had been variable – sunny and warm then rainy and cool. “Layers are always the best way to go. And because we are near the mountains, it does get chilly at night so a sweater or a shawl is always a good thing,” she advised.
One does not arrive in Talloires; you worm your way into it. After the taxi driver gunned his way into the Alps, the roads narrow that two cars barely pass each other, and twist like a little rollercoaster. The driver poured me out at the Villa des Roses’ grand entrance, the bed and breakfast that had at one time hosted Napoleon III.
Eric Schliesser, my conference panelist, also a Tufts alum and now a professor of philosophy, was a year behind me at university. There he was, nearly twenty years later, sitting in the outside courtyard Skype-ing with his writers for his blog on the philosophy of economics (he is an expert on Spinoza). Eric was sipping coffee and we caught up under the late morning sun. I felt 8 hours behind and deeply tired. Still, I waited to meet Jane Etish-Andrews, the director of Tufts International program, and she and I climbed the dark wood staircase paneled with tapestries to rooms next to each other upstairs. No television, no mini-bar, no cell-phone reception. But retro-Sixties furniture, 20-foot ceilings and French doors and windows leading out to a balcony! How decadent.
After a few hours nap, I finally succumbed to the village that afternoon. I took only about 100 steps from the back of the hotel and was down to the water to dip my feet in the lake Annecy. Swimming is de rigueur, if you brave 60-degree water. There is no sand, but a boat put-in where European and American families wander by Hotel L’Abbaye, where celebrities like Bruce Willis, Jean Reno (star of “The Professional”, or as my husband pronounces his name, ‘Janet Reno.’) Baby Doc Duvalier reposed at the L’Abbaye hotel for a week in exile after fleeing Haiti, before moving on to other resorts and unpaid bills. And yes, the four-star Hotel L’Abbaye was renovated from the remains of the burned-out abbey (http://www.talloires-lac-annecy.com/talloires-abbaye-c6-56-en.html ).
The Lake Annecy water looks deceivingly warm because of the sunshine and the mountain reflections. But it’s so frigid and clear that one morning I saw a foot long fish swam up to the lip of the marina walkway, peering up fearlessly.
Sadly, we ate a firm white fish for that dinner that night, caught the same day in the lake. Talloires waiters do try to keep up the tradition of rudeness, but it’s so easy to overlook when you are dining at 10:30pm at night on the shores of Europe’s cleanest body of water and the sun is still going down. Dusk’s white nights seem never to end in summer in Talloires.
The priory where Tufts campus and student center sit quietly are attached to the back of the abbey. The MacJannets, an American man and German woman who relocated to France between the World Wars purchased the priory in total disrepair (http://www.macjannet.org/191539.ihtml photos of Donald MacJannet). After Eric and I spoke, we ate lunch in the caves of the priory — mostly fresh vegetables, walnut and asparagus salads (the region is famous for almond and other nut groves and nougat), cheeses and some game dishes. The region’s specialty Reblochon cheese is made from milk which was withheld (lait de rebloche) when the tax collectors came. Farmers did not milk the cows dry, and instead finished the milking after the inspectors had gone. This milk was made into a cheese for home use, known as “reblochon.”
Donald MacJannet, practically a French native by the time he and his wife Charlotte took on the priory in 1958, came by Talloires in the process of running a day school outside of Paris and summer camps for international ex-pat children. The couple became beloved in the village, and taught everyone from Indira Gandhi, who came for a summer to the MacJannet camp in 1929; Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, who, like his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt under Woodrow Wilson, later became an assistant secretary of the navy; and Peter Thompkins, who grew up to join the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and wrote a book called “A Spy in Rome.” The MacJannets’ most famous alum Philip was a lad from Greece who spent three years at the school, learning about baseball and George Washington before he knew much about cricket or English kings later, as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Charlotte MacJannet became lifelong friends with the French painter Suzanne Lanse, a native Talloirienne, who said the village in her childhood days had no trees and was in her words, “Pas joli du tout.” (As Talloires sits at the junction of Switzerland, Italy and France, Charlotte’s maid was also reportedly helping Jews escape France during the Nazi occupation, according to a biography of the MacJannets). The MacJannets donated the priory to Donald’s alma mater, and the university held on to it.
The coffees that day and all weekend were stiff and superb, and the Tufts students told me they bought it at market in the village. Villa des Roses served us a breakfast, including croissants, boiled eggs, ham and other meats, cheeses, and endless coffee and tea, and the young man staffing the hotel not only cooks but assisted me with setting up wireless service for my computer (I was on deadline, otherwise I would have abstained). At the rear of my hotel’s gravel expansive rose garden and gravel paths lies a boutique attached to the French culinary marvel l’Auberge due Pere Bise, a Michelin starred restaurant. Bon-bons for sale included aperitifs made from local herbs, currant jams, locally made chocolate with hazelnuts, and of course, straw hats.
But it is the Abbey at Talloires where celebs across the ages come to gather: French physicist Gabriel Lippmann took the first color snapshot within the walls of the cloister. And during his stay in 1896 Paul Cezanne painted “Le Lac d’Annecy”. Andre Gide and Winston Churchill visited, and Churchill once described Talloires as “the most beautiful place on earth.”
Even Mark Twain passed the time at the abbey, where, he recalled in his journals, “they board and lodge people who are tired of the roar of cities and want to be where the dead silence and serenity and peace of this old nest will heal their blistered spirits and patch up their ragged minds. They fed us well, they slept us well, and I wish I could have staid there a few years and got a solid rest.”
I woke up at 6:00am the next day and strolled along the little bay, looking for the feral cats who tolerate the villagers and tourists. At 7:00 AM the church bells rang the opening notes of the Angelus. Another moment stole up on me — what was I doing here all alone? I am at the peak of my life, and yet, I am alone again. I call my husband from the old-fashioned phone booth in the hotel lobby and he answers the phone, asleep and childlike. “Someday we will come back here together, I discovered this place and I … need to show it to you.”
I strolled upstairs, chilled in the morning air, and slept again until noon.
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