francophile-ing away the memories: the massif central and grenoble

When we left Paris, we rented a chic Citroën C4 Picasso minivan, or as they would call it in Europe, a compact multi-purpose vehicle. It was standard transmission and diesel, and Eli enjoyed driving it so much that we were scheming ways to sneak a Citroën back into the US with us when we returned home.

We headed straight south for the Massif Central, as we had only three days before we would be dropping our MPV off in Grenoble. We limited our time in the Massif Central to the Auvergne region, given that it was time that was limiting us. Upon arrival in the mountains, it was rainy and foggy and we couldn’t really see much of anything. We skipped ascending the Puy de Dôme, since there clearly wouldn’t be much gained by doing that. Just south of the town of Le Mont-Dore, we got a bit lost as Google had tried routing us to the top of the Puy de Sancy, but although we tried our best, there was no driving up a ski mountain.

Our next attempt netted us a big-time winner. Our cycling book recommended trying the cheese in the nearby town of Besse. So try the cheese we did. We bought half a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, and ate it in only two sittings, I think. Maybe three. As Wikipedia affirms, “the cheese can go along with any kind of meal.” Truth.

France for me was all about the cheese. I think Eli would agree with me that it was one of the highlights of our trip. With practically every small village having their own specialty or take on the regional cheese, we could easily spend the rest of our lives in pursuit of trying them all. That would be an honorable pursuit.

By the time we found ourselves a stopping place for the night, several kilometers down the road and many calories of cheese down the hatch, the skies had pretty well cleared. This set us up nicely the next day for a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside from the summit of the Puy Mary. While we saw many cyclists suffering their way to the top of the Pas de Peyrol, we took the easy option of the car, before breezing past the hordes of similarly car-bound tourists struggling up the ten minute quick sprint to the top of the Puy Mary.

At the top, we ate our favorite junk food of the trip, Belgix sugar waffles. We had first heard about sugar, or liège, waffles on a Sporkful podcast, and were elated to find them at Lidl stores across Germany and France. As I sit and type about them I’m finding myself craving them more strongly than I was craving mac n cheese on our return to the States. I’ve been lucky to not really have any cravings (other than all the usual ones) during my pregnancy, and this is more of a sign that it’s tea time for me at the moment, but damn, I could really go for a sugar waffle right now — or a whole pack of eight. One day soon I’ll have to make them here at home. Meanwhile, I’ll eat five seven Biscoff cookies.

We took the scenic route on the way over to Grenoble, passing through farm country and lots of sunny small towns, including the fascinating Le Puy-en-Velay, shown above with the perched chapel. We didn’t take the time to stop and sightsee, although I wish we had. At least the internet can teach me that this chapel-on-a-rock is Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, built on a volcanic plug 280 feet tall way back in 969 AD. Of all the towns we passed through on our trip, Le Puy-en-Velay may have been the most scenic, though this in part may have been due to it being so unexpected a sight. If a town wasn’t listed in our cycling book, chances were we knew absolutely nothing about it. Which made for a lot of wonderful discoveries.

And just like that, our brief time in the MPV was over, we had reached Grenoble, and it was time to split up.

Eli had been planning a solo overnight endeavor into the Alps for some time, using a route from our cycling book that ventured across several of the classic climbs from the Tour de France. He set out without the majority of his gear, so while he must have felt like he was flying, he was still a heavyweight on his steel bike compared to the endless parade of gram-shaving carbon aficionados that he saw on his two-day trek.

I remember hearing about how dirty Grenoble was when I lived in France in 2007. I think that descriptor is appropriate, as much of the city did seem pretty grimy. But Grenoble is more than that. It was in a really beautiful location, a basin with breathtaking mountainous views in nearly every direction. It takes mere minutes to hike up and out of the busy town on the north side of the Isère River, with continued climbing quickly being rewarded with beautiful views, ramparts, a fort, and caves – the Grottes de Mandrin shown below.

Eli wasn’t the only one to go for a solo bike jaunt. I embarked on what I dubbed Baby’s First Bike Ride, because even though it was too soon to confirm my pregnancy, I KNEW. Or at least, I strongly suspected. Or at the very least, I hoped. But I knew.

I headed north from town into the Chartreuse Natural Regional Park, and tried to stick to a grueling (for me) pace as I climbed for what felt like forever to the summit of the Col de Porte, which has also been a featured climbing stage of the Tour de France, and should not be confused with the Col de Port in the Pyrenees (another Tour stage… which we later climbed – stay tuned). It was so freeing to bike without being loaded down with my gear, but after all that saddle time with the extra weight, it was also strange and I felt somewhat wobbly.

Waiting for me at the top of the Col de Porte was a very welcome restaurant, and I fell hard for a big plate of fish and chips, and even harder for the two baskets of bread that I also consumed. Cans of Coca Cola were a frequent splurge for us in the mid-to-late summer stage of our bike tour, and my ability to drink so much of it surprised me given that I had always despised Coke. No longer.

My downhill return to Grenoble was a blast, and I cruised as comfortably fast as I would allow myself. After all, I was cycling for two now, and I had to at least be a little bit thoughtful. No more crashes.

So while I was having fun, Eli was having a blast. While the scenery I was experiencing was really pretty, his was jaw-dropping. Check out a few of the photos from his solo bike:

I did suffer a bit without him, though. I ate cheese with mustard for dinner. Cheese cut into triangles. Fancy!

Once reunited, we left Grenoble headed south and then west towards the lower part of the Massif Central, the Cévennes. On our way, we saw a gorgeous gorge, and lots and lots of walnuts. Walnuts and walnut oil are a staple crop of the Rhône-Alpes region, and I can confirm that they were especially delicious in a walnut tart that we savored along the way. Mmm, Baby’s First Walnut Tart.

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swedish snapshots



It’s been a while since we left Sweden. Slow internet connections come and go, and time passes me by. But it would be wrong to not revisit the time we spent traversing Sweden. It would also be wrong to tell you how long it took me to upload all of these photos. But I will. Three and a half hours, give or take a year. 

While we were in Sweden, it seemed as if we would never make it to Germany. Our stay in the Schengen region of Europe visa-free is limited to 90 days. As such, our goal was to make it out of Scandinavia within 30 of those days, and we pert near made it.

The plan was to take a train from a randomly chosen city which we knew nothing about (Mora) to a destination further south, near the coast (whether east or west side, it didn’t matter much to us). We luckily came to find out ahead of time that very few of the multiple train companies in Sweden allow bicycles. Even luckier, the one possible company we could utilize operates on a line running south from Mora. So while we were not able to make it to the coast, or as far south as we had hoped, we were able to shave a few hundred kilometers off of our cycling itinerary, allowing us to meet our self-imposed deadline.


Pippi Longstocking riding a giant felted twinflower! How Sweden!



Sweden is Norway’s less showy, less prosperous sibling, at least to a casual observer. The houses were not as meticulously clean nor freshly-painted, there weren’t as many roadside tourist-friendly amenities (whether necessary or frivolous), there most definitely were not as many bike paths, and a visit did not break the bank. While still expensive as compared to mainland Europe, Sweden was much cheaper for us to travel through than Norway. We began allowing ourselves more treats, in the forms of coffee and pastry stops, meals out, and occasional bottles of wine.


DALA HORSE FEVER! A fever that could only be interrupted by waffles. Waffles were the theme of our vacation in Sweden. They were also, come to think of it, the theme of our time in Norway. And through to the present day, they continue to be the theme of our trip. These days we can be found frequently indulging in gaufres de liège, sugar waffles. From the supermarket. They come in packs of five or eight. We’re on our fifth or sixth pack in just a few weeks. Life is good.

Mora turned out to be a delightful surprise. We were able to take in crew races on the lake in town, pose with several different dala horses, choose from hundreds more to purchase, and we even stayed in an adorable hut at the local campground. Camping in tiny huts seemed to be a very Scandinavian thing to do, and I am not one to oppose getting more in tune with the Motherland vibes, so a hut it was. While in Mora, we were also able to watch a Euro Cup semifinal (a clue to anyway else who watched the game just how long ago we were there). We watched at a restaurant, outside, on a giant screen. Everyone was really into the game and there were fans from both sides, which made for a very Euro atmosphere. When the game ended near midnight, it was disconcerting how light the sky still was; it made walking through the sleepy deserted town an eerie experience.


The forestry in Sweden was quite different from in Norway. In Norway, they apparently adhered to the same regulated thinning treatment, at least in the areas we saw. In Sweden, there were larger clearcuts, but trees in general seemed to be allowed to grow older, and to a larger size. They looked nicer. There were also varied treatments, which was refreshing after seeing the same identical type of harvest throughout Norway. I appreciated the variability and diversity, and while we didn’t see much for wildlife in either country, hopefully the critters appreciate it too.

The cracker selection in Scandinavia was phenomenal. They also loved pickled herring of all flavors, and various cheeses and meats squeezed into colorful tubes.



Before we left Sweden, we stayed for two nights in a campground adjacent to the above bridge, in Malmö. For one day, we took a train across the bridge to see Copenhagen, and it was well worth the trip. Denmark is the only country that I’ve been unprepared for currency-wise, but since we were traveling directly into the heart of a city, finding an ATM to withdraw some Danish kroner for the day wasn’t a problem.

And then, very close to our self-imposed 30 day mark, we took a ferry from Malmö to Travemunde, Germany. It took seven hours, and we paid for two buffet meals, at which we proceeded to pig out so much that I don’t believe I should say any more.

hi hi from trondheim

We arrived in Oslo, Norway at the start of last week after a surprisingly pleasant red eye flight from JFK. Things got a little less pleasant when one of our bags failed to show up in the baggage claim. While we had our two bikes and half of our stuff, we were missing four bike bags that had all been shoved into two layers of heavy duty garbage bags. Within that missing bag was a sleeping bag, our cook set, our stoves, a mattress pad, and our tent, along with anything else that would allow us to successfully camp. We were told it could be one day, or maybe two, and that they didn’t have a clue where our bag was, but to check back the following day.

Initially we weren’t planning to bike into Oslo proper, as it was 25 miles or so south of the airport and in the opposite direction from where we were planning to head. It was a blessing in disguise though, as I’m glad we were able to see the city. We made it to Lillestrøm the first night, and slept in a tiny hotel room with a bed that the clerk didn’t believe we’d both be able to fit into. We showed him. Breakfast the next morning was an exciting dive into the world of Norwegian processed meats.

We made it to Oslo the second day, after calling the airport and hearing that nope, they had no clue where our stuff was. And then I had my first whoops of the trip when my bike tire was caught in a tram track and I skidded along the pavement and skinned my arm and twisted one of my shifters. As the sticker on my bike warns, “My life is a cautionary tale.” Everything is good.

Found a cheapish place to spend the night. And then it started to rain, and Eli’s rain jacket was sitting in our forgotten bag, likely somewhere back at JFK.


So he bought a stylish poncho and looked really dapper while drinking coffee. Early on day two someone had told him over the phone that our bag was *maybe* on its way and to check back, but when we called back their internet was down and turns out the call center isn’t actually at the airport and so they couldn’t tell us anything. We waited around a while, calling various numbers and likely racking up quite the phone bill, not wanting to go see the sights in town because it was pouring out and I was still working on a mystery illness that promised to turn into pneumonia (again) if I wasn’t careful. Eventually we decided to just chance it and take a train back to the airport. 

The baggage claims dude said that no, our bag was nowhere in the system. Eli worked his magic and the guy let him back into the baggage area, and after checking every carousel they found our sad bag abandoned near the side of Baggage Carousel 5, where it had apparently been for hours, unnoticed. Thankfully.

So that was the changing of our luck, and things have only gotten better from there.

We were able to start camping. We found a very neat wooden troll perched on a large rock in a recent clearcut. We have seen endless forest management, though none actually at work at the present. We’ve eaten some lefse and some shrimp salad.

Things are so beautiful and it is so weird having sunlight so much of the day. I don’t think our bodies have quite known what to make of it, and between all the sun and all of the biking we’ve been sleeping 12 solid hours, pretty much every night. Such is the decadence of vacation and having no destination.

We’ve only been spending around four hours per day on the bike, but after 11 days of it, that’s a lot of effort. We started off following Norwegian Cycle Route 7, which for some time was signed really well. Biking straight from the airport, with nicely paved bike trails and clear signage is not something we would have found back home. The route was lovely, and took us onto some gravel roads and paths about as far from any towns as we could get. We lost the route once we entered Lillehammer, unfortunately. But! We’ve been fortunate enough to speak to some locals who have recommended routes for us to take, which has paid off tremendously.

Leaving the town of Ringebu [apparently Ringebu has one of the largest remaining stave (wooden) churches in Norway, and sadly we missed it. Such is a life without constant Internet], we spent two hours climbing five miles. We made it above tree line and into the beautiful Rondane high mountain area. There was snow, and it was quite cold. After plateauing for part of the day, we descended a steep and winding 12% grade and stopped for cake and coffee at an enticing lodge. It was pouring rain again, and the host recommended a lean-to he knew of a few kilometers down the road. It pays to talk to those locals. The rain stopped long enough for us to take our first bath in days, in the freezing cold stream adjacent to the lean-to.

We left one mountain range, only to come within sight of another: the Dovrefjell range, crowned with the mountain Snøhetta. It was visible and glorious on our slow ascent to it, but upon our arrival to the viewpoint it promptly clouded over. Apparently you can go on a muskox safari nearby. We chose to bike on the freeway instead.
E6, which in Oslo was the busiest stretch of road around, was actually enjoyable to bike on so far north. It was made even better by at least 30 km (and probably closer to 50) of sweet sweet downhill. After all that climbing, my legs needed it. We made it to the town of Oppdal, a mountain village with not one but two bakeries, side by side. We frequented both. In a row. And then went back this morning.


And then we took the train to Trondheim. We’ve biked 560 difficult kilometers in a week and a half, and our legs are begging us for a rest. So with the help of Eli’s mom’s cell phone, we hooked ourselves up with Airbnb and have a place to stay for the next three nights to rest up — thanks Elaine!

More to come soon.