If I could only use a sentence to describe this experience, it would be either “I don’t really understand what this is, but I think I like it” and “This is quintessentially French.”
A few weeks ago, thanks to the countless groups titled with keywords “Grenoble” “study abroad” “strangers” “students” we were members of, we discovered that there would be a bus taking around 30 students to a spa in the high alps. What? you say. Yeah. And only for 45€, which is more expensive than the new boots that I got (shameless humblebrag).
The drive to Les Grands Bains du Monêtier-les-Bains was only two hours; however, we stopped at FOUR separate cities on the way, each for 20-40 minutes so that we could enjoy the mountain air and have coffees (wait, is this spelled right? I can’t even tell anymore) at local cafés.
We couldn’t get over how French that was. We would get back on the bus and drive for about 20 minutes before he came on the intercom again to announce that there would be another stop. Each time, we dissolved into laughter, which probably irked the Swedes—any European, really—surrounding us.
At the first stop, we were advised to seek out some delicacy called a tourton, which is a speciality of the Hautes Alpes. They look a bit like fried ravioli and can be stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. I chose to try potato-chèvre tourtons and spinach tourtons. Oh my dear lord, it was so good. For the first one, imagine mac and cheese… stuffed into a fry or a samosa shell.
And spotted this gem a few tables over:
That is right, you are seeing a man in short shorts in the fall, wearing a hand-knit red beanie.
At the second stop, we visited a church with a gorgeous overlook of the mountains. My camera ate up the lighting and thankfully portrayed the seasonal gradient of the mountains quite well. The scenery reminded me of a scene from Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights… or the newest Pride&Prejudice where Darcy marches purposefully out of the fog. Just imagine any brooding, dark, romantic hero from the Victorian Era marching out of this fog for you.
One creepy thing that my friend pointed out to me was that all of the graves near the church were dug in 1923. Eech.
I felt truly content seeing the tops of the alps, knowing that it was a visual preview of the winter around the corner. And man, it was beautiful.
Standard Asian photo.
The higher the bus wound, the fewer restaurants and cafes there were. In fact, after the first city, there were no restaurants, boulangeries, or anything open. Madison and I were hoping that we could buy a little something to eat at the last stop and were overjoyed when we saw that it actually had food shops!
“Here is our last stop!” he announced after not even 15 minutes of driving. We sat up excitedly. We wouldn’t starve today!
“Unfortunately, nothing is open today.”
The joyful hope in our faces died simultaneously as we stole a glance at each other. And seeing it reflected in our faces was too much for us to take. This time our laughter bordered hysterical. There was literally no point of this stop at all.
Finally, four hours later, we arrived.
But first, some lunch. We walked a few minutes into the downtown area which, during this time of year, was quiet and neighborhood-like. Deciding randomly on this Crêperie, we poked our heads in. I’m quite thankful we found this place because it turned out to be a gem! It was very warm and homely, a mom-and-pop restaurant that served each customer lovingly.
I mean, look at their menus. I can picture their grandchildren helping them put these together, one by one.
After we ordered, she placed this arrangement gently in front of each of us.
And then, in no time at all, our food was ready. A salad and bread slices were surprisingly included. I chose the speciality galette, with chèvre, onions, and bacon. The creamy cheese-onion mixture was so heavenly—almost like an asparagus dip.
Sometimes I don’t get the point of crêpes. To me, they’re usually just the vessel for the yummy, fatty interior. People say that about bread sometimes, but bread I can eat alone for days at a time. The same does not apply to crêpes.
Pools and spas here have a procedure you go through before being able to enter the premises. It was quite organized. First, you take off your shoes—this first step was a hurdle because I know from gym class that foot fungus is everywhere, even if you sterilize. Then, you go into these one-way changing booths and emerge from the other side and ta-da! There are your lockers. After you put everything away, you take a mandatory group shower. If that wasn’t enough, there was a full-body spray tunnel you have to walk through to access the pools.
I don’t know what other people pictured, but when we were told of this golden opportunity, I imagined natural hot springs in freakin’ CAVES. Like one of those things where it stinks of sulfur so much that you question the sanitation of the hot springs for a minute before diving in with joy. My imagination probably got carried away because earlier, I’d been scoping out Iceland’s Blue Lagoon.
However, when we got there the pools of water were… just pools. It was at the exact temperature where you ask yourself whether everyone is taking a simultaneous pee in normal pool-cold water. It was very confusing; do we call this place a pool or a really bad spa? We headed outside, where it looked steamy…. and found only one warm patch. Good enough! We lingered until it got too crowded with old men, after which we headed upstairs to the adults-only section.
Thankfully, we found exactly what we wanted there. It was very serene—so much so that my louder friend got shushed for talking too loudly—and there was a natural HOT waterfall, which, I guess is enough to satisfy my cave-spa fantasy. We spent the rest of the day blissfully alternating between saunas, hammans, waterfalls and outdoor hot tubs and left truly refreshed, pruny … and still confused about the French definition of “spa.”