The 52 Places Traveler: Summer in France, in Two Very Different Ways

Scenes from Megève, France. Clockwise from top right: a Rochebrune cable car from the 1970s, set in a traffic roundabout in the center of town; the Hotel Chalet St. George and its restaurant, La Table du Trappeur; a view of Mont Blanc through wildflowers at the top of the Le Jaillet cable car; a nighttime view of Annecy from a footbridge on Le Thiou river.

Our columnist, Jada Yuan, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. This dispatch brings her to two stops — France, Megève, near the Swiss border, and Arles, in Provence. Megève was No. 42 on the list, while Arles took the No. 28 spot; they are the 26th and 27th stops on Jada’s itinerary.

“It is O.K. It is not a big jump. Take a breath. One, two, three, and then step,” said my French canyoning guide, Fabrice Paget. I insisted that he was wrong. It was a huge step, off a cliff, 20 feet down into a pool of freezing cold water.

I had paid 65 euros (about $76) to do exactly this: trek through a river canyon near the Alpine town of Megève while rappelling down vertical rock faces next to waterfalls and jumping off a lot of cliffs. I had on a helmet and wet suit. Two fearless Parisian women who rounded out the rest of our small group, Muriel Lonjon, 43, and her 16-year-old daughter, Juliette, had just made the plunge like it was no big deal and were quite alive as they cheered me on from below.

As often happens when trying to reason with a terrified person, all the encouragement was only making things worse. Yet, somehow the next time Mr. Paget said, “One, two, three, step!,” I did.

I was in the air, and then I was in the water, and I was cold, and I was coming up for air, and there were Muriel and Juliette extending their hands, and I was beaming. I felt exhilarated and proud, pushed past limits I never would have crossed on my own.

France has long been a happy place for me. It’s the first country I ever visited outside of North America, on a trip with my dad when I was 13. But I’d never been to either of the spots that made it onto the 52 Places list: Megève or Arles, the small Provençal city that is fast becoming a cultural capital. While the experiences were vastly different, they had one thing in common; they’re both part of a country that has begun to feel like home.

Megève is known, the French and Swiss I met told me, somewhat derisively, as the Aspen of France. In other words: exclusive and expensive, where clientele seem to care as much about their Prada ski outfits as ripping down the slopes. Indeed, the reasoning for Megève’s entry on the 52 Places list had been the opening of a new Four Seasons Hotel on the slopes of Mont d’Arbois, one of three ski areas in the immediate vicinity (the others are Rochebrune and Le Jaillet) — along with $94 million of improvements to ski facilities. Of course, my visit was at too balmy a time of year to test them out.

As an avid snowboarder, coming to a ski town in summer felt a bit like torture. But the joy of being in the mountains and seeing so much beauty quickly erased that.

This medieval farming village, 4,000 feet above sea level, became an aristocratic ski destination in the decades after World War I — frequented by the likes of Jean Cocteau and Bridget Bardot — essentially because a very rich woman, Baroness Noémie de Rothschild, was determined to make it one. Her family is behind the new Four Seasons.

Walking through the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets, though, none of that is apparent. As the manager of Hotel Chalet St. George, where I stayed, explained, Megève differs from higher-altitude resort towns like Chamonix and Val d’Isere because people have actually been living there and cultivating the land year-round for centuries. A bubbling river runs through it. The pitched-roof architecture is universally charming, and there is not a high-rise in sight.

I caught rides on both the Mont d’Arbois and Le Jaillet cable cars, which take you from civilization to the wild, verdant tops of those ski hills. I drove to the first (you can also hike) and was the only soul up there, taking in the scenery of both herds of cows and Alpine golfers on the slopes.

‘The second practically leaves from the center of town, and was a bit of a party, given that I was hitting it on its opening day. For 13 euros round-trip, I had a panoramic view of Mont Blanc amid fields of wildflowers, picnicking families, and daredevils participating the world’s toughest mountain bike race, which was starting and ending in town that weekend.

There were also some short (and steep!) self-guided hikes, and that canyoning.

Mostly, though, I relaxed and ate well. My lovely, four-star hotel had décor of wooden gnomes and elk heads,and a smashing petit déjeuner where the fresh food never seemed to stop coming. Patisseries provided great sandwiches for lunch, and I had a decadent meal at Le 1920 at the Four Seasons, which has two Michelin stars.

The dinner that I would make a special trip to re-experience, though, came deep in the mountains at Flocons de Sel, from the chef Emmanuel Renaut, who recently earned his third Michelin star after 20 years of cooking in the area. (You can also get a delicious, more casual meal at his original bistro, Flocons Village, in the center of town.)

Because I was alone and it was a slow night, Mr. Renaut invited me to sit at the chef’s table in the kitchen. I had asked for a truncated menu, but it was more than enough: green-pea gnocchi in a stock of elderflower, lake fish fed on plankton, a tartlet of eggplant and caviar, and something like seven desserts (they were getting rid of them at the end of the night), including divine cones of sugar filled with sweet herbal liquids.

The herbs and mushrooms I’d eaten, I found out, Mr. Renaut had foraged himself. And he was planning to go out again the next morning, even with the forecast predicting rain. “But of course,” he said. “I am not melting.”

If you want a more up-close view of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe, head to Chamonix to ride the Aiguille du Midi cable car — but only on a sunny day.While I was there webcams showed the whole area under constant cloud cover. So instead I descended to Annecy, an hour-and-a-half drive from Megève, known as “the Venice of the Alps.”

“It is our jewel!” multiple Frenchmen had told me. Alpine residents and folks from nearby Geneva flock here in summer to stroll along its enormous, blue, glacier-formed lake surrounded by mountains, or across stone bridges traversing its three canals and central Thiou River. It made a lively, gelato-filled contrast to sleepy Megève — particularly because I happened to arrive to a din of honking car horns just as France had won a World Cup game.

“You really couldn’t have picked two towns that were more different! You know, Arles is Communist, a very poor town,” said Julia de Bierre, the proprietress of a très fabuleux bed-and-breakfast and contemporary art gallery, Galerie Huit Arles.

This one-time Roman colony on the edge of the Camargue, Western Europe’s largest river delta, certainly doesn’t show its high unemployment rate, the result of a long decline from its heyday as a train repair center. What it does show is a terribly fun cultural scene, with its most renowned resident as a tentpole. Vincent Van Gogh loved the light that covers the city in pinks and stripes of yellow so much he spent his most prolific year and a half living here in the late 1880s, producing hundreds of paintings.

A peek online or a stop at the very helpful tourism office will give you a route to a self-guided walking tour of van Gogh locations that do still exist. His very recognizable “Café Terrace at Night” was painted in the Place du Forum — where I watched France beat Belgium in the World Cup semifinals — and it looks exactly the same, once you take away all the people screaming, “Allez Les Bleus!” The hospital where he was institutionalized after cutting off part of his ear now houses a museum to him, Espace Van Gogh. It’s easily confused with the far more comprehensive Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, which, well into October, is showing an exhibit called “Hot Sun, Late Sun. Untamed Modernism,” featuring Van Gogh, as well as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Joan Mitchell.

During my visit, the city was hosting two festivals: Le Sud, a weeklong world music festival, and Les Rencontres d’Arles, a major three-month photography festival that’s celebrating its 49th year of installing exhibits in stores and restaurants and grand edifices all over the city. One of my favorites was “The Last Testament,” installed in an old church filled with the Norwegian photographer Jonas Bendiksen’s portraits of individuals around the world who claim to be the Messiah.

But the most notable new addition is in the remnants of those former train repair yards: Luma Arles, a still-under-construction artistic center that is the brainchild of Maja Hoffmann, a pharmaceutical heir belonging to the same family that built the Foundation van Gogh as a gift to the city. Luma’s raison d’être is to support contemporary art in its myriad forms. “We want it to be pluricultural,” said Coline Lacire, my guide on a free tour of the site, “so not just photography, but dance, design, philosophy, literature, gastronomy.”

During my visit, the center was hosting both a retrospective of the collaborative British art duo Gilbert + George, and an outdoor “gastronomic installation,” in which the Michelin-starred chef Armand Arnal of Arles's La Chassagnette makes soup for anyone to cook with him and enjoy. In another building, called Atelier Luma, artists work with scientists to use local materials like sunflowers and algae to create biodegradable drinking glasses and vases that might one day replace plastic.

One gorgeous, mosquito-filled night, I caught the first performance in L.A. Dance Project’s two-month residency. They performed in the open air, beneath a gleaming Frank Gehry tower that may or may not be done by 2020. Maybe, Ms. Lacine suggested, the tower will have evolved once again in two years. “We don’t want to be static,” she said. “We don’t really use the term ‘finished.’”

One Arlesian I met, though, was just waiting for the festivals, with their legions of outsiders, to leave. Martial Gerez runs what seems to be the most popular sandwich shop in town, Le Comptoir des Porcelets, and disliked the way festivalgoers seemed to treat his hometown as if they were the ones who lived there. “It is like one planet visiting another planet and they are not communicating, so the first planet sits on the second planet,” he said. “The problem is that Arles is not just old stones. Arles is people. So the festival comes here and it’s a massive attack. Fwah!”

We spoke and I ate his wonderful sandwiches, made from homemade bread and a very limited set of ingredients he’d prepared that morning. Mr. Gerez ran out of food at least half an hour before his published closing time. Regulars seemed unperturbed when he turned them away. “They know me,” he said, then announced he had decided not to open for dinner that night because he was tired.

I stayed in an Airbnb in the old town, run by a sweet, retired couple who picked me up from the train station. But a friend had raved about her B&B experience with Ms. De Bierre, in her fabulous 17th-century mansion where art world friends were constantly dropping by.

Ms. De Bierre invited me over for a home-cooked lunch in her huge house, which she bought when it was “a ruin” and has restored in eclectic fashion. Her wonderful kitchen, filled with Provençale copper pots and burnt yellow furniture and English cottage tableware, felt like a hug. (Alessandro Michele, artistic director for Gucci, loved it so much when he stayed with her a few years ago that he recently stopped by just to look at it again.)

She told me about growing up in George Town, Malaysia, and how she’d first come to Arles decades ago at the insistence of her French husband, who loved the bullfighting that still happens in Arles’s beautiful, intact Roman arena. “We say nothing happens here,” she said, “but twice a year in March and September the whole town erupts into bullfighting, techno music, rosé tasting. It’s very festive, very hectic, very Hemingway — who I believe used to come here as well.” (You can still find Spanish-style corridas in Arles, where the bulls get killed; attempted bans on the ground of animal cruelty have failed in the face of local tradition. Though you’re more likely to see a “Course Camarguaise,” where young men run around trying to pull ribbons off the horns of unharmed bulls.)

In one room were the remnants of a performance piece where Swiss artists had lit a chandelier of candles and performed “a hairdressing séance.” In the garden, a French artist living in Brooklyn, Anne Mourier, had made photographic fabric prints of rocks that looked like vaginas, which she hung like sheets on a clothesline. They fluttered in the wind.

— Renting a car is the best way to get around Megève and its surrounding areas, plus see great views. You can park in a public garage or, likely, at your hotel; just make sure to reserve a spot. You’ll pay between 15 and 30 euros a day. Restaurants like Flocons de Sel do free pickup and drop-off, and you’d be wise to use them.

— Arles is just the opposite: not at all car friendly. Get around by walking or renting a bike. But beware the extreme lack of taxis (and no ride-shares), especially when festivals are in town. It took me an hour of phone calls to find a way to get to Le Patio, a great, inventive restaurant in Fontvieille, about 20 minutes from Arles. On the day of my departure, I gave up and just walked half an hour with my bags to the train station. The walk was, however, along the bank of the Rhône and quite pretty.

Jada Yuan is traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. For more coverage, or to send Jada tips and suggestions, please follow her on Twitter at @jadabird and on Instagram at @alphajada.

Previous dispatches:

1: New Orleans

2: Chattanooga, Tenn.

3. Montgomery, Ala.

4. Disney Springs, Fla.

5. Trinidad and St. Lucia and San Juan, P.R.

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