The Last Duchy

Thus I returned to the land of my tormentors.

Annecy 

Montreux—Annecy, 83 Miles 

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Annecy is one of those places that’s the “Venice of [insert country name].” In this case, France. Every country in the known world has a “Venice,” which is such an unfortunate dilution of the name. Leave Venice out of this. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, Venice is about so much more than a bunch of canals, which are frankly very annoying logistically. Stop trying to ride its coattails, cities of the world. A slightly above average number of water features does not make a Venice make.

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Allow me to get off my soapbox and continue. Annecy is an interesting little French town near the Swiss border, and indeed they seem to be hoping to switch teams without anyone noticing. The town flag looks nearly identical to the Swiss flag, save the haphazardly placed fish. They have kept sight of what’s important though. The whole town is basically one giant crepe restaurant and I can now confirm, after having been on two separate occasions two years apart, that the best brioche in France are in Annecy, at Marmilon.

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Above the town is the Chateau d’Annecy, the previous digs of Genevan counts and now the home of one of the most bizarre and unappealing collections of modern art ever. The old part of Annecy, the only part of any interest to a non-local, stops just short of being overly touristy though it is home to the rudest city guides I’ve ever encountered, who seem to think every public bridge is their group’s private photo space. You can see all of Annecy in about two hours so while it’s hardly worth an overnight, it’s a worthy stopover en route to elsewhere.

Paris

Annecy—Paris, 347 Miles

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Le Palais Royal

One thing that’s nice about traveling around Europe for a few months is that you learn everyone else likes to rag on the French as much as I do. Of course everyone knows the old joke about Americans and their monolingualism, but everyone else in Europe first and foremost chides the French for the same problem and upon returning this time after spending several weeks in other European countries, this became obvious to me.

Their English is always better than my French, so I have no complaints as a visitor in their country, but the rest of the Continent is right in pointing out that by European standards, their multilingual skills are poor, something that seems both a matter of pride and a matter of thumbing their nose at the fat slobs across the Atlantic and the British, who have made egregious mispronunciation of French words an art form.

So back in Paris, despite my better judgment. I was in Paris because as part of my trip, I’m attempting to do what Serena Williams couldn’t last year and complete the Grand Slam. In other words, I will sit in four different stadiums in four different countries, enjoying the tournament’s choice overpriced beverage and watching other people exert themselves. Hold your applause.

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Stade Roland Garros

For those of you who are not fully immersed in the world of tennis, all you need to know is that the French Open has a reputation in the sport for being last among equals. All the four major events are on paper weighted equally, but as far as prestige goes, everyone has an unofficial hierarchy in their heads, and the French is always last. It’s the only major event on clay, which should make it important, but the people running this thing do everything in their power to turn this into a two-bit operation.

First of all, the drinks. Where are they? I should not be asking this question. Not to sound like a lush, but this is a sporting event. I should not be wondering if you have a liquor license. How do they even make money? I was told there was a wine stand somewhere in the north corner of the grounds halfway to Normandy, but even that seemed like folklore. By contrast, there’s practically a two-drink minimum at the Australian Open and in addition to the Heineken troughs and fountains of Jacobs Creek, there is a full bar every ten steps, with everything marked up 200 percent. It’s an outdoor sporting event; this is what the people want.

The food is also abysmal. Yes, you come for the tennis not the culinary delights, but you cannot run a major sporting event without decent food in 2016, no matter what it is. We can pretend otherwise, but tennis is a country club sport. If you serve packaged ham and ultra processed Swiss cheese sandwiches to that crowd like they’re at a local roller derby event, people are not going to be happy. The around-the-block lines at the boulangeries near the stadium in the morning were, in retrospect, the telltale sign of the horrors that were to come.

The stadium is a similar disaster, as it’s essentially a concrete bowl with a tennis court at the bottom. Part of the explanation for why this stadium is so bad is that it was built in 1927 with six months notice for the Davis Cup, which would be like playing the Super Bowl every year in a stadium originally constructed at a temporary summer carnival. The only solution to the French Open is to wait until June for Wimbledon to roll around, so I’ll check back in upon arrival at the civilized world of Pimm’s and strawberries and cream and every imaginable flavor of British pretension.

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I’m coming!

As for the most important part—the tennis—this side of things seems to be run better. This is a tennis tournament so getting the tennis right is important, but anyone with a brain knows that a live sporting event in 2016 is as much about the fan experience as it is about what’s happening on the court or the field or whatever. So on that account, they failed tremendously.

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The French crowd also has a reputation for being lazy, unenthusiastic, and fickle; ESPN commentators in the States will openly wonder, looking at an empty stadium, if the ticket holders have decided to wrap up their wino, four-hour lunches to come to the tennis. During a not particularly exciting match a few years ago, they spent the changeovers panning through the crowd looking for people sleeping. Sort of a kiss cam for people in food comas. I actually did not find this to be true. For the early days in the tournaments, when the big players tend to be playing no-names and crushing them in unexciting fashion, the stands were more full than normal and people tended to be quiet when necessary and loud when appropriate.

As I didn’t spend much time in Paris beyond that, I don’t have much else to add but of course as compared the March, the weather was much improved and it was nice to see the city looking much more lively. Much as I wrestle with my disdain for Paris, it has its moments that are impossible to dislike. Sunset over the Tuileries, the buzz of people dining on the packed Place du Marché. Every time I’m prepared to fully declare my hatred, it reels me back in. Until I’m inundated by the nonstop cigarette smoke or completely ignored by a waiter. And then I’m back to my old ways.

Luxembourg

Paris—Luxembourg City, 232 miles

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Former headquarters of the High Authority of the European Steel and Coal Community. Exciting stuff

I’m not totally convinced anyone is actually from Luxembourg, despite the nearly 300,000 that Wikipedia is alleging (just over half the population is Luxembourgian). Luxembourg basically answers the question, “What would Switzerland be like if you stripped it of all its natural beauty?” Not that Luxembourg is particularly unattractive, but pretty much all they have going for them is a huge financial industry and some nice old buildings. And, admittedly, a very interesting and diverse populace. A gathering of more than five people in Luxembourg will almost certainly have at least three countries represented. People tend to be very ambitious, professional, and highly educated, so it’s always an interesting crowd, but it can feel like the whole city is a business school mixer.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, as it’s formally known, was at one point or another part of its neighboring countries—France, Germany, formerly the Holy Roman Empire—and finally worked out an independence deal for themselves after Napoleon was defeated, but it took another 75 years for the French and the Dutch to stop squabbling about it. Since then, they have made various attempts to legitimize themselves as a country and they’ve been quite successful, becoming an important financial center and playing a big role in the European Union. The have the second highest GPD per capita in the world and are the only remaining grand duchy on earth (essentially, a monarchy headed by a duke).

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View of the Grund. As you can see, the weather was excellent.

The capital/only city is creatively named Luxembourg City, half of which sits on two high plateaus, with a small neighborhood known as the Grund hidden in the leafy valley floor. There are quiet tucked away restaurants and boutique hotels in the old French-style canal houses, and then if you walk a little further you come across a giant glass-encased Microsoft building. Because the city is so small, this juxtaposition can be particularly odd.

Overzealous travel writers like to describe Luxembourg’s “fairytale-like” qualities, which is being generous. For such a small country, there are some great restaurants and little cafes, and surprisingly good shopping, but nothing about it is fantastical, or particularly photogenic as you can tell from my dearth of images. If you ever have to come here for business, consider yourself lucky. The people here are very interesting and it’s a quirky, nice enough little place. But spend your vacation days in Germany or the Netherlands (preview of coming attractions: the Netherlands is a ridiculously awesome country).

Luxembourg is one of the countries that I, perhaps rudely, think of as Europe’s passport stamp novelties. Monaco, San Marino, Leichtenstein, Luxembourg, Andorra—their primary function in life is as the answers to trivia questions. Luxembourg has way more industry than any of these others and I think Monaco is lovely, but I’ve come to realize you only go to these to say you’ve been. This is not a negative comment about these countries inherently, but there’s just nothing of interest there for a non-local. I’d still put in a good word for Monaco, which I love in spite of being so ostentatious, but you could find that same kind of experience in France or Italy. Liechtenstein is barely even indicated on any sign as you enter and five minutes later, exit the country as you drive between Austria and Switzerland. San Marino is such a waste of time that I didn’t even talk about it because I was indignant about what a time suck it had been. I had been planning to go to Andorra and maybe it is the undiscovered gem of Europe, but I’m willing to live without having found out. Monaco has scored an amazing piece of land for itself, but all the others have these strange pockets of country that are slightly inferior to their neighbors. With the exception of San Marino, all of these places have been on my way to somewhere else, but they’re really not worth the detour. There’s no glory in having been to Liechtenstein.

Germany in my next post.

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