ANNECY, France — To know Annecy is to know France's prettiest village--but getting here, well ... this was the adventure.
Although barely 60 miles from Grenoble, the trip involved two hours, start to finish, which doubtless appears odd because the journey was by air.
To explain, the entire episode had to do with a single-engine airplane piloted by Henri Giraud, who distinguished himself in 1960 as the first flier ever to land on Mont Blanc. That, one must agree, took an inordinate amount of bravery, courage, grit, skill and plain ordinary guts, particularly since there was no airstrip.
This particular day Giraud had decided that we should skim over his beloved Alps en route to Annecy. To say that he succeeded in tempting fate on this occasion is a gross understatement. As a matter of fact, Giraud landed once again on one of the Alpine peaks. Not Mont Blanc this time, and not on a runway either.
Giraud just flat-out set the little plane down on a stretch of soggy sod several hundred feet above the timberline, all of which brings to mind that expression familiar to fliers the world over: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.
In his case, Giraud puts this notion to rest. Sixty-eight years old, he has been tempting fate in a flying machine for more than half a century. Not ordinary flying, I should point out, but daring encounters among mountain ranges with death dancing at his wing tips. Innocently, I got involved when I sought a ride to Annecy from Grenoble.
Considering that I happen to be a devout member of the Cowards' Club, it is doubtful I would have joined Giraud had I known that he intended to demonstrate his derring-do en route from Grenoble to Annecy. Particularly as well over 100 light planes and more than 50 helicopters have crashed in the French Alps since Giraud landed on Mont Blanc.
As Giraud puts it: "It is very dangerous to play with the ground."
This occurred to me as he flew hellbent toward an Alpine peak. I assumed wrongly that Giraud intended to pull back on the yoke and nose over the fast-approaching mountain. Instead, with Gallic savoir-faire, Giraud set the plane down on the mountainside in what could only be described as a soggy, vertical cow pasture.
"That," said the smiling pilot with the shaved head, "takes not only skill but a love of the mountains."
With a white scarf knotted around his neck, the bald, bold and personable Giraud brings to mind a French Kojak with the courage of a World War II Spitfire ace.
At one point Giraud flew within 10 feet of a mountain ledge. One violent updraft or downdraft and we could very well have become familiar figures on the other side of eternity. Peaks slipped by under the wings. The plane pitched.
While scanning a slope, Giraud banked sharply. He'd spotted a herd of chamoix kicking up sheets of snow as they raced for cover on a mountainside that is eternally covered with powder. Giraud overflew the ski resorts of Val d'Isere, Tignes, Courchevel and Meribel.
During winter Giraud delivers skiers to peaks otherwise inaccessible. In summer he flies tourists alongside waterfalls and Alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
This particular day Giraud flew low over the villages of Le Sappey and St. Pierre de Chartreuse, and afterward buzzed Albertville, which is to be headquarters for the 1992 Winter Olympics.
The sky was flawless. The little plane pitched, rose and fell. Other villages appeared in the folds of the French Alps. At one point Giraud circled the monastery where monks concoct Chartreuse, the popular liqueur that's sold the world over. A monk waved. Giraud dipped his wings in a salute. Villages far below appeared as peaceful as the snow-covered peaks surrounding them.
Gracefully, the plane circled La Meije, a mountain Giraud described as the most beautiful in all of France. Spotting another herd of chamoix, he cried out: " Regardez !"
The animals stampeded, setting off a minor avalanche as they fled toward a forest.
The old pilot smiled. "We fly now to Annecy."
The adventure was over, another was beginning.
Exploring the Old Town of Annecy is one of the joys of a visit to the Rhone Alps. France's prettiest village, with its narrow canals and cobbled streets and ancient houses, appears like a Renoir canvas come to life. Swans glide through the water alongside sidewalk cafes, and small bridges span the waterways.
Should there be a chill, diners retire inside to cafes and the welcome warmth of fires and steaming cups of espresso. Otherwise, they remain at tables alongside the canals, photographing the swans or tossing scraps of bread onto the water.
The Old Town of Annecy is particularly appealing to artists who set up their easels along the Quai du Semnoz, Quai Perriere, Quai des Vielles Prisons, Quai de l'Eveche and Quai du l'Isle.