THE FRENCH ALPS

 

A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase.  Includes Places to Stay in proximity.

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

The French Alps encompasses a beautiful region tucked to the south of the shores of Lake Geneva with majestic peaks establishing a natural border between Italy, France, and Switzerland. This is a region of towering mountains, Alpine valleys, lakes, and rivers, a region that will be appreciated by all who share a love of nature and the mountains-both the sportsman and the photographer. It is a region to be enjoyed year round, but a chameleon with its dramatic changes in seasonal dress.

Recommended pacing: This itinerary assumes your travels will both begin and end in Geneva. However, it is important to note that if you are traveling along the Rhône Valley, it is also easy to make an itinerary loop of this region with Lyon as the originating city. If your travels begin in Geneva, you will most definitely want to spend a few nights here to enjoy this elegant city just across the Swiss border. With a beautiful waterfront setting, gardens, fountains, and bridges spanning the river that weaves through the city, Geneva is intimate in size. It is easy to walk and explore its many distinctive districts, from the elegant shopping streets and regal residential quarters to the cobbled streets of its old quarter. (For recommendations of places to stay in Geneva, either refer to our guide, Switzerland: Charming Inns & Itineraries or visit our website for properties near Greneva) Once you leave Geneva, it is recommended that you select one place to stay for a minimum of two nights in one of the key mountain towns such as Chamonix or Megève, and then select a base for two nights for exploring the lake region of Annecy. Before returning to Geneva, we strongly recommend an excursion to medieval Yvoire, a little way beyond the city on the shores of Lake Geneva. If your trip originates in Lyon, again we would recommend two nights near Lake Annecy, two nights in the mountains near Mont Blanc, and then a night in Geneva as well as a visit to the charming village of Yvoire on the edge of Lake Geneva.

From Geneva, travel a gorgeous, narrow valley shadowed by towering peaks in the direction of Chamonix and Mont Blanc. If you’re in a rush you could take the autoroute, but the N205 parallels the autoroute and seems just as efficient and perhaps prettier as it travels through the villages. This area is absolutely gorgeous in spring and summer, with a dramatic backdrop of high snow-covered peaks that contrast with lush green pastures dotted with chalets, grazing cattle, and an abundance of wildflowers. The many ski lifts and gondolas that climb from the villages indicate that this is definitely a winter sport destination, but in other seasons, parachutes color the skies and mountain trails, waterfalls, and mountain peaks beckon and challenge all abilities.

The resort town of Chamonix is nestled in a valley of the same name that stretches 20 kilometers between the towering Mont Blanc range to the south and the Aiguilles Rouges Mountains to the north. Considered the ultimate winter and summer resort, Chamonix was home to the first Winter Olympics in 1924 and boasts the highest summit in Europe, the towering peak of Mont Blanc. Although of international renown and acclaim, Chamonix retains the ambiance of a small mountain town, especially in the pedestrian village of Chamonix Sud with its charming, weathered chalets chamoniards individualized by their elegantly painted façades, shopping arcades, an intimate town square, and the delightful Rue du Moulins.

From Chamonix, retrace your path traveling west and then turn south toward the charming Alpine village of Megève. Described as the “essence of rustic chic,” the town was conceived in the 1920s to be France’s version of Switzerland’s St. Moritz. Ideally located for visiting many of the region’s exclusive resorts (St. Gervais, Combloux, Les Contamines, and Chamonix), Megève boasts a number of gourmet restaurants, luxury boutique hotels, and gorgeous shops. At its core, a pedestrian zone preserves its character and minimizes the impact of crowds, who are forced to utilize one of the many parking garages on the perimeter.

In the shadow of Mont Blanc, all the Haute Savoie villages offer the sportsman both a winter and summer paradise. In winter you can enjoy: paragliding, hot springs, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, helicopter skiing, snowmobiling, Turkish-bath saunas, ice-skating, curling, and Megève’s casino. Summer attractions include: spa treatments, mountain biking, walking, tennis, golf, archery, para-gliding, lake and river fishing, rafting, swimming, the summer luge, horse-back riding, mountaineering, and the tramway.

From Megève, it is a beautiful drive following the Arly River as it cuts a path through a rugged, narrow mountain canyon to the city of Albertville. Albertville, built on the valley floor after flood channels were dug to eliminate flooding, became the area’s new commercial center. Its predecessor, the old walled town of Conflans, still remains, strategically positioned on the hillside above the city and the confluence of the Arly and Isère rivers. Dating back to Roman times, the town is fun to explore with its ancient fortifications, buildings, and cobbled streets.

A bustling city, Albertville was home to the 1992 Olympic Winter Games. The year marked the first Olympics since the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and resulted in a record 2,174 athletes from 65 countries. This was also the last time the Winter Games were held in the same year as the Summer Games. Only 18 of the 57 events were held in Albertville itself, while nearby resorts hosted the rest.

Continuing south along the Isère, the beauty of the region wanes a bit past Albertville until the silhouette of castle ruins appears at Miolans. In the 10th century this impressive fortress was commissioned by the Miolans family on the site of an ancient settlement. It was later confiscated by the Dukes of Savoy who used the fortress as a prison. Over a period of 200 years it served to confine 192 prisoners, the most famous of whom was the Marquis de Sade, who managed to escape. The château overlooks the Combe de Savoie valley, a rich wine-growing region that extends from Miolans, dips south at Montmeilian, and then continues north to Calles les Eaux. The various varietals grown in the region include Pinot, Gamay, Mondeuse, Chardonnay, and Altesse.

Chambéry, the capital of the counts and dukes of Savoy during the 14th century, is located just south of the Lac du Bourget, in the heart of the French Alps. Dominated by the castle, the remarkable old town is preserved as a pedestrian area and has lovely old mansions, dramatic fountains, and intriguing alleys lined with cafés.

It is just a short drive on to the Lac du Bourget and Aix les Bains, its principal resort town, which is very touristy and full of sun-worshipers. However, I much prefer the lovely Lac d’Annecy to the northeast. Nestled on its northern shore is the beautiful city of Annecy, crowned by its silhouetted castle. The city enjoys a lovely old pedestrian district transected by waterways and gardens along the waterfront, a magnet in warm weather for sun seekers who blanket its lawn. Numerous boat excursions originate from its harbor to explore the lake and Alpine setting.

From Annecy, roads depart along both the west and east banks of Lac d’Annecy. The drive along the east bank is definitely the prettiest, with little villages whose homes and hotels cluster along the waterfront. Detour just off the riverfront to visit the ornate turreted château above Menthon St. Bernard. Far away from the workaday hustle, nestling in a vast park, the stone towers of Menthon St. Bernard’s castle dominate the lake. A baronial residence, it has passed down to descendants of the same family since the 11th century.

Talloires, a lovely village with one of the prettiest settings along the lake, is found about a third of the way south from Annecy along the eastern shore. Nestled in a serene alcove on the lakeshore, this would be a lovely place to lunch at one of its terrace restaurants. From Talloires you can also enjoy views across the narrow stretch of lake to the decorative towers of Duingt.

If you are fond of pottery, travel northeast from Annecy following the N203 (in the direction of Chamonix and Thonon les Bains) and turn off at Daudens, following signs to Evires. After crossing the railroad tracks, turn right just before town to find the pottery workshop and museum, housed in an old farm, of master potter Jean Christophe Hermann, considered the best in the region. Founded in 1981, the museum enjoys a rich collection of over two million pieces. This is considered one of the finest collections of Savoyard pottery in the world. (L’Atelier de Poterie. Visits by reservation only, tel: 04.50.62.01.90)

Before circling back to Geneva, head to the lakeshore just to the northeast of the city, to the picturesque village of Yvoire. With its 700-year-old castle, ramparts, and tower gates, Yvoire is an enchanting medieval village situated on the French side of Lake Geneva. Cars are not permitted within the walls and so wandering the narrow cobbled streets and the paths along its shore and harbor is both peaceful and scenic. Although it is a convenient half-hour drive back to Geneva from Yvoire, you can also travel the distance by train or boat (one hour). Numerous lake excursions are offered from the port.

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