Thirteen kilometres north of Chambéry is Aix-les-Bains, one of France’s premier spa resorts. The town’s waters have been famous for their healing qualities since Roman times but most of the elegant buildings here date from Aix’s belle époque heyday of the late 1800s, when members of European high society dropped by to relax and take the waters; Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor. These days, Aix-les-Bains is a sedate and genteel place, with thousands of French pensioners descending on the town throughout the year for state-funded thermal treatments. The spa centre, Les Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains (wthermaix.com) was formerly housed in the impressive (though now sadly redundant) Art Deco building on place Maurice-Mollard, but these days you’ll find it at Thermes Chevalley, a five-minute walk uphill behind here. There are also some parks to amble through and plenty of cafés where you can sit back with a pastis and watch the world go slowly by. Aix is also the best base for enjoying the sights and outdoor activities at the nearby Lac du Bourget.
Connected to the River Rhône by the Canal de Savières, the Lac du Bourget is France’s biggest natural lake, at 18km long and 3.5km wide, and a place of great beauty, a protected wildlife reserve and home to the now scarce European beaver. “Nowhere could one find such perfect concord between water, mountains, earth and sky”, enthused the nineteenth-century French writer Balzac, and it’s clear what attracted him and so many other poets and artists to this place. The lake’s “Côte Sauvage” rises precipitously above the sparkling blue water on its western bank, which is dominated at its southern end by the looming presence of the Dent du Chat (1390m).