Cruising glassy-calm Lac du Bourget, there’s a certain irony that the water’s journey from the stormy tops of the Savoie Alps has ended in one of the most serene places in France. This is Aix-les-Bains’ immediate appeal. It’s a town focused on lakeside living with beach clubs, marinas, promenades and a Belle Epoque-era casino. The effect is an Alpine riviera of sorts, where water sports and unfiltered fun are key to the local way of life.
The town’s story began with the Romans in 131 BC, when they discovered a series of thermal springs gushing from the foothills in the area. These thermal waters have attracted visitors for the past 2,000 years, and today Aix-les-Bains is one of France’s finest spa retreats, home to many health clubs and resorts. Here’s why Aix-les-Bains shouldn’t be missed.
Lake on one side, mountains on the other, it’s hard not to be dazzled by Lac du Bourget’s almost perfect topography. The drama is heightened by a location sandwiched between the Jura mountains and undulating Upper Rhône vineyards. From le Grand Port, flotillas of bateaux tootle the north-south axis of the submarine-shaped lake and you can gaze across the water to ancient chapels, abbeys, hiking trails and cols. Not only is the lake France’s largest (depending on the season), but it’s also the deepest at 145m. Experts divers can even scuba to see a submerged Nazi Germany fighter plane at a murky depth of 112m.
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Big things are happening in a little corner of the city. A five-year project is underway to restore the city’s ancient thermal baths and there's a landmark museum in the pipeline. The city's subterranean historic ruins are soon set to reopen to the public for the first time in decades. Until then, you can see mythological mosaics, the handsome Le Soufre sulphur spring and sneak a glimpse of the original Roman thermal baths — all hidden inside the official tourist office on Place Maurice Mollard. On the same theme, the Musée Lapidaire, an ancient Gallo-Roman temple, houses a treasure trove of archaeological artefacts.
Hautecombe Abbey is the sort of place that makes you want to run away to become a monk. The former 12th-century Cistercian monastery, later a Benedictine sanctuary, was the burial place of members of the House of Savoy — the all-conquering French royal dynasty, which ruled Sardinia, Sicily, Italy and Spain. After the French Revolution, the remaining monks were forced to leave and the abbey was turned into china factory. It has since been returned to its former glory. Walk among the ghosts of the last Savoy king and queens, gawp at the insanely-brilliant Gothic-troubadour architecture, ponder the murals, marble sculptures and cenotaphs, or simply savour the views from the lakeside lawn.
Coming in summer or autumn? Set off for a day's biking or trail hiking in the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges, where sky-filling views of snow-dusted peaks are your reward for getting off the beaten track. In winter, fresh powder snow draws in cross country and downhill skiers to resorts such as easy-to-reach La Clusaz, Megeve and the sprawling Les Trois Vallées. Prefer splashing around? Lac du Bourget welcomes swimmers in summer and is mesmerising in the sunshine at any time of year, particularly when soundtracked by the splish-splosh of a kayak or canoe.
Unlike two of France’s other main spa towns – Dax and Evian – in its heyday Aix-les-Bains was a circus of casinos and luxury hotels. Thomas Cook included it on his Grand Tour of Europe, using the town as a staging post between Paris and Italy, and English aristocrats and Queen Victoria followed suit. She visited three times, and today, you can check out the faded grandeur of the now-closed Grand Hôtel, the first luxury residence to open in the city in 1857 or play roulette and blackjack amid the grand architecture of the still-swinging Art Nouveau Casino Grand Cercle.
If checking-in then tuning-out is required, Aix-les-Bains provides. The town brims with wellness retreats and spa hotels and sinking, soaking and steaming is de rigeur. There’s Hotel Adelphia, The Institute & Spa Aix-les-Bains Domaine de Marlioz, Mercure Hotel and Spa Aix Les Bains Domaine de Marlioz, Les Suites du Lac and Valvital’s Thermes Chevalley Aix-les-Bains. That's just a small selection – there's almost too many to count, in fact, and all have thermal pools, hammams, saunas and solariums. Indeed, there’s a sense that leaving preened and polished is compulsory.
Top image: The Grand Port in the town of Aix-les-Bains © Steve Allen/Shutterstock
Mike MacEacheran travelled to Aix-les-Bains with support from Savoie Mont Blanc tourism and Office de Tourisme Aix les Bains Riviera des Alpes.