The wild and rugged landscape of the Alps, formed by the collision of continental tectonic plates over tens of millions of years, and the eroding actions of multiple glaciers and fast-flowing rivers, contains some of Europe’s most stunning mountain landscapes. King of all it surveys, and Europe’s highest peak, is Mont Blanc, which sits pretty over the Chamonix valley below, itself the region’s premier sporting playground. On offer are some of the most thrilling outdoor activities on the continent, from world-class skiing and mountain climbing, to superb road cycling and the most gentle of valley walks. While resorts like Chamonix absorb the lion’s share of adrenaline-seeking visitors to the Alps, there are excellent alternatives, notably the Queyras and Écrins national parks.
Yet you’ll also find plenty of charming villages and towns to explore, notably Grenoble, the economic capital of the Alps, which possesses a vibrant nightlife and lively cultural scene. Chambéry, too, offers stimulating cultural attractions alongside some wonderful Italianate architecture, while easy-going Annecy is a town whose picture-postcard lakeside setting is sure to delight. Close by, the genteel spa resort of Aix-le-Bains presents further possibilities for lake-bound fun, as does Lake Geneva, whose pristine shoreline is punctuated by well turned-out towns and villages like Evian and Yvoire. Further south, Briançon, one of the highest towns in Europe, offers Vauban’s formidable fortress as a reminder of the tumultuous past of this region on France’s eastern frontier.
The region of Franche-Comté, which lies to the northwest of Lake Geneva, was once ruled by the Grand Dukes of Burgundy, and annexed by France in the late seventeenth century. The four départements of Franche-Comté – the Territoire de Belfort, the Haute-Saône, the Doubs and the Jura are generally far more rural and less touristy than those in Rhone-Alpes. The region’s capital, Besançon, is an attractive town built around imposing fortifications, developed by the French military engineer Vauban during the late 1600s.
Lying in the rich agricultural valley to the south of Besançon, the quiet town of Lons-le-Saunier provides a gateway to the Jura Mountains to the east. Composed of gentle, forested slopes in the west, of more sheer crags in the east and of high-forested plateaux in between, these mountains have long been popular for cross-country sking, but the varied terrain also provides plenty of good trails for hikers. Note that the official département of Jura in the south of Franche-Comté does not contain the whole of the mountain range commonly known as the Jura; these mountains also stretch northward into the Doubs département as well as into Switzerland. A particular highlight in these mountains is the Région des Lacs, which possesses beautiful lakes, pine forests and small farming communities as well as ski resorts. At the northern tip of the region is the historic town of Belfort, a rewarding destination in itself, and, one that makes a handy base for exploring the area.