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.
Lying 50km to the south of Lake Geneva, Annecy, set on a sparkling turquoise lake, the Lac d’Annecy, is one of the most beautiful and popular resort towns of the French Alps. It enjoyed a brief moment of political and religious importance in the early sixteenth century, when Geneva embraced the Reformation and the Catholic bishop, François de Sales, decamped here with a train of ecclesiastics and a prosperous, cultivated elite.
These days, the delights of the town lie not just in its historical monuments, like the imposing château on the hill or the stronghold of the Palais de l’Île closer to the lake, but also in the stunning scenery. Annecy’s old town is a bewitching warren of passages and arcaded houses that date from the sixteenth century and are divided by peaceful little branches of the Canal du Thiou. Many of the houses here are ringed by canalside railings overflowing with geraniums and petunias in summer; added to the cool shade offered by the arcades, these flowers make the town’s pedestrianized streets a delight to wander around on a sunny day. At the height of summer, however, you can barely move for the crowds, so you’d do well to take to the streets as early as you can in the morning.
Nestled in the gap between two mountain ranges – the Vosges to the north and the Jura to the south – lies Belfort, a town assured of a place in French hearts for its history as an insurmountable stronghold on this obvious route for invaders. The town is remembered particularly for its long resistance to a siege during the 1870 Franco–Prussian War; it was this resistance that spared it the humiliating fate of being annexed into the German empire, a fate suffered by much of neighbouring Alsace-Lorraine. The commanding officer at the time was one Colonel Denfert-Rochereau (known popularly as the “Lion of Belfort”), who earned himself the honour of numerous street names throughout the country, as well as that of a Parisian square and métro station.
First staged in 1989, today Eurockéennes is one of France’s biggest and most diverse annual rock festivals, attracting top international artists as well as plenty of up-and-coming French acts. The three-day festival takes place over the first weekend in July in a lovely setting on the shores of the Lac du Malsaucy, 6km northeast of Belfort, and the vibe is suitably relaxed and friendly, despite crowds of 100,000 or more. There’s a free campsite nearby with 12,000 spaces for those who want the full rock festival experience.
The capital of Franche-Comté, Besançon, is an attractive town of handsome stone buildings that sits between the northern edge of the Jura Mountains and a loop of the wide River Doubs. It is this natural defensive position that has defined the town’s history. Besançon was briefly a Gallic fortress before Caesar smashed the Gauls’ resistance in 58 BC. Strong outer walls were developed during the Middle Ages and the indefatigable military engineer Vauban added the still-extant citadelle in the seventeenth century in order to guard the natural breach in the river, and a large French army presence remained in the area until well into the twentieth century.
For the most part, visitors are unlikely to stray far from the old town which is squeezed into a tight loop of the Doubs. Its pedestrianized streets and narrow walkways conceal a wealth of good museums and cosy cafés.
Nestling in a valley to the north of the Chartreuse Massif, the town of Chambéry commands the entrance to the mountain passes which lead towards Italy, and has thus held an important strategic position for the various armies and merchants who have crossed the Alps over the centuries. The town grew up around the château built by Count Thomas of Savoie in 1232, and became the Savoyard capital, enjoying a golden age in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although superseded as capital by Turin in 1562, it remained an important commercial and cultural centre, and the philosopher Rousseau spent some of his happiest years in the town during the 1730s. Only incorporated into France in 1860, modern Chambéry is a bustling provincial town with a wealth of grand Italianate architecture and a strong sense of its regional identity.
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 was formerly housed in the impressive (though now sadly redundant, save for the tourist office) Art Deco building on place Maurice-Mollard, but these days you’ll find it at Thermes Chevalley, a five-minute walk uphill behind here on route du Revard. 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).
Nestling a short way north of Grenoble, the Chartreuse massif is a place of spectacular landscapes, including sharp limestone peaks, mountain pastures and large areas of pine forest. Designated in 1995 as the Parc Naturel Régional de Chartreuse the landscape provides wonderful opportunities for all manner of recreational pursuits. The Maison de la Montagne office in Grenoble can offer advice on many of these activities, and also publishes descriptions of the various hiking routes in the area. The massif’s main local landmark is the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, situated up the narrow Gorges des Guiers Morts, southeast of St-Laurent-du-Pont, and some 35km from Grenoble.
The high plateaux of the Jura mountains guarantee good snow cover in winter, but they also lack the steep gradients of the Alpine peaks further to the south; it is this high but level terrain which has made the Jura into France’s most popular destination for cross-country skiing, or ski de fond. The goal of any superfit fondeur is the 175km Grande Traversée du Jura (GTJ), which crosses the high plateau from Villers-le-Lac to Giron, a town in the south of the Parc Naturel Régional Haut Jura.
The same gentle topography and established infrastructure that enable cross-country skiing have made this region an ideal high-summer venue for mountain biking, with hundreds of waymarked cross-country skiing pistes used out of season as trails for adventurous mountain bikers. The 360km GTJ–VTT, which starts near Montbéliard (just to the south of Belfort), has become the greatest long-distance biking challenge in the area. Many people cycle on the road; there aren’t many cars, so if you can handle the hills, then go for it.
Most characteristic of Alpine cuisine is the liberal amount of cheese made from the local cow, ewe and goat milk. The fromageries of Franche-Comté and the Northern Alps are full of cheeses like Roblochon, Tome des Bauges, Emmental, Chèvre, Comté and Beaufort. These are found not just in the famous fondue, but also raclette and tartiflette (both cheese-based dishes served with ham and potatoes). Other cheeses worth seeking out include the smooth blue-veined Bleu de Gex, produced exclusively in the Pays de Gex region, and creamy Saint Marcellin, from the Grenoble area.
Many restaurants feature fish (notably salmon and trout) from the Alpine lakes and use locally grown herbs, like thyme, basil and rosemary. These herbs are particularly in evidence in the Southern Alps around Briançon, where they are often used to flavour the saucisson (cured sausage), which you’ll find in many a morning shopping market.
The region produces many light and fruity varieties of wine, of which the most popular is the dark red Mondeuse, with its faint taste of raspberries. By contrast, the expensive vin jaune from the Jura is a potent, golden wine, made from Sauvignon grapes with a fermentation process similar to that of sherry – it remains in the cask for 6–10 years before being bottled. Vin jaune is a favourite accompaniment for the local cheeses of Franche-Comté, and is used in speciality dishes such as poulet au vin jaune (chicken in a creamy sauce flavoured by the wine). It’s also worth sampling some regional liqueurs. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Chartreuse, the drink produced by Carthusian monks since the sixteenth century, which contains 130 different herbs and is known as the “elixir of life”, while Chambéry is famous for its high-quality vermouth, including the unique Chambéryzette, flavoured with strawberries.
Set serenely at the confluence of the Drac and Isère rivers, Grenoble, the self-styled “capital of the Alps”, is, at just 213m above sea level, France’s lowest city, watched over by the snowcapped peaks of the Belledonne, Vercors and Chartreuse massifs. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan place, home to more than sixty thousand students and a lively cultural scene, while at its centre is a quirky maze of streets, where modern and medieval buildings are packed close together. Its restaurants and cafés, meanwhile, provide relaxing spots in which to sit and admire the grandeur of this fantastic mountain setting.
Settled by the Celtic Allobroges tribe, who called their settlement Cularo, it was renamed Gratianopolis by the Romans in the fourth century and became the seat of a bishop. The city was annexed by France in the fourteenth century, and it was here, far from Paris, that a local uprising in 1788 (known as the Journée des Tuiles) initiated the French Revolution. Grenoble is the final stop on the Route Napoléon; the French emperor arrived here on March 7, 1815, declaring “Before Grenoble, I was an adventurer. In Grenoble, I was a prince.” The prosperity of the city was originally founded on glove-making, but in the nineteenth century its economy diversified to include industries as varied as mining and hydroelectric power, while more recently it has forged a reputation as a centre for scientific research in the electronic and nuclear industries.
The Bastille’s main draw is its spectacular views. At your feet, the Isère flows under old bridges which join the St-Laurent quarter (a home for Italian immigrants in the late 1800s) on the northern bank of the river to the nucleus of the medieval town. Even this far south, if you look northeast on a clear day you can see the distant white peaks of Mont Blanc further up the deep valley of the Isère. To the east, snowfields gleam in the high gullies of the Belledonne massif (2978m). To the southeast is the peak of Le Taillefer (2807m), while further to the south you can make out the mountain pass which the famous Route Napoléon crosses on its way northwards from the Mediterranean. This was the road towards Paris that Napoleon took after his escape from Elba in March 1815. Finally, to the west you can admire Moucherotte (1901m), the highest peak of the Vercors massif, and the mountain which most seems to dominate the city beneath.
A vast modern complex down by the riverbank, the Musée de Grenoble is home to one of the country’s most prestigious art collections. The classical wing has a fine spread of masterpieces spanning the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries. Pieces by Rubens,Veronese, and Canaletto take centre stage in the first few rooms, followed by nineteenth-century luminaries Gauguin, Renoir, and local hero, Henri Fantin-Latour. Once you’ve absorbed those, there is still a further two dozen or so rooms of twentieth century and modern art to negotiate, including works by Chagall, Matisse, Picasso and Warhol, to name but a few. If you can summon the energy, take a peek at the basement collection of Egyptian antiquities.
There are seven national or regional parks in the area covered by this chapter: Vanoise, Chartreuse, Bauges, Écrins, Queyras, Vercors and Haut Jura. All of these contain gentle day-walks and more demanding treks – not least classic long-distance paths like the Tour du Mont Blanc – which require one or two weeks’ walking. Most of these routes are clearly marked and dotted with refuge huts; the routes are also described in high detail by the Topo-guides guidebooks. Nonetheless, even the most experienced walkers or skiers treat these mountains and their unpredictable weather conditions with due respect. Even low-level walks in the Alps during summer often require a good level of fitness and specialist equipment, such as crampons or ice axes. You should take account of the weather conditions (which can vary considerably between the valleys and peaks), of the potentially debilitating effects of high altitude, and of the serious danger of avalanches.
The Alps were the first great centre for European rock climbers in the nineteenth century and still offer countless routes that can be enjoyed by both novices and world-class climbers. A more recent development has been the creation of via ferrata courses, in which wires and ladders are bolted onto the rock so that even inexperienced climbers (wearing harnesses and ropes) can make ascents which would otherwise be impossible for them. There are via ferrata courses being developed across the whole region, but at present two of the largest centres for this popular sport are at Serre Chevalier and in the Parc National des Écrins.
The Bureau Info Montagne office in Grenoble and the Office de Haute Montagne in Chamonix can provide information on the best guides and the most up-to-date information on all the GR paths and the best via ferrata courses, while local tourist offices often produce detailed maps of walks in their own areas.
The origins of the sleepy little spa town of Lons-le-Saunier date back to Roman times, although most of the town was destroyed by a fire in the early seventeenth century, and much of the old town you see today dates mainly from the 1700s. Lons was once a major, and very prosperous, centre for winemaking and salt production, and the legacy of this era can still be seen in the grand townhouses and public buildings. These days it’s a rather quiet place, but there’s a handful of sights worth spending a lazy afternoon looking over. A good day to visit is Thursday, as that’s when people from all over roll into town for the enormous market.
The ideal place to start your tour of the town is the sunny place de la Liberté, where the theatre clock at the eastern end chimes a familiar half-dozen notes from La Marseillaise to honour Lons’ most famous citizen, Rouget de Lisle; he composed the anthem during his time as a campaigner in the French revolutionary army during the early 1790s.
If you drive east for 20km along the N78 road from Lons, you’ll enter the Région des Lacs, an area of woods, pastures and lakes strung out along the valley of the River Ain. During the journey, the road begins its ascent to the peaks and gorges that define the border with Switzerland. With each bend in the climbing road, the views down to the tiny villages become all the more impressive. Some of the lakes charge parking fees during the day, but after 6pm, when the crowds and swimming supervisors have gone home, they are deserted and serenely peaceful – the perfect place for an evening picnic at sunset.
Winding its way over mountain passes and secluded valleys all the way from Thonon-les-Bains to Menton on the Mediterranean coast is the most renowned tourist route of the French Alps, the 684km Route des Grandes Alpes. The route crosses six Alpine passes over 2000m, three of which – the Col de la Cayolle, the Col de l’Izoard and the Col de Vars – were only paved in 1934. The complete route opened in 1937 and has been a popular touring route for drivers, walkers and cyclists ever since. It can be covered in a couple of days by car, but only by rushing through the stunning mountain landscapes and intriguing settlements (including Morzine, Valloire, Briançon and Barcelonnette) that line the route.
With their long and varied runs, extensive lift networks, and superb après-ski, the French Alps offer some of the best skiing not just in Europe, but in the world. Skiing first became a recreational sport here in the early 1900s but the industry really began to boom in the Alps during the 1960s with the construction of dozens of high-altitude, purpose-built resorts that ensured good lasting snow cover. Some of these resorts have their detractors: the modern architects often created sprawling concrete settlements that had little in common with the traditional farming villages lower in the valleys, and in so doing they earned France a lasting reputation for “ski factories”. Nonetheless, few can knock the efficiency of these resorts. They have an abundance of hotels, equipment outlets and ski schools, while at many you can simply clip your skis on at the hotel door and be skiing on some of the most challenging pistes on earth within minutes.
Although downhill is the most common form of the sport at all the resorts, cross-country or nordic skiing has become increasingly popular on gentler slopes (particularly around Morzine and in the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras), while there are also several famous routes for ski touring (a form of cross-country skiing with uphill sections and across much longer distances), not least the Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt (Switzerland) and the Grande Traversée des Alps, which leads south from Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva through several national parks. There are also plenty of opportunities for snowboarding with many resorts having developed snow parks expressly for snowboarders.
The ski season runs from December to late April, with high season over Christmas and New Year, February half-term and (to a lesser extent) Easter.
Unquestionably, the Savoie region offers some of the world’s greatest skiing. To begin with, there’s Les Trois Vallées, one of the world’s largest linked skiing areas, with endless off-piste possibilities. Its four component resorts are glitzy Courchevel, which also has by far the finest restaurants of any French ski resort; ugly and family-oriented Les Menuires; Val Thorens, favoured by younger crowds and the snowboarding set; and Méribel, traditionally dominated by British tourists, and which therefore perhaps explains its status as the party capital of the Three Valleys. Despite the British imports, though, the small wooden chalets which climb the eastern side of the valley do manage to give the resort a traditional Savoyard feel. Less well known is the Paradiski ski area, on the slopes above Bourg-St-Maurice, which comprises the resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne, linked together by a giant double-decker téléphérique that swings over the Ponthurin valley. The former is accessible from the town via a funicular railway, and offers excellent snow and terrain for all levels, while La Plagne is made up of ten resorts high above the Isère valley, with plenty of opportunities for both beginners and more advanced skiers. Beyond here, the world-famous resort of Val d’Isère, site of the 1992 Olympic downhill, offers some of the most varied and demanding skiing in the country, including year-round skiing on its glacier.
The Massif de la Vanoise, a rugged set of mountains east of Chambéry, rises to heights of over 3500m, and offers challenging routes for skiers, particularly along the steep slopes of the Isère valley. The glacier-capped southeast quadrant of the Vanoise forms the Parc National de la Vanoise, where hikers will find some of the most spectacular GR trails in France. The easiest road access to the Massif is from Chambéry or Grenoble, although driving the winding and precipitous old highways from Annecy or Chamonix is an adventure in itself.
The A43 from Chambéry cuts between the Massif des Bauges to the north and the Vanoise to the south, following the path of the lower Isère River as it flows down from Albertville. Following the river by road from here involves a 180km journey south, north and south again back to its source high in the mountains near the Col de l’Iseran (2770m), close to the Italian frontier. From Albertville, the N90 climbs southeast along the bends of the Isère River for 50km to Moûtiers, the turn-off for the massive Les Trois Vallées ski region. At Moûtiers, the river course swings northeast and following it will lead you to Bourg-St-Maurice, the town at the midpoint of the upper Isère valley. At Séez, a couple of kilometres further east, the road comes to an important junction: the N90 continues to climb steeply towards the Col du Petit St-Bernard (2188m), while the D902 heads south towards Val d’Isère.
The Parc National de la Vanoise occupies the eastern end of the Vanoise Massif. It’s extremely popular, with over 500km of marked paths, including the GR5, GR55 and GTA (Grande Traversée des Alpes), and numerous refuges along the trails. For in-depth information on the various routes, head for the tourist offices in Val d’Isère, Bourg-St-Maurice and Méribel.
To cross the park, you can take the GR55 from the Lac de Tignes and over the Col de la Vanoise. You can then connect with the GR5, which brings you out at the southern end of the park in the town of Modane. There are countless shorter but equally beautiful walks in the park. Settlements in the Arc Valley, like Bessans, are decent bases to start exploring the park, but even the ski resorts of Tignes, Val d’Isère and Méribel are good starting points.
The citadelle in Briançon is just one example (albeit a spectacular one) of the many fortifications built on France’s eastern borders by Sébastien Le Preste de Vauban (1633–1707), a Marshal and engineer in the army of Louis XIV. In all, Vauban built 33 fortresses and strengthened countless others in order to defend the new lands won by Louis, the so-called “Sun King”, during the wars of the seventeenth century. Vauban was highly innovative in the design of his fortresses, which were often built in the shape of a star so that the various defensive bastions could defend each other with covering fire. The other spectacular fortifications planned and constructed by him in the Alps and Franche-Comté are the citadelles at Besançon and Mont-Dauphin. Twelve of Vauban’s fortresses, dotted around France, are now included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.