The crescent-shaped expanse of Lake Geneva (known as Lac Léman in France) is some 73km long, 14km wide and an impressive 310m deep; it has always been a natural border with Switzerland to the north. Even in summer, the lake is subject to violent storms, yet the experience of sailing across its waters on a calm day is delightful, and should not be missed. On the French side of the lake, the spa resort of Évian-les-Bains(of bottled water fame) and the picturesque village of Yvoire are the main sites of interest. Thonon-les-Bains, a larger town situated between these two landmarks, is the starting point of the renowned touring route, the Route des Grandes Alpes, and a gateway to the beautiful Chablais region to the south of the lake. North of the lake, close to the Swiss border, is the peaceful spa town of Divonne-les-Bains, and the green pastures of the Pays de Gex region, renowned for its blue cheese and scenic hiking and cycling routes.
The most well-known French spa resort on Lake Geneva, Évian maintains a clinical orderliness that wouldn’t be out of place on the opposite side of the water. Newly renovated, the Thermes Evian Spa offers all manner of treatments, but most people come here just to wallow in the warming, Evian-sourced thermal waters; the entrance fee includes access to the various pools, sauna, jacuzzi, hamam and fitness centre. Just beyond the spa, and elegantly laid out with squares of immaculately mown grass, perfectly clipped hedges and colourful flowerbeds, the waterfront strip is the town’s focal point. Its main promenade is fronted by a quartet of fine belle époque buildings, not least the grand, glazed brick and stone Palais Lumière, built as a pump-room in 1902 and adorned with gorgeous stained-glass windows and Art Nouveau frescoes – today it’s a cultural centre, hosting regular exhibitions. Next door is the town hall, the former summer residence of celebrated photographer Antoine Lumière, while a little further along is the prepossessing theatre building which has been functioning as such since 1885. Completing this showy line-up of buildings, and which no self-respecting spa resort would be without, is the casino (1912), topped by a “Neo-Byzantine” dome and elegant scalloped arcade.
Occupying a picture-postcard setting 25km to the west of Évian is the absurdly pretty medieval village of Yvoire, where narrow cobbled lanes lined with artisan shops and chunky stone-built houses slope down to the water’s edge, and every street corner seemingly abounds with colourful flowers. Although the village heaves with day-trippers – notably Japanese – in the summer months, you can still find some peace and quiet. Today the most visible reminder of Yvoire’s medieval past is the old castle along with the two stone gateways, both dating from the fourteenth century.