If nature is in your soul, the French Alps are your paradise, with unparalleled beauty everywhere you turn. That’s why, for hikers, skiers, climbers, paragliders, campers, and walkers, the French Alps are a top destination and Europe’s highest mountain chain. This is the case in summer as well as winter. If lovely villages with mountain charm are more your speed, there are plenty of those as well. Or bigger towns. Or thermal resorts.
The highest mountain in the French Alps, Le Mont Blanc, is near the French border before you cross into Switzerland. The mountain is covered in snow year-round and the town of Chamonix sits at its base. Come to Chamonix in summer to hike, climb, golf, and take in the stunning beauty at high altitude. Come in winter to ski at one of the world’s best-known ski resorts. (See my POST on French ski resorts.)
This is just one destination in the French Alps, but there are many others for every taste (mountain village, glitzy ski resort, pure nature in every direction…) More are listed below, including a driving circuit. Speaking of driving, you might think that with all those mountains, the distances might be too far, the roads too treacherous. There are some hairpin turns here and there, but generally, the roads are wide and safe. You can get from point A to B far faster than with the trains, whose rails have to circumnavigate all of those mountains.
You can start in Grenoble, a fast-paced large city encircled with mountains. (see my post.) From there, the towns get smaller. The circuit can be expanded from a week to two or even three, depending on your schedule. All around you are regional parks that showcase the magnificent mountain range, and outdoor activities (don’t forget the lakes!) are endless. Then there is the obvious pleasure of SKIING. Take the TGV fast train to Grenoble then rent a car after you’ve visited the town.
A mere 50-minute drive will take you from Grenoble to the town of Chambéry. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Chambéry was home to the Dukes of Savoy and an independent state. You can see their 14th-century château during your visit, although now it has administrative offices inside. It’s a vibrant, bigger town with a lively shopping scene but not lacking in mountain beauty. See the Elephant fountain in the Old town and the Chambéry Cathedral. My favorite thing to do is simply walk around the Old Town and enjoy a bistro and people-watching!
The next stop on your circuit will be Albertville, home of the 1992 winter Olympics. By car, it will take around 30 minutes. It’s an easy 45 minutes by train, with 10 departures per day. Albertville is a charming mid-sized town of around 19,000 inhabitants. During the Olympic games, the population of 17,000 at the time swelled to nearly 100,000! You can see vestiges of this event, and while you’re there, go visit the medieval village of Conflans (walking distance), with its Gothic gates and Old Town ambiance.
While in Albertville, be sure to eat some tartiflette (made with Reblochon cheese from this region) and cheese fondue and wash them down with some Apremont white wine, also from the area. (The town of Apremont is just south of Chambéry.)
Albertville is surrounded by several ski resorts and might be an ideal base to explore them. Just outside of town, a cable car will take you up Col de Tamié, where you have panoramic views.
At this point, you can take a side trip to Chamonix, if you have the time. By train, it takes a whopping 8.5 hours. There are 7 trains per day. But it’s only about 1.5 hours by car. The choice is yours! A short drive south of Chamonix is the village of Sixt Fer-a-Cheval, a collection of hamlets that encircle a natural reserve that includes a natural waterfall and a strange circular rock formation by the same name where you can hike.
After Albertville (or Chamonix), you head to Annecy, which you do not want to miss. Plan on 1 hour by car, 2 hours by train with 9 trains per day from Albertville. About an hour or so from Chamonix. Along with the gorgeous Lac d’Annecy, you’ll enjoy the picturesque medieval town crisscrossed with canals of the Thiou River. (See more in this POST on Annecy.)
Drive from Annecy for 30 minutes to arrive at Aix-les-Bains, an internationally-known spa resort. If massages, steam rooms, and saunas aren’t your thing, the stunning beauty of the region and Lake Bourget are therapy for your eyes and spirit. In addition to modern baths, you can see ruins of Roman baths and other ruins, and for contrast, upscale restaurants and hotels.
Return to Grenoble (one hour by car) or to Lyon (1 hour 20 minutes) to complete your circuit.
Of course, there are many detours you can take off of the central circuit, depending on your interest. There is a natural regional park between Albertville and Aix-les-Bains (Massif des Bauges), and another one to the south of Chambéry (Parc Regional des Chartreuses) and still another one south of Grenoble (Vercours.) In Vercours you’ll find gorges, valleys, and trails for hiking.
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Bon Appétit: Eating and Drinking your way Across France