From the northern Alps to the westerly outreaches of the Massif Central, and as far as the foothills of the Jura mountains, the region enjoys extraordinarily diverse mountain landscapes. Dominated by Mont Blanc, this “world up high”, as it was known in antiquity, is home to peaks, passes, valleys and alpine pastures, from Chablais to Beaufortain, from La Tarentaise to Belledonne, and from La Maurienne to Oisans. These sentinels shaped by time and by the elements, megaliths of stone and ice, from the Aiguille du Midi to La Meije, beckon people to attempt the most ambitious conquests, up high and close to the sun in the everlasting snow.
Cities at the gates of the Alps
Grenoble lies at the heart of the Alps, a unique destination. Here you can succumb to the pleasure of strolling between mountainscape and city space. As you wander aimlessly from street to street, through squares and gardens, the city’s townhouses and street art frescoes will surprise you at every turn. Its museums will beckon you in. Climb to La Bastille in a gondola lift, on foot or by bike, taking time out to enjoy a drink on a terrace or to sample Dauphinois cuisine, which is making a comeback in many of the city’s restaurants.www.grenoble-tourisme.com
An air of mystery and a delight to discover! Treat yourself to a stroll through the “traboules” of an ancient and colourful town centre, which basks in the close bond it shares with neighbouring Italy. For six centuries, Chambéry and Savoie, Turin and the Piedmont all fell under the authority of the House of Savoy.
As a visitor here, you will come across Turin-style porticos and Italian trompe-l’oeil features, as well as Place des Eléphants, the town’s symbol, built in homage to General de Boigne who, having returned with glory and fortune from the East Indies, was a benefactor for Chambéry. The Musée des Beaux-Arts boasts a prestigious collection of Italian paintings from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
You may also wish to make time for the Maison des Charmettes, a country manor where Rousseau stayed with Madame de Warens.www.chambery-tourisme.com
Annecy is internationally renowned for the beauty of its harmonious landscape as well as the quality of the water in its lake which, thanks to conservation efforts spanning more than 50 years, is now Europe’s purest lake. Against this backdrop, outdoors enthusiasts can make the most of a wide range of year-round sports activities on the lake, in the air and in the surrounding mountains. If it’s culture and heritage you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. The area has a rich and attractive history, and the agglomeration of Annecy has been awarded the much sought-after “Art and History” label. The pure, clear waters of the lake flow into flower-lined canals that run through the old town (historic centre of Annecy), making it delightfully picturesque and earning it a description as the Venice of the Alps.www.lac-annecy.com
The great Alpine lakes
Lake Annecy is among the region’s most popular destinations and is now considered to be one of Europe’s purest lakes. The town of Annecy, the “Little Venice of Alps”, is home to many picturesque canals. At the water’s edge, the old town reveals its narrow streets and arched houses set against the backdrop of the Alps. Visitors can enjoy a cruise over lunch or while soaking up some evening entertainment.www.lac-annecy.com
Lake Bourget, France’s largest and deepest natural lake, was the inspiration behind Lamartine’s famous poem “Le Lac”, drawing prestigious visitors like Queen Victoria, who stayed at the spa resort of Aix-les-Bains. Today’s visitors continue to appreciate the calming and healing virtues of the thermal springs, as well as the activities available on the lake, which include boating, swimming and fishing.www.aixlesbains-rivieradesalpes.com
Lake Léman, known worldwide as Lake Geneva, forms a natural border with Switzerland. On the French side, the spa resorts of Thonon and Evian-les-Bains, and fishing villages like Yvoire, dotted along its shores, give the area the feel of an Alpine Riviera.
Located at the foot of Mont Blanc, Chamonix is the favoured destination of Alpine climbers and other mountain sports enthusiasts. This lively town is also the gateway to unmissable sights like the Mer de Glace, a glacier which can be accessed via the small Montenvers rack railway, or the Aiguille du Midi and Brévant gondola lifts, which climb to the region’s two highest peaks. On the Aiguille du Midi terrace, at an altitude of 3842 m, the “step into the void”, Europe’s highest tourist attraction, offers visitors a unique experience: standing above a drop of more than 1000 m with panoramic views over the highest summits in Western Europe.www.chamonix.com
Le Tour du Mont-Blanc
10 days, moving between France, Switzerland and Italy, stretching 170 km with 10,000 m vertical gain and around 60 hours’ walking: the Tour du Mont Blanc GR® trail starts in the village of Les Houches, on the outskirts of Chamonix, and takes you on a 170 km loop that is accessible to any walker accustomed to hiking across varied ground and carrying a heavy backpack.www.autourdumontblanc.com
Alpine climbing could find no better home than at the foot of Western Europe’s highest summit. Dominated by Mont Blanc and its dizzying belt of rocky behemoths, Chamonix has become the world capital for a discipline largely made popular in the Alps, where sheer faces, icefalls and summits to be conquered abound. From the Aiguille du Midi to Pic de la Meije, these high-altitude mountains forever entice visitors to complete the most striking ascents in the footsteps of legends like Balmat, Herzog, Lachenal and Desmaison.
La Grande Traversée des Alpes
The Grande Traversée des Alpes, via the GR® 5, travelling on foot from Lac Léman to the Mediterranean, is one of the world’s most beautiful hiking trails. From the lush green shores of the lake to snow-capped summits, and from the Savoie Alpine pastures to the perched villages of the Alpes Maritimes, this 620 km trail is ideal for exploring the variety of the Alpine landscape. 3 to 4 weeks’ walking are needed to complete the full itinerary.www.grande-traversee-alpes.com
The Northern Alps – In winter
The northern Alps comprise the world’s largest ski area, and are seen as the ultimate benchmark with regard to winter sports, as attested to by the Winter Olympics that have been held three times here, in Chamonix (1924), Grenoble (1968) and Albertville (1992). For all styles, preferences and methods, the resorts of the Alps are the perfect place to head for whether you prefer your slopes gentle or you’re after an adrenaline rush. Some 160 resorts mean everyone can find the perfect winter sports destination. The interconnected ski areas, a French speciality that can be enjoyed without moderation, provide increasingly varied skiing options.
With a single ski pass, you can access hundreds of kilometres of pistes and discover diverse locations without having to go to the same place twice.
This is certainly the case for les Trois Vallées, the world’s largest skiing area, with 600 km of pistes open to skiers of all abilities, as well as les Portes du Soleil, Paradiski, and l’Espace Killy. Village resorts including Chamonix, Megève, le Grand-Bornand and la Clusaz are a draw for those looking for a bit of authenticity and some protected areas of countryside. And when it comes to lively and hip resorts, then Courchevel, Val Thorens, Tignes, La Plagne, Val d’Isère, Les Arcs, Alpe d’Huez and les Deux Alpes form a wonderful combination of adrenaline, partying and wide-open spaces. On the snow-covered flanks of the Alpine massifs, mountains now come à la carte! Skiing’s days of dominance are over, and every winter, new sports and pastimes are being enjoyed, including airboarding, snowscooting, snowshoeing and dog sledding, plus water-based activities, fine food and wellness, which these days form a happy part of people’s time here during winter.
Three regional nature parks and two national parks preserve the spaces, fauna and flora of the Alps