When many of us hear about mountains and winter we automatically think of needing to wrap up warm against the freezing cold. Skiing and snowboarding are fun of course but not everybody wants that much action. However there are more to mountain areas than snow sports. When it comes the French Alps there is a lot of history and culture to explore.
The Haute-Savoie (High Savoy) is the part of the French Savoy region with the highest mountains. It is also a very international area with borders to Switzerland and Italy. It is easy to ski, bike, drive or even fly over the borders to another country, depending on the weather and season.
You might know of Savoy as the famous hotel in London, and other places. But it was the hotel that was named after the region of the Royal House of Savoie that used to govern it. The area was not always French either as it was governed by Italian nobility as well. One could say the Savoy is a very noble part of France.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the important towns and areas in the French Alps that interesting because of their history and culture. If you think you might like to explore the region in the future, AlpineElements.co.uk is a good place to start looking for special holidays.
The city name even has noble in it so it’s not surprising to learn it was the historical capital for Dauphiné. It lies in the Isère Valley and is surrounded by tall mountains rising up to 3,000 meters. Some of
Grenoble’s beautiful buildings, like the Justice Palace, are older than 500 years from Early Renaissance architecture. If you are into art then you need to check out the Grenoble fine arts museum which has paintings by many old masters such a Goya and Rubens (of Rubenesque fame) as well as some more modern ones like Renoir and Modigliani.
Sounds like Valley of Desire but there is no translation, however it is a good description. It is a favorite place for winter sports because of the vast area it covers with smooth daily groomed pistes. There is something for everyone with over 150 ski runs or all levels of difficulty plus special ski areas for children and beginners.
Val d’Isère village has lots of après-ski activities, entertainment and restaurants. Visitors go there in the summertime to experience the outdoors in peace and quiet. They also go hiking, horse riding, biking, and climbing.
This is famous spa town in the Alps by Lake Bourget. It’s a really healthy place to hang out. Visitors go there to soak up the minerals in the natural water springs. Even the Romans knew that they were on to a good thing with the water, as there are ruins of Roman baths, the Campanus Arch and a temple to Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting. Some of the Romans’ stones got reused to build the 16th century Marquis d’Aix’s Château. I guess whether that was recycling or devastating depends on your point of view. There is more for art lovers in the Docteur-Faure museum with impressive Rodin sculptures and Impressionist paintings, and faience (ancient glass coating) ceramics.
There are lots of modern spa facilities in Aix-les-Bains where you can go for some pampering with saunas, steam rooms, spa baths and massage areas. Think of them as heavenly treatments for your heavenly body.
I think almost everyone has heard of Evian water so guess where it comes from? Evian-les-Bains! This is another very famous spa town with a rich history, literally, with many nobles having had residences there over the centuries. It is still a popular spa resort with people coming to soak up its waters’ healing powers. It’s also very pretty sitting on the southern shores of Lake Geneva.
Palais Lumière was a spa built early in the 20th century but now plays host to art expositions rather than naked bodies. Every summer there is a comedy theatre festival in the Antoine Riboud Theater which was built in the late 1800s.
Cirque du Fer-à-Ch
The Fer-à-Cheval Circus is actually natural geological formation in the shape of a half circle, carved out by ancient glaciers on the move. The scenery is stunning regardless of time of year with snowy mountains, scented pine forest and streams with tumbling waterfalls to explore. This beautiful area has plentiful tracks for scenic walks and hiking. Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval village is renowned as one of France’s most beautiful villages and that is saying something because France is full of beautiful villages. The buildings have traditional alpine architectural features with high-pitched roofs to stop the snow piling up. An ancient 12th century abbey is worth exploring as is the 13th century church.
Back up in the higher altitudes again you will discover another of France’s famous ski areas called Megève. In winter you can is ski, snowboard or try cross-country skiing, to your heart’s content.
The medieval village itself was founded in the 14th century and retains its mountain village charm with narrow streets and cobblestone. However it has a modern vibrant lively atmosphere with its energetic winter crowd who demand après ski entertainment. This is a good place to check out boutique shops and expensive restaurants.
Chambéry has a rich cultural history stemming from the Dukes of Savoy when it was their capital from the 13th to 16th centuries. The old castle of the Dukes of Savoy still dominates the town. What started as a walled village now has Gothic style additions and stained glass windows, a Treasury Tower, state apartments, and the Flamboyant-style Saint-Dominique doorway.
Chambéry has a Notre-Dame church, a medieval cathedral, and a fine arts museum with an impressive masterpiece collection by Titian, Watteau, and Guérin.
Albertville is a relatively modern town by its neighbors’ standards, being founded in the 19th century. It is great base to explore surrounding ski areas such as La Clusaz, La Plagne and Les Trois Vallées – all massive ski areas. If you don’t find somewhere interesting to ski in this area you might need to look for a new sport. There are hundreds of lifts, kilometers of piste and plenty of off piste slopes to test your metal.
Portes du Soleil Ski Areas
The Portes du Soleil ski area includes 12 different ski resorts with the more famous being Morzine, Saint- Avoriaz, and Les Gets. The area attracts visitors all year round to enjoy the high alpine environment and nature. It is also a place to enjoy the village atmosphere and delicious local foods like fondue and raclette.
This mountain town is famous for beautiful mountains that tower over both sides of the valley. One peak is Mont Blanc which is the highest in the European Alps at just over 4,800 metres. For that reason Mont Blanc has snow cover all year round. If you don’t like climbing snow and ice, one of the best ways to get up close and personal with Mont Blanc is take a cable car trip from Chamonix up to the summit of Aiguille du Midi. It sure is chilly up there at 3,842 meters but you can eyebell Mont Blanc’s chest, if not its head.
The area around Chamoix is pretty at any time of the year and many visitors go all year round to hike and bike the forest trails as well as climbing and mountaineering. If you don’t have so much activity in mind you can just chill out and enjoy the views and the fresh mountain air, not to mention great cafes and restaurants.
Plan a Culture Tour in the French Alps
So now you know that, even if all your friends are into cold white stuff, you needn’t feel left out in the French Alps. They can disappear on to the slopes for day and you will find plenty of this to do and see in the High Savoy area. However skiing is fun so check out a few reasons why should at least give skiing a try. And don’t miss out on all that pampering in the spa towns.