This popular town in an Alpine setting is sometimes known as the Venice of the Mountains due to picture postcard canals that criss-cross the old town. The banks of the Thiou Canal and lakeside parks are a delight to stroll, and many visitors head for the medieval arcaded streets of boutiques and restaurants. Picturesque Palais de l’Isle on an island in the Canal is a must to visit and photograph. Even Annecy’s town hall was once a medieval castle. Look for the Cathedral of Saint-Francois de Sales, and the distinctive twelfth century Queens Tower of Musee Chateau, home to modern art exhibitions, regional art and artefacts, natural history and geology. You’ll find lots to do in Annecy all year including open-air markets 3 mornings a week, the annual animated film festival in June, boat trips on Lake Annecy and a huge firework display over the lake in August. Geneva in Switzerland is only 25 minutes away by motorway, and Annecy is a great base for winter and summer mountain activities and hiking. If time allows visit lakeside beaches at Svrier, Saint-Jorioz and Duingt and make a detour to the nearby breathtaking Gorges du Fier (see Geography and Natural Beauty).
Even non-winter sports enthusiasts will have heard of this famous mountain town at the foot of Western Europe’s highest peak – Mont Blanc (4,807m).
Chamonix on the Italian border is the acknowledged capital of Alpine skiing and was the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Chamonix Tourist Office open Mon- Sat, tel: (00 33) 4 500 53 00 24 displays daily weather forecasts and is the source of a wealth of skiing information from ski schools to child-minding services. Learn about the influence of nineteenth century Romantic writers, plus traditions and diverse architecture of old Chamonix and surrounding mountain villages. Musee Alpin – open daily - gives a history of Chamonix including the conquest of Mont Blanc in 1786.
Non skiers and climbers can ascend to neighbouring summits by cable car or rack railway for awe-inspiring mountain views from places like Aiguille du Midi and Mer de Glace (see Activities). Play tennis, swim and relax in spa and health facilities at the local sports complex or enjoy a round of golf in summer. Chamonix makes an ideal centre for summer hiking in the clear mountain air amongst passes and pastures carpeted with colourful Alpine flowers. The town has restaurants serving traditional and gourmet food to please its cosmopolitan visitors and a wealth of shops; all in a sunny setting backed by stunning views of glaciers and snowfields. The Italian side of Mont Blanc, Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley, is just over 7 miles away through the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
Just across the Rhone Alps border lies the beautiful Swiss city of Geneva. It has a stunning lakeside setting complete with its famous 140m high jet d’eau fountain. In addition to its delightful old quarter, superb shops and clock museum, not to be missed is Cathedrale St Pierre where John Calvin preached. This cosmopolitan city is of course home to the International Red Cross and the annual Geneva Motor Show which takes place 3 – 13 March in 2011 being the 81st show.
With its Lac Leman (Geneva) setting, this elegant town is renowned for its mineral water and spa treatments. Admire Evian’s charming Belle Epoque architecture and stroll along waterfront gardens bright with flowers shaded by exotic Italian poplars and weeping sequoias. Evian is the main French port for sightseeing cruises around the lake (Lausanne is only 13km away by boat). Visit Pre Curieux water gardens by solar powered boat (see Activities) or enjoy the shops, restaurants and cultural centre of Palais Lumiere. Trips to Amphion where Evian’s famous mineral water is bottled can be booked at the town’s Tourist Office, tel: (00 33) 4 50 75 04 26. But tasting is free at the Cachat Springs on avenue des Sources behind the Art Nouveau offices of the Evian company. Visit Tuesday and Friday morning markets in place Allinges below the church.
The old region of Savoy has been a frontier territory since ancient times and currently borders Italy and Switzerland. Certainly the Romans and possibly Hannibal used these mountain routes. Haute Savoie’s many chateaux and forts are testimony to the frontier skirmishes of the Savoy dynasty - guardians of the Alpine passes until Piedmont joined Italy and the French speaking departments of Haute Savoie and Savoie were created in 1860. Some of the most special chateaux are around Lake Annecy. Visit Chateau de Menthon St-Bernard, the museums of twelfth century Chateau Annecy and the contemporary art galleries of Chateau d’Arenthon. Set in their favourite hunting grounds, Chateaux de Ripaille was once home to the dukes of Savoy and don’t miss dramatic Chateau d’Yvoire on Lac Leman, turreted Chateau de Thorens or the wonderful art works of Chateau de Montrottier set high above the Gorges du Fier. Pick up a Route Historique des Ducs de Savoie guide from local Tourist Offices for history and more.
The beautiful little village of Samoens deserves its classification as a Monument Historique and Ville Fleurie, popular with summer visitors and winter sports enthusiasts alike. Samoens was once the heart of a stonemasons’ community in the Upper Giffre Valley and their craft is evident everywhere including the main square, medieval fountain and sixteenth century Gothic Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. Limestone quarries in the area were originally worked by farmers. A Brotherhood of ‘frahans’ (stonemasons) set up in the mid seventeenth century coupled charity work with training and working on Vauban’s fortifications. They built canals for Napoleon and travelled as far as Eastern Europe and America. Societe des Macons in Samoens organises historical tours. Do take time to visit the amazing Jaysinia Garden containing Alpine flora from all over the world (see Activities). Contact the Tourist Office, tel: (00 33) 4 50 34 40 28, www.samoens.com for ski passes and information on hiking and mountain biking routes. Sports shops hiring ski equipment and bicycles are located in town.
One of the most northerly French Alpine resorts and popular with families, Morzine is essentially a market town at the head of the Dranse Valley. Set in an ideal position at the meeting of several lovely wooded valleys, Morzine grew into a tourist resort after WWI and is now in the Portes du Soleil domain. The 400 hectare domain covers French and Italian resorts where winter skiing and summer hiking and mountain biking are popular. Ski lifts to Avoriaz and Les Gets are used in July and August by hikers, bikers and paragliders. Wooded slopes allow skiing even in poor weather and Morzine’s outdoor Olympic size swimming pool is a magnet for summer visitors. Traditional chalets stretch either side of the Dranse river gorge and 2km to the east in the Prodains Valley you can see eighteenth century slate miners’ cottages. Morzine is one of the few remaining areas where slate (ardoise) is still mined by hand and made into everything from tiles to cheese platters. For guided tours on Friday mornings in winter and Tuesday and Friday in summer contact Franck Buet, tel: (00 33) 4 50 79 12 21 www.ardoise-morzine.com
This stylish Savoyard town at an altitude of 1,113m has been referred to as ‘the St Tropez of the Alps’. The Rothschild family moved its allegiance to Megeve from St Moritz in the 1920s and by the 1950s the village had developed into a popular ski resort for the rich and famous. (Incidentally, characters played by Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant met here at the beginning of the film ‘Charade’). Megeve’s ski area is part of the domain Evasion Mont-Blanc with 219 slopes of all levels covering 445km including some of the best in Europe.
See lovely restored buildings around the pedestrianised place de l’Eglise and enjoy a winter horse-drawn sleigh tour beginning at the thirteenth century church. Those in search of retail therapy will find the best in boutiques, bars and restaurants along quaint narrow streets.
Even without their magical cloak of snow the pine forests, foothills and mountain streams here create a stunning summer resort with wonderful views of Mont Blanc. Megeve is a great base for summer hiking and golf (see Activities) and an international polo tournament on snow is played here each January.