At 4,810m, Mont Blanc is Europe’s highest mountain. Chamonix is the mountaineers’ favoured starting point. Of the various routes to the summit, the most popular is the Gouter Route; in fact, it is so popular that you must pre-book overnight hut accommodation. Less popular is the Cosmiques Route due to its extremely steep terrain in parts. However, climbers can enjoy the spectacular scenery away from the crowds.
Non-climbers can ascend 3,842m to the Aiguille du Midi by cable car to enjoy the wonderful views (see Activities).
The Chamonix area is a haven for winter sports whilst, in the summer, you can hike, ride or raft.
The Romans called Lake Geneva Lacus Lemanus and the French reverted to their version of this – Lac Leman - in the eighteenth century. At 70km and only 14km wide, this largest freshwater lake in Western Europe is fed in the north by the River Rhone starting its journey from the Rhone Glacier. It empties near Geneva as the Rhone continues south forming the western boundary of Haute Savoie. Lac Leman (Geneva) is part of the French-Swiss frontier. Deep blue waters set between the Northern Alps and Jura Mountains reflect a panorama of vineyards and pretty villages on the lake’s northern Swiss shore. Lovely promenades and beaches of spa and sailing resorts like Evian-les-Bains and Thonon-les Bains backed by mountains draw visitors to its southern French shores. Take a cruise across to Switzerland from Evian or row and swim in summer. All watersports are popular, especially sailing, although the lake is sometimes rough due to high winds and fluctuating water levels.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century writers and poets like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was born in Geneva, and Lord Byron were seduced by Lac Leman’s charms featuring it in their writing.
A plaque in Nernier near the medieval village of Yvoire records Mary Shelley wrote part of her novel ‘Frankenstein’ while on holiday beside the lake in 1816.
Known to be one of the purest lakes in Europe thanks to environmental measures taken over 40 years ago, Lake Annecy is part of the breathtaking scenery of this south western corner of Haute-Savoie. The clear water, so perfect for summer swimming, angling and all manner of water-based sports, mirrors colours of the changing seasons of the surrounding mountain peaks. Take a water bus or cruise to see lakeside scenery backed by mountains. Companies like Compagnie des Bateaux, Annecy, or Bateaux Dupraz offer trips. Boat-hire ranges from pedalos to speed boats. Eat and relax in a floating restaurant. Ask at Annecy Tourist Office – tel: (00 33) 4 50 60 76 59 - about free access to the nature reserves of Roc de Chere and Bout du Lac for more on Lake Annecy’s fauna and flora. You may be lucky and see a beaver.
Picturesque rural villages worth visiting on the sunny eastern shore are Veyrier-du-Lac, Menthon-St-Bernard, Bluffy (a great hiking centre) and Talloires known for its gourmet restaurants.
The Lake’s western shore forms the gateway to the Bauges Mountains and Regional Natural Park. Holidaymakers can follow a 35km cycle track along the lake to enjoy panoramic views. Family hikers and bikers can also use the old Annecy-Albertville railway track to visit beaches at Sevrier, Saint-Jorioz and Duingt.
The narrow gorges of the River Fier 10km west of Annecy provide an unforgettable experience for all the family. Take a thrilling 256m journey along the suspended walkway fixed to a rock face 25m above the fast flowing Fier as it swirls and tumbles through the canyon en route to the River Rhone. Views are spectacular. Open each day mid Mar – mid Oct. Tel: (00 33) 4 50 46 23 07 and see www.gorgesdufier.com for photos.
This ‘stone glacier’is part of the Natural Reserve of Sixt Fer-a-Cheval which covers 9,200 hectares. Nestling between Mont Blanc and Haute-Giffre the Plate Desert was an ocean bed dozens of millions of years ago. Pushed up to 2000m during the formation of the Alps and covered by glaciers, the landscape has eroded into a rock plateau sculpted by water into a huge calcareous amphitheatre with endless crevasses scored by tiny streams. Climb 2,480m by cable car to the summit of Les Grandes Platieres to view this vast screed of rock carpeting the mountainside. Now a home for ibex and habitat for stretches of grass and wild geraniums alongside traces of fossils, this geological phenomenon provides a wonderful experience for all the senses.
At heights of 500 to 700m and stretching for 4 to 5km Cirque du Fer-a-Cheval is said to be the largest amphitheatre in the Alps and has been likened to Garvarnie in the Pyrenees. In spring, melt waters cascade down the steep limestone cliffs at the eastern end of the Giffre Valley in over 30 waterfalls reducing to 12 in high summer. The highest waterfall, La Cascade du Rouget, spouts from 2 sources 90m high and is a favourite venue for ice climbing in winter. The nearest village, Sixt, has a Tourist Office (open Mon – Sat, tel: (00 33) 4 50 34 49 36 www.sixtferacheval.com) and can provide useful information on local walks.