Located on the eastern shore of beautiful Lac du Bourget, Aix-les-Bains thermal waters were known to the Romans. The town was a popular spa resort by the eighteenth century and hotels still offer treatments. Roman remains include baths, a temple in the old town centre alongside the town hall and first century BC Arc de Campanus. The Art Deco Pellegrini Centre - one of 2 Thermes Nationaux spas – has a tiled blue and gold room created for the Aga Khan. In contrast, modern Thermes Chevalley has state-of-the-art facilities in an ultra-modern airy location on a hillside (see Activities).
Belle Epoque architecture and Art Deco hotels hark back to times when European high society including royalty came to take the waters. A statue of Queen Victoria honours several visits made by the widowed ‘countess of Balmoral’ on doctor’s orders.
Explore Aix’s cobbled lanes and unwind in the squares and public gardens of this European Floral Town. Tour the hot spring cave and don’t miss Musee Faure displaying work by nineteenth century artists including Rodin sculptures and Impressionist paintings. (Open daily except Tues).
Aix is France’s first inland port to be recognised for its exceptional facilities as a Station Nautique. Benefit from modern sailing facilities or take a cruise on Lake Bourget to Abbaye de Hautecombe - final resting place of Savoy kings. The plateau of Mont Revard above Aix is a playground of trails for cross-country skiing in winter, and walking and cycling in summer. The town also has a casino, watersports centre, pools and beach, 18-hole golf course and the only race track in Savoie.
Chambery was once the capital of the Savoie and of strategic military importance. Its thirteenth century streets are a delight to explore with Italianate mansions and covered passages. Above the old quarter stands thirteenth century Chateau de Chambery. Take a guided tour (details at Tourist Office) to learn more of Savoie’s complex history as an independent state in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with territories stretching from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, including parts of modern Italy. Spectacular Fontaine des Elephants on boulevard de la Colonne is also the town’s symbol. The huge fountain was erected in memory of Chambery’s eigthteenth century native son and benefactor, the Count of Boigne, who made his fortune in India. The Cathedral was the previous home of the Turin Shroud. It also has elephant motifs and an amazing trompe-l’oeil vaulted ceiling.
There are 2 museums – Fine Arts and Savoie – to visit plus, if in Chambery on a Saturday, the weekly market. In the winter, it is an important winter sports centre and, at any time of the year, try the local speciality – Savoie fondue made with local cheeses, white wine and kirsch.
Set on the River Arly where 4 Alpine valleys meet, the prosperous town of Albertville is best known for hosting the 1992 Winter Olympic Games. The town’s skating rink designed by Jacques Kalisz is an Olympic legacy. Savoy’s King Charles-Albert founded Albertville in the mid nineteenth century. The town thrived on commerce between France, Italy and Switzerland with local waterpower harnessed to support paper mills, tanneries and hydro-electricity.
Tourism arrived in the twentieth century. Albertville is a gateway town for the Parc Naturel Regional des Bauges and close to Beaufontain for winter skiing and summer hiking and cycling. Step back in time and visit the medieval village of Conflans high above Albertville on an old Roman road through the mountains from Milan to Vienna.
The Baroque church of Saint Grat dominates Conflans’ medieval architecture and flowers bloom in the main square where a fountain plays. Take refreshment in surrounding cafes and restaurants, or browse one time workshops now selling arts and crafts beneath ornately painted hanging signs.
Capital of the Maurienne region, St Jean-de-Maurienne is a charming historic city often bypassed by tourists keen to visit the ski resorts above. Backed by the Aiguilles d’Arves mountains, this ancient crossroad for travellers nestles close to the confluence of the Rivers Arc and Arvan en route to major passes between France and Italy.
St Jean’s traditional Saturday morning market is a lively affair and visitors in August can participate in the annual Bread Fair in place de la Cathedrale (see Events for more). The town’s fine Cathedral is said to house relics of John the Baptist, has roof trusses dating back to the eleventh century and tombs of members of the Savoy dynasty.
Couturier Pierre Balmain lived in St Jean as a boy and his parents ran a drapery business here in 1914. Interestingly, the old bishop’s palace, now the Tourist Office, displays a splendid collection of old and rare Alpine costumes, rich in colour, lace and embroidery.
A little museum housed in the former cutlery workshop of Joseph Opinel is also worth a visit. He began forging tools for locals in 1890. Today, his descendants sell products in 5 continents and his classic Opinel pocket knife is on show in New York’s Modern Art Museum and London’s V&A good design guide.
St Jean makes an attractive centre winter and summer for many mountain pursuits.
Faced with Europe’s sixteenth century Protestant revolution led by the ideas of Luther and Calvin, the Catholic Church in Savoy attempted to woo back converts with a programme of Baroque church decoration extending into the seventeenth century. This popular art form saw interiors bright with paint, filled with murals, gilded statues and cherubs. Outside, steeples and spiked onion tops were added.
Some of the most interesting examples with wonderful murals are in Haute Maurienne at Lanslebourg, Lanslevillard and Bessans. Notre Dame de l’Assomption at Valloire has one of the most sumptuous interiors whilst the squat exterior of Notre Dame-des-Vernettes in Peisey-Nancroix, Haute Tarantaise, hides major restoration. Find lovely period murals in a rare earlier Romanesque church in Aime. Ask at Tourist Offices for the Chemins du Baroque marked routes in Val d’Arly, Tarentaise, Maurienne and Beaufortain.