Monday, September 24, 2012

All About France, the Majestic French Alps

Like so many wonderful things in life, my husband and I discovered the French Alps by pure chance.  Situated in the far eastern region of France near the German and Swiss border, it provides the fastest route back to Frankfurt from Provence.  Little did we know, during the drive we would see some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in Europe.

From the Mediterranean to the Rhine, the Alps stretch along the southeastern flank of France, and the region is also noted for its stunning beauty, including many alpine lakes, the largest being Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), Lac d'Annecy and Lac de Bourget.  Although the skiing here is legendary and in my opinion some of the best in the world, what is less known are the breathtakingly idyllic towns and villages that are hidden in the midst of these majestic mountains and lakes. 
Without a doubt, Annecy is one of my favorite town in the regions as well as in France. Situated about a 1½ hours outside of Geneva, Annecy and the lake that surrounds it, Lac d'Annecy is as picturesque as they come. Once a Gallo-Roman town, the seat of the comtes de Genève, Annecy has one of the best views of lakes and mountains in the French Alps. Also, there’s a picturesque old town and a wonderful outdoor market on weekends, where you can taste and buy some of the local delicacies like saucisson sech and chevre.
Recommended Hotels:
Chamonix-Mont Blanc
With its 12 mile (19 km) Vallée Blanche run situated in Mont Blanc at 15,780 ft (4,810 meter), Chamonix is considered as the capital of Alpine skiing and is the highest mountain in western Europe.  As the site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924, Chamonix is in a valley almost at the junction of  three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland, and it’s one of the top European sports resorts, attracting an international crowd and thrill seekers from all over the world.

As an old-fashioned mountain town and a ski village, the majority of the activities are geared towards outdoor sports, and there isn’t a lot of selection when it comes to restaurants or entertainment.  If you’re skiing, it’s best to get there after lunch and get a half-day (4-hour) pass, as the runs are not as crowded and the après ski starts early.

The ancient capital of the Dauphine, Grenoble is the commercial, intellectual, and tourist center of the Alps.  It's a major stop for travelers, including those driving between the Riviera and Geneva.  Also, as a sports capital in winter (and host of the 1968 Winter Olympic Games) and summer, it attracts many foreign students, as its university has the largest summer-session program in Europe.

Lac Léman
Covering about 140 sq miles (362 sq km), crescent-shaped Lac Léman is the largest, and in my opinion, the loveliest lake in Western Europe.  My husband and I’d discovered it on our way from Provence to Frankfurt, and what a lovely surprise it turned out to be!  We’d stayed overnight in a little town of Thonon-les-Bains at Hotel le Duche de Savoie.  We’d arrived late at night and didn’t get to see much of the town that evening, but when we woke up the next morning, we were pleasantly surprised by the spectacular view outside our window. 

Lac Léman truly is a hidden gem, and we’ve gone back several times throughout the years exploring different cities and towns around it.  However, the BEST part of being there is observing and absorbing the breathtaking scenery.
My favorites in the area:
  • Evian-les-Bains – Although it's well-known for its bottled water, in France, the town of Evian-les-Bains is one of the leading spa resorts.  It’s a picturesque little town with its lakeside promenade lined with trees and lawns, and it is a more popular destination among tourists, especially during the summer.  This is one of my favorite area to bike as there are beautiful paths and vistas along the lake, and you can also take a boat trip around Lac Léman from Evian.  
  • Thonon-les-Bains – a modest little town with a charm of its own and friendly locals
  • Hotel le Duche de Savoie (Thonon-les-Bains) – a simple little hotel that is ideally situated by the lake and offers a fantastic view. 
  • the Chinese restaurant (Thonon-les-Bains) at the top of the hill overlooking the lake with an unforgettable view of Lac Leman
Among all the beautiful ski resorts and towns in Europe, Megeve is my absolutely favorite.  The village with its turreted houses around a 17th-century church, the scent of wood smoke  that permeates through the entire town, and the sounds of hooves clopping on cobblestones is straight out of a fairytale. 

From 11am to 6am, the center of the old village closes to traffic, except for pedestrians and sledges, and you can shop at your leisure, stopping everywhere from the cobbler to the antiques dealer to the many boutiques.  The picture-perfect charcuteries, fromageries and boulangeries sell some of the best delicatessen in France, and the shops offer a wonderful variety of traditional crafts.
My favorites in Megeve:
  • Hotel les Aravis – an absolutely charming hotel just on the outskirts of Megeve.  The location is superb as it's within a walking distance from one of the main lifts, ‘Princess’, which is the most convenient access to the mountain.  Also, the owner is absolutely friendly, and the rooms have an amazing view over the valley from which we enjoyed the sun rise and sun set every morning. 

  • Hotel Arboisie
  • Le Torrent – a great selection of fish dishes, especially memorable is the scallop appetizer ‘St Jacques’
  • Sur les Pres – a charming little hut on top of the ‘Alpette’ that served up the most incredible selection of meat dishes
  • le Yang Tse – a great Chinese restaurant in the outskirts of Sallanches
La Route des Grandes Alpes (The French Alps)
One of the most panoramic drives in western Europe stretches southward from the lakefront town of Evian to coastal Nice.  You'll see Alpine uplands, larch forests, glaciers, and the foothills of Mont Blanc. Plan on spending anywhere from 2 to 6 days for the drive, stopping in such towns as Morzine, Avoriaz, Chamonix, and Megève. The route covers some 460 miles and crosses about 20 of France's dramatic mountain passes.


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