The deep valleys and soaring snow-covered peaks of the Alps border France, Switzerland and Italy in dramatic splendour, delighting walkers and climbers in summer and offering a challenge to skiers and snowboarders in the winter months.
Downhill skiing was established here towards the end of the 19th century by the English. Since then an increasing number of French and international skiers (and more recently snowboarders) have been attracted to the first-rate resorts. French resorts may not be as quite as picturesque as those in Switzerland and Austria but they are some of the most extensive and best. By European standards they are high, mostly between 6,562 and 9,843 feet (2,000m and 3,000m), and have reliable snow. The ski season runs from late November to April and is busiest during the Christmas and Easter holidays.
Climbers and hikers head for the Alps between July and September, when the weather is more predictable and the snow above 6,562 feet (2,000m) has melted. There are a number of national parks with round-the-park trails requiring one or two weeks walking. There are also longer trans-alpine routes, which should only be attempted by experienced walkers. Local tourist offices supply detailed maps of their area. The towns of Grenoble, Annecy and Chambéry are good bases for hiking. Climbers tend to head to the Chamonix-Mont Blanc area.
The beautiful university town of Grenoble, known in France as the 'Capital of the Alps', is situated on the Drac and Isère Rivers, and is surrounded by proud mountains, dramatic gorges and hidden valleys. The city's history goes back 2,000 years and visitors can still see the last remnants of the Roman wall which fortified the city in 286 AD. Grenoble is also known in modern history for its resistance efforts during World War II.
Today it is a prosperous, lively and cosmopolitan city, well-known for its industrial and scientific advances and a base for companies involved in the chemical, nuclear research and electronics industries. More obviously to visitors, it is home to 40,000 students, many international. There are some excellent walks among the mountains surrounding the city and there are ski slopes within easy driving distance; head to the Parc Naturel Regional du Vercors for stunning landscapes and outdoor activities. For many tourists Grenoble is simply a stopover before heading further into the Alps, but the city has plenty of attractions of its own. Before visiting, take a scenic ride on the distinctive egg-shaped suspended cable cars known as 'Les Bulles'. Grenoble also has some great little museums including the Archaeological Museum, the Musee de Grenoble and the Musee Dauphinois.
Aix-les-Bains is a popular and fashionable family holiday resort and spa town located on the eastern side of Lac du Bourget, the largest natural freshwater lake in France. Although the lake is icy cold, visitors can sail, fish, play golf and tennis, or picnic on the parkland at the water's edge. Taking a cruise on the lake for a few hours is a must.
The main town of Aix is two miles (3km) inland from the lake and has been built around its thermal springs. Many small hotels line the streets, and streams of holiday visitors take to the baths each day; in the evening, for a change of pace, they play the slot machines at the Aix-les-Bains casino or attend tea dances. The Musee Faure is a great art gallery boasting the second largest collection of Rodin's work in France, as well as art by Bonnard, Degas, Pissaro and Cezanne. The old Benedictine Abbey, Abbaye d'Hautecombe, is also definitely worth a visit: this gothic building is stunningly situated on the lake and can be reached either by boat or by driving along the lovely, winding road. The abbey houses some very significant tombs including that of the last king of Italy.
Situated 80 miles (129km) east of Lyon, the holiday destination of Annecy has a magical setting on the shore of Lake Annecy, at the foot of the French Alps. It has been called the 'Venice of the Alps' because of the web of canals that cut through the Annecy old town. Annecy is probably the best base for a holiday in the Haute-Savoie region because of its location, conveniently situated near many interesting towns and attractions.
Just six miles (10km) to its west is Gorges du Fier, a dramatic river gorge; a gangway takes visitors through a narrow gully that has been cut by a torrent of water over the eons. Emerging from this labyrinth, visitors are greeted by a huge expanse of boulders. The site is closed to the public between mid-October and mid-March. Visitors can also take a cruise on the ice-blue lake for which the town is famous. The area is great for hiking and one of the most popular (though not easy) hikes is on La Tournette mountain, which gives visitors astounding views of the lake and the Alps and boasts some picturesque waterfalls. The trail is well marked and the steepest rock scrambles have rails installed. La Tournette looms over the small town of Montmin, a pretty 30-minute drive from Annecy.
Evian-les-Bains, on the southern end of Lake Geneva, is famous for its mineral water, which has been bottled since the early 18th century, when tests revealed that the water has astonishing curative qualities and it began to be used for medicinal purposes. Evian is a popular holiday spot with the French as well as foreign visitors, with the majority of travellers coming to this chic holiday resort principally to enjoy the creature comforts and spa facilities of the deluxe Evian-les-Bains hotels. The town has been a fashionable resort since the early 1800s, and much of its architecture comes from that century and the 1920s, making it an attractive city to stroll through.
Aside from the springs, there are many things to do in Evian-les-Bains, including golf, sailing, hiking, river rafting and rock climbing. The Lac Leman offers many activities and a visit to Evian-les-Bains is incomplete without a boating excursion of some kind to continue the liquid tradition of the place. One of the many attractions visitors can reach by boat is Les Jardins de L'eau du Pre Curieux where one can tour the gardens and water museum. The Casiono d'Evian, the largest themed casino in Europe, is also a big draw for some visitors.
Perched among the French Alps, Briançon is the highest town in Europe. The town is divided into the lower town, where the Durance and Guisane rivers meet and much of the modern amenities lie; and the walled and fortified upper town, which was built in the 17th century to defend the town from Austria and so contains the most interesting historical sights.
Briançon is a paradise for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Part of the massive Serre-Chevalier ski area, which also includes Saint-Chaffrey, La Salle le Alpes, and Monêtier les Bains, it enjoys up to 300 days of sunshine per year. But the town is a popular tourist area in summer as well, drawing visitors to see its citadelle, forts, and sundials, as well as to enjoy activities like hiking, kayaking and rock climbing. Briançon is also the site of one of the most thrilling stages of the Tour de France. Situated only six miles (10km) from the Italian border, Briançon has a distinctly Italian feel compared to other towns in Provence. There are a number of good pizzerias and some lively bars popular with tourists, but few French restaurants.
The small village of Talloires has fashioned a booming tourist industry from the very best in raw ingredients: medieval architecture, charming locals, and picturesque surroundings ripe with opportunity for both summer and winter sports. Lake Annecy is filled with holidaymakers swimming, sailing and waterskiing in the summer and land-based activities like golf, hiking, paragliding, horseback riding and tennis are also popular. In the winter, Talloires takes advantage of its location near several popular French ski resorts, including Megève, Espace Diamant, and La Clusaz.
The area of Talloires has been settled since Neolithic times and the village has a rich history and a number of old buildings. The abbey dates back to 1016, although the current structure was built in 1681. Tufts University has its European Center in the 11th-century structure that was once the Benedictine priory in Talloires. For those more interested in historical sightseeing than outdoor activities strolling the streets of the town is rewarding. And visitors should be sure to sample the delicious local cuisine as well, as the town has some top-notch restaurants.
The French Alps offer lots of sunshine, but cold weather from November to April when the ski season is in full swing. The resorts are generally high and the snow is excellent, although the weather is relatively mild in comparison to the North American resorts. The northern French Alps, which are exposed to westerly winds blowing in off the Atlantic, often receive a lot more snow in winter than areas further to the east, which have a drier and colder continental climate. In the summer months, the northern French Alps enjoy a warm, temperate climate, with fairly frequent summer storms that keep the region lush and green. The alpine spring is very beautiful with wild flowers blooming all over the mountain pastures. The southern part of the French Alps is generally dry but the highest areas do receive sufficient snow in winter to provide excellent skiing conditions. During the summer months the cool, sunny weather attracts hikers and climbers.
The French Alps are a year-round holiday destination. The skiing season runs from November to April and the slopes can get crowded over Christmas and Easter holidays. The best time to visit the French Alps for hiking is between July and September when the weather is sunny and predictable and the high snows have melted.
Aix-les-Bains and Evian-les-Bains are both very popular resort towns in the French Alps. Aix-les-Bains is a spa town, located on the banks of Lac du Bourget, loved for its thermal springs, and Evian-les-Bains, situated on the southern tip of Lake Geneva, is famous for its mineral water. Both are hotspots for healthy spa holidays and offer a variety of outdoor activities among other things. Annecy is also a popular lake-side village, often called 'the Venice of the Alps' in tribute to its picturesque canals. Annecy is a good base for hikers as there are so many spectacular trails in the Haute-Savoie region.
Another hikers' paradise is the mountain village of Briançon, the highest town in Europe, which boasts a lovely historical old town in addition to its natural splendours. Some of the ski resorts are also perfect bases for hikers and climbers in the summer months and two of the best for this purpose are Chamonix and Samoëns. Samoëns is one of the smaller French ski resorts and is a pretty medieval village which has been declared an historical monument.
Grenoble, the biggest city in the region, is also a good base for active excursions into the countryside as this beautiful city is surrounded by dramatic mountains and valleys. Grenoble is a vibrant university city which dates back over 2,000 years and offers great sightseeing options for tourists, including some interesting museums.
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