French Alps

Overview

Introduction

Located in the southeast, France's beautiful Alps nudge the mountains of Switzerland and Italy. Though best known as a winter sports mecca dotted with ski stations and picturesque towns, the area holds plenty of allure in summer as well.

The site of the 1968 Winter Olympics, Grenoble is an absolutely beautiful city and a fun place just to stroll and relax. Grenoble is about 65 mi/105 km southeast of Lyon and about 60 mi/100 km south of Geneva, Switzerland, and the winter skiing is excellent.

Be sure to take the cable car up to the Fort de la Bastille for the view, visit Bayard's Tomb in the St. Andre church, see the law courts (marvelous woodwork) and tour the distinguished modern-art collection at the painting and sculpture museum. Festivals include the three-week-long "Cabaret Frappe," which has singing, dancing and other concerts beginning in late July. The concerts and animations are free during the day and require paid tickets in the evening.

On a day trip southeast of Grenoble, take a walking tour of Briancon (about 35 mi/60 km away), the highest town in the European Union. (Switzerland has higher towns, naturally, but it's not a member of the EU.) Briancon has a variety of interesting architecture and fortifications.

Heading north of Grenoble takes you through a series of pleasant mountain towns, beginning with Chambery, a 16th-century town that was home to writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He lived at Les Charmettes, the country house of his mistress, Madame de Warens, which stands on the outskirts of town. Also visit the fine-arts museum and the Chateau of the Dukes of Savoy, which in the 16th century was the home of the Shroud of Turin.

Next comes Annecy, which is about 20 mi/30 km north of Chambery. Set on a lovely lake, Annecy is a high-mountain summer resort offering tennis, golf and hiking. In summer, the grassy promenades on the western flanks of the lake fill with sunbathers and their umbrellas. Water enthusiasts can enjoy sailing, swimming and even scuba diving in what is considered one of Europe's cleanest lakes.

In a valley amid towering mountains east of Annecy, about 30 mi/50 km and very near the border with Switzerland, you'll find the town of Chamonix. It's a ski town in winter and often used as a base for hikers, climbers and those wanting to see Europe's tallest peak, Mont Blanc.

To see Mont Blanc, take a cable car up into the Alps to a point called Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the South), which is at an altitude of 12,500 ft/3,810 m. From there, the view of Mont Blanc (15,800 ft/4,816 m) and the surrounding peaks is spectacular. Allow plenty of time for this excursion—in midsummer, the wait for the cable car can be from one to four hours. Back down in the village, those interested in the history of mountaineering will want to visit the Musee Alpin.

An alternative for a breathtaking view of the Alps is the cable car to Mont d'Arbois at nearby St. Gervais. The cable car, which operates as a ski lift in winter, takes tourists to the top in summer, with no waiting in line. Yet another excursion is to La Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), an enormous glacier. You can get to La Mer de Glace by a petit train that departs from Montenvers. The train can be quite crowded in the summer, so plan to arrive early.

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