Savoie Mont Blanc in France is famous for its winter sports but it’s worth checking out all year
FOR winter skiing in Haute Savoie, it always pays to put in a little training. Off-season trips, it turns out, require some preparation too: increase wine consumption in the weeks preceding; swap to elasticated trousers to allow for a cheese belly; say “oui” to any food offered.
No wonder the British like it so much. Of the 22.3m visitors that visit Haute Savoie – the small nook of France bordering Switzerland across Lake Leman to the North, Savoie in the south and Italy to the East – from June to September, the UK makes up the second highest number.
I decided to see what the fuss was about, ditching my usual winter salopettes and ski goggles for a laid-back tour of the area, forgetting about fitness and focusing on my stomach instead.
Setting out from Aix-les-Bains, I took a lazy (of course) river cruise on a ferry to the romantic Abbaye Hautecombe, resting place of the Dukes of Savoy and now a Roman Catholic retreat. Italy’s last king, Umberto II, is buried here too. But all talk of Italians was wiped from my mind when I spotted my transport for the local vineyard tour: a little Citroen 2CV – as French as the Eiffel Tower.
Corny? Yes. Uncomfortable? Just a bit. But with its roll back roof and dashboard gear knob, the 2CV’s so cute and retro it was hard not to grin. Soon I was bouncing along mountain roads in the “tin snail”, taking in the vineyards of Jongieux.
At Aimavigne, the vines of a small family outfit, Domaine Dupasquier, run in neat lines up the steep slopes of the hill that rolls down the other side to Lake Bourget. The vineyards are so steep that there is no mechanisation here and the harvesting is done by an army of seasonal grape pickers. Luckily, the hardest work I had to do was lifting my elbow to enjoy a tipple in the cellar – washed down with a tangy Savoie cheese.
My drive back took me to the shores of Lake Bourget, the biggest natural lake in France, where I had booked a table on the wonderfully named Bateau Ivre (the Drunken Boat). Despite the flippant title, it’s a restaurant and hotel that takes itself seriously, with two Michelin stars and an incredible view of the lake from its open-plan dining room.
With around 30 species of fish in the lake, there were plenty of varieties on offer and I opted for a delicious lake fish called lavaret. But as you’d expect from a Michelin starred restaurant – and there are 22 in the area to keep chefs on their toes – this one hadn’t just been fried in a pan. Chef Jean-Paul Jacob’s vichyssoisecream and smoked lavaret was made up of delicate tubes of creamy lavaret mousse, cold smoked lavaret (pink and translucent, like fine sushi), hot smoked lavaret (flaky, like trout) and discs of ratte potato topped with creamy leeks, all floating in an aromatic cream soup.
After lunch, I struggled into a wetsuit for a reviving canoe tour of Lake Bourget. Paddling on the shining waters, soaking up the sun next to dramatic limestone cliffs, was just enough to help digest my dinner, and build up a little more appetite for my next meal...
The following day I took a guided tour around Chambéry, the capital of Savoie. The closest I had ever been previously was to its airport, a gateway to the Alps in winter. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the place. Beautiful as it is, it seems to have missed out on the more significant fame it might have had.
Chambery Castle – now home to the council offices but still open for tourist visits – has a chapel which used to house the “Holy Shroud”, brought to Europe at the time of the Crusades and entrusted to the Savoy in 1452. But in 1578 it was moved to Turin, where it became the “Turin Shroud” and the Italians stole all the glory.
Heading back towards Geneva, we opted for more wine tasting at the Chateau Ripaille vineyard at Thonon-les-Bains. The picturesque vineyards surround Ripaille Castle, which was a place for spiritual retreats for the Duke of Savoy in the Middle Ages and a monastery during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The chateau was destroyed during the French Revolution and then restored in 1892. Around the castle, there is a large vineyard producing a white wine named “Château de Ripaille”. This AOC white wine comes from the Chasselas grape variety and we sampled the latest vintage – straight from the barrel as the monks had done centuries ago.
But the drink that really had me saying “amen” was in Evian. The spa town of bottled water fame has a fountain in its centre perfect for thirsty cyclists. I queued up to taste the mountain-fresh water, surrounded by others filling their flasks and giant bottles.
Thirst quenched, I made a final stop on Lac Leman at the pretty little town of Yvoire. A 14th-century chateau, the d’Yvoire family home since 1655, rises directly from the lake. In 1986, Yves and Anne-Monique d’Yvoire created their Garden of the Five Senses, which now attracts 600,000 visitors annually. Enclosed by medieval walls, the gardens are linked by a labyrinth of hedges. The Garden of Sound gurgles with cascades. The Garden of Scents is heady with fragrance. There is the Garden of Colour; the Garden of Touch; the Garden of Taste, where every plant is edible.
A final supper has to be spent dining lakeside beneath the trailing vines and hanging lamps on the wooden deck of the Hotel les Cygnes, with a glorious view of the sunset over Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). Wealthy tuxedo-clad guests arrived for dinner in flash speedboats from Geneva and parked their vessels alongside the restaurant’s jetty 007 style.
It’s the perfect way to end a break to Haute Savoie, where eating and drinking feels like a vocation; judging by my waist-line, I did a fine job.
EIGHT THINGS ABOUT HAUTE SAVOIE
1 It was the original resting place of the Turin Shroud – then called the Holy Shroud, thought by some to be the cloth used to wrap the body of Christ. Some think it could hold traces of the hold DNA, although this doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.
2 It is home to a total of nine nature reserves, including the 9,200 hectares Sixt-Passy National Nature Reserve. When the snow melts, a woodland stroll is a great way to spot some of the area’s wildlife.
3 It’s the home of fondue, which leads to the age old conflict between the Swiss and French: who invented the melted cheese meal? One place to sample the dish is Bistrot Savoyard in Megeve, where you can dine on artery-clogging cheese to your heart’s content.
4 It is home to Evian, the source of the famous bottled water. Head to one of the local springs to top up your canteen and save yourself the exorbitant price you’ll have to pay at the airport.
5 A boat tour of lac d'Annecy is a great way to spend a couple of hours. Or if you are after a way to burn off all that cheese, you can hire a bike and cycle round the paths surrounding it, which are dedicated for cyclists.
6 Bar Robinson – AKA The Smokey – is known as one of the best bars in the region. The Morzine drinking hole has a great selection of beers and a warm, inviting atmosphere. Perfect for long evenings watching the sun set.
7 The Le Brevent Cable Car in Chamonix will take you to a cool 2,525m, from where you can survey the stunning green and blue landscape of forrests and lakes, before the snow turns everything white.
8 Lac Blanc is one of the best places to get stunning views of its larger cousin, Mont Blanc. A brisk hike will open up your lungs and the pictures you’ll be able to take from the top will be from the very top drawer.
NEED TO KNOW
HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines fly to Lyon and Geneva direct from the UK.
WHERE TO STAY
Three-star hotel Aquakub
Three star hotel Le Littoral
WHAT TO DO
Cycling in Annecy:
Cruising on Lake Bourget:
Kayaking on Lake Bourget:
or :+33 6 72 76 90 31
2CV in the Savoie Vineyard:
Tours à la carte in the vineyards
Wine tasting in Jongieux:
+33 479 44 02 23
Wine tasting at the Château de Ripaille:
Guided visit of Chambéry
Contact tourist office:
Visit to Hautecombe Abbey on the shore of Lake Bourget:
Community of CheminNeuf
Guided tour of Evian:
Trip to Yvoire
Jardin des 5 Sens:
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Après La Plage
Tel. +33 4 50 51 46 64
Aix les Bains
Restaurant Le Kubix at the Aquakub Hotel
Restaurant La Maison des Pêcheurs on the shore
of Lake Bourget
+33 4 79 34 04 04
Le Bourget du Lac
Michelin star Restaurant le
Restaurant in the vineyard of
Evian les Bains
Hotel restaurant Les Cygnes
Restaurant Le Pré de La Cure