THE FRENCH ALPS –
France is lucky when it comes to places to ski and snow board, with the main skiing fields being in the French Alps bordering on Switzerland and also Italy and also in the Pyrenées Mountains located on the southern borders with Andorra and Spain.
In summer as the snows melt away these same skiing slopes and mountain areas become a whole new world as plants come alive in an explosion of greenery with the fresh air, crystal clear mountain streams, pine, larch and other trees, alpine meadows, wild flowers, snow top mountains, lakes all adding to the feeling that you are in a very special part of the world. You may also see deer and other animals too fresh from the winter snows.
The highest mountain in Europe is Mont Blanc – which is 4809 Metres above sea level, higher than the Matterhorn in Switzerland at 4478 metres, but much lower than Mount Everest which is a massive 8848 metres above sea level. Mont Blanc (White Mountain) is the 11th highest mountain in the world, and while people do climb it and sometimes die too on the climb, most people will hopefully see it when the clouds lift from it. It is a truly awe inspiring sight.
The French Alps merge with the Italian and Swiss Alps and this whole mountain region of Europe is spectacular, so wherever you travel here, you will no doubt enjoy yourself and see amazing scenery.
In winter the mountains and valleys are covered by snow and ice, so if you travel here in winter by car you will need to carry snow chains and in France it is mandatory for drivers to carry a Reflective triangle and reflective safety jacket too. Bear in mind of course that if there is heavy snowfall overnight, your car could be buried under snow if left in the open.
The closest big cities to the French Alps are Geneva in Switzerland and Lyon in France, and there are also airports in Chambery and Grenoble too. From these airports, and also a number of train stations close to the Alps, it is possible to book in advance (7 days ahead) for an Altibus service that services airports, train and bus stations to take you to most if not all of the 85 Resorts that are located in the French Alps. See www.altibus.com – for a list of resorts and a map to show you where they can pick you up from. It is of course possible, subject to road conditions and weather to drive to many of the Resorts and villages here in the Alps, but then you will also pay for parking too which can be expensive. The altibus service also is set up for carrying luggage, skis and snowboards too. Many people will hire their skis and equipment to save on having to carry their own, but either way it is important to be prepared for the cold with the right clothing and ski boots. Being wet and miserable is not the way to enjoy being here.
If you intend to head to the French ski resorts, make sure you book early, as you will be competing with others for rooms and places to stay. There are around two million beds in the resorts, hotels, and chalets that are here – and they can quickly be booked too.
How do you choose the best place to stay? This really depends on your budget, the number of days you are looking to stay and factors such as if you are an experienced skier, advanced or novice, have a family, need childcare, are travelling alone, want to stay in a bigger village or town, or stay in a resort, self-cater, or looking for lots of night life, spas and festivities. Some resorts will be higher up the mountains, others located in the valleys or lower down the mountains and in a village – but no matter where you stay, you are bound to have a great time, even when the weather turns bad. With many of the ski resorts and ski fields being at high altitude, this means there is usually lots of snow and a longer season.
There are many choices of accommodation including a number of Club Med resorts. If you do a search using our Hotels Booking links, search for Les Portes du Soleil; Les Trois Vallées, Espace Killy; La Voie Lactée or Serre Chevalier Vallée – and you will find lots of options for places to stay.
At the northern end of the Alps, 35 kilometres south of Geneva, on Lac de Annercy is the resort city of Annercy, surrounded by Mountains with the lake right beside it and canals and River Thiou running through it. Annercy is a popular destination due to the scenery but also the number of activities that are available both in winter and also in summer.
Annercy has a population of a little over 50,000 people and has history and some even buildings dating back to the 12th Century and it has been a popular tourist destination since the early 1900’s.
During the winter months, there are the skiing, snowboarding and other winter activities, while in summer there are water sports on the lake, hiking, biking and just taking in the atmosphere of the old city with its museums, gardens, architecture, churches, cafes, restaurants and art. There is the Château d’Annercy castle here too – now a museum along with the remarkable Palais de ‘L’Isle in the city centre, once a prison, with the Canal running past it on both sides of the tiny island on which it is located. There are also a number of villages outside of Annercy too, while the other city, Chamonix likes around 100 kilometres to the east of Annercy.
Chamonix is also a very popular destination for skiers and hikers and it lies in the foothills of Mont Blanc that lies just south of the city. People come to Chamonix to see Mont Blanc, some to climb it, others to drive through the tunnel that runs under it to Italy, while others come to ski and snowboard during the winter or ride the cable car that heads to the Aiguille du Midi Mountain peak that is 3842 metres high. From Aiguille du Midi, you can see the Geant and Bossons glaciers and weather permitting see mountains all around you. To see what it is like up here, check out the Aiguille du Midi webcam.
In summer, there is the canyoning, climbing, hiking trails, walks, biking, driving on high mountain roads and passes, paragliding and other activities, with many resorts open both in the winter and summer months. There are said to be around 350 kilometres of walking trails near Chamonix, so lots of places to see and take in the great views, including the Mer de Glacé (sea of Ice) glacier that is here. Chamonix has a number of villages and resorts close to it too, including Saint-Gervais les Bains, where you will find the Mont Blanc Tramway (80 Avenue de la Gare), a rack railway, with lots of character and charm , that has been running here since 1913. Spas, hotels, Chalets, resorts, restaurants and 445 kilometres of ski slopes to enjoy – they’re all here. Also look for the Baroque Church at Le Bettex and the Casino at Le Fayet.
The other big ski resort area is in the region of the Parc National de la Vanoise covering an area of over 530 square kilometres with forests, lakes and trails – roughly 150 kilometres south of Chamonix. This is where you will find the Val d’Isère, Col de I’iseran and Bonneval-sur-Arc.
At Val d’isère you will find the Espace Killy ski fields and the PIsaillas Glacier, great downhill and cross country skiing and in summer biking, hiking, rock climbing and other activities and being next to the Parc National de la Vanoise. In summer months walk some of the many trails here, possibly with some luck seeing some of the animals and birds that live here, including the ibex wild goats with their massive curved horns that arch back over their body.
Col de I’Iseran is a high mountain pass – one of the highest passes and roads in Europe, so not for the novice driver or nervous passengers, but pretty amazing scenery.
Bonneval-sur-Arc is a tiny traditional village 1800 metres above sea level, listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages’ in France. The small stone houses and flowers are picture book perfect. Make sure to also look for the Hameau de l’Écot and its small stone cottages too.
There are two other villages that have this classification in the French Alps – Yvoire, located next to Lake Geneva with its cobblestone streets and amazing gardens and Sixt Fer à Cheval – where you will find the Cascade du Rouget waterfalls, stone houses and beautiful scenery in the valley around you.
To the south of Annercy about 40 kilometres and 100 kilometres east of Lyon is the city of Chambery – a city of around 57,000 people. This town has a large number of students and is renowned as a technology centre. It has an airport and is close to the Bourget Lake – the biggest in France. The city has a history dating back to the 13th century when it was the Capital of Savoy, retaining this title right up to 1563. There is a Castle here too, the Chambery Château and there are a number of grand buildings in the centre of the city that are architecturally classed as “Belle Epoque” – the grand age of French sophistication and building styles. One of the most interesting sights is the Fontaine des Éléphants monument built in 1838. This monument has 4 life size elephants facing outwards in 4 directions and is dedicated to one of Chambery’s most prominent citizens – Benoît de Boigne (1751-1830) who had amassed a fortune from his time in India. If you have the time, google his name and read more about his remarkable life story.
Just to the north of Chambery beside the Bourget Lake is the small town of Aix-les-Bains, renowned for its spas with a beautiful Promenade running beside the lake. This town has history dating back to Roman days, with the Arc de Campanus Roman Archway still here to see, as well as grand buildings for the ‘Belle Epoque’ era and the Château de Seysset and Château Chatillon that dates back to the 13th century. If you come here also look for the small village of Brison les Oliviers – which is very quaint, or take a lake tour to see villages that are dotted along the lake’s edge.
To the south of Chambery is the well- known city of Grenoble – host city of the 1968 Winter Olympics. The city has a history dating back to pre-Roman days, and today with a population of around 160,000 people it is the biggest city close to the southern French Alps. The city is set on the flat land next to the confluence of the Drac River and Isere River where they join, and while it is a gateway to the Alps and surrounded by mountains, the city’s industry is today heavily involved in Technology and Research, more so than tourism. The city’s first big industry was however glove making and its gloves became its biggest industry in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
A cable car called ‘Les Bulles’ (the Bubbles) due to the bubble shape of the cable cars, takes passengers from the city to the top of the Bastille fort overlooking the city.
Here in the city centre there are museums, art galleries, and many outdoor cafes and restaurants, with Grenoble claiming to have the 2nd oldest Coffee shop in France, the ‘Café de la Table Ronde’ that first served coffee to its customers in 1739.
When you look at the vast mountains and snows in the winter, you also understand that all of this snow will melt and become water that will flow down from the mountains – creating streams that ultimately will become rivers.
There are many rivers that flow from the mountains and for Kayakers with the skills and experience some of these rivers become a huge adrenalin rush as they conquer rapids and twist and turn down the fast flowing waters through the gorges. There are many places where Kayakers head – the main river being the Durance, but also other rivers such as the Gyr, Souloise, Ubaye, Bonne and Guil – but you really need to have the experience and skills to take on these rivers. If you do manage to go the Durance River, look for the village of Sisteron to see the Citadel Fortress – see www.citadelledesisteron.fr Quite amazing.
It is however possible to see some of the gorges, some just a few kilometres south of Grenoble –the Gorges de la Bourne where you can see the massive gorges with their Cliffside walls. Even further south – about 250 kilometres or 4 hours driving if you don’t stop much, there are the Gorges of Verdun in Provence. Head to or stay if you can in the small village of Moustiers- Ste-Marie – a small village with around 600 residents. From here you can take a drive along the north or south rim of the Gorges – which are much like the Grand Canyon in the USA, and look down into the amazing limestone canyons with the Verdun River flowing through it. You can also hire a canoe or kayak to paddle your way through parts of the river too.
There is so much to see in France, but certainly coming to the French Alps to ski or spend Christmas or coming here in the summer months to enjoy the outdoors have to be some of life’s great pleasures.
Happy Skiing and snowboarding!
Happy hiking too!