With soar­ing Alpine peaks, ver­dant val­leys and serene lakes bor­dered by el­e­gant towns, Haute-Savoie is a haven for all who adore the great out­doors, as Caro­line Bishop dis­cov­ers

Living France - - Contents -

A dra­matic land­scape of peaks, clear blue lakes and val­leys makes Haute-Savoie a haven for lovers of the great out­doors

It’s not hard to imag­ine how im­pres­sive Europe’s high­est moun­tain, Mont Blanc, must have ap­peared to two English ex­plor­ers who en­coun­tered it on a trip to Cha­monix, in the south-east­ern cor­ner of Haute-Savoie, way back in 1741. Wil­liam Wind­ham and Richard Po­cocke fell in love with the moun­tains and glaciers around this small vil­lage and wrote so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about it in a pub­lished trav­el­ogue that they are cred­ited with spark­ing tourism in the area. By 1770, when the first ho­tel opened in Cha­monix, it was named L’Hô­tel d’An­gleterre in hon­our of all the English tourists who had fol­lowed in their foot­steps.

They’ve kept com­ing ever since. Not just to Cha­monix, which re­mains ar­guably Haute-Savoie’s most fa­mous re­sort (the first Win­ter Olympics were held here in 1924, ce­ment­ing its rep­u­ta­tion for win­ter sports), but to the area’s many other re­sorts, which are just as well en­dowed with nat­u­ral riches. From the shore of Lac Lé­man (also known as Lake Geneva) in the north to Mont Blanc on the Ital­ian bor­der in the south, the de­part­ment’s 4,388km2 sur­face area en­com­passes four moun­tain ranges that be­tween them cre­ate some of the most stun­ning scenery in France and a gi­ant nat­u­ral play­ground for any­one who loves the out­doors. With 718 ski lifts, 51 lake­side beaches, 22 golf cour­ses and 58 paraglid­ing take-off points, this isn’t a place you eas­ily get bored in. No won­der its big­gest town and cap­i­tal, An­necy, on the shore of the pris­tine-clean lake of the

same name, is known as the Euro­pean cap­i­tal of out­door sports.

With all this on of­fer, it’s ob­vi­ous why mil­lions of for­eign­ers visit ev­ery year and why many, in­clud­ing nearly 4,000 Brits, have cho­sen to make Haute-Savoie their home, sync­ing their lives with the rhythms of moun­tain life.


“Mother Na­ture dic­tates how we live,” says Teresa Kauf­man, an Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher who runs discovery walks in Cha­monix. “It seems that every­one who has cho­sen to live here is here for the ben­e­fits of the environment: na­ture, moun­tains, sports. We or­gan­ise our daily life around the ar­rival of the sun and its depar­ture. Don’t bother try­ing to or­gan­ise an after­noon tea party in town on a sunny after­noon. Every­one will be ei­ther hik­ing, bik­ing, climb­ing... or any other out­door ac­tiv­ity.” In win­ter, Haute-Savoie boasts some of the world’s best ski­ing across some 50 re­sorts, many of them in­ter­con­nected. Skiers and snow­board­ers are spoilt for choice in the vast Portes du Soleil, which en­com­passes 286 slopes across 12 vil­lage ski ar­eas and even links to Switzer­land. In the Grand Mas­sif, you can sam­ple the fam­ily-friendly slopes of Samoëns be­fore drop­ping down into the bowl of Flaine for the after­noon. And in the Lake An­necy ski re­sorts you can wake up in La Clusaz, ski to Manigod for lunch and sam­ple Le Grand-Bor­nand in the after­noon, all on the same pass.

But a ma­jor part of the ap­peal of Haute-Savoie is that sum­mer is no less ac­tion­packed. Châ­tel, part of Portes du Soleil, turns into a moun­tain biker’s par­adise from June to Septem­ber. The spa town Évian-les-Bains, on the shore of the vast Lac Lé­man, is at its best in the sum­mer months, when sail­boats race off­shore and day-trip­pers take the ferry across to Switzer­land. Road cy­clists adore ped­alling where Tour de France cy­clists have ped­alled be­fore them on the steep climbs up from An­necy into the moun­tains. And hik­ers en­joy myr­iad trails across the re­gion, walk­ing hut to hut in Savoie-Mont Blanc, tack­ling the Pointe Per­cée in the Aravis range or sam­pling the Portes du Soleil’s 800km of marked trails.

It was the area’s year-round ap­peal that at­tracted Su and Andy Lyell to Samoëns.

The cou­ple, from Winch­ester, were on an “adult gap year”, as Su puts it, when they fell in love with Samoëns and de­cided to open a chalet there, the Ferme du Ciel.

“It’s a place with a real life; it’s got peo­ple liv­ing here in the vil­lage all year round, un­like other ski places. It’s a stun­ning area in win­ter and sum­mer, and we thought the ski area was ab­so­lutely su­perb and higher than some oth­ers,” says Su.

The cou­ple “loved it from day one” and are still there 11 years later. With easy ac­cess to Geneva air­port – most re­sorts in Haute-Savoie are only about an hour’s drive away – they could eas­ily get back to see friends and fam­ily in the UK while main­tain­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of life. “We love the pace of life,” says Su. “They’ve got their pri­or­i­ties right. You’ve got time to re­ally en­joy the stun­ning out­door life and so­cial life. It’s given us ev­ery­thing we could have hoped for and more. It’s a much, much health­ier way of life.”


But the at­trac­tion of this re­gion isn’t only in its nat­u­ral as­sets. Haute-Savoie’s rich cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tions add to its ap­peal, as the cap­i­tal at­tests. With its ori­gins dat­ing back more than 4,000 years, An­necy has been shaped by a long and tu­mul­tuous his­tory that in­cluded a defin­ing pe­riod of rule by the Dukes of Savoy in the Mid­dle Ages and a time as an im­por­tant re­li­gious cen­tre pit­ted against Re­formist Geneva, be­fore the area was an­nexed by France in 1860.

This rich his­tory has left the town’s medieval cen­tre with many ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures in­clud­ing the 12th-cen­tury Palais de l’Île, a for­mer prison and mint that sits on a penin­sula in the Thiou river, the 16th-cen­tury St Peter’s Cathe­dral, and the im­pos­ing Château d’An­necy, con­sid­ered the sym­bol of the town. Built over sev­eral cen­turies in the Mid­dle Ages and once home to Geneva’s counts, it is now a beau­ti­fully re­stored his­toric mon­u­ment and mu­seum.

All this is set amid pretty pedes­trian river­side streets and a net­work of flow­er­lined canals that have lent the town the nick­name ‘Venice of the Alps’. The oft­pho­tographed point where the Vassé canal meets Lac d’An­necy un­der the 110-year-old Pont des Amours (‘lovers’ bridge’) sums up this town in a snap­shot – a place as blessed with per­son­al­ity as it is with beauty.

There’s plenty of Savo­yard char­ac­ter in the de­part­ment’s smaller towns and moun­tain vil­lages, too, which have found an easy bed­fel­low in tourism with­out be­ing over­whelmed by it. Apart from the pur­pose-built 1960s ski re­sort of Flaine, whose aus­tere Bauhaus ar­chi­tec­ture is an anom­aly, most of the re­gion’s re­sorts, in­clud­ing Samoëns, Les Gets, Megève, Sixt-Fer-à-Che­val and Le Grand-Bor­nand, were once small farm­ing vil­lages (it’s ru­moured that Le Grand-Bor­nand is home to as many cows as peo­ple). Their de­vel­op­ment as ski re­sorts in the 20th cen­tury has given them a welcome eco­nomic boost, but thank­fully hasn’t – for the most part – been achieved at the ex­pense of their orig­i­nal char­ac­ter.

De­part­men­tal cap­i­tal An­necy, on the shore of the pris­tine-clean lake of the same name, is known as the Euro­pean cap­i­tal of out­door sports


In­stead, these vil­lages guard their her­itage proudly. New de­vel­op­ments are built in keep­ing with the chalet-style ar­chi­tec­ture of the cen­turies-old vil­lage cen­tres; restau­rants en­tice vis­i­tors to sam­ple the hearty mon­tag­nard dishes – fon­due, tar­ti­flette, raclette – that typ­ify the Haute-Savoie de­part­ment; and lo­cal pro­duc­ers welcome tourists to their farm shops to try the Abon­dance and Re­blo­chon cheeses made with milk from cows that graze on the nearby Alpine pas­tures in sum­mer.

As well as su­perb ski­ing, vis­i­tors can try the lat­est sports, from ski­jor­ing to ‘snooc­ing’ (a ski tour­ing/to­bog­gan­ing cross). There are swanky spa fa­cil­i­ties, such as Châ­tel’s Forme d’O and Megève’s Le Palais; big-name mu­sic events, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Rock the Pistes fes­ti­val in Portes du Soleil; and world­class restau­rants. The up­mar­ket re­sort of Megève, with a pop­u­la­tion of 3,500, has no fewer than three Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, mak­ing it a gas­tro­nomic go-to in the Alps.

As tourism has grown to be­come a key in­dus­try, it’s be­come even eas­ier for for­eign­ers to set up home here. “They are very ac­cept­ing [of the Bri­tish],” says Nicky Wye who works for prop­erty agent Leggett Im­mo­bilier in Portes du Soleil. “And it’s great they like the fact that the Brits come out here and buy up the old farm­houses that are ab­so­lute wrecks and need to­tally ren­o­vat­ing, and that brings vi­brancy back into the com­mu­nity.”

Su Lyell agrees. “The ma­jor­ity [of lo­cals] are very friendly, wel­com­ing; our neigh­bours are de­light­ful. I think they have ac­cepted that the Brits bring in busi­ness and the young ones par­tic­u­larly recog­nise that this is what cre­ates growth in the area and that’s good for them too.”

That’s lucky, be­cause most of the area’s for­eign res­i­dents love it so much they are un­likely to ever leave. With its re­laxed pace, in­cred­i­ble scenery, char­ac­ter-packed vil­lages and ar­ray of ac­tiv­i­ties in all sea­sons, life in Haute-Savoie is hard to turn your back on.

“Af­ter a while,” says Teresa Kauf­man about Cha­monix, “you start to won­der if it is pos­si­ble to live any­where else.”

Main photo: Haute-Savoie is home to many beau­ti­ful lakes in­clud­ing Lac de Mon­triond in the east of the de­part­ment

Fac­ing page from top: An­necy’s colour­ful Old Town; ski­jor­ing (where ski­iers are pulled by a horse, dog or mo­tor ve­hi­cle) is one of the Alps’ lat­est sports; once a small farm­ing vil­lage, Le Grand-Bor­nand is now a thriv­ing ski re­sort

This page, left and in­set: An­necy’s Old Town is full of cafés, restau­rants and pretty flower-lined canals; the Aigu­ille du Midi in the heart of the Alps

Fac­ing page, from top: The clear blue wa­ters of Lac d’An­necy; sum­mer is the per­fect time to take a boat out on the wa­ter; Cha­monix is a pop­u­lar re­sort for the Brits

Yvoire is a pretty vil­lage on the edge of Lake Geneva; mo­saic floor at the Cha­monix tourist of­fice

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