Combine wild vistas with exhilarating hikes on a tour of the lakes and mountains of Rhône-alpes
Enjoy the mountain scenery by car and on foot in the scenic Rhône-alpes.
DAY ONE ARTEMARE TO LE BOURGET-DU-LAC 39.3 KILOMETRES
Start your tour at Artemare in the department of Ain. Named for its eponymous river, Ain is famed for producing tender grain-fed Bresse chicken and creamed meat – or fish – dumplings called quenelles, all of which you should sample. But first check into Le Vaugrais (pitches from €13, camping-savoielevaugrais.com), a campsite tucked between lush forests and the stunning Jura mountains, which has a good-sized swimming pool. Surrounded by wellmarked footpaths, it is also the ideal base for hiking.
Leave the campsite and cross the Séran, a lively river tinkling with the sound of water splashing off lichenstudded boulders. Make sure to pick up a picnic lunch at Aux Délices du Valromey bakery (23 Grande Rue) in Artemare, a pretty little village with steep tiled roofs overlooked from afar by the magnificent stone towers of the 16th-century Château de Mâchuraz. Try their appetising, vivid-coloured regional speciality tarte aux pralines, an open pastry tart filled with a sauce that’s made using a blend of cream and the local nutty praline sweets. Then hike past old bridges, vineyards and standing stones to the magnificent Gorges de Thurignin, whose swirling waters are dotted with the natural stone potholes known as ‘giant’s kettles’, and the picturesque Cerveyrieu waterfall.
Before heading for Le Bourget, stop off to visit the Lavours marshes (entry free, reserve-lavours.com), one of the last remaining continental marshlands in Western Europe. Created more than 15,000 years ago when the huge Rhône glacier melted, the Lavours marshes cover an immense 5,000 hectares of land dotted with peat bogs and bulrushes, and framed by the magnificent Grand Colombier mountain. A plank bridge takes you right to the heart of the marshes where you can stand surrounded by sounds of hopping frogs and the loud buzzing of countless insects as you admire this vast nature reserve which is home to 400 different types of mushrooms, and even boasts its own carnivorous plant.
Formed by the same glacier all those years ago, the 18 kilometre-long Lac du Bourget just over the border in Savoie is the largest natural lake of glacial origin in France. Celebrities ranging from ‘nature or nurture’ philosopher Rousseau, to Queen Victoria and French politician Clemenceau once flocked to spend their holidays by this pretty lake. Le Bourgetdu-lac, the lake’s capital, might be a sleepy little town but, astoundingly, it’s home to four Michelin-starred restaurants. For best views choose Le Restaurant Gastronomique Lamartine (menus from €37, lamartine-marin.com), overlooking the lake and enjoy an expensive, but delicious, starter of grilled fresh perch with garlicky lemon sauce, followed by lamb served in a spicy honey crust.
Spend the night at campsite l’île aux Cygnes (pitches from €12, ileauxcygnes. fr), a glorious campsite with sandy beaches sprawling along the shores of the beautiful Lac du Bourget.
DAY TWO LE BOURGET-DU-LAC TO AIX-LES-BAINS 9.7 KILOMETRES
Get up early when it’s still cool and make the five-hour hike to Abbaye d’hautecombe (entry from €3.50, chemin-neuf.fr/fr/pres-de-chez-toi/ abbayes/abbaye-d-hautecombe). The trail covers some fairly rough terrain, but the views of the lake are breathtaking and the sense of achievement when you arrive at the abbey makes it all worthwhile. Built in the 12th century, this magnificent abbey is now home to a Benedictine community and you can admire the glorious Gothic troubadour-style architecture inside on a self-guided audio tour, then see dozens of ornate tombs belonging to members of the powerful Savoy dynasty who ruled over this region for more than 400 years. Almost as fascinating is the tomb of the last king of Italy, Umberto II of Savoy, who was buried here in 1983.
The number 15 bus will take you back to Le Bourget-du-lac. Pick up your vehicle and make the leisurely panoramic drive along the lakeside D1201 road to Aix-les-bains. With its elegant streets, flower-filled parks, museums, casino and belle époque buildings, this town – known as the ‘Riviera of the Alps’ – just oozes glamour and you won’t be surprised to learn that this was one of the first French cities to have its own cinema. Enjoy a quick swim in the chilly lake waters then set out to explore this pretty town famed for its hot mineral springs which have drawn visitors since Roman times.
After shopping for souvenirs around the Rue de Genève, visit the Musée Archéologique de Viuz Faverges (entry from €3.50, 855 Route de Viuz) home to many statues and antique objects, then enjoy a good wallow in the bright green, mineral-rich waters of Les Thermes Chevalley (half-day cure from €65, valvital.fr), the town’s main thermal baths. End the evening with a bubbling pot of cheesy fondue at Le Rouet (fondue savoyarde from €16, restaurant-le-rouet. fr), then pick a pitch among the trees at the lakeside Camping Sierroz (pitches from €11.70, camping-sierroz.com)
DAY THREE AIX-LES-BAINS TO NEYDENS 64.4 KILOMETRES
It’s time to turn your back on that lovely lake and take the 50-minute ride along the busy A41 to Annecy. This charming resort sits on another lake – the third largest in France – and you can best explore here by taking a two-hour trip in an open-top vintage Citroën 2CV with Les Deuches du Lac (lesdeuchesdulac.fr). End the tour with an aperitif – or more – at the Abbaye de Talloires (menu from €36, abbaye-talloires.com), a 17thcentury abbey which is now an atmospheric hotel/bar/restaurant, then head for La Colombière (pitches from €12, camping-la-colombiere.com) a family-owned campsite site framed by mountains and surrounded by lakes near the village of Neydens, a few kilometres away from the Swiss border.
The site sits at the centre of a web of some 8,000 kilometres of hiking trails, which you should explore, before hiking to the top of Le Salève, the mountain of the French Prealps where Mary Shelley’s monster fled in her famous novel Frankenstein. Catch your breath at the top, then stare out from this spot known as the ‘balcony of Geneva’, and enjoy the views of paragliders swooping over Lake Annecy far below, and eagles gliding over the Jura mountains and Mont Blanc high above. It’s a suitably breathtaking spot to end your tour of the spectacularly picturesque Rhône-alpes region. GETTING THERE: Take the ferry from Portsmouth to Dieppe, a 7hr drive from Artemare. Alternatively, fly into Geneva airport and hire a car or a campervan. You can rent a van from Campanda (campanda.fr)
ABOVE: The old town of Annecy is often likened to Venice, thanks to its canals
ABOVE: Lake Annecy and its scenic backdrop
ABOVE: Peace and tranquility on the lovely Lac du Bourget; RIGHT: Hiking on the mountain paths near Neydens in Haute-savoie