Dizzy heights

With its soaring peaks and verdant valleys, time-honoured traditions and delicious cuisine, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Savoie, as Judy Armstrong discovers

The eagle soars, wings spread wide and still, over the Alpine valley. Riding a thermal, she spirals up, ever up, until she is barely a speck against the blue sky. Below her, the valley climbs too, from lush green woods, to mountain meadows, to a world of ice and snow.

This is her home: the Vanoise National Park, stunning cornerstone of the department of Savoie. A feudal territory tussled over for centuries and finally annexed by France in 1860, Savoie is adored for its Alpine wonderland, with the Vanoise as the jewel in its much-polished crown.

Our golden eagle is one half of 30 known pairs in the park, with both birds and territory protected by the highest laws in the land. She shares the sky with the bearded vulture, and smaller birds, resident and migratory. Below, the mountains and valleys are equally rich, supporting bouquetin and chamois, marmot and fox – even, some say, elusive wolf and lynx.

Criss-crossing the landscape, past the great glaciers that make up Western Europe’s largest icecap, run long-distance footpaths so walkers, skiers and mountaineers can share this precious place with the wildlife. But while the Vanoise, France’s first national park, is a magnet for visitors and fauna, there is more, much more, to Savoie.

The department is shaped like a fat arrowhead burrowing into the Italian border. It has a turbulent history: its mountains, rivers and valleys have been fought over for centuries. Under the flag of the House of Savoy, at the dawn of the first millennium, it was a jealously guarded, independent kingdom, with fortified castles built on high ground to protect Alpine road passes in case of attack. In the end, their efforts were fruitless. In 1860 France annexed Savoy – and the County of Nice – forming a new frontier which became the Italian border.

The new territory of Savoie was wedged between mountain ranges, sliced off from neighbouring departments by the great rivers Rh�ne and Guiers and spliced by the torrents Is�re, Arc and Arly. Of the many lakes, two carry superlatives: the glorious wedge of Lac du Bourget is the largest and deepest natural lake in France, and little Lac d’Aiguebelette is one of the most pristine, due to the banning, 35 years ago, of motorboats.

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Then, as now, the valleys held most of the population – life was too hard in the Alpine regions for year-round living, although the tradition of summer alpage remains strong. Savoie was, and is, a place where nature overwhelms, and people and their cultures fill in the gaps.

There are fewer than half a million people in this land, with only a handful of large towns and no bustling cities. Largest is Chamb�ry, once capital of the Duchy of Savoy and now the prefecture and cultural centre. In the valley separating the Bauges and Chartreuse mountains, it grew up around the ch�teau built by Count Thomas of Savoy in 1232. This Ch�teau des Ducs de Savoie, now occupied by the pr�fecture, is the grandest structure but by no means the most exotic. That accolade goes to the Fontaine des El�phants, an extravagant monument in the town centre. It seems inappropriate until you realise that it was built in homage, not to Hannibal, but to the Comte de Boigne, a son of Chamb�ry who made his fortune as a mercenary in India and used much of his wealth to fund urban development in his home town.

Chamb�ry, with its busy market and narrow cobbled streets, is also home to a fine arts museum, another devoted to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who loved the town, and a centre for renewable energy with a major (and, as of June 2012, government-backed) emphasis on solar power.

The location of an INES (Institut National de l’Energie Solaire) research and development laboratory here is ironic, since a decent chunk of Savoie’s income comes from hydroelectricity and heavy industry. Outflow from the dammed Lac du Chevril below Tignes and the mighty rivers that flow from the high passes turn countless turbines for the national grid; factories creating steel, aluminium and carbon squat heavy on the valley floors.

But still, the overwhelming feel of Savoie is of nature. It dominates the senses and also the economy: winter sport is a massive seasonal driver, creating jobs for locals and extra workers – often British – between Christmas and the end of April. One of these, back in 2005, was Anna Beadle, who followed her boyfriend Rich to Savoie to work a ski season after finishing her degree in Sports and Exercise Science. The couple fell in love with the region and stayed, setting up Massage Me (www.massage-me.co.uk), a mobile massage service in Savoie’s ski resorts. Starting solo, Anna now employs 12 masseurs who both pamper and pummel, offering sports therapy massage alongside deep tissue and Swedish massage, and hot stone therapy.

Anna and Rich, who married in the ski resort of Peisey-Vallandry this summer, are firmly settled, building their own house and expanding the business. In common with the majority of Brits resident in Savoie, it’s all about the place: keen skiers, mountain bikers and walkers, they make the most of every minute for both work and play.

One reason for choosing Savoie is that, unlike other ski-dominated regions, it retains a very ‘French’ feel, with permanent British residents welcomed into villages that might otherwise see population drains. Sam and Lyndsey Morris are classic examples, moving to the small village of Landry in the Tarentaise valley in 2000, after graduating from university. An avid mountain biker, Sam saw the potential to combine business with pleasure, using the mountains for hardcore bike riding.

More than 10 years later, he and Lyndsey run Bike Village (www.bikevillage.co.uk) from their self-renovated farmhouse, providing top-class riding and accommodation for groups of cyclists and employing three young British guides through the summer season. In winter, the farmhouse becomes a g�te d’�tape, with Lyndsey working as a language teacher to supplement income.

Their three young children were all born in Savoie, and are happily growing up bilingual. While Lyndsey spoke French on arrival, Sam has become fluent through living and working here. Would they return to Britain? At this stage, they can’t imagine it. “On a clear day, it’s so spectacular to be on the top of a mountain. I love the sensation of being able to see for miles, and to know that my home is at the bottom of the hill,” says Lyndsey. “But it’s not just the place; it’s the French attitude to life. In the UK, people ask what your job is. Here, they ask what kind of bike you have. Lives come first, not income.”

Outside of working hours, Savoyards – indigenous and adopted – know that there’s plenty of scope for leisure. The region includes some of France’s biggest, and ritziest, ski stations, including Val d’Is�re and Tignes, Les Arcs and La Plagne, Courchevel and the Trois Vall�es. Luckily for those in search of serenity on snow, there is plenty of room for smaller playgrounds, with some of the best in the Maurienne valley.

At the head of that valley, reached by following the infant River Arc, is Bonneval-sur-Arc, Savoie’s only accredited Plus Beau Village. At 1,835m altitude, this dinky village sits on the southern side of the Col d’Iseran, noted by drivers as the highest road pass in the Alps. The Iseran tops out at a lung-sucking 2,770m and, not surprisingly, is closed in winter; in summer, it is the most direct route between the Is�re and Arc valleys.

From quiet days as a shepherds’ hamlet to its current status as a low-key tourist destination, Bonneval has retained its Alpine character. Stone houses cluster tightly around the church, geraniums bloom on balconies in season and restaurants serve local produce with determined flair. New development, catering to the winter ski trade, has been inevitable but has been done with relative subtlety.

While Bonneval, tucked under glaciers and surrounded by the glorious wilderness of the Vanoise National Park, symbolises the department’s natural heritage, the Esseillon fortress, a plunge down the river toward Modane, shows the harsher face of history. An extraordinary edifice dominating the narrow valley, the fortress is actually five forts, built between 1818 and 1834. Best-known is the Victor Emmanuel; all are open for visits with the most exciting access by via ferrata on a network of cables, ladders and narrow walkways. Of course, there is always the option to park and walk...

The Esseillon is one of the Pierre-Fortes of Savoie, a network of 18 fortified sites covering 1,000 years of history. It includes the Ch�teau des Ducs de Savoie in Chamb�ry along with more bijou residences such Ch�teau de Miolans. Built in the 11th century to control the important Alpine crossroads of the Maurienne and Tarentaise, Miolans was commandeered by the Ducs de Savoie as a prison; most famously incarcerating the Marquis de Sade, who managed to escape.

The ch�teau overlooks the Combe de Savoie valley, a rich wine-growing area that extends from Miolans, dips south at Montm�lian, and then continues north to Challes-les-Eaux. Red varietals grown in the region include Pinot, Gamay and Mondeuse; Savoie is also known for its whites, especially Apremont, which is lightly sparkling, and Chignin. Some of the best is grown at Chignin-Bergeron, in small vineyards that straggle up the valley sides, terminating abruptly under the rock crags that form the perimeter of the Bauges plateau.

The Bauges, along with the Beaufortain and Belledonne massifs are little-known outside Savoie. They lack the sharp peaks, growling glaciers and lofty altitudes of the Vanoise but they are, without doubt, the bedrock of traditional life in the department. They are geographically distinct: the Bauges is a rock-rimmed plateau, the Beaufortain a lumpy wedge between Savoie and Haute-Savoie and the Belledonne a long line of rugged hills linking Albertville to the great valley of Grenoble. But they have a common thread of remote agricultural communities, raising cattle and producing cheese. Most famous are the tangy Beaufort, like a classic Gruy�re; creamy Reblochon; and the pale, rinded Tome des Bauges and Tomme de Savoie. Cheese is the cornerstone of Savoyard cooking; finding a restaurant that refuses to serve tartiflette – an intensely rich pile of bacon, potatoes, cream and Reblochon – is like finding a Frenchman who doesn’t drink wine.

Not all menus are geared to ‘traditional Savoyard fare’. Top tables include the iconic Le Chabichou in Courchevel 1850, where Michelin-starred chef Michel Rochedy caters to wealthy skiers and discerning locals. In striking contrast, the 15th-century Ch�teau des Allues, near St-Pierre-d’Albigny creates dishes described by guests as ‘the best food in Europe’. It is home to St�phane Vandeville, who creates innovative menus from his potager, a kitchen garden with 40 raised beds around a central fountain, bordered by 120 roses that he planted himself.

Having indulged at the table, not all visitors want to climb a mountain or swim in a lake. Some prefer to relax, and Savoie is well-placed to deliver. Hydrotherapy has been a feature of the valleys since ancient times, and natural hot water is still harnessed at four main sites. The biggest is the swish spa complex at Aix-les-Bains, with superb facilities for ‘the cure’ also at Challes-les-Eaux and Brides-les-Bains.

There is, as ever, a middle ground between serious physical exertion and hedonistic spa treatments. The simple attraction of mooching along quiet lanes and discovering secret corners is made even more special in Savoie, through the Chemins du Baroque. This is a vaguely-linked network of medieval chapels, mostly in tiny hamlets or on remote mountainsides. Modest from the outside, they contain extraordinary examples of baroque art, with paintings, statues and frescoes in an explosion of colour.

There are more than 90 sites on the Chemins du Baroque, an itinerary created in 1992; among the finest are Notre Dames des Vernettes on a hillside in Peisey-Nancroix, and the delicate little chapel of St-Grat in Vulmix, above Bourg-St-Maurice. All are open for visits; sometimes a key is held locally, others offer guided tours through the local tourist offices.

In a way, these baroque chapels sum up the essence of Savoie: it is a department with a fascinating history, set in a bold landscape, whose population has a sturdy determination to thrive. There is a sense of patriotism, to the area as much as the nation: when the bumper stickers shout Savoie Libre! it’s less about nudging a historic border, and more about the freedom of life. LF