High society: Discover Haute-Savoie
PUBLISHED: 16:54 19 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:18 08 January 2016
Emma Rawle falls under the spell of the beautiful mountain landscapes of Haute-Savoie and discovers the department’s year-round appeal
The scale of the place almost defies comprehension. Every time you turn a corner on the narrow, winding roads of Haute-Savoie, you are confronted with another breathtaking view of the stunning mountains that are the backdrop to this beautiful department. It is a landscape that is equally dramatic all year round, as the snow-covered peaks dotted with skiers are transformed in summer into lush green pastures dotted with hikers and Alpine cows.
It is a department dominated by nature, from the soaring peak of Mont Blanc to the watery depths of Lake Annecy, and the landscape dictates the way of life here, whether it is through tourism or agriculture. A Mecca for skiing enthusiasts, the French Alps have long been a favourite with second-home owners spending their winter holidays there, but visitors are increasingly discovering the delights of the mountains in summer.
Haute-Savoie’s beautiful capital Annecy, known as the ‘Venice of the Alps’ due to the three canals criss-crossing their way across the town, welcomes around two million visitors a year, with the majority visiting in summer. Attracted by the numerous water sports on offer, visitors are drawn to the lake like moths to a flame, and once there they can enjoy one of the most spectacular landscapes of the French Alps. Visiting in 1891, Mark Twain was struck by the beauty of the landscapes, writing: “It is a revelation. It is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body’s eyes it is so enchanting. It stretches itself out there in the caressing sunlight, and away towards its border of majestic mountains, a crisped and radiant plain of water of the divinest blue that can be imagined.”
The turquoise waters and mountainous backdrop have also been immortalised in the paintings of numerous artists, and many of these works are now on display in the Château d’Annecy. A former residence of the Counts of Geneva, the 12th-century château casts an imposing shadow across Annecy’s old town, a maze of narrow lanes intersected by canals hiding quaint cafés and pâtisseries.
Bordering both Switzerland and Italy, Haute-Savoie and neighbouring Savoie have had a turbulent past. A gateway to these nations from France, it occupied a strategically important position and was jealously guarded through many wars by the House of Savoy, rulers of the independent territory since the early 11th century. In the end though their efforts were in vain and Savoy was annexed to France – along with the County of Nice – in 1860.
Being an independent territory for so long left its mark on the area and former Savoy has a strong cultural identity, evident in its traditions, food and architecture. The chalets have a distinctly Swiss flavour – not surprising given that half of the department borders Switzerland, and the closest airport to many of the ski resorts is Geneva.
Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman as it’s known in French, is Haute-Savoie’s largest lake, to the north of the department, and boasts several chic lakeside towns including the ‘pearl of Lac Léman’, Évian-les-Bains. Famous for its water, the town was the height of fashionable society during the Belle Époque, welcoming socialites and royalty alike, including Britain’s King George V. The glamour of this era is still evident today, whether you’re sauntering down the tree-lined promenade, exploring the historic Villa Lumière or having a flutter at the Casino.
Haute-Savoie has its fair share of popular spa towns and chic ski resorts. Although the glitzy ski resorts of the Alps – Courchevel, Val d’Isère and Val Thorens to name a few – are located in neighbouring Savoie, Haute-Savoie still boasts excellent skiing and picture-postcard towns. Taking a snowy horse-drawn carriage ride through the picturesque town of Megève under a star-lit sky, you could almost be on a film set; it feels too perfect to be true.
Those searching for more extreme activities make their way to Mont Blanc and Chamonix, a bustling town nestled at the foot of Western Europe’s largest mountain. Every year, an estimated 20,000 intrepid climbers attempt to follow in the footsteps of 18th-century mountaineers Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard, who were the first to reach the summit of Mont Blanc in 1786. Today, many more make their way to the top of Aiguille-du-Midi, pausing to gaze in wonder at the awe-inspiring views of the Mont Blanc Massif before tackling the off-piste Vallée Blanche run crossing France’s longest glacier, Mer de Glace.
Haute-Savoie is home to the Portes du Soleil and Grand Massif ski areas, the second and third largest in France, and there is plenty of skiing here for all abilities; from the adrenaline-packed runs of Chamonix to the family-friendly resorts of Le Grand-Bornand.
But it’s not just winter activities that keep the adventurous happy. The mountains are just as active during summer when you will come across hikers making their way up the grassy slopes and mountain bikers making their way down, while paragliders soar across the skies overhead. Drivers share the steep, winding roads with athletic individuals tackling the steep inclines on two wheels, whether it’s enthusiastic amateurs or the world’s élite. The Alps host some of the most famous stages of the Tour de France and thousands of spectators line the route to watch the cyclists fly past.
A town that has hosted the finish of a stage of the Tour de France six times is Le Grand-Bornand, considered one of the best preserved and most beautiful of all the Savoyard villages. With its picture-perfect wooden chalets and greniers, market square and church, it is easy to see why it is popular with those searching for one of the authentic Alpine villages that Haute-Savoie is famous for. Justifying its reputation as a family-friendly resort, many of the 42 ski runs, located in the Le Chinaillon valley, five minutes away by car or bus, are suitable for beginners and children. However, the town has produced more than its fair share of ski champions, and for more experienced skiers, there are challenging runs that are often less crowded than those in the big resorts. Despite its increasing popularity, the village has retained its traditional charm and Alpine heritage, and the economy is still half agriculture. There are as many bovine residents as there are humans here, and Alpine cows are a common sight on the lush green mountainside pastures; the chime of their bells is a delightful background tune.
It is largely thanks to these cows that the area produces its sumptuous cuisine, based mainly on cheese, as well as fresh fish, mushrooms and blueberries. Le Grand-Bornand is the largest producer of Reblochon, the local speciality cheese that has been granted Apellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AOC) status. Used in the Alps’ most famous dish, tartiflette, Reblochon is also often found on a cheeseboard accompanied by a glass of local wine. Other Haute-Savoie cheeseboard specialities include Tomme de Savoie and Raclette de Savoie, and there are plenty of regional wines to accompany them. In the red wines, look out for the Mondeuse grape, while Jacquère and Altesse produce much of the department’s vins blancs. To add a kick to your dinner, try the fragrant yet potent local favourite génépi, a liqueur made from alpine meadow flowers.
Whatever the season, the simple yet delicious Alpine cuisine is best appreciated from a mountaintop restaurant where the panoramic views are just as mouth-watering as your meal. Even better, you can indulge guilt-free thanks to the activities you will be doing for the rest of the day! Being in the mountains is a humbling yet invigorating experience, and seeing the dominance of nature and breathing in the fresh mountain air, you are guaranteed to fall in love with the area.