Hidden treasure

Nestled deep in breathtaking mountain scenery lies Les Bauges – one of France’s best-kept secrets. Judy Armstrong takes the road less travelled

Nestled deep in breathtaking mountain scenery lies Les Bauges – one of France’s best-kept secrets. Judy Armstrong takes the road less travelledThe world is buried under a marshmallow blanket. A dense mass of cloud hides the sparkling blue lozenge of Lac d’Annecy, erases the sails and rowing boats, snuffs out the rivers and hamlets, church spires and woodland. From a lofty perch on the Col de la Forclaz, the only view is across the cloud that covers the famous lake. It drags my eyes up a wide valley, past fudge-swirl cliffs to a trio of peaks in the far distance. The peaks look like cats’ ears. But they aren’t a feline fancy; they are the bare, rocky summits of Monts Colombier, Marg�riaz and Julioz.Pardon? You’ve never heard of them? Of course you haven’t. They are the centrepiece of Les Bauges, a parc naturel r�gional that is so little known; even people living on its doorstep raise their eyebrows in question. For the record, Les Bauges is a rough diamond squeezed between Aix-les-Bains, Chamb�ry, Albertville and Annecy, in the Savoie d�partement in the Rh�ne-Alpes region. It is almost surrounded by water: Lac du Bourget, Lac d’Annecy and the bold torrent of the River Is�re. As a parc naturel r�gional – one of 46 such parks in France – it has both a protected landscape and a policy of encouraging enterprise sympathetic to the area’s cultural, agricultural and historical heritage. And relatively few people have heard of it, which means it has remained an unspoiled island in an ocean of tourism. As visitors swirl through the honey pots of Annecy, Chamb�ry and Chamonix, Les Bauges exudes serenity and peace. So, flushed with anticipation, I leave the Col de la Forclaz, dive into the marshmallow cloud and land on the shores of Lac d’Annecy. The western side of the lake is in Les Bauges; so is the southern tip. This is the R�serve Naturelle du Bout du Lac d’Annecy, an arm’s sweep of woodland and reed beds, fed by two rivers, sanctuary for birds and home to a bevy of beavers. Jacques Laurent, who works for the park and has a particular passion for this reserve, leads the way through woodland to the lake. We pass evidence of wild boar rootling for food, watch crocus flowers struggling toward the light and hunt for beaver dens on the banks.

Fortress islandA 12th-century stone tower, Tour de Beauvivier, stands guard at the water’s edge. Once a customs post, it now provides a viewing platform. A grebe pops to the lake surface, shakes drops off his flat, black cap and glides into the reeds. A boat slops by with two fishermen on board, alert and hopeful. The panorama feels centuries adrift and it makes Jacques smile softly. “Les Bauges is a secret massif,” he says. And it is. It is like a fortress island, with high walls, bordered by lakes and rivers. You need a key to gain entrance; the key’ being curiosity for a road less travelled. The keyhole is that long valley, seen from the Col de la Forclaz, slicing from lakeside Saint-Jorioz deep into the heartland of Les Bauges.The road climbs gently. It slides through unfenced meadows, past broad-bellied barns and churches with cockerel-topped spires, sharp against a vivid sky. As it gains height, there is a feeling of space and light. By the time it reaches the Col de Leschaux, the world has opened into a wide, green embrace. Seen from the air, Les Bauges is a high plateau streaked with sharp rock ridges, ringed by a parapet of near-sheer cliffs. The ridges run north to south and are separated by deep valleys seared with busy rivers. A handful of hamlets puncture these valleys but make little real impact. The population of Les Bauges is just 60,000, with the majority occupying the villages spread around the lower skirts, including Montm�lian and Faverges.Up here in the heartland, Le Ch�telard is the only town of note, slipped into a pocket between limestone peaks and wooded ridges. It is home to the park’s only supermarket and, more importantly, hosts its most renowned restaurant, Les Clarines. One of the side-effects of the road less travelled’ is that Les Bauges has fewer places to stay and to eat than most areas. Les Clarines is a glorious exception, with city folk from Chamb�ry (an hour’s drive away) shuffling mismatched wooden chairs with walkers here for the weekend. Luckily, it is also an hotel, so after chef-patron Catherine Barrier’s signature chicken baked in a salt crust, a tongue-tingling AOC tome des Bauges cheese and an exquisite wine from Chignin-Bergeron (from vineyards in the park’s southwest), it is possible to totter upstairs and so to bed. While an hotel is a rare beast, chambres d’h�tes are also tucked into the villages. A novel addition is Maholyne situated in the tiny hamlet of Pr�cherel, above Jarsy. Patrick Janin and his wife Gis�le have converted his father’s furniture workshop into a luxury B&B with an international flavour. Forget Savoyard ambience: rooms are themed for Morocco, Spain and beyond. Being a compact area, Les Bauges is easy to explore – simply trundle up one valley, down the next, over a mountain and up a crag. On the way, there are diversions aplenty. The co-operative Fromagerie du Val d’Aillon in Aillon-le-Jeune, for example, has been producing cheese for more than a century. It opened its doors in 1889, when the human population of the heartland (14 communes of 64 in Les Bauges) was 11,210 and the cattle numbered 6,000. The census slumped to just 3,800 people in 1999 but is now growing steadily. Residents are drawn by affordable house prices, quality of life and access to work in nearby Chamb�ry, Albertville, Annecy and Aix-les-Bains. “It is tranquil but not isolated,” explains Carole Vanesse, who works for the park and lives in La Comp�te, a pretty village producing some of the finest tome des Bauges. “We have many young people here who love the park but also enjoy easy access to culture and nightlife in Annecy and Chamb�ry.” The cooperative has a small museum with a large window above the cheese-makers’ hub. Watching white-capped workers push wet curds into moulds, it’s hard to believe this sloppy mess will become tome des Bauges – the only tomme (cheese) with an AOC rating and so given just one m’ to help it stand out – and 40kg rounds of Marg�riaz. Ah, Marg�riaz. This is (whisper it quietly) actually Gruy�re, but two years ago the Swiss swiped the moniker, forcing French producers to scuttle for new names. The cooperative christened their Gruy�re Marg�riaz, after the mountain looming over the village. It is sweet and tangy, rich and creamy, a treat for the tongue.

Ancient memoriesNear Aillon-le-Jeune, past the hamlet of La Correrie and under the rocky flank of Mont Colombier, is another treasure. La Chartreuse, a 12th-century Carthusian monastery, was inhabited by monks whose order dictated total isolation, absolute silence, fasting and chastity. The compound was enormous, with workshops, gardens, ovens and monks’ cells clustered around the church. It was abandoned 200 years ago and became a quarry for building materials for local farmers. Finally, in 2006, the park authorities stepped in. What’s left is a tiny fraction of the original monastery, but it has been gloriously restored as one of the park’s two themed visitor heritage centres – maison du patrimoine – with self-guided audio-tours. While Les Bauges has pockets of patrimoine, life today is more about produce and playing. In summer, visitors flock to the park for parapenting (a form of paragliding), donkey trekking, mountain biking and hiking. But this is a year-round destination for lovers of adventure. A skip from La Chartreuse is a winter ski resort popular with families; a slide further west is Savoie Grand Revard, one of the largest cross-country ski areas in France. With more than 140 kilometres of cross-country pistes on a huge plateau covered by forest it has, like Les Bauges, been a closely-guarded secret but word is getting out…

Fruits of natureWhen it comes to produce – mostly organic, often with a twist – Les Bauges excels. Cheese-makers churn milk from goats, sheep and cows. Boulangeries in �cole and Jarsy bake organic bread, enticing hungry customers from across the park. Honey has a special place in the Baugistes’ bellies, with bees feeding on more than 250 different flowers across the massif. Flowers are used, too, by the men and women who convert them to infusions, syrups, lotions and potions.One of their number is Philippe Durand of L’Herbier de la Clappe, near Le Noyer, today busy in his drying room. He has just picked a basketful of flowers – deep mauve with an exotic purple vein – and is laying them out on mesh trays. While his organic herbs and flowers are hand-harvested from a massive allotment, he also collects from the wild. “Plants have so many uses, for cooking and health,” he says. Wandering into his garden, he reaches for a branch, plucks a brown seed pod. “This is ancient Viagra,” he says solemnly. “OK, no, it’s really for arthritis.” Serious again, he adds: “We want to educate people about the possibilities, so we are working with the park to help make this happen.”An artisan who cooks up his own possibilities is hard at work a valley away. G�rard Lorrain makes chocolate; sweet chocolate, salty chocolate, snowflakes, sorbet and sculpted chocolate. After 21 years he has outgrown his original workshop in Jarsy and blossomed into Bellecombe-en-Bauges, where a steady stream of customers keeps him company.Soaked in the rich smell of cooling cocoa, they stand in the shoebox-sized shop and peer over an open counter to watch G�rard construct white chocolate kisses or dust truffles darkly. “They love to buy chocolate from the hand that made it,” says G�rard. “Often I am asked what my favourite is. My answer is, the last baby, the last one that I made.” Today, that is Choc’Ap�ro; salty and sweet, fennel and sesame seed on fat flakes of darkchocolate. “With this I would drink a slightly sweet wine – maybe muscat, demi-sec – or perhaps pastis to complement the fennel,” he says pensively. G�rard is spoilt for choice where wine is concerned. The vineyards of Les Bauges, which are mostly around the southern tip of the diamond, are gaining in reputation. Grouped in the Combe de Savoie, they offer award-winning wines from Apremont, Mondeuse, Chignin and the jewel, Chignin-Bergeron. The slopes of Torm�ry have been producing wines since 1471 and, with the exception of the large Cruet cooperative, the vineyards remain independent. The best base for exploring the vineyards is Saint-Pierre-d’Albigny, reached by sliding down the cliff parapets, via the Col du Fr�ne, to the sunny southern slopes of the park. The village has several claims to fame, including Ch�teau de Miolans, a fortified castle dating from the 11th century which controlled the important alpine crossroads of the Maurienne and Tarentaise. Another is Ch�teau des Allues, a chambre d’h�te offering the most exquisite accommodation within Les Bauges’ boundaries and, some say, the most exciting cuisine.But enough talk of food and wine, it’s time for action. With 500 kilometres of waymarked footpaths, Les Bauges is a magnet for walkers. Grande Randonn�e trails pass over and through the park; shorter themed walks have been designed for families and the mountains beckon adventurous souls with a head for heights. Sylvain Dussans, a mountain leader with an insatiable knowledge of the massif’s fauna and flora, suggests a hike toward the park’s highest peak, Pointe d’Arcalod. From the end of the road, beside Les Bauge’s primary river Le Ch�ran, we begin the slow climb skyward. Woodland thick with beech and maple gives way to open meadows, close-cropped by summer-grazing cattle. Above soar the rock ribs and buttresses of Arcalod; a trickle of hikers make their way carefully over slabs to the summit.Today Sylvain’s sights are set lower, on the Col d’Orgeval. This pass separates Arcalod from the peak of Chaurionde, and provides a way into the remote Vallon de Saint-Ruph, which in turn gives life to the rivers feeding Lac d’Annecy. “Often we see chamois here, and mouflon. We also have seven pairs of golden eagles, which is incredible in such a small area,” he says. “There are lynx in the park and wolves too, but we only ever see their tracks.” As Sylvain scans the mountainsides, he tells of the interaction between animals and humans here. This is a national hunting and wildlife reserve – one of seven in France – and has a strong scientific body. Les Bauges is a nationally important centre for chamois, and has a closely-studied population of t�tras lyre, or black grouse. “Les Bauges is a special place because it is wild; there is not a strong mark of humanity,” Sylvain continues, staring down at the blue smile of Lac d’Annecy. And then he turns and looks back into Les Bauges; back to the island with its fortified peaks, its lush meadows and quiet hamlets, where children play on the night streets and doors are left unlocked.It’s true, what Jacques Laurent said on the shores of the faraway lake. Les Bauges is a secret massif, a fortress island. But the people who live here and love it have shared that secret – so now I have the key, and I’m not giving it back.FRANCOFILEGETTING THEREBy road: Le Ch�telard is 8 hours from northern ferry ports.By train: TGV trains serve Lyon, Chamb�ry, Annecy and Albertville (the TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Chamb�ry takes 2hrs 53mins). Public transport options within the park are limited so car hire is recommended.By air: International gateways to Les Bauges include Lyon-Saint Exup�ry airport, Grenoble-Is�re airport, Geneva International Airport and Chamb�ry-Savoie airport (winter only). WHERE TO STAYAuberge des ClarinesLes Granges73630 Le Ch�telardTel: (Fr) 4 79 54 80 80www.hotel-les-clarines.fr

Maholyne maison d’h�tesPr�cherel73630 JarsyTel: (Fr) 4 79 52 22 43www.maholyne.com

Ch�teau des Allues73250 Saint-Pierre d’AlbignyTel: (Fr) 6 75 38 61 56www.chateaudesallues.com

WHERE TO EATAuberge des ClarinesLes Granges73630 Le Ch�telardTel: (Fr) 4 79 54 80 80www.hotel-les-clarines.fr

Restaurant L’Ang�lus73630 La Comp�te en BaugesTel: (Fr) 4 79 52 00 45

Restaurant Comptoir du Lac(at l’H�tel Clos Marcel)Lac d’Annecy 410 All�e de la Plage74410 DuingtTel: (Fr) 4 50 68 14 10www.closmarcel.fr

TOURIST INFORMATIONParc Naturel R�gional du Massif des BaugesMaison du Parc73630 Le Ch�telardTel: (Fr) 4 79 54 86 40www.parcdesbauges.com

Savoie Mont Blanc Tourisme24 Boulevard de la Colonne73025 Chamb�ryTel: (Fr) 4 79 85 12 45

20 Avenue du Parmelan74000 Annecy Tel: (Fr) 4 50 23 96 00www.savoie-mont-blanc.com

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