8 reasons to visit the French mountains this summer
Escape the summer heat with a visit to the French mountains, where you can do everything from hiking to shopping.
Go swimming in a stunning mountain lake
Nestled by the shores of its mountain-fringed lake and renowned for its winding waterways, pastel-coloured houses and turreted château, Annecy is a beguiling alpine town that every visitor to the Alps should visit. The capital of the modern Haute-Savoie département, Annecy is a town which prospered under the medieval Counts of Geneva and the Dukes of Savoy, and has maintained much of its splendid historic centre. But it is the town’s natural setting which strikes visitors the most; Annecy is a place for outdoor travel, where visitors can while away hours mountain gazing from a pavement café, swimming in the lake’s limpid, turquoise-tinged waters lake or cycling slowly through its picture-postcard streets.
Enjoy spectacular views
Once accessible only to mountaineers, the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is an absolute must-see in the Pyrénées. Since 1878, this 2877-metre high mountain has been home to an important astronomical observatory, from where – on a clear day – you can enjoy soul-stirring views over the Pyrénées. At the top, there are also several different viewing terraces, all offering slightly different – but equally breathtaking – views of the serrated mountain landscape.
Stock up on mountain foods at one of the many markets
Situated at the foot of the Pyrénées in the Ariège département, the town of Saint-Girons boasts a huge market, which is well worth stopping off at if you find yourself in this neck of the woods. On sale are displays of sun-swollen fruit and vegetables, pastries, cheeses, smoked meats, craft beers and much more – the vast majority of which is produced in the surrounding area.
Take a pilgrimage
The sprawling town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrénées has been one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites since 1858. A 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous is believed to have seen the Virgin Mary 18 times in a rocky grotto, which today is known as the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes. The site is considered one of the holiest sites in Christendom and attracts more than 6 million visitors each year, with many of whom hoping to be healed by the town’s waters.
Explore a traditional mountain town
A visit to Chambéry will introduce you to one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the Alps. A summer afternoon’s stroll will take you along quaint lanes flanked by 14th to 18th-century hotels, past charming, hidden courtyards and through café-lined squares. Streets worthy of a visit are the quaint rue du Sénat de Savoie and the cobbled rue de Juiverie, as well as the arcaded rue de Boigne and the elongated Place St-Léger.
Learn about the history of the mountains
The ancient Roman city of Besançon sits on a horseshoe bend in the River Doubs and is dominated by the Citadelle de Besançon. Lying 120 metres above the vieille ville, this monumental 17th-century fortress was designed by Vauban for Louis XIV and commands wonderful views of the city and beyond. Conclude your visit with an amble through the 18th-century old town, a highlight of which is the Cathédrale de St-Jean, which boasts an extraordinary 70-dial astronomical clock indicating sunrise and sunset as well as tides in French ports.
Scale the peaks without having to ski down
For mind-blowing mountain scenery you can’t beat the Aiguille du Midi. This 3842-metre high jagged tooth of a rock is part of the Mont Blanc massif and is one of Chamonix’s most iconic geographical features. If you are good with altitude, travel up on the vertiginous Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi from Chamonix, stopping off either at the Plan de l’Aiguille (2317m) from where you can start a hike if you’re really adventurous, or at the very top. From the summit you can enjoy soul-stirring, 360-degree views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps but be sure to wear warm clothes – even in summer the temperature rarely reaches 10 °C.
Go off the beaten track on a splendid hike
Created in 1979, the Parc National du Mercantour in the southeast of France covers seven different alpine valleys and is a stunning mix of strikingly deep valleys and jagged peaks. The park is dominated by the 3143-metre tall Cime du Gélas, which is the perfect place for outdoor pursuits. In the summer, the mountain and the surrounding area offer a wide range of hiking and biking trails that take you past rare species of flora and fauna, with highlights including the ibex (a species of wild goat), golden eagle and wild grey wolves. Meanwhile, the nearby Vallée des Merveilles is home to a splendid range of Bronze Age rock carvings which can only be visited on foot during the summer months.
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