Ski and city break in Savoie

A fleeting winter visit to Savoie allowed Zoë McIntyre to combine the thrill of skiing with a cultural town break

For true ski enthusiasts, there is nothing to beat the lure of the slopes; the rarefied alpine air, the downhill rush, the sweeping panoramas and the après-ski revelry are reasons enough to hotfoot it back to the mountains at the drop of the first snowflake.

Then there are the less committed skiers (like me), who enjoy the occasional alpine excursion but do not want to spend all week on the slopes. Combining a hassle-free ski trip with a snappy city break seemed a way to experience the best of both worlds.

Such an opportunity arose when a companion and I visited Lake Annecy Ski Resorts – an umbrella title for four ski villages at the foot of the Aravis mountains in Haute-Savoie: Le Grand-Bornand, La Clusaz, Saint-Jean-de-Sixt and Manigod. Less than an hour’s drive from Geneva Airport, they present a viable short break option that can be slotted in with a stay in nearby Annecy. By timing our trip in March – later in the ski season – we benefited from sufficient snow on the slopes and off-season tranquillity in town.

Perched on the edge of a turquoise lake against a backdrop of frosted mountains, Annecy was bathed in sunshine on our arrival. In its historic centre, we ambled along the medieval cobbled streets, free of the usual crowds of tourists, taking time to stop at craft shops and foodie addresses. My favourite find was a pâtisserie run by award-winning pastry chef Philippe Rigollot, stocking a mesmerising medley of artistically crafted cakes, pastries and artisan chocolates.

Following the zigzag trail across the geranium-decked bridges draped over a network of canals, we came upon the town’s showpiece; the turreted Palais de l’Île. Situated on a triangular islet in the centre of the Thiou waterway, the 12th-century palace-turned-prison now houses a museum dedicated to local history. Those interested in Annecy’s cultural past should brave the steep climb to the imposing Musée-Château, with its views over the medieval quarters and canals.

Having sampled the town’s cultural delights, we took to two wheels for a cycle tour around Lac d’Annecy, which gave the pleasure of panoramic views without the pain of steep hill climbs. The 40-kilometre trail that skirts the water’s edge can be tackled in one go or broken down into a shorter route: we opted to pedal along the western shore, where an old railway track has been converted into a cycle path. As afternoon clouds began to gather, we watched the lake turn a brooding indigo; formed 18,000 years ago from melting Alpine glaciers, it reaches a depth of 80 metres. In summer, windsurfers, sail boats and bathers occupy the lake; in spring the setting was more tranquil, with only a few swans and the occasional fisherman sending ripples through the limpid waters.

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The local fishermen’s catch can be sampled at l’Olivier, a restaurant tucked-away in the heart of Annecy, which, on a Wednesday night, hummed with the happy babble of local diners. We finished the meal with a delicious chocolate fondant and raspberry sorbet, excusing the calories as essential fuel for the exertions of the following day.

CITY TO THE SLOPES

Galvanised by an early-morning alarm, we were relieved to find Annecy’s bus station just a minute’s walk from our hotel. Amid the chatter of the other passengers on the bus – mostly salopette-clad Annéciens heading for an impromptu morning ski – we enjoyed the rapidly changing landscape. The polished pavements of Annecy were soon left behind as the bus followed a snaking road into a valley dotted with hardy alpine flowers, patches of snow and isolated farmhouses.

Within 35 minutes we had reached Le Grand-Bornand, a traditional Savoyard village, with its quiet central square, quaint bell-tower and centuries-old shingle-roofed chalets creating an authentic character often absent in purpose-built ski resorts. “The resort has a friendly atmosphere because everyone knows each other,” my ski instructor Olivier told me. “Shops are open all year round, the vendors have inherited them from their fathers, so they remember people when they return.”

While ski tourism forms the village’s winter trade, it is age-old agricultural practices that keep the Alpine community alive in summer. The snow-laden ski pistes are transformed into bucolic grazing ground for the cattle that produce the local reblochon cheese. The name comes from the Savoyard word re-blocher, meaning ‘to squeeze a cow’s udder a second time’, and referred to the medieval practice of farmers only partially milking cows, to avoid paying the full tax. The remaining milk, obtained in secret, proved much creamier and ideal for cheese-making.

Chaperoned by Olivier, we spent the morning easing into our skies at the neighbouring resort of La Clusaz, which although not yet connected to Le Grand- Bornand by ski lift, is easily accessible by shuttle bus. Formed by five interlinked mountain ranges, the compact resort provides a variety of terrains across 132 kilometres of ski pistes. While proud of its family-friendly reputation, La Clusaz has plenty of challenging runs for accomplished skiers, as well as off-piste opportunities and a snow park for freestylers.

It was enormous fun cruising along the gentle slopes leading down from the sunny Beauregard plateau, before we wound along a fir-tree-lined blue run to arrive at the Domaine de l’Étale, home to a variety of intermediate slopes. Matters became a little more serious at the l’Aiguille summit, where we tested our nerve on the steep l’Aiguille red and undulating Lapiaz black runs. Thankfully, the uncrowded mountainside and genial attitude of the local skiers allowed us to take our time on the trickier terrain. Other snow activities proved popular here too: evidenced by the colourful paragliders breezing about in the crisp blue skies and the well-signposted snowshoeing paths bearing heavy criss-cross imprints from the many snow-shoed walkers.

A pause for lunch at the ski-in, ski-out restaurant La Ferme finally provided a chance to sample the local reblochon. Seated along a wooden table on the sundrenched terrace, we spent a happy hour scraping gooey goodness from a thick, disc-shaped slice of cheese – quickly melting under a hot griddle – while tossing slivers of meat on the embers. Accompanied by the equally rich cheese and potato tartiflette and a carafe of Savoyard wine, this raclette dish was understandably proving popular with the famished skiers filling the busy slope-side eatery.

Any cheese-induced lethargy was quickly shaken off by the vertiginous heights of Col de Balme – at 2,480 metres, the highest skiable point in the La Clusaz area. From the top of the télésiège, we stopped to admire the views of Mont Blanc, before following the many confident skiers careering down the steep Blanchot red run and facing the many natural jumps along the way.

Back in Le Grand-Bornand for the evening, we sampled a sophisticated side of Savoyard cuisine at Le Confins des Sens. The unassuming wooden exterior belied the quality of the cuisine as we were led through a tasting menu of six highly refined courses and various delightful amuse-bouches. After all that indulgence, it was time to return to our hotel just across the road for a post-prandial soak under a starry canopy in the outdoor sauna.

Only a handful of other skiers were on the slopes of Le Grand-Bornand early next morning. We criss-crossed powdery snow on long, empty runs from the top of Mont Lachat, at 2,000 metres, right down to the village’s central ski lift at Le Chinaillon, where we had set off. Exchanging pleasantries in French with passers-by, we finished our skiing exalted by the mountain’s twists and turns and with the feeling of being the only Brits to have unearthed this seemingly uncharted Alpine wonderland.

However, it was only when the bus pulled back into Annecy that afternoon that I fully realised what made this corner of France so exceptional. I could be in full ski gear, dashing across precipices and then, within a short bus ride, be strolling through the streets of a picturesque lakeside town.

The next morning, as we skipped around Annecy’s market before departing for our flight – buying up enough reblochon to last until next winter – it was only the distant outline of snow-fleeced peaks that hinted at the Alpine adventures so close at hand.

FRANCOFILE

GETTING THERE

By air: Geneva is 50 kilometres from Le Grand-Bornand.

By road: Le Grand-Bornand is eight hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports.

By rail: The journey from London to Annecy via Paris takes seven hours.

GETTING AROUND

In Annecy

Rent bicycles from Roul’ ma Poule, 4 Rue des Marquisats (tel: (Fr) 4 50 27 86 83, www.annecy-location-velo.com).

On the slopes

A local bus from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand/La Clusaz costs €16 return. Regular shuttle buses circulate between La Clusaz and Le Grand-Bornand; single ticket costs €2. www.voyages-crolard.com

Adult winter lift fees costs: Le Grand Bornand €25.50 a day; La Clusaz €34.80 a day, two-day pass to all four Lac Annecy Ski Resorts €68.50. .

WHERE TO STAY

ANNECY

Hôtel des Alpes

Rue de la Poste

74000 Annecy

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 04 56

www.hotelannecy.com

Doubles from €65, breakfast €8.

Allobroges Park Hotel

11 Rue Sommeiller

74000 Annecy

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 03 11

www.allobroges.com

Doubles from €79, breakfast €9.50.

ON THE SLOPES

Châlet Les Saytels

Le Village BP 26

74450 Le Grand Bornand

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 02 20 16

www.bestwestern-chaletlessaytels.com

Doubles from €78, breakfast €11.

WHERE TO EAT

ANNECY

L’Olivier

Cour du Pré Carré

10 Rue Vaugelas

74000 Annecy

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 51 23 00

www.restaurantlolivier.comMenus from €20.10.

ON THE SLOPES

Le Confins des Sens

74450 Le Grand-Bornand

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 69 94 25

www.restaurant-grand-bornand.com

Dinner menus from €38.

La Ferme

1078 Route du Col des Aravis

74220 La Clusaz

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 02 50 50

www.lesfermiers.com

WHERE TO VISIT

Pâtisserie Philippe Rigollot

1 Place Georges Volland

74000 Annecy

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 31 35

http://philipperigollot.com

Musée-Château

Place du Château

74000 Annecy

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 33 87 30

http://musees.agglo-annecy.fr

TOURIST INFORMATION

Lake Annecy Ski Resorts tourist board

www.lakeannecy-skiresorts.com

Le Grand-Bornand tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 02 78 00

www.legrandbornand.com

La Clusaz tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 32 65 00

www.laclusaz.com

Annecy tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 4 50 45 00 33

www.lac-annecy.com