Guy Hibbert heads off-piste to discover the summertime pleasures of the Annecy Mountains
As long as there is snow, Alpine ski resorts seldom struggle to attract visitors for the sheer joy of the piste and the fun of après-ski. But the season is limited – December to April at the most – so that leaves at least eight months in which to attract visitors who aren’t skiing. Numerous attempts have been made over the years to plug the gap, and the more physical and extreme sports, such as mountain climbing, long-distance hiking and paragliding, are firmly established. But one area in Haute-Savoie is determined to go even further and enter the ranks of the top 15 worldwide destinations to visit during your lifetime – quite a challenge. Last September, as the first powdery snow was making an appearance on the peaks, I visited this mini-region, recently rebranded as “Annecy Mountains”, to find out whether there really is enough to satisfy the curious traveller without donning skis or crampons, or taking flight.
The so-called Annecy Mountains incorporates Lake Annecy and Annecy town, the Thônes valley, the Aravis pass, and the mountain ski villages of La Clusaz, Le Grand-Bornand and Manigod.
Our first stop was Annecy itself, just a short drive from Geneva airport. The Vieille Ville really is one of the most picturesque sights in France, and you’ll be getting out your camera or phone at every turn along the cobbled streets and waterways where the river Thiou feeds the crystal-clear waters of the lake through the canals of the city.
The 12th-century Palais de l’Île sits between two canals and has a fascinating history as a nobleman’s palace, a medieval courthouse and a prison. It’s now the Annecy history museum and is definitely worth a visit. You can also wander the lanes here, stop for a coffee or a glass of wine, and listen to the trickling water or admire the displays of geraniums and other colourful flowers trailing from the window boxes and hanging over the railings by the river.
If you find yourself climbing up through the streets, the chances are you will have meandered towards the imposing Château d’Annecy, which dominates the skyline of the town. This former residence of the Counts of Geneva and the Dukes of Genevois-Nemours is now a museum and a perfect example of how grand architecture evolved over the centuries as fierce fortresses gradually became ritzy residences. It also has a fine view over the town and lake.
Lake Annecy is a glacial lake some 10 miles long, carved out of the landscape millions of years ago to create a spectacular amphitheatre flanked on both sides by steep slopes, with the old town of Annecy at one end and a nature reserve at the other. From the old town, you can hire a small self-drive boat, take one of the jolly ferries, or book something more energetic like paddle boarding or paragliding. Whatever you do you will enjoy the extraordinary clarity of the water, turquoise in colour and, in summer, warm enough to bathe in. And soon you will be able to cycle the entire circumference of the lake, stopping en route for a stroll around the pretty village of Talloires, pausing for lunch at La Cuillère à Omble, an exceptional fish restaurant right on the lakeside, or discovering the peace and tranquillity of the Bout du Lac nature reserve.
Once you’ve exhausted the pleasures of the lakeside, it’s onwards and upwards to discover the other face of this scenic Alpine region. From Talloires, the road climbs steeply towards the village of La Clusaz, with tantalising glimpses of majestic peaks a backdrop to the high pastures where cows are calmly grazing and traditional chalets are dotted here and there. This village, despite being a highly popular ski resort, has managed to preserve its heritage as a traditional farming community. Here they produce Reblochon, the distinctive raw cow’s milk mountain cheese famed for combining with potatoes, lardons and onions to make the perfect tartiflette. At the Hameau des Alpes you can find out all about the magic of cheesemaking alongside an exhibition devoted to the early days of skiing – how did they manage on those wooden skis?!
From this summer playground there are numerous trails taking you into the Aravis mountain range. You may even pass by one of the farms, like Les Corbassières, where the cows are brought up from the pastures twice a day for milking and the AOC cheese is made by hand in the same way it has been for centuries. When you’ve filled your lungs with fresh mountain air and your legs need a rest there’s the prospect of thermal spa treatments in La Clusaz village to ease away any aches and pains.
A short drive further up the mountain brings you to Le Grand-Bornand, a charming ski resort village which actually receives 40 per cent of its annual tourist activity in the summer months. It’s a stunning location for skiers of all levels, but what is it that brings so many people here outside the winter season? Perhaps it’s the way the community has embraced that most elusive thing: the art de vivre, and the way it proudly celebrate its heritage.
Some of the chalets here date back to the 1700s, when the farmers lived in the front room, the animals were in the back and the spaces above (which now sport geranium-bedecked balconies) were where the hay was left to dry. And always, just across the lane at a safe distance, is the little barn belonging to each chalet, a place to store your valuables in case of the (ever present) danger of fire in the main house.
This appreciation of heritage goes hand in hand with a much more contemporary approach to celebrating village life. The Parcours de l’Art Vache (Cow Art Trail) is a suite of murals, sculptures and paintings which celebrate the grass-chewing star of Le Grand-Bornand. Le Café des Artistes is a former bistro now turned exhibition space to demonstrate the old artisan arts and crafts of the village. This sense of fun extends to the hugely popular international Festival au Bonheur des Mômes (the Kids’ Happiness Festival), which takes place here every August.
Meanwhile, in a quaint workshop-boutique, you can meet Didier Perillat, an artisan leather worker who makes craft leather bags and belts, as well as the elaborately crafted leather harnesses from which hang the traditional cow bells. And in the village centre the new Aux Comptoirs des Alpes is a delicatessen selling mouth-watering specialities from the Savoyard region.
South of these ski villages, in the heart of the Aravis range, lies the beautiful valley of Manigod. Visitors come here to stay in traditional chalets, to walk or cycle, or just to enjoy the clear air and sunny micro-climate and the dramatic vistas opening out across the valley. If you come here, make sure you stop off at Lo Garâjo, a friendly concept café – like something from a trendy quartier of Paris, but with Alpine views.
All this fresh air and walking can have a dramatic impact on the appetite, and it is a pleasure to discover that there is a surprising variety of choice when it comes to eating out. There are plenty of cafés where you can enjoy home-cooked Savoyard specialities such as tartiflette au reblochon, finely sliced charcuterie or a raclette or fondue, washed down with some craft beer from one of the region’s micro-breweries. Locals venture to the very end of the road (literally) at the Col des Annes (covered in snow in the winter) to savour the potato fritters at the rustic farm-café La Cheminée. For more gourmet tastes, pole position goes to Marc Veyrat’s Les Maison des Bois at Manigod – book well ahead if you want to savour this creative Michelin-starred cuisine inspired by the produce of the Haute-Savoie. Back down the mountain, on the shores of Lake Annecy, lies the restaurant of Jean Sulpice, famous for being the youngest ever French chef to receive a Michelin Star and who was named the Gault & Millau chef of the year for 2018. Stéphane Dattrino, Georges Paccard and Laurent Petit are the other names to look up for Michelin-starred cuisine.
The Annecy Mountains offer something for everyone. Cycling, hiking, paragliding, canyoning and other adrenaline-inducing pursuits are widely available. But you don’t need to be young and especially fit to enjoy the region. Ride a ski-lift and take a stroll on the high pastures, hire an electric bicycle and zip up the mountain lanes, catch a ferry across the lake to appreciate the astonishing clarity and colour of the water, relax in an Alpine spa or enjoy a beauty treatment, or just indulge in some fine eating out – and all this surrounded by spectacular scenery and wonderfully clean air.
Geneva airport is 35 minutes from Annecy by car.
Geneva city is 1 hour 40 minutes by train.
From France Today magazine