Summer in the French Alps

Lunch opposite Mont BlancIf snow sports are your thing and you’ve only ever seen the French Alps dressed in white, a summer holiday amongst lush meadows, rushing rivers and sparkling Alpine lakes is a vastly different experience. At this time of year, the air is full of birdsong and cowbells; the green slopes are a playground for hikers and mountain-bikers; and the towns and villages host everything from food festivals to outdoor theatre, jazz and classical music events to firework spectaculars.  

Take a low cost flight to Geneva or Lyon, pick up a hire car and you can be deep in the mountains in little more than an hour. Or head across the Channel in your own car and turn east off the Rhone Valley. Although the mountains do get in the way of short cuts, nothing’s really very far apart and you’ll find it’s easy to combine two or three contrasting destinations on a touring holiday. Or simply stay put and explore one area in depth.

Pretty villagesCheck out the website before you travel to plan your itinerary, find accommodation, and get tickets for special events. We pitched up in Morzine last year to find the town gearing up for the annual Harley Davidson festival when riders converge from all corners of Europe; this year, the Tour de France hits town on July 23. But whatever event you get caught up in – by design or by accident – you’ll find a lively, all-inclusive atmosphere so just go with the flow and enjoy!  

Tempted? These are a few of my must-do activities in the central Savoie-Mont Blanc region:

Walk the roof of Europe. Chairlifts are remarkably good value in the summer season. Ask about day passes and then take the easy way up to enjoy walking trails suitable for all ages and levels of fitness from family groups to long-distance hikers. Stop off at a mountain restaurant for regional food with a view.

Swimming in lake AnnecySwim in a mountain lake. Savoie-Mont Blanc boasts four crystal-clear mountain lakes, Annecy, Le Bourget, Aiguebelette and – shared with Switzerland – Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). Look out for designated ‘beach’ areas where you can swim in the warm, clean water.  

Get up close to a glacier. Enjoy the leisurely ride on the historic Tramway du Mont Blanc then take the short walk from the station at the top to relax with a drink at the cafe beside the Bionnassay Glacier – a beguiling combination of winter and summer conditions. You can also disembark en route to walk the mountain trails.

Mt Blanc at sunsetWatch Mont Blanc turn pink in the setting sun. Not far from Megeve, the Biotope de Combloux is an ecological swimming pool filtered by a carefully controlled mix of aquatic plants. In the evening, diners can watch France’s highest mountain turn pink from the terrace of the Cote Lac restaurant.

Visit a mountain cheese dairy. Savoie-Mont Blanc produces some wonderful hard cheeses made from milk produced by cows grazing flower-filled Alpine pastures. Ask at any local Tourist Office about farms that welcome visitors to watch cows being milked and cheese being made. Especially good fun if you have grandchildren in tow.

Get on your bike. In my view, mountain biking is best enjoyed from the comfort of a chairlift as you glide noiselessly over the ramps, bumps and bends of the downhill tracks. But many tourist offices now rent out electric bikes so you can explore the zig-zags of the Tour de France without the need for lycra or indeed anything but minimal effort. Wiggins Wannabes, this is your moment!!

Gillian paraglidingDrift through the sky. Look heavenwards and on a clear day you’ll often see the coloured sails of paragliders soaring over the valleys on the thermals like human eagles. But why just watch? I took a tandem trial flight and adored every airborne second. The expert behind me had thousands of hours to his credit and a reassuring spare parachute – if you’ve a head for heights, don’t miss it.

Soak up the atmosphere of pretty villages. The French love red geraniums and you’ll find clusters of wooden chalets adorned with floral window boxes. Open the doors to village churches too – many of them are flamboyantly baroque inside. Then just sit on a cafe terrace with your favourite tipple and soak up the atmosphere.

Annecy Old TownExplore heritage towns. Annecy’s old town with its arcaded streets, canals and quaysides appears on photographs around the world, whilst Aix-les-Bains is a pretty town of two halves, one by the lake, the other – with historic houses, museum and spa – a couple of kilometres away. Chambery was once home to the Dukes of Savoie who are buried at Hautecombe Abbey on the shore of Lac du Bourget – take a tranquil lake cruise for a close-up view.   

Fly over the glaciers. Happy to view the world at altitude but don’t like being open to the elements? Then book a flight over the glaciers in a four-seater plane from Megeve altiport with Aerocime for the ultimate holiday thrill. Loved it!

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Gillian Thornton

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