The Annecy Mountains – Jane Wilson is enchanted

My lunch is topped with alpine flowers. Orange, purple and yellow petals sitting prettily as we sipped fresh mint lemonade with a backdrop of a mountain landscape. Cow bells jingle in the distance, the air fresh and unpolluted. Silence and stillness. Peace and tranquillity. I’m in Annecy Mountains in France. A picture of health.

Mountain Landscape

Here in South West France, wellness seems to pour from the mountains cradling the valleys, rises from the earth underfoot and flaunts itself as forests and plants. It oozes from the clean waters flowing along rivers, gushes down waterfalls and poses as Lake Annecy in true picture postcard style. There are natural reserves for mindful walking, yoga positions in harmonious corners, hiking and cycling trails and workshops on prolonging the benefits of local natural products, A wellness destination in every sense.

Paddle Yoga

Walking tours of Annecy old town provide an in-depth history of this French town, aptly known as the Venice of the Alps. The Château d’Annecy is a restored castle and museum. Situated at the top of a hill, it is well worth visiting for the views. There are a number of churches, some date back to the Middle Ages. Église Saint-Maurice is the oldest church here. The architectural styles vary from the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Pierre to modern structures. The old prison, Palais de l’Île, was built in the 12th century. Today it’s unlocked and now a key attraction. It sits in the middle of the Thiou Canal and houses the Architecture and Heritage Interpretation Centre.

Traditional wooden emblematic buildings, colourful houses in Piedmontese style and water flowing under the church capture life in years gone-by. There is a myriad of passages to stroll through, arcades to explore and window boxes drenched in floral displays. It’s no surprise to learn there are over 100 gardeners to keep the area so colourful. Delightfully quaint, there are channels of water meandering along the narrow streets fringed with restaurants and al fresco diners. And of course, Pont des Amoures, the romantic footbridge with an equally romantic past.

Al Fresco Dining

This medieval city lies on the edge of the alpine Le Lac de Annecy. The transparent, crystal clean lake, 14.6 km in length, serves as a central focal attraction to the villages it circumvents. You can sail on it, drive around it or paraglide over it. Biking takes two hours, hiking, much longer. Alternatively, simply enjoy its changing rhythm and stunning views – the sunsets, sunrises, silhouettes of boats and natural reflections. And thanks to protective measures taken over the last 50 years, it is now the purest of all urban lakes in Europe. It was formed about 18,000 years ago, at the time the large alpine glaciers melted. It is the third-largest lake in France.

The Bout du Lac nature reserve is a protected natural area on the shores of the lake. The walks are peaceful, uncrowded and meditative especially with regular signs reminding walkers to listen to nature. Wet forests, reedbeds, wet meadows and alkaline peat bogs make up this ecosystem with a variety of rare animal and plant species. In particular, it is a sanctuary for many birds and shelters rare species of orchids.

Wrapping around the lake are carpets of green landscapes, wooden houses dotted on the hillslopes and church spires glinting and adding height to skylines. Accommodation in the region is served in various styles. Hidden chalets, farm-stays edging the forest, camping, glamping and B&Bs. Les Ô d’Annecy proved to be a delight with homemade offering of preserves and breads, a real country breakfast served on the edge of the garden flooded with spectacular views of the lake with a backdrop of its 1867 country house. It supports sustainability by heating with wood. A massage room is housed in a shepherds hut while visiting deers roam the grounds lined with pine trees. Hotel La Ferme is located in the middle of the slope, overlooking the resort village of La Clusaz. This friendly hotel-restaurant offers traditional cuisine served in a cosy candlelit dining room or on its surrounding terraces which savour views of the ski lifts and gondolas traversing the Aravis mountain range. Villa Caroline is the first dedicated wellness hotel. Sitting on the shores of Lake Annecy, this chic establishment offers 18-rooms, a detox menu, choice of massages tailored to requirements and fitness room. It also doubles as an ideal yoga retreat.

 

As you journey up into the mountains, views of the lake seem to follow. Towns include Thônes, a half-way point between Annecy and the ski resorts. The villages of St Jean De Sixt, La Clusaz, Le Grand Bornand and Manigod provide an insight into alpine life. We visit two.

Bringing fun and creativity, the Cow Art walking trail is scattered around the heart of Le Grand-Bornand village. It showcases various cow portrayals in metal and wood sculptures and murals. It’s an open-air art gallery, an interpretation of traditions, rewarded with smiles. The cow-art forms are a tribute to the old forgotten trades of the valleys. In the year 2000, Le Grand-Bornand had 2000 inhabitants, 2000 cows in pastures at nearly 2000 meters altitude! A fitting theme.

Fresh mountain air and sheltered rivers banks create the ideal conditions to indulge in the ancient art of Tuomo yoga. It starts with walking barefoot on stony pathways followed by rehearsing breathing techniques and visualization to prepare for voluntary submersion in cold water. Ten minutes in ten degrees in the river was the aim and almost achieved! It is advised not to stay longer in minutes than the temperature of the water. It certainly calls on will-power to relight an inner fire and mental control. This Tibetan Buddhist monks’ practice strengthens our immunity and aims to liberate conditioned fears and worries.

Workshops preserving the benefits of local plants and herbs are available. Workshops on soap making are run by the Laetitia Hespel and provide an insight into plant medicine and sustainability. After two hours, we quickly realise the lengthy and complex process in making a bar of soap. We also learn of the intrinsic qualities of various ingredients for specific skin types. Her botanical herb garden sits at an 800m altitude. She handpicks her homegrown organic plants and then dries them to conserve qualities. Over 30 varieties are sold to laboratories and herbalists such as Clarins.

Also using natural herbs is the family run Distillerie Des Aravis which produces varieties of herbal liqueur using Génépi. This traditional aperitif is popular in this Alpine area and dates back to the herbal digestive in 1878 made using an old recipe from monks which included 27 plants. It promised to be a treatment for headache, stomach and mood. From digestives to fondues, the area is reviving old traditions.

Sitting on the terrace at the Chalet de Paccaly, at the base of the Aravis in the mountains, I tuck into my colourful lunch. Astrid Marty is a local guide and calls the mountains her office. With her knowledge of the area, she picks edible alpine flowers which grow at this 1500m altitude. Her choice of plant and mountain flowers to complement dishes include campanula, wild thyme, willowherb, wild oregano and nasturtium. 

Edible Flowers

Annecy Mountains is much more than its scenery and landscape, it’s a destination that draws you into its soul to experience its natural offerings from mountain culture, outdoor pursuits, homegrown hospitality, topped with edible fruits.

www.annecymountains.com

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Jane Wilson

Founder & editor of the Wellness Traveller

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