The Savoie is a region rich in culture and strategically situated in the French Alps, close enough to Switzerland
and Italy to make weekend trips to either during your stay. But it should be said that the little Alpine towns along the train route to either are so charming you may be pulled into a detour. In fact, the word ‘detour’ characterizes the region fairly well – it’s a great place to just wander, providing you speak a bit of the language. The rail systems, like most places in Europe, are fast, comfortable and economical, and they go everywhere, making possible daytrips to numerous of the small towns surrounding, for example, Chambery, whose university attracts a number of foreign students with little spare time and less spare money. Using Chambery as your hub is a good idea, not only because of the university’s modernizing presence, but also because they are more accustomed to non-native visitors and at many venues very good English is spoken. If you can, however, do of course use French, it makes a world of difference in how authentic your experience is. And while there is English spoken many places, this is not Paris and you should be prepared to express yourself, at least in a limited way, in your host country’s language if need be.
There are many enjoyable activities in and around Chambery, of which number 1 on our list is a favorite of both natives and visitors: hiking. The Alpine foothills around Chambery are breathtaking to climb, filled with meadows of wildflowers and pastures of grazing cattle wearing traditional handmade bells that ring softly from time to time as they move, a deep, solemn tone that emphasizes the solitary nature of your experience. A good guide will find you a chatel where you will share a family-like atmosphere with a few other similarly mountainous-minded types, and sit down to meals at a rustic wooden table, with delicious food personally prepared by the owner. Be prepared, however, for raised eyebrows and good-natured teasing about being a ‘gourmand’ if you can’t resist asking for second helpings of the feather-light pies. One important thing to know about hiking anywhere in Europe, it is not a mildly challenging stroll up a gentle incline, on a broad path with traction aids at every possibly dangerous spot, as is often the case in the US. The Europeans attack their hills, often running up paths only slightly less than perpendicular. Expect deep knee bends, few rest stops, and narrow, rocky trails where you will be sliding down mud paths on your heels one moment and face to face with wild rose-bushes full of stodgy bees the next moment. The higher you get to the top, especially in summer, the friendlier the bees get, and while they are entirely non-aggressive, sitting passively wherever on you they drop until you brush them off, it can be a new experience for those not used to it.
A second not-to-miss aspect of Savoie is its cheese. This will be no surprise to anyone who knows France’s reputation for wine and cheese, but here you can take a tour of the family-owned fromagerie, or cheese factory, and see it being made while you wait. The cheese you sample is not, of course, the cheese you see being packed into big tubs, stirred, whacked, and generally manhandled into the proper form and shape – those cheeses will age for weeks or months before being sold locally or exported. My personal favorite was a specialty of Thon, a small town just a bus-ride from Chambery, where they make Reblochon, a soft cheese with an aged, sharp crust. Simply heaven in a mouthful. You don’t even have to leave Chambery for it, though, they have it at the local grocery, along with other regional cheeses, and also at the weekend market.
That leads us to our third item, the local open-air market. We have a small weekly market where I live, but in Savoie the markets are more like a whole grocery store spread out in colorful booths – you can buy your entire menu right there, and a good portion of the population gets up quite early to do just that. Take your own bag to blend in with the locals, something in natural materials is effortlessly classic, and fill up with fresh vegetables and fruits, seafood, meats, herbs – you name it. If you are staying in Savoie for any period of time make this your first weekend activity and enjoy the delicious small-farm produce
all next week.
The fourth thing to do is visit Annecy, a darling if touristy town just a short train ride from Chambery. Don’t bother to buy postcards of the tiny castle in the middle of the river – it’s so picturesque you will be hard put to photograph it from any angle without producing a work of art. Ducks drift asleep on the pale turquoise river, their heads tucked out of sight, making for a whimsical photo if you can catch one by a good backdrop. The small river is crossed by old stone bridges every block or so for most of the town’s length, and flowers fill hanging baskets all up and down it.
Another town not to miss is Aix-Les-Bains, also easily a daytrip from Chambery. Here trees with large, softly spotted limbs give a dreamy Mediterranean feel to the promenades along the shore of the Lac du Bourget, which is a startlingly brilliant blue year round. Rent a boat or take a ferry across the lake to the impressive gothic Abbeye d’Hautecombe, where you can tour the massive church with or without a live guide, in English or in French. Buy delicious bottled pear juice and souvenirs at the little gift shop at the end of the tour and enjoy a shaded, picturesque walk to and from the dock. If you’re lucky, on your return there will be vendors along the promenade selling Italian print aprons for 2-5 euros. Before returning to the train station, stop in at one of the floating gift shops in the marina to buy souvenirs, including figurines of cheeky-looking French sailors and various other nautical gifts and decor.
At Chamonix, another neighboring ville, you can take a breathtaking ride up into the mountains, on the world’s highest cable car, which will take you 12,000 feet up the Aiguille (“Needle”) du Midi, providing some of the best views of 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. This is not an adventure for the faint of heart, however, or for those with height phobias, as the cars swing high above the earth in many spots. There may be a lengthy wait both ways, so be sure to wear warm clothing. Adventurous travellers can ski down the VallÃ?Â©e Blanche to return, less physically inclined passengers may decide to contemplate the view while warming up with a chocolat chaud in the cafÃ?Â© before descending by the same cable cars.
You may want to visit Geneva to experience the curious blend of international sophistication and old-world charm. As well as the obligatory visit to St. Peter’s Cathedral, where John Calvin once preached, the Russian church, though tiny, is well worth a visit. The Flower Watch reminds you that here is the birthplace of all great watches, while the Hotel Ville holds the distinction of hosting the first Geneva Convention and early meetings of the League of Nations, from which the UN evolved. Also, Geneva’s unforgettable 150 meter fountain called the Jet d’Eau is illuminated after dark, if you stay the night.
A slightly longer trip, for a weekend or several days, is a visit to Turin, of the famed and controversial Shroud, just across the border. A comfortable and scenic train ride across the mountains, and lax security at the border, make the trip quiet and pleasant. Once in Turin, a hostel in the central Square provides elegant if sleepless rooms, the last due to Italy’s national disregard for traffic conventions. Don’t miss the gelato, the ideal from which our poor imitation – ice cream – sprang. If you don’t speak more than a word or two of Italian, as we didn’t, the hospitable atmosphere in Italy makes getting around and getting fed much less stressful than in many European countries. We dined in a restaurant which could have served the Queen of England without batting an eye, and in spite of our dress – jeans and t-shirts, for lack of anything else, the first night – -we were treated just as royally as our elegantly and timelessly attired neighbors. No effort was spared to make us feel at home and comfortable – a bit of a lost cause, since we could all see we were frightfully underdressed – -and I personally found it simply delightful after the general aloofness of the French. We did our best to speak what few words of Italian we knew, and learned quite a bit just the first night, from our flawlessly garbed and mannered waiter, whom I will always remember as the man with a small store of English and a large store of kindness.
The clothing in France is generally better a cut and quality than in the States, but clothing in Italy, fashion capitol of the world, is superlative. Don’t leave without a scarf or a pair of sunglasses, at very least. This is also the place to buy shoes, and tea sets in classic, unadorned white, although getting the latter home in one piece may turn out to be a bit of a trick. If you package the pieces individually and thoroughly, you can mail them with a good chance of losing only one or two pieces. Alternately, you can take them on the plane, but if at any time they leave your hands, they will be treated about the same as they would be by the postal service, if not worse.
A note, if you want to enter churches in Italy, or in fact almost anywhere in Europe, bring a shrug to cover your shoulders and don’t show your legs – affronts to religious sensibilities are one thing that can make the Italians lose their affability. Also, you won’t be able to view the actual Shroud of Turin, of course, but you can see the box where they keep it and view a replica, as well as buy postcards. The church where it is kept is worth the visit on its own merits, being full of ornate wood and precious metalwork, as well as beautiful stained glass windows.
Another thing not to leave Turin without seeing is the Egyptology Museum, world-famous for the quality and variety of its artifacts. If mummies move you, this is the place to go in Turin. Imposing statues and dreamlike half-faces of baked clay, united by the serenity they all seem to wear, transport you in a few minutes to the world of ancient Egypt. Students can enter for half-price, but the full price is only around 7 euros.
The Savoie is a good choice for anyone wanting to visit France, both because of the natural beauty of the region and because of its strategic location. It is less diluted than Paris and has a wide range of activities for every taste. Lastly, a dry and warm but not excruciatingly hot summer make it the perfect getaway for those who are subdued by the humid heat of tropical destinations.