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* Isère Department is named after the Isère River (see marker C location)


FRANCE RHONE-ALPES HAUTE SAVOIE Alpinistes en haute montagneThe spectacular topography of the Alps - the rugged paths, the hair raising precipices, the ragging torrents - need time to be appreciated and savoured, so allow several days to really experience the best that the Alps can offer. The gateways to the highest peaks are on the western edge, through Grenoble and Annecy, and any of the four national parks - Vanoise, Ecrins, Queyras or Vercors offer excellent countryside for hiking (Queyras is the least busy, Vercors the least physically challenging for those not up to peak fitness). For the more adventurous, the Grande Traversée des Alpes crosses all the major massifs from St-Gingolph on Lake Geneva to Nice.

However if you insist on doing a quick dash through the area, just head straight for Chamonix, at the base of Mont Blanc, which at 4800m (15,750ft) is Europe’s highest peak. Although all the main centres have day walks with well marked routes and refuge huts.

The French Alps, more specifically the town of Chamonix, has the honour of playing host to the very first Winter Olympics in 1924. Popular all year round, the French Alps are a magnet for tourists seeking a connection with the great outdoors. With attractive hiking in the spring and summer months, and ski resorts filled to the brim in winter, more and more alpine resorts are offering custom activities and diversifying to cater to the increasing number of tourists in summer and even during off-peak seasons.

The region comprises two older subdivisions – Savoy to the north and Dauphiné to the south. Savoy was once an independent region, becoming part of France as late as 1860, and still strives to retain some of its traditional heritage. The Alps were formed by tectonic activity – the collision of the African and European plates – and glaciation which further modified the shape of the landscape, the valley around Chamonix being a prime example. The French section of the Alps contains Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, which stands at 4,800 metres. The weather is notoriously unpredictable, and even in summer walkers and hikers are advised to be prepared with warm, waterproof clothing.

As one would expect, tourism forms a major part of the region’s economy. However, a more traditional activity used to be transhumance, where cattle herds would be migrated between the valleys and high alpine pastures according to the seasons. This deeply rooted practice has left its indelible mark on the alpine landscape as well as culture – yodelling is probably one of the more common traditional alpine practices that has made its way into popular culture. In France transhumance is increasingly being replaced by cattle ranching, a reflection of the competition for space from the tourism industry. With the tapping of hydroelectric power, electrical and chemical industries have also sprung up in the area.

Several towns are worthy of mention lying within the French Alps: Grenoble, Briançon, Chambery, Annecy and Chamonix are some of the more well-known. Chamonix-Mont Blanc is of course one of the most popular ski resorts in the region, also serving as a vital road link to Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel. The architectural vibrancy of Chamonix reflects centuries of cultural evolution and lends the town its undeniable charm. Grenoble, the main city of the Dauphiné further south, is the gateway to the Vercors and Chartreuse ranges. The Vercors, a beautiful regional park characterised by pine forests and dramatic gorges, lies to the west of Grenoble. The Chartreuse, to the north of Grenoble, is home to an enigmatic monastery whose monks first created Chartreuse liqueur in the seventeenth century. Although the monks still live in silence and solitude today, a museum and distillery is open to visitors.

Lac Léman, or Lake Geneva, in the very north of the Savoy, separates France from Switzerland on the opposite bank. Since 1839, when the first spa establishment was set up at Évian-les-Bains, the area has been a popular spa resort location. Évian is now of course known the world over for its mineral water, but is also a modern resort town with sporting activities, spa treatments and a casino.
When talking about the Alps, one cannot help but think of the quintessential alpine dish – fondue. This sinful cheese-and-wine concoction is a must for any visitor. French Alpine cuisine is marked by simplicity and a homely warmth, the staples being ingredients that are locally available such as potatoes, cheeses, and fish obtained from lakes in the area. A visit to this region of unique culture and awe-inspiring landscapes will not fail to touch your mind, body and soul.