How to Spend 10 Days in the Rhône-Alpes
With towering peaks and seemingly endless runs, the Rhône-Alpes region of France is known for some of the best skiing in the world. Just looking at the numbers can be overwhelming: Skiers can choose from 160 different resorts, including the largest linked skiing terrain in the world. The region hosted the Winter Olympics three times—in 1924 (Chamonix), 1968 (Grenoble), and 1992 (Albertville)—and the mountains offer everything from the ultimate luxury accommodations to small traditional villages.
But while the world-class skiing is sure to impress, what makes a trip across the Atlantic to the Rhône-Alpes so special is all that’s available in addition to the fresh powder. The region is packed with old-world charm and cultural experiences that you won’t find on any other trip. From visiting chateaus and castles to enjoying multi-course meals and fine wine from the region, the Rhône-Alpes region is quite a departure from what you’ll find in the United States. Taking 10 days to explore the area will not only give you an incredible ski vacation, but a taste of the French culture to last a lifetime. While you could spend the whole winter skiing the Rhône-Alpes without covering it all, here’s a sample itinerary of some of its best destinations.
Day 1: Lyon
Lyon is the second largest metropolitan area in France—and the perfect starting point for any vacation in the region. Located about 300 miles southeast of Paris, Lyon is the capital of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, and it’s known for its cuisine and architectural landmarks. Take at least a day to explore the city. While Paris may be known for its Notre Dame cathedral, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon is considered by many to be more attractive. While about 500 years younger than its Parisian counterpart, the church sits on the city’s main hill with view of both the city and, on a clear day, the snow-capped Alps.
For a more modern but equally impressive piece of architecture, visit the Musée de Confluences, which sits at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers. Known as the “Crystal Cloud,” the impressive structure is made of glass, concrete, and stainless steel—and worth a visit even if you don’t go inside. But you should, of course, go inside and see the displays on the origins of the world and man’s place in it. You won’t be disappointed. You also can take a guided tour of the city’s historical areas, including its ties to the Roman Empire, such as the remnants of the public baths and the amphitheater on Fourvière hill.
Day 2: Grenoble
Less than 70 miles southeast of Lyon, Grenoble sits at the foot of the French Alps and is surrounded by mountains. If you can’t wait to hit the slopes, nearly 20 ski areas are close to town, the nearest of which (Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse) is only 15 minutes from downtown Grenoble. But the town itself is well worth exploring too. Apart from the alpine activities, the city is best known for La Bastille, an ancient fortification in the mountains that overlooks the city. You arrive there via cable cars—known as “the bubbles” because of their circular glass design. The 500-meter ride up (in just five minutes) might be the most spectacular part of the trip.
Other popular sights in the city include the Grenoble Museum of Art, which features masterpieces spanning eight centuries of western art. The Domaine de Vizille is a museum dedicated to the French Revolution, but it is perhaps known for the stunning chateau in which it is housed as well as its French-style gardens.
Day 3: Annecy
The alpine town of Annecy is one of the most popular spots in the Alps, an old-world charmer situated strategically on routes connecting France, Switzerland, and Italy. Located on a lake of the same name, Annecy is sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the Alps,” thanks to the two canals and the Thiou River that run through the city. You can spend countless hours exploring the old town with its cobblestone streets and pastel buildings, some of which date back nearly 900 years. You’ll find two memorable churches—the church of St.-Maurice and the Cathedral of St. Pierre, built in the 15th and 16th centuries, respectively.
If you’re with someone you love, take a stroll across the Pont des Amours, or bridge of love. According to custom if two people kiss on the bridge, they’ll remain together forever. Whatever you decide to do, take the time to sample the town’s signature dish, Raclette, which is a round cow’s milk cheese melted over an open flame and scraped onto your plate with potatoes, dried meats, and pickled onions. Good thing there are endless nearby hikes to choose from to help burn the calories.
Day 4: Vercors Regional Nature Park
Time to leave the cities behind and explore the massive Vercors Regional Nature Park, an area known for its excellent hiking, climbing, and caving. You’ll find a range of tree-covered hills between the Rhône Valley and the Route d’Hiver des Alpes. Some of the mountains rise above 7,000 feet and are broken up by some spectacular valleys and gorges. An old timber road that was constructed in the late 1800s will take you through the Combe Lavel, which offers excellent views of the surrounding countryside. The park is also home to one of the largest Nordic skiing systems in Europe. The Nordic centers of Villard de Lans-Corrençon and Autrans each have hundreds of kilometers of trails each. The two are also among the seven resorts to offer alpine skiing in the preserve.
Day 5: Chambéry
On the banks of the Leysse River you’ll find the picturesque town of Chambéry, which was the capital of the independent state of Savoy from the 13th century to the 16th century. The Chateau de Ducs de Savoy is one of the oldest castles in France, dating back to the 11th century. Created as a fortified, walled village, it was expanded over the years to include additional structures, such as the Sainte-Chapelle, which was created in the Gothic style of the 15th century with incredible stained-glass windows. Chambéry also has a medieval cathedral (Notre-Dame Church), and you’ll enjoy seeing the historic mansions on the Rue Croix-d’Or.
Chambery is a great base for exploring the Vanoise, France’s oldest national park and part of the biggest conservation area of the western Alps. You’ll find more than 100 peaks more than 9,000 feet high, including the area’s highest point—Grande Casse, which tops 11,500 feet.
Day 6: Albertville
The Olympic town of Albertville sits at the junction of the Arly and Isère Rivers and offers access to several major ski resorts. The city is new by European standards, created in the 19th century by King Charles-Albert of Savoy with a relatively modern layout. Visitors should be sure to take the Col de la Tamié cableway to see some spectacular mountain views. You also can visit the Olympic venues around town and a museum dedicated to the games. While there’s not as much to see in Albertville as other more historic towns, the oldest part of the city does feature Gothic town gates, medieval walls, and a Baroque church that all survived King Charles-Albert’s city planners. You do have access to those amazing mountain views and excellent skiing, including the La Clusaz, which features five interlinked mountain peaks with 84 slopes and 134 kilometers of groomed trails. La Plagne, France’s biggest ski resort, is less than 40 miles from Albertville and is known for its consistent snow conditions.
Day 7: Courchevel
Since you’re in the Alps, you should hit the world’s largest lift-linked ski area, the Trois Vallées. You’ll find Courchevel is at one end of the massive area, which features 170 lifts and nearly 400 miles of pistes. So, sure, we’ll give you a day to cover that. One of the many nice things about starting out in Courchevel is that most of its slopes are north-facing, meaning that it often has the best snow conditions in the vast region. With so much terrain, it isn’t hard to find something for every taste. You have your choice of four different villages, all of which are linked together by an efficient bus service as well as lifts and ski trails. If all the skiing wears you out, you have an wide variety of amenities to take advantage of, including several indoor and outdoor pools, and even a waterpark for the kids. For accommodations, consider the Club Med Méribel Le Chalet, a beautifully preserved traditional chalet tucked into the mountains that offers as much of a traditional French Alps experience as you can hope to find anywhere.
Day 8: Megève
Megève, which dates back to the 14th century, features narrow cobblestone streets and a traditional town square. Patrick Nouhailler.
For the storybook French alpine experience, you’ll next want to head to the medieval village of Megève, which dates back to the 14th century and features narrow cobblestone streets and a town square right off a postcard. But while you’ll get your share of old-world appeal, the town is fully developed with high-end hotels, bed and breakfasts, fancy boutiques, and plenty of fine restaurants to sample French cuisine. Megève is at a lower elevation than many of these mountain towns, which means you’ll get more comfortable winter temperatures but need to travel a bit more to the skiing. Visit the nearby towns of Combloux, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, Saint Nicolas de Véroce, and Les Contamines Montjoie to take advantage of the excellent slopes that encompass eight different mountains. Not far from Megève you’ll find the Club Med Peisey-Vallandry, which offers group of cozy chalets that are close to the slopes and featuring a wide variety of amenities, particularly for families.
Day 9: Chamonix
The charming mountain town of Chamonix sits at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe at 15,777 feet, and was the site of the first Winter Olympics. The “white mountain” is covered in snow year-round and forms part of the border between France and Italy. Take the Tramway du Mont Blanc for a classic Chamonix experience that offers alpine views that can’t be beat. Start at either Le Fayet or Saint-Gervais for this trip through forests and alpine prairies toward the Bellevue Plateau and the Le Prarion ski area. But even if you aren’t skiing, the exceptional panoramic views make the trip a must-do, and there are many fine restaurants at stops along the route.
In Chamonix, skiers of all abilities can find plenty of terrain to explore at the six different resorts in the area. For accommodations, choose from luxurious modern hotels, alpine chalets, and rustic country lodges—you can really find something for every taste and budget.
Day 10: Aix-les-Bains
After all that adventure, it’s time to relax. The resort town of Aix-les-Bains sits on Lake Bourget and is known internationally as a spa retreat, famous for its natural springs that have been used for health purposes since Roman times. The ruins of the ancient baths as well as the Arch of Campanus and the Temple of Diana are all available for touring, while the modern spas of Marina d’ Adelphia, Thermes Nationaux, and the Marlioz thermal baths allow you to partake in the experience yourself. Afterward you can hit the casino, see a show, or simply enjoy fine dining at one of the many restaurants that attract some of the best chefs in the country. Or simply reflect on a trip of a lifetime—and how much you need another 10 days here next year.
Originally written by RootsRated for Atout France. Featured image provided by Faustian Garcia.