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The French Alps' Prettiest Towns

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

Take a break from the slopes to do a little après-ski exploration and you’ll find that some of Europe’s most deliciously cosy destinations are all snuggled up in the French Alps, where ancient pavlova-like mountains descend into inky glacial lakes, and where pastel-shaded houses rise from quaintest cobbled streets.

Aix-les Bains: Luxury By The Lake

The lake at Aix-les Bains, the biggest in France, is pure bliss. The vast mass of water that curves in and out of stunning mountainsides with sandy beaches is as inviting as any in the Mediterranean. But in the winter, the views from the hillsides are phenomenal, with Lac du Bourget dominating almost every perspective, and the flicker of distant villages providing ember-like highlights to what is otherwise a cold poetic confluence of the lake, mountain and sky, best viewed from the window of a hillside spa or chateau. The town is filled with elegant art nouveau townhouses and crumbling castles, but Aix-les Bains’s history is traceable all the way back to the Romans, with the 2000-year old Arch of Campanus just down the road from the Musée Faure, that as well as having one of the world’s best Rodin collections alongside works by Cézanne and Lebasque, is housed in a pretty Genoese-style villa.
Aix Les Bains Lake

Credit: Simon Mercier

Evian-les-Bains: Relax and Unwind…

… because here in Evian-les-Bains, life is languid. Spas are elegant and scenic, the lake glistens and beckons for attention, and the Evian mineral waters are quite literally flowing and free for all to take — take a bottle and fill it up direct from the tap below the playful neoclassical arches of Source Cachat. When exploring Evian-les-Bains, mirror the famous mineral waters and take a slow hike down the Chablais Mountains to the shores of Lake Geneva. Promenade into the old town to take in its belle époque charms before indulging in a treatment or two in the spa at the delightful Hotel Royal and its tranquil lake view treatment rooms. If the mood takes, then the lakeside Casino can act as a neon-drenched distraction and a place to escape the cold, but why would you want to? Especially when Evian-les-Bains is at its best when enjoyed peacefully with walks along Quai Paul Leger, exhibitions in the Palais Lumière and boat rides on the elegant Savoie paddle steamer.
Evian Les Bains - Hotel Royal

Credit: Bainhumphrey Muleba

Annecy: The Venice of Savoie?

The old town of Annecy is often lazily referred to as the “Venice of the Savoie” but this is just a frivolous analogy — good enough to let you know that there’s a bridge or two. Yes, the river that cuts a flower-dressed vein through Annecy does conjure images of Venice, but it has its own personality. For a start it’s just so French — streets adorned with iron balconies and impeccably dressed tables, as well as morning baguette deliveries traversing arched bridges by bike. It’s meticulously well kept and the tri-weekly markets turn it into a bustling centre for Savoie locals and mark the town with an aroma of rustic saucisson and native cheeses Tomme and Reblochon de Savoie.

But the comparison only falters further, because where Venice’s canals are blurred, impenetrable chasms of dark chartreuse water, Annecy’s are transparent, belonging to one of the cleanest rivers in Europe, and are home to ducks and swans but few boats. Following the river is an ideal way to explore Annecy, unlike the wondrous but nigh-on impossible to navigate maze of canals in Venice. It bends its way through the old town, passing pastel-hued houses covered with flower baskets, and small squares lined with quaint bars and rustic restaurants until it’s eventually split in two by the iconic Palais de l’île. Furthermore, where Venetian bridges might lead to broken palazzi, views of distant factories and gigantic cruise ships making their way through the lagoon, bridges in Annecy lookout to ancient mountains and heated terraces full of fondue pots. And with just a few clicks of a heel, one soon finds that all paths in Annecy lead to the heavenly mountain lake: Lac d'Annecy. In short, there is very little about Annecy that isn’t charming, disarming and beautiful... but it’s almost nothing like Venice.
Annecy Old Town

Chamonix: Queen Of Après-ski

Chamonix's location at the heel of Mont Blanc, its iconic Vallée Blanche and history as host of the first-ever Winter Olympics, has made it one of Europe's premier skiing and climbing destinations. But the town itself, with its pretty alpine architecture and panoramic mountain vistas, is a perfect spot for après-ski celebration, as well as for mountain hikes and exploration. Food is something of an event in Chamonix, every other colourful structure seems to be a restaurant or cafe serving up melted cheese and a busy post-ski atmosphere, but equally, Chamonix is a great little town for seasonal shopping with a good number of boutiques like winter favourite Moncler, alongside numerous mountaineering brands. Try a Grole (a multi-spouted wooden drinking vessel made for sharing) filled with coffee and Génépi for a traditional and authentic café de l’amitié, or ride up the Aiguille du Midi cable car for direct views of the legendary Mt Blanc from Restaurant Le 3842.
Chamonix - Gare de Chamonix

Grenoble: The Capital of the Alps

Modern Grenoble lies in the arms of the Belledonne, La Chartreuse, and Le Vercors massifs, the peaks of which encircle the entire town, framing the various spires, odd little skyscrapers and bubble-like cable cars with a jagged, wintery-white aureole. In the winter the river is cast a pale blue, and frozen trees reach from the riverbanks contrasting poetically with warm, orange-tinged townhouses. But every view ends with a mountain, so much so that Stendhal, a native of Grenoble once said there is “a mountain at the end of every street”. But with a large student population, and a long legacy of native artists and writers, the arts are the main event in Grenoble. Start with the impressive Egyptian relics in the Musée de Grenoble before viewing more contemporary works in the gritty, industrial-looking, Gustave Eiffel-designed former market that’s now the National Center of Art and Culture.
Grenoble

Credit: Nicole Herrero

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