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Savoie-Mont Blanc: Space to breathe
11:00am Thursday 1st September 2011 in Freetime
Despite being a winter sports destination, summer is a great time to explore this corner of the Alps, writes Nick Elvin
In towns all over the French Alps you’ll see large maps displaying a white landscape dotted with ski resorts with famous names like Chamonix, Courchavel, Tignes and Valmorel.
Yes, this part of the world is known for snow sports - but that’s only part of the story. When the land is green and the weather hot, two things still remain – the mountains and gravity – and so a whole new range of sports can be offered. There’s no need for the “white gold”, as they call it round here.
In the Savoie-Mont Blanc area of the Rhône-Alpes region, you can find some of the best food, activities, and scenery in France. A visit in summer also allows you to get around more easily – no snow chains are required, so although it is an ideal destination for a week or two, you can fit a lot into a long weekend.
There's world-famous cheese to taste, mountain bike trails to explore, fine restaurants to eat in, stress-busting therapies to discover, and scenic flights to enjoy - and all this with one of the world’s most famous mountains as a companion.
Here are just a few options:
The village of Beaufort is famous for the hard cheese that carries its name, and you can visit the cooperative where it is produced. Here you’ll learn about the cheese making process and its history, and visit the cellar to take in the strong aroma as workers turn over each of the rounds by hand.
The co-operative has 130 members, including farms of all sizes. Milk is collected from each of them, so even if a farm produces only three or four churns, they won't go to waste. Every year, the cooperative produces some 25,000 moulds of Beaufort, a cheese similar to Gruyere, and there are three varieties, depending on the time of year: Beaufort de Savoie - made from the milk produced by cows grazing out in the summer pastures; the Beaufort d’alpage - from milk produced when the cows graze in the highest pastures for about 100 days of the year; and the Beaufort d'hiver - when the cows are brought indoors for winter and fed on hay.
Beaufort became wealthy hundreds of years ago, largely due to minerals such as silver and copper, as well as timber and cheese. As a result, it has some fine buildings, including a Baroque church dating from 1720. It is larger and more elaborate than most churches in the area and features a walnut wood pulpit. The church was refurbished for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics.
If a visit to the co-operative leaves you feeling hungry, try the nearby Restaurant la Roche, a charming old building with a pretty garden. It serves local produce including cheeses, terrine, ham, fresh bread and Chignin wine.
If you really want to get away from it all, head up the winding Route des Grands Alpes from Beaufort to the Refuge Plan Mya. This small chalet and restaurant offers local food, dorm accommodation and mountain views. 1,800 metres above sea level, there is little noise, except for the sound of cowbells and the mobile milking trucks that visit to empty the brown Tarentaise cows. It is a good base for hiking in the Beaufortain mountain range, with the panorama over the nearby Roselend Dam and reservoir among the highlights.
A 20-minute drive from Beaufort, in Arêches, is the Hotel Le Christiania, a cosy family hotel. In its restaurant you can dine beneath wooden cross-country skis – likely the only skis you’ll see at this time of year. Delicacies include the haggis-like pork dish crépinette.
Les Saisies is a village resort offering a range of activities on the slopes, including hiking, mountainboarding, summer luge, horse riding,
parcours and white water rafting.
It is also ideal for mountain biking, and you don’t have to be fit to take part, simply take your bike up into the hills on a chairlift and ride back down. You can enjoy views of Mont Blanc as you ride through woodland and meadows full of flowers and insects. You can hire bikes, and a guide if necessary, from Piccard Sports.
There are plenty of places to stay in Les Saises, including the three-star Le Calgary. It has a popular restaurant, with dishes including onion soup, foie gras and regional beef in wine sauce, plus there's a large cheese board to keep dairy lovers happy.
The chalet-like Residence Le Véry at the other end of the main street offers pleasant two-star accommodation.
Megève developed as a ski resort a century ago after the Rothschild family began to holiday there, and it remains a winter sports destination. It is a pretty, lively mountain village of about 4,000 inhabitants and growing. Among those setting up home there are an increasing number of British people.
One way to get your bearings is to hire a horse and carriage for a trip around the town. Look for them in the main square near the church. You could also spend a few hours browsing the many boutiques, or exploring the back streets and alleyways. A good option for an al fresco lunch is the traditional Chez Tante Alice.
From Megève Altiport, an airfield just outside town, you can take a sightseeing flight around Mont Blanc. Aérocime is the only civil aviation company authorised to make commercial flights in the Mont Blanc massif. The flight first heads across the green valleys, over towns such as Chamonix. It then takes you close to the mountain and its glaciers and rocky outcrops - landmarks such as the Dôme du Goûter, Aiguille du Midi, Glacier du Géant and Grandes Jorasses.
The four-seater Mousquetaire (Musketeer) aircraft has a panoramic canopy to maximise the views. According to pilot Jacques Brun the Mousquetaire "is to planes what the 4x4 is to cars”. Expect some turbulence.
If you are looking to put another weapon in your stress-busting arsenal, sophrology might be just the thing. Relaxation therapist Marie Le Ray leads sophrology walks in the countryside around Megève. She explains that sophrology is all about being in the now; having a connection with your body, mind and surroundings. But, she adds, modern lifestyles mean we are more likely to be doing several things at once, such as using a phone, eating and watching TV, so it's impossible to focus.
Marie uses a series of exercises, mostly involving breathing in what she says is the healthiest way – starting from the base of your stomach, then moving upwards to the chest and shoulders. She encourages her clients to be aware of the whole of their body, and each part individually. This approach can help with strenuous exercise, for example if you look down at the ground while walking up a steep slope, and concentrate on your breathing, the task becomes easier. A growing number of people now use sophrology to help with stressful situations, such as exams and childbirth.
For details on all kinds of guided walks in the area visit the Megève Bureau des Guides website, www.guides-megeve.com
Among the places to stay in the Megève area is the four-star Flocons de Sel, a hotel that also offers spa treatments in a beautiful hillside setting. You can have a massage, or relax in the Hammam steam room.
Flocons de Sel is also home to a two Michelin star restaurant owned by chef Emmanuel Renaut, who uses local produce (you'll see the chefs picking some of this from the garden) to create memorable dishes.
You can begin the evening by sitting on the terrace with some amuse-bouches – including fish from Lake Geneva, local herbs served in a tiny edible dish, and deep fried balls of Beaufort cheese, all accompanied by sparkling wine served with elderflower juice. It’s a taste of good things to come.
Inside this smart, modern eatery, which features a wall full of cuckoo clocks, each dish appears with military-like precision and planning. Creations include gnocchi that tastes like, and is shaped to look like, marrowfat peas; vegetable millefeuille; and pink, tender roast pigeon in a juice perfumed with juniper berries, with a side dish of shepherds pie.
Among the desserts is a large chocolate dome, which looks too big to eat. A separate jug of liquid is then lit and poured over the dome, setting it on fire. The dome proceeds to melt and collapses to reveal the smaller dessert within. You can end with a Chartreuse liqueur to aid digestion – which is probably a good idea.
The Rhône-Alpes has more than 50 Michelin-star restaurants, many of which are in the Savoie-Mont Blanc area. In the case of Flocons de Sel, its recognition is much to do with the quality of local produce, the imagination of its chefs, and impeccable service; although Renaut appears modest about his achievements.
To burn all this good food off, you could begin the next day of your trip with a visit to Combloux, a ten-minute drive from Megève. This attractive village is home to France’s first ecological swimming lake. A fountain, stream and waterfall, as well as reeds help keep the water pure - no chemicals are used.
You can swim while enjoying a panoramic view that includes Mont Blanc, and then dine by the lake in the Côté Lac restaurant, which has a terrace offering views across the water to the 4,800m mountain.
If you want to take you own car, Megève is 880km/9-10hrs from Calais.