French Savoy, Courchevel, Megeve and Evian

the Mont-BlancWhat could be more breathtakingly majestic than the "alpine arc" ? From the Leman lake to the blue Mediterranean sea...

this gigantic mountain range, Europe’s main water reserve, an extraordinary variety of landscapes emerges, ranging from the grandiose to the picturesque. There are not enough superlatives to describe the majestic summits with their abrupt peaks, its perpetual snows and glaciers, lively torrents and its bubbling waterfalls, immaculate lakes, its forests and high mountain pastures, green in Summer, white in Winter. The Alps boast an astonishing array of nature’s marvels, majestic in their awesome power. A universe where man found his place and adapted himself from early times, at the price of efforts which also force our admiration

Above the high mountain pastures and the tree line, early Man must have considered the Alps impassable. One can only imagine the courage required by pilgrims and tradesmen over the centuries to cross the high mountain passes. Several armies took the risk. Two examples : Hannibal with his elephants, crossing the Montgenèvre pass, François 1er over the Larche pass. For centuries, mountain dwellers led a very hard life, settled in small, scattered communities, at the mercy of the seasons, anchored in traditions that had withstood the test of time. In Summer, they migrated to the Alpine pastures with their herds and dedicated themselves to cheese production, in Winter, they engaged in wood crafts and migrated to the towns; we know that, until the early 20th century, at the first signs of snow the young Savoyard chimney sweeps would come looking for work in Paris. No minor trade was neglected : in the Summer, the peasants sold Alpine flowers and liquors and elixirs made with local plants. None of nature’s produce was neglected – Turk’s cap lily was used to remove calluses and corns, Narcissus alpestris (the Alpine daffodil) was applied to sprains and the Great masterwort purged excess bile and melancholy… Nowadays, with the onset of Winter, economic activity in the mountains is devoted to tourism. Sports holidays, ski, surf and snow activities. The greatest resorts and the largest skiing slopes, with a worldwide reputation, are found in the French Alps: Megève, the ski resort of the "Trois Vallées" from Val Thorens, to Courchevel and Meribel, and following the Tarentaise Valley, Les Arcs Paradiski with the exceptional architectural project of Charlotte Perriand, called the Balcony over Paradise, built in the 70s, over Bourg-saint-Maurice and Val d'Isère. In Summer, tourist activity is more diversified, including hiking, mountain-climbing, balneology and white water sports. Alpine flora is exceptional, especially in Spring when, as soon as the thaw begins, Gentians, Turk’s cap or Orange Lilies, Rhododendrons and Edelweiss cover the pastures. Varieties vary greatly depending on altitude and exposure to the sun. This period of blossoming offers enchantment and pleasure to nature lovers. Photographers are enthralled with the constantly changing landscapes they discover on the mountain trails ; it’s even possible to encounter and observe chamois, ibex and marmots in the vast natural parks such as Vanoise (France’s first nature park), Ecrins, Vercors, Chartreuse, Queyras and Mercantour.

The first tourists came to the Alps to improve their health thanks to the spring waters and the purity of the air. Although the health benefits of certain springs have been known since Roman times, the boom of Alpine hydrotherapy occurred during the 19th century. Moreover, for several decades, high altitude sanatoriums catered to patients with tuberculosis. But the legend of the Alps was forged primarily through a sports activity that took its name from this mountain range : Alpinism (mountain-climbing). The conquest of the peaks, that “conquest of the futile”, has engendered an epic saga. The earliest chapter was written on the occasion of the first successful attempt to climb the Mont Blanc, the roof of Europe, by two natives of Chamonix in 1876. Thanks to its exceptional location at the foot of the splendid Mont-Blanc mountain range, Chamonix became the favourite destination of the world’s greatest climbers, whose exploits are legendary. The many high mountain enthusiasts, all those who want to test their limits – and even sometimes exceed them – find in the Alps an inexhaustible theatre of human adventure.

The history of the populations inhabiting the Alpine regions is complex. From the North to the South of this vast mountain range, different regions experienced widely differing destinies. For a long time, they were torn between the House of Savoie – which emerged after the dispersal of the power of the Bourguinon dynasty and which ruled the Piémont region – and the Dauphiné et Provence region which was ruled by the Counts of Anjou. The incorporation of Savoie into France occurred as late as 1860. The huge fortresses built by Vauban in the South of the massif are vestiges from those troubled times, which have today become part of the architectural heritage of the region, together with the castles built to defend the valleys and the religious heritage sites. It is a particularly rich heritage, boasting numerous oratories and chapels, because the inhabitants of these regions actively sought the protection of Saints against catastrophes, storms or avalanches. Sober in appearance, these chapels are often finely decorated inside, with gaily-coloured frescos illustrating biblical narratives or the life of patron Saints.

The Norther Alps differ from their Southern sisters both geologically and in terms of the climate. The crystalline ranges, with jagged peaks and fine needles, are the highest (Mont-Blanc, Oisans, Pelvoux, Mercantour). They are covered in permanent snow and glaciers which, due to global warming, have considerably diminished over the last decades. The limestone Prealps display very complex contours throughout the Southern and Western parts of the range with gigantic folds, cliffs and transverse valleys. Overall this highly complex range has an important asset : it is penetrated by a powerful network of valleys. The Arve, Arly, Isère, Arc, Romanche et Arc, Durance, Ubay and Verdon rivers, all tributaries of the Rhone, were from early times a major asset for economic development. These waters, which are abundant, swollen by the meting snows, are clearly a gift of the Gods in terms of hydroelectric production and irrigation of farmlands.

« Mountains are stones which the Gods hurl into the garden of the world” wrote an ancient philosopher. It’s a nicely-turned expression. Eternal, enchanted, enchanting, the most glowing adjectives have been showered on the Alps. The Romantic poets have written some of their most beautiful verses here. Rousseau was fascinated by Nature and Lamartine by the lake of Bourget (“O Time suspend your flight…”). These lakes call to mind landscapes laden with dreams : Leman, Bourget, Annecy, Roselend, Mont-Cenis, Tignes in Savoie, Aiguebelette in Dauphiné, Serre-Ponçon on the Durance river, Castillon and Sainte-Croix on the river Verdon. Like jewels in their case, these lakes nestle in the mountain ranges and offer a wide range of leisure activities to visitors, from carefree strolls to water sports and leisure centres.

Just as captivating is the observation of the traditional rural mountain ha bitat and its integration within the environment. The villages are built on the South-facing sides, exposed to the sun, generally on the slopes of the mountain. The houses, which are sturdy, have few openings, generally South-facing, as well as large balconies, the “solerets” where the firewood was stored. These vast dwellings, with granaries and barns for fodder on the upper floors, protected the inhabitants and their animals from the cold. Wood was extensively used in the construction, as it is today in the new residences built in high altitude resorts. It’s the sign of a return to tradition.

The different regions in the Northern Alps have their own distinctive geography and features. There’s Chablais, with its panoramic view of lake Leman, the Mont-Blanc region, at the foot of Europe’s highest peak, Aravis, Faucigny, Bauges, Beaufortin ; in the Dauphiné region, near Grenoble, there’s the Vercors, a fotress plateau, stronghold of the French resistance during WWII, Chartreuse, with the convent of the Grande-Chartreuse, in the Belledonne range. Two large valleys, la Tarentaise (in the Isère region) and la Maurienne (in Arc), flanking the Vanoise range, open the way towards Italy and to the largest skiing slopes in Europe. It is naturally in these valleys that the beautiful towns of Annecy, the “Alpine Venice”, Chambery, the former capital of Savoie, with its rich heritage and Grenoble, the dynamic hub of the Dauphinois region, emerged.

Crossing the Lautaret pass we reach the Southern Alps and discover Oisans, the Ecrins range and the splendid peak of la Meije. The climate turns Mediterranean, which means plenty of sunlight, luminous skies, rare patches of fog. The Briançonnais region became very early on the gateway to Italy. The Queyras region, a land at the end of the world, boasts a number of picturesque villages, including the highest village in Europe, Saint-Véran. Further South, Barcelonnette, in the Ubaye valley, at the feet of the high peaks of the Mercantour Nature Park. A number of luxury villas call to mind a surprising saga, that of native sons of the region who a few centuries ago, emigrated to Mexico and made their fortune. In the Durance valley, a land of opulent orchards, strange rock shapes, the “covered damsels” catch the eye. The Prealps, in the Dauphiné, then the Provence regions, occupy the the West and the South of the Alpine range, right up to the gates of Provence. The Verdon river has carved out a magnificent canyon here, a huge fault between two dizzying rock faces. This canyon remains an authentic geological enigma, unique in Europe, and an exceptional tourist attraction.

The cuisine of the Alps is derived from local produce and is just as diverse as its geography. It’s a well-known fact that regions with harsh winters have developed a rustic cuisine, with fortifying dishes, based on cheese and cold meats, pork and freshwater fish. One of the most famous dishes is the gratin dauphinois, an invigorating mixture of potatoes, eggs and milk. In this land of livestock rearing, cheese logically holds the first place. In Savoie it’s Tomme, a generic term encompassing different origins and labels : reblochon, beaufort and abondance. There are many varieties : Saint-Marcellin, Sassenage-Vercors blue cheese, Mont-Cenis persillé, goat cheese (picodon or banon) in the Southern Alps, etc… The fondue savoyarde, which warms the hearts of hikers after their efforts – combined with a white Savoie wine – brings that little supplement of conviviality which rounds off a pleasant holiday. Among the many laudatory remarks made about this region over the centuries, let us highlight that of the philosopher Kant, who wrote that he discovered in the Alps : »The Sublime in the snow-bound peaks dissolving into the sky and Beauty in the pastures dotted with flowers and in the small valleys criss-crossed by streams”

What a homage ! Should we also include that of Le Bon ?

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