9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France

Whether you’re planning a city break for a few days, or a mountain adventure for a week or more, there’s an incredible variety of things to do around Lake Annecy. Here are my tried-and-tested recommendations for activities that’ll delight all your senses and help you discover hidden alpine gems.

If you’ve read my guide to Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret you’ll know that this beautiful region of alpine France is one of my favourite places to visit in Europe.

What makes it worth returning to? Aside from the awe-inspiring scenery, it’s the sheer variety of things to do. Whether you fancy a city break day or a mountain day, you’ll never be bored here.

So I’ve assembled my ultimate list of nine of the best things to do around Lake Annecy. Consider it a guide to the unmissable and the downright beautiful.

This is the second in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can check out Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation for more about this region.

1. Head to Col de la Forclaz for the best panoramic views

There are stunning and ever changing views all around lake Annecy. But if you really want to get a feel for the area there’s no place better than Col de la Forclaz, perched towards the southern end of the lake above Talloires.

Here, at the top, the vista unfolds to include the whole lake, city of Annecy in the distance and Massif des Bauges to the south.

You’ll find a couple of café restaurants, a working alpine dairy farm and a whole lot of cyclists and paragliders at the Col. It’s a mecca for sporty types who like going up mountains, and for those who like jumping off them. There’s a fabulous spot for watching paragliders set sail, and if you’re a keen cyclist there are serious cycle hire centres around the lake (try Basecamp in Talloires for top quality road bikes) that can kit you out for the 10km climb from the lakeside. I tackled it for the first time this year – and it was breathtaking in every sense of the word! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an irresistible climb if you’re a two-wheeled enthusiast.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy | View of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
View from Col de la Forclaz, towards Annecy in the distance

2. Take to the water

Locals here live for the water. It might not be the first place you’d think of for a beach break but let me persuade you otherwise. Lake Annecy is Europe’s cleanest lake and is home to some of the most idyllic swimming spots I’ve ever found.

If you’re here between June and September, follow the locals and head to the lake the moment the sun comes out.

You’ve got two options – settle down for the day at a beach, or rock up at the side of the lake (quite literally wherever you fancy) and go for a dip – this what you’ll spot the locals doing.

You’ll find a beach in almost every town and village around the lake, with some well-maintained parks with sandy beaches between the old town of Annecy, Sevrier and Saint-Jorioz on the west side of the lake. On the east side of the lake, make a beeline to Talloires. You’ll have a pay a few Euros for entry, by Le Savoyard restaurant, to la plage but it’s more than worthwhile for the extraordinary settling. Imagine a large, shaded park running down to the water, mountains ahead and behind, and a vast expanse of deep blue water opening out ahead of you. It’s pretty darn wonderful. There’s a nice little bar in the chalet at the back of the park, lifeguarded swimming, a diving board and shaded children’s paddling pool – making it popular with families and all ages.

The area’s also hugely popular with watersports enthusiasts, and you’ll find boat, kayak and paddleboard hire around the lake if you fancy exploring on, rather than in, the water.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Talloires bay, Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

3. Explore Annecy by night

Sometimes it’s all about the timing, and I think the evening is hands down the best time to explore the old town of Annecy.

The soft twilight makes the stone buildings glow with jewel-like colours, and the canal twinkles with lights reflecting in the water from the restaurants and bars along its length. Whilst it can be a little challenging to escape the ubiquitous alpine offering of tartiflette (delicious, but not made for mid-summer) there are some great restaurants to be found, as well as old-fashioned bars that spill onto the street where you can people-watch and sip a cool beer as the sun goes down.

Take a stroll around town, grab an ice cream from the Glacier des Alpes (an institution that’s been in business since the 1960’s, and that I’ve frequenting since the early 90’s – it’s that good), and walk down the waterside to enjoy the lights glittering over the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy old town by the river Thiou at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4. Enjoy village life

The city might be at the heart of this region, but to really experience Lake Annecy don’t miss exploring some of the smaller towns and villages that punctuate the lakeside.

People have been living and working by the lake for centuries and these lovely little towns reflect the changing lives of the communities over the past half millennium. You’ll find everything from historic abbeys to contemporary marinas, ancient alpine churches to breathtaking bays. It’s a little bit French, a lot alpine and an awful lot friendly.

On the côte ouest, the town of Saint-Jorioz has a glorious terrace that sweeps down from the rustic creamy-coloured stone church to a fantastic turquoise-blue expanse of water, with the jagged peaks of La Tournette ahead and the elegant little château at Duingt to your right.

On the côte est, Talloires and Menthon-Saint-Bernard have a special place in my heart – they were the places I first explored as a child. In Talloires, ancient stone buildings cluster around a spectacular natural bay, fringed with little boats and a vibrant flowers.  Menthon-Saint-Bernard has a lively village square with an unassuming bakery that’s been run by the same family since the 1940’s and makes the most incredible artisan breads and pastries. However it’s the waterside here that’s best, where turn of the century villas sit in rambling gardens running down to the lake. An Art Nouveau hotel looks down over a little patch of park where families and friends gather daily after work and every weekend over the summer, to picnic and pass the time (it also happens to be my favourite, free swimming spot).

You can find tips on travelling to, and staying, the villages around the lakeside in Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Alpine chalet in Menthon-Saint-Bernard on the edge of Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
I dream of living in this fabulous house in Menthon-Saint-Bernard, overlooking the lake

5. Tackle the Tour du lac

One of the best ways to get to know Lake Annecy is on two wheels.

This region is hugely popular with cyclists, but don’t assume they’re all here to tackle huge mountain climbs. The lakeside is home to a fantastic cycle path that’ll let you explore the villages along the lakeside. And, as a bonus, it’s beautifully flat.

Depending on your enthusiasm and legs, you can cycle the full Tour du lac (do-able in a day at a leisurely pace) or just explore sections. The main path or Voie Vert, is a converted railway line that runs from the centre of Annecy to Doussard at the southern end of the lake, and beyond. From Doussard, it’s more of a patchy route back into Annecy along the east side of the lake (parts are still under construction as of August 2017) but it takes you through yet more pretty villages and past some great swimming spots.

Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town, and is a thoroughly recommendable bike hire shop. I hired one of their standard bikes last year (2016) and was impressed with how well it stood up to our 50 mile day out (I earned my beer at the end of that ride).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Cycling the Voie Vert cycle path around Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

6. Delight all your senses at Annecy’s market

The old town of Annecy plays host to a market three times a week – on a Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

France is home to many great food markets, but Annecy has to be up there as one of the best. It’s a feast for all the senses, fragrant with fresh produce and cured meats, noisy and bustling with shoppers, cool and shady in the shadows of the narrow cobbled streets. The setting is atmospheric and lively, crowded largely amongst the narrow ancient streets of the old town and spilling onto the flower-draped bridges over the canal.

The market is biggest and busiest on a Sunday. If you’re keen to discover and stock up on alpine produce try a weekday market and arrive early – before 11am – to shop with the locals and enjoy a bit of banter with the store holders. Don’t leave without field-fresh vegetables and Tomme de Montagne or Reblochon cheeses produced on the mountains around the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy market in the old town | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Friday morning market in Annecy is full of sights, sounds, fantastic colours and tastes

7. Hike to your heart’s content

You could spend a lifetime walking and exploring the mountains, woodlands and villages around Lake Annecy and never bore of the ever-changing scenery.

So here’s a starting point: some of my favourites that never fail to delight.

For an afternoon stroll – explore the Roc du Chere between Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Talloires. A protected nature reserve, this rocky outcrop is cool and shady on a summer’s afternoon. There’s a secret path that leads to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Talloires and a scramble down to the lakeside that’s more adventurous than it first looks.

For a mini-adventure – discover the Cascade d’Angon. A perfect circular walk from Talloires, you’ll climb out of the village on the old road to the church of St Germain, paved in places and loose stone underfoot in others. It weaves through a few small hamlets and then woodland before emerging at outside the church, where you’ll find panoramic views of the southern end of lake. From here, return back to the lakeside through the village of Verel and a wooded path that’ll bring you to the Pont du Fer and cascade – a spectacular gulley of rushing water hewn into the rocky hillside that suddenly gives way to a crashing waterfall.

For the adventurous – clamber up Mont Veyrier for a stunning view over Annecy itself. There are several routes to choose from, of differing difficulty and from diverse starting points. But all promise adventurous climbing and a spectacular moment that’ll take your breath away when you reach the viewpoint.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Mont Veyrier, overlooking Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
At the top of Mont Veyrier, where you can see the city of Annecy spread out on the plain below

8. Hit the pistes

You’re less than 30 minutes from Les Portes des Aravis ski area here – but don’t assume it’s just for winter visitors. The towns of La Clusaz and Grand Bornand are well worth a visit at any time of year. Aside from the more modern snowsports infrastructure, you’ll find charming village squares, ancient alpine churches and chapels and more mountain cheese than you can shake a stick at.

Spend the day walking amongst the wooded slopes above either towns, indulge all your senses at the Monday morning market in La Clusaz (not as big as Annecy, but featuring many of the same local producers) or head to Col des Aravis to be greeted by spectacular rock formations, glorious herds of grazing alpine cattle and a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc.

Tip:  Try the ridiculously enjoyable summer luge in La Clusaz, which includes a trip up the mountain in a modern cable car (kids and big kids will love it).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Col des Aravis, near La Clusaz | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Rocky outcrops at Col des Aravis above La Clusaz

9. Watch the sunset over the lake

Very much weather-permitting, my last recommendation is one of the simplest of joys in the Alps. Watch the sun sink behind Annecy in a cacophony of colours. Because my goodness, it’s beautiful. Rather than find words to persuade you, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sunset over Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sun setting over Lake Annecy, France, at the Fete du Lac 2017 | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Watching the sun set over the lake before the start of Fete du Lac, a huge firework spectacular in Annecy held every year in August

Tip:  The sun sets over the west side of the lake – so the best views overlook Mt Semnoz  and Annecy itself. You’ll find great spots to watch the sun sink alongside the lake in Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Veyrier.

Of course there’s much, much more to this vibrant region than this list alone. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and these are great places to begin. Explore, eat, sleep, repeat – it’s a simple recipe to enjoying a stay on the glorious Lake Annecy.

Have you visited Lake Annecy? Let me know your favourite things to do, and any surprise discoveries you’ve made, in the comments below. I might try them out!

If I’ve captured you imagination and you’re looking for practical advice for planning a stay on Lake Annecy, don’t forget to check out my helpful guide – Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

Want to be the first to find out about new posts on Girl with a saddle bag?

Join our Facebook group, here – or search @girlwithasaddlebag to find me on Instagram and Pinterest.

9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

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Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret

There’s a city in the French Alps that crowns an incredible, deep-blue lake. From the lakeside, sweeping mountains rise to rocky peaks grey-green in the sunlight. It’s my favourite place, and I’m going to share it with you.

I didn’t know whether to write this post.  It feels a bit like I’m giving away a family secret, or that at the very least there should be some kind of initiation ceremony before I tell you.  But the whole point of this blog is share my travel secrets with you lovely people, and I’m about to give away my biggest one: My favourite place to escape to in Europe.  And you might just have never heard of it.

I love exploring new places, but there remains a part of me that finds huge pleasure returning to those that have tugged most at my heartstrings.  It’s one thing to enjoy a flying visit, but it’s something else to spend some time really getting to know somewhere.

For me there’s a region that occupies a special place in my heart, that keeps luring me back – Lake Annecy, in the French Alps.

I first arrived in Annecy in 1991, and despite being 5 years old I have incredibly vivid memories of my first trip.  I remember watching the Tour de France whoosh by us on a roadside – a travelling carnival of anticipation followed by a blur of cyclists – I saw soaring mountains for the first time and I paddled tentatively in the lake fresh from my first swimming certificate.  The colour and warmth of the place stayed with me.

Since then, I can’t count how many times I’ve returned, both with my family as I grew up and more recently with my other half.  Each visit adds to a rich patchwork of memories and a greater understanding of, and love for, this region.  I’ve followed new paths, explored new towns and relived my favourite places.  And as I do, the magic grows.

So here’s my ode to one of France’s most beautiful cities and one of Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes.  I think you’re going to like it.

This is the first in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can also check out 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France and Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation for more about this region.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | City guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog

Let me introduce you to Lake Annecy

Annecy is the largest town in the alpine department of Haute-Savoie in eastern France.  It sits at the top of a lake 14 km long, which is the third largest in France and the cleanest in Europe.  Whilst the surrounding peaks are tipped with snow in winter, it remains relatively mild at the lakeside until the summer sun beckons in warm, dry weather more akin to the Mediterranean than mountainsides.

Lake Annecy and it’s mountainous surroundings are the most spectacular outdoor playground for those who love walking, cycling, swimming, sailing, running, paragliding, skiing, paddleboarding… in short, for those of us who love exploring and love dramatic landscapes.  For most people who come to visit, this is what brings them here – but it’s also what keeps a smile on the face of the locals you meet.

Go beyond the lake and you’ll find one of France’s lesser-known but most beautiful cities.  You’ll also find lakeside towns and villages where old and new comfortably rub shoulders, where old farming traditions remain an integral part of village life but outdoor sports enthusiasts and campers are welcomed with open arms. Sit in Café de la Place in Menthon-Saint-Bernard nursing a noisette and ponder whether you could find a more perfectly French spot to pass the morning.  It’s a region that’s moving with the times, but it’s not worried that the ancient charms of alpine life will be lost – they’re very much still alive here.

In Annecy you don’t need to compromise.  You can enjoy the delights and comforts of a city, with ancient streets to explore and cosmopolitan Geneva just around the corner.  You’ve also got the great outdoors on your doorstep, at it’s grandest scale.  But mystifyingly, word hasn’t spread far.  Annecy is popular with French holidaymakers – and reasonably well-known in Northern Europe.  But mention Annecy in the UK and you’ll normally hear “Where?” in return.  Search online and you’ll find little more in the English language than some of France’s most unassuming little towns.  It’s still a region for those in the know – and that’s a part of its charm.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | View of lake Annecy from the old church at St. Germain | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The city of Annecy

There are two parts to the city of Annecy:  the medieval streets of the old town that lap against the shores of the lake, and the modern, vibrant city that’s alive with culture and people.

The ancient thoroughfares of the old town cluster around the River Thiou – a rushing body of turquoise water that’s bridged by wrought iron beauties heavy with colourful flowers. The pastel facades of buildings hint at the city’s alpine location – wooden balconies peek out from upper floors, stone arcades hint at crisp winter weather and rooftops starts to look a little chalet-like – but they’d look equally at home in the Languedoc or Provence.

There’s also plenty to keep you occupied beyond the charming corners of the cobble-stoned vieille ville. If history is your thing, there’s a majestic little castle perched above the town, the Palais de l’Isle – an ancient prison situated mid-stream of the Thiou, and a smattering of Italianate churches that look especially good lit up an night.  But I’d recommend experiencing Annecy like a local.

Come into town early and pick up a breakfast pastry at Marmillon on Rue Sainte-Claire (or try one of their magnificent homemade praline meringues).  Then get a flavour for the award-winning local produce at the thrice-weekly street market, and watch the hustle and bustle of a quintessentially French spectacle over a coffee.  Pick a restaurant a little way off the main street or alongside one of the little canals for dinner, and savour alpine flavours.  And for a truely magical end to the day, stroll the Jardins de l’Europe to the lakeside and the Pont des Amours, and watch the lights dancing on the water.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Buildings along the river Thiou in Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The lake

The lake is the living, breathing heart of this region.  And whilst every alpine lake has a spectacular, raw beauty, there’s something extra-special about Lake Annecy.

First, it feels almost impossible to escape views of the water.  It seems like wherever you look, vistas open up that capture it’s magic from a slightly different angle.  The colours of the water, the reflections on its surface, its setting in this spellbinding landscape – it all changes as you move and look upon the water from different places.

Secondly, embrace the lake like a local (it won’t take long to resist).  If there is one thing the locals love to do, it’s be in, on or next to the water.  The lakeside beaches are glorious emerald green expanses of grass gently sloping down to the water, packed with picnickers and paddlers, serious swimmers and sunbathers every single day from early June to late September.  In every village you’ll find moorings and slipways for boats and on a breezy day the lake swarms with yachts and dinghys.  Paddle boards and kayaks are an everyday entertainment.  The beautifully clean and clear water is an irresistible temptation the moment the sun is out.  Here it’s not just about looking at the lake – it’s all about enjoying it.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Lake in summer | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The mountains

The mountains around Lake Annecy are alpine, but not high alpine.  Approaching from the north (as most visitors do), you’ll meander through a landscape of rolling hills and valleys.  But nothing aside from the altitude change hints at your alpine approach.  It’s not until you’ve navigated your way through the city streets and appear, all of a sudden, at the lakeside that you’ll see any big peaks.  But when you do, it takes your breath away for a moment. Every time.

These beautiful creatures rise into the distance from the town of Annecy: to the north is largely alluvial plain, but each side of the lake is capped with majestic peaks – not as high as some of their southern and eastern cousins – but no less awe-inspiring.  The western side, côte ouest, is generally less explored, but miss it and you’ll miss the imposing Mt. Semnoz.  It’s a hiker’s and cyclist’s dream with unmissable views from the alpine meadows at its peak on a clear day.

It’s the eastern side of the lake, côte est, that’s home to the biggest peaks and the most challenging walking and climbing.  The rocky outcrops of La Tournette and the jagged teeth of the Dents de Lanfon dominate the skyline and attract some serious climbers as well as alpine wildlife.  There’s walking aplenty in the luscious evergreen woodland of the foothills of these peaks, whilst the high alpine meadows above blossom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the late spring and early summer.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | Lake Annecy at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Annecy is all about contrasts and complements, city streets and rugged mountain peaks.  And whichever you prefer, there’s no escaping the mesmerising waters of the lake.  For someone like me who finds it hard to make a call between the wild beauty of rural France and energy of a city break, this region is the perfect compromise – and one that has kept me coming back for nearly 25 years.  I’m ready to go back again already… do you want join me?

If I’ve piqued your curiosity about Lake Annecy, you can find out more about my favourite things to do in this region in 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France or find practical travel advice in Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

Want to be the first to find out about new posts on Girl with a saddle bag?

Join our Facebook group, here – or search @girlwithasaddlebag to find me on Instagram and Pinterest.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation

The secret to enjoying the perfect stay on Lake Annecy is making travel and accommodation plans that’ll help you to explore the parts of this region that excite you most. My guide will point you in the right direction whether you’re planning a city break in central Annecy or an Alpine adventure in a lakeside village.

Lake Annecy and the city of Annecy itself are picture-perfect. With breath-taking clear lake waters, craggy alpine peaks papered with lush green woodland and a jewel-coloured old town, there are a million reasons to want to visit this less well-known region of France. Maybe I’ve even managed to persuade you in Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France – where I admit that return visits over the past 25 years have left me with a huge love for this Alpine wonderland.

If you’re thinking of planning a trip here – great news – I think that’s a fantastic idea! However, these wonderfully diverse surroundings and the enormous range of possibilities can make planning your stay more than a little intimidating. It’s not a small city, and the lakeside towns and villages that twinkle in the distance on an evening pose a myriad of options for accommodation and exploration.

But, knowing where to stay and how to get around will make all the difference – as it’ll put you at the heart of the action you’re most keen on throwing yourself into. It’s the perfect way to upgrade your holiday from good to pretty darn perfect.

So, to give you a helping hand I’ve put together a guide to help you navigate planning a trip to Lake Annecy.

I’ll share my recommendations for getting there, getting about and share some secrets to finding the best places to stay for the type of adventure you want to have. Shall we get started?

This is the third in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can check out Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for more about this region.

Before you begin

With so much on offer, it’s worth taking the time to decide on your priorities before booking. Think about what you’re planning to spend most of your time doing – are you hoping to hike or cycle to your heart’s content, bask by the lake or indulge at some of the city’s enticing restaurants? Don’t forget to check my guide to 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for a little light inspiration.

You’ll also want to think about what time of year you’ll be visiting, and what type of accommodation suits you best – whether you’ll be looking for home comforts, outdoor space, room for a crowd or somewhere a little out of the ordinary.

Once you know what you want to do, you can shape your trip around this – so you make the absolute most of it.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | River Thiou, Annecy, early in the morning | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Early on a summer’s morning, Annecy is quiet, peaceful and beautiful

Getting to Annecy

You’ve got three options travelling to the city of Annecy – road, rail and air. The best fit for your trip will depend on where you’re travelling from and, to some extent, whether you’d like the freedom of having a car to get around.

To Annecy by air

Although Annecy has it’s own airport, it’s largely served by internal flights so for international connections and budget airlines you’re best heading to nearby Geneva or Lyon. Both have great road connections to Annecy, with Geneva a little over 40 minutes away. Hiring a car can be a wise choice – and makes it easy to explore beyond the city and up into the mountains.

From Lyon

If public transport is more your thing, high speed rail services connect Annecy and Lyon Saint-Exupéry TGV (the station is just a few minutes walk from the airport terminal), and Annecy’s modern station is conveniently located on the edge of the old town. Alternatively, Ouibus offers a less frequent, but generally faster bus service from the airport to Annecy.  You can check timetables and ticket prices for both trains and buses on SNCF’s website.

From Geneva

Public transport from Geneva airport is possible but is complicated substantially by the border crossing from Switzerland and the closure of a major station in Geneva. I attempted this option last year (2016), but found it fraught with difficulties so I’m not in a rush to recommend it. In a rare twist of things going completely down the pan, we ended up being rescued by our wonderful airbnb host thanks to a catastrophic (I’m exaggerating, but felt it at the time) combination of delayed airport arrivals, multiple stations with the same name, closed stations and a very approximate bus timetable.

I’d seriously recommend saving yourself the worry and take the (infrequent but direct) bus to the centre of Annecy or hire a car from the airport instead.

To Annecy by rail

The small but perfectly formed railway station in Annecy gives you access to the French mainline, high-speed rail network – an easy way to reach most of France’s major cities.  A direct train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon takes just shy of 4 hours, which sounds impressively quick to me. Check out the SNCF website (France’s national rail network) for timetables and fares.

To Annecy by road

Annecy is well-connected to the French autoroute network via the A40 and A41, making it easy to reach from most of northern and western Europe. From the UK, it’s about an 8 hour drive from the Channel Tunnel (if you want to turn your journey into more of an adventure, check out my guide to Troyes, a pretty city in the Champagne region, that makes a great mid-way stop).

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | View of Annecy from Talloires | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Looking towards Annecy from the woods above the pretty village of Talloires

Getting around

The best way to get about will depend on how long you’re staying for and how keen you are to get out and explore.

On foot

The city and it’s nearest beaches are all easily explored on foot, with wide promenades along the northern end of the lake. If you’re planning a short city break walking’s the perfect way to get around – perhaps with a little cycling and the odd bus journey thrown in.

By bike

If you’re feeling enthusiastic, the lakeside villages are easy to reach by bike. Follow the Voie Vert – a fantastic cycle path that circles the lake – to find new places and to branch off for more ambitious routes. There are bucketloads of hire shops around the lake, with options from hourly to all day rentals.

  • Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town and a stone’s throw from the Voie Vert. I gave one of their standard bikes a 50 mile thrashing in a day last year, and I’d happily recommend.
  • For serious cyclists, try Basecamp in Talloires for high-end Cannondales that will see you through some major mountain climbing. I’ve not tried out their bikes, but breakfast in their cafe is delicious (clearly this is important on any cycle trip). Despite being the new kids on the block in 2017 they appear to have a very professional set-up.

By bus

If you’re keen to discover the lakeside towns and villages without a car, you’ll find reliable bus services throughout the day and week operated by LIHSA. As well as being great value routes with regular services, in places they connect with free shuttle bus services to help you get higher up into the mountains. Try taking the LIHSA to Talloires and then the free Navette (summer season only) to reach the stunning viewpoint at Col de la Forclaz.

Note:  LIHSA doesn’t have it’s own dedicated website, which can make it a tad tricky to plan journeys in advance if you’re not a confident French speaker. You can try their French site here or contact Annecy’s tourist office for more visitor-friendly help finding the right services.

By car

Lastly, I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that having a car is one of the best ways to make the most of a trip to this stunning region. Not only does it give you the freedom to travel when and where you’d like, it’s also the best way to cover ground. Ski resort breakfast walk, afternoon on the lake, evening dinner in town? It’s easier by car.

It’s nice to take it slow from time to time, but having four wheels will open up a far wider range of accommodation options, places to explore and new things to discover. As a bonus, it’s also delightfully easy to park around here (although I’m not giving away all my best secret parking spots!), so unless you’re planning a stay in the old town parking will likely be free and plentiful.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning travel and accommodation | La Tournette | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
La Tournette in the late afternoon sun

Accommodation

There’s no perfect answer to ‘where should I stay’ on Lake Annecy – there are so many fantastic options, but every traveller has different priorities. So help you narrow down what might work well for you, I’ve suggested some options for different types of trip you might be embarking on.

City break

Ideal for urban explorers visiting for a short stay, more likely travelling by public transport.

  • When: Throughout the year.
  • My recommendation:  Opt for a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or airbnb in, or close to, the old town of Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re looking to make to most of a short trip you’ll want to be in right in the heart of things. Make the most of an opportunity to stay in one of the charming historic buildings in this part of town and soak up the atmosphere. Plus you’ll find great public transport connections if you want to get out of town.

I can’t hesitate to recommend this fabulous airbnb we spent three days in during July 2016 – our host Laurane went out of her way to be helpful, it’s just round the corner from one of my favourite cafes and you couldn’t be better located for enjoying the old town.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Colourful townhouses along the River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Family fun

Crowd-pleasing ideas for families and groups of friends looking to make the most of the lake and mountains, with own car or bike.

  • When: Late spring through to late summer.
  • My recommendation:  Embrace the great outdoors and enjoy one of the dozens of campsites around the lake. You’ll find some fantastic sites, many with direct access to lakeside beaches. Look along the western side and at the southern end of the lake (in particular around the villages of Saint-Jorioz, Duingt and Doussard) where you’ll find everything from old-school pitches for campers and tents, EuroCamp sites with pre-erected tents, holiday chalets to glamping pods. I’ve also got a soft-spot for the village of Talloires which has a stunningly-located little campsite that traditionalists will love – Camping l’Horizon – as well as a beachfront campsite, that comes highly-recommended, at the Plage d’Angon.
  • Why?  Camping is budget-friendly, fun and sociable, plus you’ve got a wide range of accommodation options to suit your group. These sites are ideally located for those who want to spend the majority of their time at the lake or out exploring, and most are within an easy stroll of one of the pretty lakeside villages (for your everyday essentials and a slice of Alpine life).

Mountain adventurers

Alpine inspiration for couples, friends and families planning a longer stay (a week or more) to explore the mountains and more of the region.

  • When: Throughout the year
  • My recommendation: Rent an apartment, gîte (French holiday home) or airbnb in one of the lakeside towns and villages. This is my favourite way to spent time on Lake Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re keen to get out on foot or two wheels, staying outside of the city of Annecy will make it easier. Most apartments and homes will have parking, and a kindly word with your host will help you to find out whether bikes are also welcome. Staying here will give you a chance to enjoy small town life and indulge at some of the quintessential village cafes, bars and patisseries – plus Annecy is rarely more than an half hour drive away. Generally speaking, you’ll find better value rentals on the western side, côte ouest, of the lake, but for the best sunsets and easy access to the biggest peaks opt for the côte est, or east side.
Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation
Looking down on Doussard and the southern end of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz

So there’s my guide to one of France’s most beautiful cities – and some inspiration for shaping your stay into your perfect holiday.

Is there anything more you’d like to know? Post your Lake Annecy travel questions below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | City guide | Accommodation guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne

Pretty half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, fantastic food – Troyes is the perfect place to break a journey or stop for a weekend if you’re travelling in France.

This past month has taken us on a bit of a French adventure.  Living in the UK means that travelling to France by road can be just as easy – if not easier – than flying, and besides which, it had been a while since I’d last been on a proper road trip.

So we packed up the car for a jaunt to the continent.  As we had a long road ahead of us, it made perfect sense (or rather it was the perfect opportunity) to make the most of our journey and weave in some interesting stops along the way.  The curious traveller in me loves pouring over a map and picking out places that sound interesting … which is precisely how we ended up in Troyes.

Troyes happened to be the perfect half-way point between our channel crossing and our final destination in the Alps, but also sounded enticingly interesting.  I’d heard that it was beautiful, but a bit of exploring online left me none the wiser when it came to the city’s charms.  Rather than letting this put me off, there was only one thing to do – go and find out more.

Beautiful buildings n Rue de la Monnaie in Troyes, France

Tell me about Troyes

Troyes is a historic town in the heart of France’s Champagne region.  It’s a region littered with well-groomed vineyards, perfect sandy-coloured hilltop towns and decadent Champagne houses. But Troyes adds a colourful juxtaposition, with an old town centre full of teetering half-timbered medieval buildings that wobble three and four storeys high in winding little streets packed with cafes, restaurants and shops.  The river Seine winds languorously through the town, with colourful flower boxes topping every bridge.  It’s undeniably pretty, and a surprising contrast to it’s surroundings.

Rue Emile Zola in Troyes, France

It’s not a huge city, and you can comfortably explore in just a few hours.  This makes it a great stop if you’re travelling south to the Alps or the Mediterranean from the UK or northern Europe.  It’d also make a great base to discover the surrounding area which includes the Fôret d’Orient national park, home to vast lakes as well as diverse woodland that’s perfect for walking and cycling.

With only a quick overnight stop for us to make the most of, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour (of sorts, invented on the spot) of Troyes’ highlights.

What to do in Troyes

The old centre of Troyes is loosely ringed by the Boulevards Gambetta, Victor Hugo and du 14 Juillet, and by the river Seine as it snakes it’s way through the city.

(At this point I’d like to clarify that I didn’t make these names up or steal them from a school French textbook – Troyes really does have the most quintessentially French sounding street names!)

Place Marechal Foch, Troyes, France

The very centre is largely pedestrianised, and I’d recommended navigating your way to the Place Maréchal Foch to begin your explorations.  From here, enticing winding streets disappear off in all directions, beautiful buildings look down on your from every angle and there’s a vibrant, lively feel with the street-side cafes full – in the early evening – with locals and visitors enjoying a last coffee of the day or a sneaky apertif.

The streets east of Place Maréchal Foch are amongst the prettiest, with ancient buildings and characterful restaurants and cafes woven amongst little squares and upmarket shops.  Alongside Boulevard Gambetta you’ll find the verdant Jardin du Rocher and Jardin de la Vallee Suisse, a pair of pretty parks lush with vegetation in contrast to surrounding buildings.

Head west towards the river and you’ll find the delightful Mairie with colourful formal gardens laid out in front of it.  Keep going in this direction and you’ll stumble across the monumental Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, a cluster of stunning gothic churches including the Basilica of St. Urbain as well a some of the city’s oldest university buildings.

Wooden tower on medieval building in Troyes, France

There was plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours.  Troyes in a town that’s best explored slowly, and on foot.  There’s great architecture details to be found, an attractive riverside and an abundance of lively cafes in which to soak up the traditional French atmosphere.

Where to eat in Troyes

Much as I could quite happily have spent our short visit munching my way through as many of this city’s establishments as possible so that I could share them with you, sadly common sense prevailed and instead I’m making one outstanding recommendation.

Restaurants on Rue Urbain VI in Troyes, France

You’ll find plenty of smart-looking looking restaurants around Place Maréchal Foch, Rue Urbain VI and Rue Champeaux. They mostly offer typical French dishes, with appetising menus du jour advertised on chalkboards where the resturant tables spilled onto the street.  But we were looking for something a bit more unusual that a bit of online research had hinted at.

Just before 7pm we headed to Les Halles, the old covered market building close to the town centre.  In the square outside was just what we were hoping for – a big, red double-decker bus.

Claire et Hugo, the burger bus of Troyes, France

Claire & Hugo rolls into town most weeknights, and some lunchtimes (check their Facebook page for more details as their schedule seems to vary occasionally). They park up, put up pretty little cafe tables and umbrellas outside and proceed to cook incredible hand-made burgers, desserts, and quite determinedly, no chips.

We couldn’t have wished to find anything better.  Their menu was genuinely interesting, with fantastic burger toppings (Parmesan on a burger just happens to be the greatest thing I’d never tried) and delicious side salads that outshone most burger joints I’ve ever visited.  No chips meant oven-roasted, local Charlotte potatoes with just a touch of salty butter.  Home-made pannacotta with ginger, nectarine, raspberry and mint was an absolute delight.  And all this, for less than €30 for the both of us, including drinks.  I’d go back to Troyes just to try it all again.

Classic burger at Claire et Hugo, Troyes, France

We only had a few hours in Troyes before heading off to our Airbnb a few kilometers out of town, and then on towards the Alps.  But this delightful little city really charmed me, and felt surprisingly alive and very French even during the peak of the European-summer-holiday-season.  There’s a great feeling when leaving a place you’d be happy to return to again, and would even go out of your way to revisit – and that’s how I felt about Troyes.  I’ll be back one day, and I hope to enjoy it just as much.

Have you discovered any hidden gems en route to other destinations? I’d love to hear your stories (and borrow some inspiration) below.

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The practical bit

If you’re travelling by road, as we were, Troyes can be reached from junction 23 of the A26 autoroute.  It’s about a ten minute drive to the city centre.  Parking can be found on Boulevard du 14 Juillet at a rate of about €1 per hour.  If you’re heading back to the autoroute, you’ll pass through a commercial centre on the outskirts of town – fill up on supermarket petrol here to save a generous amount compared to motorway service stations.

Troyes is also served by high speed rail services from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est taking as little as an hour and a half.  Check out the SNCF website for more details.

Postcards from Troyes, France: A brief encounter in the Champagne | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne and a city guide

A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

With it’s fairytale turrets, ancient stone walls and commanding views over the vineyards of southern France, the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne is steeped in history and an unsung Mediterranean hero. But there’s more than meets the eye – fantastic food, an enchanting city centre and the Canal du Midi add to the rich patchwork of this spectacular French town. My travel guide shares the highlights and lesser-known gems of this region that I’ve tried and tested.

There’s something timeless about the south-west of France, where it feels like the narrow, winding streets of sleepy market towns have changed little in centuries, and the Canal du Midi snakes languorously through vineyards and fields sheltered from the heat by ancient plane trees.

At it’s heart you’ll find Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that crowns a green hill perched above the river Aude.  With it’s soaring towers, imposing gateways and panoramic views there’s plenty to take your breath away.  But its fairytale appearance is just the start, as a labyrinth of ancient streets and warm stone houses lure you in and invite you to explore.

I first discovered Carcassonne as a eight-year old … a highlight of summer holiday adventures in the Languedoc.  A couple of summer’s ago I decided to head back, not quite sure what to expect, but curious to see if it had changed.

Returning to somewhere you loved as a child requires a bit of optimism and crossed fingers, and I’d had my doubts when we booked our trip. Would two twenty-somethings really love a city that had captured my imagination all those years ago?

Thankfully, the crossed fingers worked.  The delights of the castle – known as la cité – hadn’t diminished at all since I was half the height I am now.  Carcassonne today is just as awe-inspiring as it was twenty years ago – and the surrounding city and region is blooming.  Architecturally, it’s fascinating, but it’s also great fun. Whether you’re into vineyards, history or pretending you’re a medieval knight for the day, there’s something for everyone in this magical French town.

A potted history of Carcassonne

The area around Carcassonne has been inhabited since neolithic times.  But the first major construction in the region began under Roman rule, when a hilltop castle was built on the site of the current fortified town. A small settlement grew up around the castle, but things didn’t really get interesting until the Visigoths came along in the 5th century.

Building on the footings of the now decaying Roman stronghold, the Visigoths constructed a substantial and strategically-located fortress and thus, the medieval city of Carcassonne was born.  Despite the rise and fall of the Visigoths and many attempts to take the fortified cité, Carcassonne not only managed to survive but also sustain a community both inside and outside of it’s walls for almost a thousand years.

The fortified walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France
The walls of Carcassonne are built on Roman foundations but the crenellations and turrets are more than a little creative licence

It wasn’t until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that the state of Rousillion, of which Carcassonne and it’s surrounding lands were a part, was ceeded to France and much of the city’s military importance diminished. From this point onward, without a substantial military presence, the town fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned.

All wasn’t lost though. The Ville Basse, which had grown up around the foothills of the castle, began to flourish as a market town and a burgeoning industrial centre as the nineteenth century arrived. Two other arrivals were to prosperity to the city: the Canal du Midi in the late eighteenth century, and architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A nostaglic interest in medieval France and it’s architecture started to bloom in the early nineteenth century, and Viollet-le-Duc was hired to undertake restorations of some of the country’s most iconic buildings.  Alongside Notre-Dame de Paris, Mont St. Michel and Fougere, he tackled the crumbling remains of Carcassonne, bringing la cité back to life (and embellishing slightly as he went, die-hards will tell you the pointed turrets are not original – but I rather like them).

In the last hundred years or so the Ville Basse has continued to grow into a lively, vibrant city, and the castle on the hill has flourished.

La Cité

There’s more than enough to keep even an intrepid visitor occupied for a day in the fortified cité.

Medieval towers in the fortified city of Carcassonne, France

My best advice is to follow your feet and happily explore.  If you have the chance, come back at different times of day to experience atmospheric evenings and enjoy cool, quiet mornings.  To get you started, here a few of my favourite things to do;

  • Get lost in the labyrinthine streets.  Explore beyond the main street and find hidden alleyways, cosy squares, beautiful houses as well as monumental gates and doorways.
  • Walk the walls.  In parts, you can walk between the two outer walls of la cité (between the Porte Narbonnais and the smaller gate near Place Saint-Nazaire) looking up at the imposing towers and fortifications.  Or, to escape to a part of the medieval city without any crowds, head out the Porte de l’Aude to the west and wander the rugged little footpaths that hug the outer walls, clinging on between the castle and vegetable gardens below.
  • Discover the Château Comtal.  Or rather the outside of the château.  Confession: I’ve never actually been inside (it’s worth noting you’ll need to buy tickets if you want to look around the interior).  But the building is one of the most impressive you’ll see within the fortifications, and if you take a little side street to the right of the entrance, you can stroll around the little ornamental garden at the foot of the castle walls.
  • Find stunning stained glass in the Basilique Saint-Nazaire.  The extraordinarily colourful windows in this medieval church are believed to be the oldest in southern France.
  • Soak up a panorama or two.  Head out towards the walls and you’ll find spectacular views opening up.  To the south, look out over a vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and to the north take in the town centre with it’s own city walls.
  • Eat.  Yes, I’m predictable.  But you might think that somewhere this popular isn’t the best place to find delicious local food.  However, I’m happy to report that with a little judicious decision making there are some great restaurants to be found in la cité.  Plus, the atmosphere on a summer’s evening can’t be beaten – grab yourself a table on a terrace and a glass of delicious local wine.

The fortified walls of Carcassonne, France

Whilst during the summer months you might have to negotiate the winding streets with crowds during the day, don’t be fooled into thinking Carcassonne is just for show.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year the town is alive.  Beyond the château, shops and restaurants, real people live here too and one of the charms of the place is spotting to the signs of everyday life that pepper the streets.  And for more local flavour, head towards the Ville Basse beyond.

The Ville Basse

Whilst most visitors stay within the walls of the castle, you’re missing a trick if you don’t explore the rest of the city.

Step away from the entrance of the Porte Narbonnais and you’ll find a few winding streets weaving their way down to the river Aude.  Here you’ll find the old bridge, now pedestrianised, that invites you to explore the other side to this remarkable city.

The Ville Basse (also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis) is the living, breathing heart of the modern city of Carcassonne – but it’s all relative. The town grew up in the middle ages and the majority of buildings now occupying this space date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to flourishing industry over the past few centuries and a location at the centre of a prosperous winemaking region, the town has thrived.

City gate in Carcassonne, France
Gateway leading to the Ville Basse in Carcassonne. This lovely street is packed with elegant shops and bakeries

The old centre is loosely ringed by old city walls – not in the same league as the castle on the hill, but reminiscent of the bastide towns you find in this part of the world. Enter through one of the old city gates and you’ll find yourself in a warren of cool, shady streets that criss-cross and intersect with one another. Whilst you’ll find a few local cars here, it’s best explored on foot.

At the geographic and metaphorical centre you’ll find the main square – Place Carnot, home to the Saturday morning market that explodes weekly in a riot of colour, scent and sound. Any other day, you’ll find it a quieter spot to enjoy coffee under the shade of the plane trees or an early evening aperitif. There’s a nice selection of shops to explore and a fantastic old-fashioned covered market building just off the main square is home to the traditional butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers of the city.

Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France

I love the streets of the Ville Basse best early in the morning, on my way to pick up fresh bread and pastries for breakfast from the boulangerie on Place Carnot.

Beyond the centre

Carcassonne might be a city, but that doesn’t mean green spaces don’t abound. Aside from the rolling countryside and farmland of the regions, two of my favourite places to walk are alongside the river Aude and the Canal du Midi which weave their ways through the city centre.

The river crashes it’s way down through Carcassonne from its source in the Pyrenees en route to the Mediterranean coast. In summer, it’s quite gentile, and it’s river banks are a cool and shady spot to stroll and escape the heat of the day. You’ll also find some great campsites along its banks as you head out of town.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France

The canal may be more sedate but it’s no less beautiful. Join the towpath near the railway station and walk in either direction. We hired mountain bikes and headed out discover the countryside, and followed the canal as far as Trebes – about 10km out of town – before heading off into the vineyards and sun-soaked farmland beyond. Cycling alongside the canal is glorious, and the shade of the plane trees offers a little relief from the sun on a hot day.

Although the Mediterranean coast is only an hour or so away by car or train (and that’s a story for another day), there’s a refreshing alternative nearer to town. Lac de la Cavayere is where the locals go to cool down.  A short bus ride or drive from town brings you to this pretty little lake – set in a midst of a Mediterranean pine forest.

Lac de la Cavayere started life as a reservoir before becoming a beach and the spot where Carcassonne locals come to escape the heat and crowds and make the most of the summer (it’s surprisingly common in south-west France even if it feels a little alien to us Brits).  It’s somewhere you can swim, sunbathe and stroll to your hearts content.  Family-friendly, it’s also great for active folks with trails all around the lake and nearby woodland, watersports and picnic-spots galore.

The city of Carcassonne in the south of France
Looking out over the modern town of Carcasonne from the walls of La Cite

Have you visited Carcassonne, and found any hidden treasures I’m yet to uncover?


The practical bit

We flew direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth with Ryanair. From the airport, it’s a short bus ride (services run regularly) or taxi to the city centre.

We booked a fantastic apartment (Apartment Massena to be precise) right in the centre of things from the incredibly nice people at Carcassonne Apartments. Beautifully restored and comfortably furnished, it was the perfect base for a week’s stay and only a few minutes walk from the highlights of this small city. It’s located on Rue du Pont Vieux, halfway between la cité and the Ville Basse, and only a minute or two from the river Aude.

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A beginner's guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi, France

Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

The Milky Way – or Via Lattea as it’s known in Italy – hugs the French-Italian alpine border, taking in the resorts of Montgenevre, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx in one easily navigable ski area.  Not only is it perfect for more experienced skiers and boarders looking for a huge number and diversity of pistes, some of the prettier villages that dot the Milky Way offer beginner and family friendly slopes set in a stunning landscape.

Confession: I’ve fallen a bit in love with the Milky Way.

I’ve just returned from my second trip within a year, and keep finding reasons to recommend it.  The pistes are diverse, challenging and picture-perfect, the food is fantastic (Raclette anyone?) and the landscape just breathtaking.  It’s also a relatively quiet ski area compared some of the French behemoths nearby.

Basing ourselves at opposite ends of the Via Lattea on each visit, we’ve explored the vast majority of this surprisingly budget-friendly ski area.  But I’m still looking for excuses to return.

So, if you’re a lover of mountains, snowsports, perfect pistes and plenty of cheese, read on for my guide to making the most of the Milky Way;

The resorts

The Via Lattea comprises seven resorts, six in Italy and one in France.  But don’t let the border worry you – you can ski and board back and forth between the two countries to your heart’s content, with several routes to choose from.

Starting on the French border – Montgenevre

This purpose-built French resort delivers everything you’d expect and more.  It’s situated high up meaning that good snow conditions are almost guaranteed for most of the winter.  The large ESF-run ski school is great for beginners and improvers, there’s a good selection of restaurants and cafes (it is France after all) as well as a smattering of useful shops, plus it’s easy to access the piste from anywhere in town.

Montgenevre is a fabulous location for mixed ability groups.  You’ve got a huge range of pistes on your doorstep, from pretty tree-lined green runs that everyone can enjoy to challenging reds and blacks that’ll get the blood pumping and help you explore every inch of the mountain.  And at the end of the day, you can warm up on the way home with a vin chaud at one of the many bars along the main street.

Looking down over the French resort of Montgenevre

 The best bits: The pistes up at Les Gondrans are a dream.  They’re varied and easy to access from four lifts, making it perfect for those who want to spend some time finding their ski legs, practising their technique or having some fun.  There’s something for everyone here – and Cafe Les Anges is ready and waiting once the hot chocolates are a’calling.

 Be aware: If you’re hoping to explore the whole Milky Way, it can take a long time to get across from Montgenevre.  You’re best off taking a bus – or heading to nearby Serre Chevalier (separate lift pass required) if you’re after some variety.

Claviere

This traditional little village sits on the Italian border just 3km from Montgenevre, with easy ski links between the two.  Smaller than its French neighbour, it’s a great spot for families and those who want the pistes to themselves.  We based ourselves here at the Grande Albergo Hotel Claviere, a budget friendly hotel that was great for groups.

Claviere is quiet, but well-served with a small Italian supermarket, bakery, the recommendable Gallo’s bar and a couple of delightful pizzerias and restaurants both in town and on the piste at La Coche.

The small ski resort of Claviere in Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Claviere is well located for exploring the whole of the Via Lattea and we could get across to Sansicario, Sestriere and Sauze d’Oulx from here if we moved fast enough.  This makes it a good strategic base for more experienced skiers.

Be aware: It’s not a party town, so if you’re hoping to hit the après or aperitivos you’re better off considering Sauze d’Oulx or Montgenevre.

Sansicario and Cesana

A venue for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, Sansicario is largely purpose-built and one of the smaller towns on the Milky Way.  It’s close to the valley town of Cesana, a functional hub in the centre of the ski area that’s home to more locals than tourists.

What Sansicario lacks in size it more than makes up for in enjoyable piste, with sweeping reds and blacks that are the perfect playground for boarders and experienced skiers.  Sauze d’Oulx and Sestriere are only a few lifts and pistes away if you want cover as much snow as possible.

Views of the Monti della Luna from Sansicario on the Milky Way

The best bits: Sansicario is a sun trap on a clear day, so slap on some suncream and head over to make the most of the open upper pistes and cafe terraces (because when in Italy, have your fill of Italian hot chocolate. It’d be rude not to).

Be aware: The lower slopes were in relatively poor condition this winter (2017), so I wouldn’t recommend as a ski-in/ski-out location – you’ll be spending a lot of time carrying boards and skis if you base yourself here.

Sestriere and Pragelato

Synonymous with world-class skiing, Sestriere – and nearby Pragelato – sit in a bowl towards the southern edge of the Via Lattea.  This upmarket resort might not be the prettiest you’ve ever visited but it’s heritage as a host of world cup skiing tells you everything you need to know.  You’ll find spectacular, challenging pistes right on your doorstep as well as mountain restaurants galore.  A gondola offers a speedy link to Sauze and Sansicario, giving you the opportunity to ski a massive area each day.

The best bits: The central location and wide variety of accommodation and eating options.   As with Montgenevre, you’ll also find the elevation here (2,000m) means that Sestriere is pretty snowsure throughout the season.

Be aware:  Sestriere isn’t a great recommendation for budget travellers – base yourself in Sauze d’Oulx instead and head across early in the morning.

Sauze d’Oulx

Sauze has a bit of a split personality – part traditional Italian alpine village, part party town.  Whichever side you’re most interested in, it’ll be outshone by the meandering tree-lined pistes that make Sauze a joy to visit in its own right.

It’s one of the larger resorts on the Milky Way, meaning you’ll find a good variety of accommodation and eating options on and off the slopes.  It also offers the best value for money I’ve come across in this area for both – especially when it comes to enjoying food up on the mountain.

Pistes in Sauze d'Oulx, Piedmonte, Italy

The best bits: Take a little time to stroll around the old town without your boots on – the narrow cobbled streets, overhanging eaves of hundred year old chalets and arched stone doorways make you feel more like a visitor to an Italian village on the plains than a ski resort.  There are some great budget eats too – try the fantastic Famelica Pizzeria in the old town for the best takeaway you’ve ever eaten (bonus points for enjoying it out in the snow), and the cafe at the top of Col Basset offers fantastic paninis made fresh in front of you for a little over €5.

Be aware:  As with Sansicario, the lower pistes can struggle with snow cover if conditions are warm.  Unseasonable weather in 2016, when we based ourselves in Sauze, required some serious efforts from the piste-bashers and snow cannons to keep the returns into town open.

Lift passes

Depending on where you base yourself, and how much of the Milky Way you intend to explore, there are several options when it comes to lift passes.

The international pass covers you for all resorts on both the Italian and French sides of the border. Given the size of the ski area and the amount of time taken to get from one end of the Milky Way, this represents good value for money only if you’re a very experienced (and ambitious) snowsports enthusiast, or if you’ve got your own transport to move from one resort to the other.

For most skiers or boarders, the Via Lattea or Montiluna Montgenevre passes are a better fit.

The Via Lattea pass gives you full access to all Italian resorts, and one day in Montgenevre (if you go for the 6 day pass).

Alternatively, if your base is in Montgenevre or Claviere, you can opt for the Montiluna Montgenevre pass that allows you to explore these two resorts to your heart’s content, and spend one day in six in the other Italian resorts.

The Via Lattea and Montiluna Montgenevre passes offer great value for money as they cover substantial areas.  Take the opportunity to make the most of a day’s skiing elsewhere in the area by taking a coach transfer – usually easy to arrange through your reps in resort – to Montgenevre, Sauze or Sestriere (this should get you there for lift opening, and return once the pistes have closed).  It is possible to take lifts all the way across, but expect to need a little bit of patience and ability to shuffle in ski boots if you go for this option.

You can find out more about lift passes on the Via Lattea website.

Skis on the Via Lattea. Italy

The practical bit

The Milky Way is just over an hours drive from Turin airport, making coach transfers and fly-drive options a breeze.  Sauze d’Oulx is closest to the fast motorway links, with Montgenevre and Sestriere taking a little longer to reach.

If you’re travelling from the UK you’ll find a wide range of tour operators offering good value packages to this area – we’ve travelled here most recently with Crystal and Neilson.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation with hotels, catered chalets and apartments in abundance, although pick your resort carefully if you plan to self-cater and shop in town.  Some of the Italian resorts including Sauze d’Oulx have a real lack of any good food shopping, however Montgenevre and Claviere have much greater choice.

We opted for the Neilson Hotel Edelweiss in Sauze d’Oulx in 2016, which gave us easy access to the Jouvenceaux lift to get onto the mountain, generous food and stylish rooms.  For contrast, we headed to the opposite end of the resort in 2017, staying at the Grande Hotel Albergo Claviere in the centre of the village.  This hotel is run by Crystal and pitches itself as family-friendly, but it’s a good choice for all budget travellers.  It’s got fantastic ski links, a friendly bar and a plentiful – if not gourmet – menu.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely. There’s something for everyone here, and with another eight weeks left of this ski season there’s still time to book a quick getaway. The Milky Way has been blessed with great snow conditions so far in 2017, and coupled with it’s sunny slopes it should be perfect this coming Easter.

And don’t forget, if you’re looking for some more alpine inspiration, try  Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season for my favourite European resorts you’ve not yet heard of.

Feeling inspired to plan a trip?  Tell me about it in the comments below or on the Girl with a saddle bag Facebook page.

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Skiing the Milky Way: the sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border | Travel guide | Ski guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border

Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season

Europe boasts an incredible variety of ski areas, from delightfully cosy alpine villages to packed, crowd-pleasing purpose-built resorts.  Not only do they offer the opportunity to explore a beautiful winter wonderland, they’re playgrounds for skiers and boarders looking to have more than a little fun.

Growing up, I was enthralled by the charmingly British ‘Ski Sunday’ (yep, I bet you can hear the theme song in your head already) that was compulsory TV-viewing in my family, and I couldn’t wait to one day venture onto the pistes myself.  As soon as I hit my twenties I made it my aim to learn to ski – and opened up a world of new travel experiences.

The most difficult thing about skiing however, other than the hangovers and the tired legs, is choosing where to go.  With a wealth of places to choose from, here’s my picks for this winter from some of my favourite trips.

Chamrousse, France | For beginners and confidence builders

Nope, we’d not heard of it either.  But this French resort perched just above the city of Grenoble deserves more attention than it gets.  The town is split into two parts, a skiable distance apart, with Chamrousse 1750 the resort centre and Chamrousse 1600 the older village.  Chamrousse 1750 is home to pretty, low rise apartment blocks centred around a sports centre that offers free access to the snow-rimmed outdoor pool, saunas and hot tubs to lift pass holders.  We had a lift quite literally on our doorstep, and a smattering of bars and shops within a five minute walk.

Snowy pistes in Chamrousse, France
Chamrousse, France

What Chamrousse lacks in size, it makes up for in charming views and easy to ski, well-maintained pistes.  It was our first trip without ski school and we found the gentle blue and red runs (Olympique Dames a latterly amusing exception!) to be great confidence builders and largely empty even in January.  Our lift pass was thrown in with our apartment package (This still appears to be the case for the 2016/2017 season – shop around for tour operators offer this deal), and the nearest bar – Doudou’s – offered mulled wine and crepes for a ludicrous €1 in the evening.  We were smitten.

Pros: Great value, easy skiing, ski-in/ski-out accommodation

Cons: Experienced skiers may want more piste, quiet nightlife, the weather – lower pistes notoriously sit in cloud much of the time so you’ll need to head up high for good vision and views

Mayrhofen, Austria | For those who want to Après

Tucked away at the head of the Zillertal valley in the Austrian Tyrol is the town of Mayrhofen.  Better known to some as the home of Snowbombing festival, it’s a great choice all season long with fantastic skiing and a lively, party atmosphere.  Although the snow has been drawing crowds here for decades, the legendary après scene also guarantees you’ll have as much (if not more) fun off the pistes as on.

Penken Mountain Mayrhofen Austria
Mayrhofen, Austria

The Zillertal valley is a huge ski area, so there’s plenty to explore whether you’re an experienced skier or boarder, or a complete beginner.  I learned to ski here, and found the ski schools not only great value for money but also good at getting us out exploring whilst we found our ski legs.  You won’t be stuck on a green run for long.

Up on the mountain you’ll find lots of restaurants offering hearty and affordable food, as well as cold beers and hot chocolates as the afternoon wears on.  The Schneekarhütte at the top of the Horberg offers something a bit more special and has fabulous views from its terrace.  Just don’t fill up too much, there’s a challenging red run back down from here into the valley!  At the end of a day on the mountain, the bars and restaurants at the top of Penken gondola are a great stopping point with good views of the pistes behind.

Back in town is where the party starts.  For cheap beers and the best crowds, Ice Bar (at the foot of the Penken Gondola) is where the crowds go.  By 5pm you might not be able to get through the door, so stop off on your way home for a Europop party and the best of Austrian hospitality.  It’s early doors, so make the most of it – you’ll have to be out at 8pm.

For later nights, there’s a huge variety of places to choose from along the pretty main street.  Basement bars make a cosy spot for drinks and catching up with friends, and there are a couple of clubs if you fancy making it a late one.  Our favourite evenings were spent in the Sports Lounge at the SportHotel Strass, where you’ll find live music most nights – and White Lounge.

Ice Bar Apres Ski in Mayrhofen Austria
The legendary Ice Bar in Mayrhofen, at the foot of the Penken Gondola

If there’s one thing you need to do in Mayrhofen, you need to go to the weekly party at White Lounge.  2,000m high on the Ahorn mountain, it’s a hotel and bar igloo complex, built from fresh snow each season.  A gondola packed full of partygoers heads up the mountain early in the evening, to be greeted by a torch-lit procession.  Flaming torch in hand, you’ll head to the igloos, where you’ll find a packed dancefloor, chillout rooms and the sort of fun that’ll have you dancing on tables before you know it.  Yes it’s raucous, but it’s also one of the coolest things you can do on snow.

Pros: Good value accommodation and eating/drinking out, big ski area, great nightlife

Cons: You’re not going to get a quiet night, comparatively expensive lift pass

Bardonnechia, Italy | For budget travellers

Relatively unheard of compared to its more popular neighbour, Sauze d’Oulx (although if you fancy finding out if Sauze is all it’s cracked up to be, you can read my review in Skiing the Milky Way: The sun-drenched pistes of the French-Italian border), Bardonnechia ticked all the boxes for us as a group of moderately experienced skiers and boarders looking for somewhere with a bit of life to it.

The ski area is big enough to keep you entertained all week, with a variety of pistes and some notably pretty tree-lined ones.   We booked ski-in/ski-out accommodation at the Campo Smith apartments which made for a great base for the week.  It’s a minute from the nearest lift and a less than a minute from our favourite après-bar, Cipo’s, notable for its retro taste in music (good) and free antipasti between 5pm and 6pm each evening (even better).

Empty pistes in Bardonnechia Italy
Peaceful pistes in Bardonecchia

The town itself is a little more unusual as most of the properties are owned by Torino families who visit on weekends and holidays, meaning it can feel pretty quiet much of the time.  That said, we found a good selection of restaurants (serving authentic Italian food) and bars, although the supermarket was a little on the small side for adventurous self-caterers looking to dip into Italian cuisine.

There’s also lots to keep you entertained when you’re not racing down slopes: We found great cafes on the mountain with the most incredibly delicious hot chocolate (our favourite was Birichini at the top of the Les Arnauds lift), and spent an afternoon snow-shoeing through the most beautiful countryside further up the valley.  It’s also less than an hour by train from the town’s rail station to Turin city centre if you fancy exploring without skis strapped on.

Pros: Lovely pistes, Cipo’s bar, fabulous snow-shoeing

Cons: Not the prettiest of towns, busy on weekends

Val Thorens, France | For the best snow

Val Thorens is the jewel in the crown of the Trois Vallées.  Perched at the top of this famous ski area, it’s the highest altitude resort in Europe.  This means one very important thing – fabulous snow.  Whether you’re hoping to ski early or late in the season, or just want to be confident you can make the most of every daylight hour on the pistes, this friendly, purpose-built town is the perfect base.

You have access to a vast ski area – with Courchevel and Meribel accessible on piste for confident skiers and borders – and it’s diverse.  The huge bowl shaped valley offers lots of gentle slopes perfect for beginners, whilst more experienced skiers can venture further afield or tackle more challenging reds and blacks close to home.  It’s also a perfect sun trap – and a great spot to people watch from balconies overlooking the piste.  We visited in January and were hugely impressed with the proportion of pistes that were open, and even as relative newbies could comfortably ski new ground every day.

Apres ski at the Folie Douce in Val Thorens France
Apres time at the Folie Douce, Val Thorens

When you’re done exploring for the day, head to the Folie Douce on the Plein Sud piste for some of the most outrageous après you’ll find in France.  The party gets started around 3pm, with a live DJ every day and live music too if you’re lucky.  Grab a beer, find a spot in the snow and enjoy one of the most surreal and fun experiences to be found with your skis on.  And try and keep hold of you ski legs on the way back down – not everyone does!

Pros: Breathtaking views, vast snowsure area, fantastic accommodation, the Folie Douce

Cons: Pricey lift passes, pistes near to town can get icy quick when in the sun

Feeling inspired by my ski travel guide?  Or have your own off-the-beaten path suggestions for frolicking in the snow this winter?  I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this winter | Travel guide | Ski guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Winter wonderlands: Where to ski in Europe this season