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The ripple effect
Discover the Haute-Savoie in France’s Rhône-Alpes where the landscape is all about water
Chances are you know the water of the Haute-Savoie in France’s Rhône-Alpes region, even if you would be hard pressed to flip open an atlas and pinpoint its exact location. This is the landscape that produces Evian — the ubiquitous bottle gracing the tables of bistros worldwide — and a landscape of water frozen in time and space in the country’s largest glacier and the Alps’ tallest mountain. The geography is blanketed with lakes and rivers and springs and canals. At its heart, the Haute-Savoie is about water.
The Rhône River and the towering French Alps give the region its name. The valleys are a collage of small villages and farms with a culinary pedigree that produces one-quarter of the country’s 400 varieties of cheese. There are white wines, pressed from the Chasselas grapes and poured when indulging in mountain specialties like fondue and raclette, and fresh-caught, pan-fried perch from Lake Léman.
“Évian is definitely the water city,” said guide Evelyne Hurtaud in a tone leaving no room for debate. Turning 360-degrees I spotted signs of water in every direction. On the shoreline of Lake Léman, the northerly view across the lake is of Lausanne and the Swiss Alps. To the south of Évian-les-Bains (evian-tourisme.com), the countryside soars into the snow-capped peaks of the French Alps. Surrounded by so much geological action, it’s no surprise that at Évian, thermal springs would be spouting from fissures in the rock.
“All year long the water is 11-degrees Celsius,” she continued. “It’s rainwater that falls onto the hills and naturally filters through the stone. After 20 years of filtering it arrives at the two open spring heads in the village.”
At La Source Cachat, one of the springs in the centre of town, people were lined up waiting to fill empty bottles and jugs. What flows nonstop from the spout is unadulterated Evian, the same water sold at restaurants and shops worldwide. In the 19th century when the spring water was labelled with health properties, the resort town of Évian-les-Bains quickly grew around the water source.
“The water was very pure and they discovered it was very good for kidney problems. In the 1830s the first bottling factory was established, although the amount they are allowed to use is strictly controlled. By the 1860s, an agreement was made to also use the water for therapeutic purposes.”
Thermal spa centres soon popped up with health regimes hinging on drinking the water and bobbing in swimming pools sloshing to the brim with pure Evian. At the city’s thermal spas, it’s a popular pastime for visitors to sip from a glass, swim in the pools, then stroll along the waterfront pathway, or while away the afternoon at an outdoor café.
This is the kind of tranquil setting where I found myself gazing out over a glassy lake, but after a few days I was pining for a break from sipping water and wanted to find a way to get out onto the water. The perfect quick fix was to hop aboard one of the passenger ferries shuttling between Évian and the neighbouring medieval village of Yvoire (yvoiretourism.com).
Named one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France,” the narrow cobblestone streets of Yvoire are dwarfed by the waterside stone castle that has been home to the family d’Yvoire for 3½ centuries. Visitors from Évian make the day cruise to walk among the flowers of Yvoire’s Jardin des Cinq Sens (Rue du Lac; jardin5sens.net adults €12, kids 6 and up €7) and to linger on a patio while enjoying a glass of Le Jacquère, an elegant vintage and one of the Savoie region’s most renowned wines.
Nature’s finely tuned sense of balance is on display in the Haute-Savoie. In a mere two hours it’s possible to travel from an elegant lakeside town awash with spas and thermal springs to wild, ice-capped peaks where humanity hangs on by its fingernails.
At the mountain resort town of Chamonix (chamonix.com), my voyage into the region’s wilder side began to take shape. It’s here that tourists and serious climbers are shuttled 20 minutes by whisper-quiet cable car to the Aiguille du Midi’s summit terraces where the air is thin, but the views are rich. At a height of 3842 metres, feeling light-headed comes with the elevation.
Mountaineers were strapping on their crampons and testing their safety ropes before stepping away from civilization, quickly becoming small coloured dots against a dazzling white background. Most people make the cable-car trip to get their camera shutters closer to Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest mountain, but it’s the visual buffet of all the peaks — French, Swiss and Italian Alps — that steals the thunder.
The full mountaineering experience at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car was outside of my ability and comfort zone, but the 430 steps down to the ice grotto bored into the living glacier had my name all over it. A wide metal staircase was cantilevered onto the side of a shear rock face for the climb down — and the more onerous return hike up. At the bottom, a large hole was drilled into the clear, compacted ice. Once inside the tunnel, people spoke in hushed tones; the blue ice was a chapel of nature.
Back in the green valley, Chamonix was also the starting point for our trip by cog railcar to Montenvers where the big attraction is the sweeping Mer de Glace. At seven kilometres long, it’s the largest glacier in France. We spilled out of the red cogwheel train and ogled the peaks of Les Drus and Les Grandes Jorasses, their sharp and pointed tops divulging their young age. Wind and water have not yet softened their craggy profile.
I’ve always found there is something about glaciers that makes me feel more alive, and Montenvers’ Mer de Glace had the same effect. The tongue of the 200-metre-thick ice flow moved so slowly under the weight of its own ice; it’s been witness to — and a victim of — shifting climate cycles.
“If these climate cycles continue, the Mer de Glace will recede four to five kilometres over the next 200 years,” explained a scientist manning the Glaciorium exhibit just a stone’s throw from where visitors spill out from the cogwheel train. “This would take it back to its minimal state before the last glaciation 125,000 years ago. The valley would have no ice, just vegetation.”
Annecy sits on the banks of Lac d’Annecy (en.lac-annecy.com), a startlingly turquoise body of water some claim is the purest in Europe. In 1860, Emperor Napoleon and his wife Josephine graced the lakeside town with a royal visit, kicking off an era of intense tourism. Visitors flocked to Annecy to see the blue-green lake and the beauty of the surrounding hillsides.
Most visitors head for the city’s atmospheric Old Town with its châteaux, canals, medieval bridges and large stone homes.
“The canals of Annecy are like Venice,” remarked local tour guide Catherine Mercier-Guyon. “We have water everywhere. The Old Town developed in the Middle Ages at the foot of the castle. At the time, the Thiou River played an important role as the transportation route for small boats servicing the tanneries of the town. Houses were built right on the river and the canals.”
“The landmark of Annecy’s Old Town is the large fortified house on a small limestone island in the middle of the river,” said Mercier-Guyon as we lingered on one bridge with an especially scenic view of the Palais de l’Isle.
During the Middle Ages, the Palais de l’Isle fortress was a prison and then a court of justice. During both the French Revolution and the Second World War, resistance fighters were imprisoned within the building’s two-metre-thick stone walls. Now restored as a museum, it houses displays on the unique architecture of Annecy.
This seemed like the natural spot to bring my watery exploration of the Haute-Savoie to a close. I settled into a small café with a view over the fortress.
“Water?” suggested my waiter. “Evian?”
Could there be any other choice?
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