Fly or take the Eurostar and TGV High Speed Train to Geneva then transfer to the iconic mountain town of Chamonix. Arrival is a feast for the eyes - awe inspiringly above is the snow-capped, glacier strewn father of them all - Mont Blanc, at 4,810 metres (15,780 feet) Europe’s highest peak. Even before you set foot in your hotel, there’s nothing quite like that first gulp of the crisp, fresh alpine air telling you, you’ve arrived! We stay seven nights at either the hotel Aiglon or Mercure, both four-star and centrally located with breakfast, two dinners in your hotel and two in carefully selected local restaurants.
Those wonderfully buttery croissants and rich steaming coffees are always something to look forward to in France, so thus fortified, we commence our exploration of this astonishingly beautiful region.
Firstly we join the narrow gauge “rack” railway grinding its way nearly 900 metres (3000 feet) from the valley floor to Montenver’s alpine meadows. Tortuously climbing through the gorgeously pine scented forests, across viaducts, over plunging meltwater streams and through cavernous tunnels, an amazing sense of anticipation mounts throughout the journey. Astonishingly, the magnificent snout of Europe’s longest glacier, the ‘Mer de Glace’ majestically appears. 7 km of Mont Blanc’s ice and snow converge here forming the ‘Sea of Ice’ you amazingly see before you. Then transfer to a cable car for the spectacular ride towards the glacier surface. A cave is carved into the ice and on touching the sides you really understand why glaciers promote so much erosion. The adjacient Glaciorum is a fascinating exhibition where glaciation is explained in detail. Also in this alpine paradise look out for Nutcrackers and Black Woodpeckers, deer, mountain goats and perhaps the Ibex.
This afternoon is free to explore Chamonix.
Enjoy yet more glorious views as we drive to medieval Annecy, firstly having a guided walk discovering the fascinating history and culture of this utterly charming lakeside town. For a real sense of ‘getting away from it all’, stroll amongst its pastel coloured, flower bedecked houses, through twisting streets and alleys along its narrow peaceful canals. Dominating the scene are the magnificent turrets and towers of its 12th century, classic medieval castle once the Counts of Geneva’s court and contains fascinating Alpine art and period furniture. Annecy has no shortage of welcoming cafes and restaurants but for lunch perhaps picnic on local cheeses, hams and pates by the impossibly turquoise waters of the lake. Indeed it is to the water that our attention turns next, taking a scenic cruise on what is said to be Europe’s purest lake. Journeying home, keep an eye out for the many red and white Savoyard Cross flags and “Savoie Libre” painted on the rocky valley sides – a reminder that this passionately independent region only became French in 1860, retaining a strong Savoyard identity to this day!
Today epitomises Chamonix’s raison d’être! Heading high – and then even higher - soaring up the valley to the very top of the peaks above – to a land of blindingly white, snowcapped summits with jagged, iron red pinnacles. We are on a cable car whisking you over 3,842 metres (12,568 feet) to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, towering far above almost every other surrounding mountain. The upper section spans almost a vertical mile above the tumbling ice of the Pelerins glacier and the steep upper rock face of the Aiguille itself – note the climbers making the ascent the hard way! This is Europe’s highest point without climbing yourself!
Nature at its most awe-inspiring, the views are just breathtaking. Marvel at the snowclad slopes of adjacent Mont Blanc, the surrounding French, Swiss, Italian Alps and on a clear day the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa 80 kilometres away. You can take lunch at Europe’s highest restaurant too, but there is one surprise left of this incredible engineering feat -“step into the void”. A walk onto a clear glass floor hanging high above the steep rock for a truly dramatic perspective!
Eventually it’s time to drag yourself away from all the drama of the high mountains, rediscovering the reality of “normal” life back in the valley and some free time to explore as you wish.
A change of style today on the shores of the tranquil Lake Geneva, firstly discovering wonderfully picturesque, 14th century Yvoire, one of the “most beautiful villages in France”. A lovely tangle of alleys lined with superb balconied medieval houses with billowing displays of wisteria dominated by a turreted castle and onion shaped church steeple. There are a splendid array of family restaurants plus a host of tasteful art galleries in which to linger.. The former kitchen garden of Yvore’s castle is now the evocative Garden of the Five Senses. Nearby is the opulent spa town of Evian Les Bains, where in the 19th century its waters were held to be a ‘cure all’ for kidneys, and taking into account the French fascination with wine and cognac – this was big news! These newly discovered medicinal qualities promoted rapid transformation becoming one of the ‘Belle Epoque’ periods most fashionable destinations, enhanced by regular visits from socialites and royalty including Marcel Proust, the Aga Khan and George V. The world first film makers, the Lumiere brothers built a classic example of grandiose spa architecture here, now hosting outstanding cultural exhibitions, but the jewel in Evian’s crown is its art nouveau masterpiece Promenade. Take a stroll along here then take the water, filtered through the Alps for 15 years, at the Source Cachat.
Today we encounter yet another engineering masterpiece, 11km of Europe’s longest tunnel under Mont Blanc itself, emerging in Italy. It’s astonishing that such a short journey reveals such change in architectural style, people and climate, let alone the language and overall culture. We soon arrive at an undiscovered gem, Aosta, a remarkable mix of ancient culture and yet more spectacular scenery. Its very name evolving from Augustus Praetoria to Aosta betrays its Roman origins and we have a guided walk of their extensive legacies. Once the towns entrance, an incredible arch still retains some of its original marble facing which in all our thirty plus years of tour operating to similar sites, we have not come across elsewhere. There is an amphitheatre too, a still in use bridge, series of archways, plus much more. Its medieval heritage is evident too with a lovely cathedral and convent to see. Most enjoyable though, is to simply wander absorbing the ambience of typical Italian street life and during the short journey back to France, just contemplate how all this variety can be so readily adjacent.
Today we drive through the Mont Blanc range, winding down the many hairpins to the fledgling River Rhone, before crossing into Switzerland to Chateau Chillon on Lake Geneva – inspiration for Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon”. Almost perfectly preserved, this medieval castle is Switzerland’s most visited monument with a host of original features, including coats of arms, iron fireplaces and much of the original wooden structure and interior decoration. This being Switzerland, the castle’s medieval clock still works! Entrance fees to the Chateau Chillon are included.
We then drive along the lake to Montreux, a picturesque resort town surrounded by vineyards and nestled against the Alps. You have free time to wander, so perhaps enjoy a peaceful stroll along the promenade, lined with colourful flowers, Mediterranean trees and belle-époque buildings. Look out for the bronze statue of Freddie Mercury, who fell in love with Montreux and settled here – if you’re a fan, you may wish to try the Queen Studio Experience in the renowned casino. A short walk away from the lake is the Old Town filled with cafés and restaurants, where you can sit and watch the world go by.
Today at the appropriate time you will returned to Geneva for your homeward journey.