Travels in the French Alps and Swiss Alps

Over the winter holiday, Eric and I took a week-and-a-half long trip to the Alps. First we visited the French Alps in the towns of Annecy and Chamonix. Then we toured the Swiss Alps around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). All the areas we visited were breathtakingly beautiful.

French Alps

The French town of Annecy is a lovely lake town. We toured Lac d’Annecy on one of the tour boats and there were many great views around the lake, including several other towns and villages and four chateaus. We also toured the Palais de l’Ile and Château d’Annecy. The Palais offered a historical perspective on the region, while the interior of the Château was more focused on artistic installations. Since we visited the town a few days before Christmas, the Christmas market was in full swing near the Church of St. Francis. There were many free samples and a wide array of products on offer, though I would say it was one of the more commercial Christmas markets I’ve been to in that many products were not regional and most vendors sold goods intended to be gifts or consumed at home, as opposed to food and beverages intended to be consumed on location. Finally, Annecy also had a ton of gourmet food shops. I imagine you could have a fantastic picnic along the lake in the warmer months with food sourced from the fromageries, charcuteries, patissieres and boulangeries. We settled for buying some fancy caramels to eat in our hotel room as it was too cold for a picnic. Also, if you are in town on a market day you’ll find even more tasty morsels on the streets and alleys – the market was impressive for a town of that size.

Tiffany in the Alps, near Chamonix

We next drove to Chamonix, a French town known for its views of Mont Blanc and skiing. Chamonix is a very touristic town given its popularity as a ski resort. We stayed there over Christmas, and were pleased to find that many shops and restaurants in town were open even on Christmas Day. Thus, the potential nightmare we faced by running out of toothpaste on the morning of Christmas Day was easily averted. We didn’t ski while we were there because we decided it would be too expensive since we would have to rent and/or buy all the gear – one downside of moving to Europe with nothing but two suitcases. The conditions were pretty poor for skiing anyway – there wasn’t much snow and about half of the trails were closed. We even heard they were making snow on one mountain, something Eric was affronted by given that we were in the Alps! The weather was also poor for viewing Mont Blanc from the Aiguille du Midi, so sadly we did not get to go to that observation point. We did take the Brévent cable car to get a view of Mont Blanc across the valley. The views were nice, but the hot chocolate we had at the top at “Le Panoramique” café was terrible.

The day after Christmas Chamonix and the surrounding area were hit by a snow storm. We finally got the snow Eric had been hoping for on this trip, but we also had to drive through it on our way to Montreux, Switzerland. The drive was quite an experience as we got to try out snow chains for the first time. Even with them we nearly wrecked the car twice on a particularly treacherous village road just over the border in Switzerland. Due to the snow it took us most of the day to get from Chamonix to Montreux, with a few stops for food and sightseeing; the GPS had estimated a mere 45 minutes.

Swiss Alps

We next made Montreux our base for four days while we explored the Swiss Alps. Montreux itself was mostly just OK. The old area of town, Vieille-Ville, was quite nice to walk around and take in views of the lake. The promenade along the lakeshore was also a pleasant place to walk. The main attraction, Château de Chillon, is about two kilometers outside of town, and accessible from the promenade. We toured Chillon and learned a great deal about the local history. The tour was quite extensive, and we felt rushed to get through it all before closing time even though we probably spent 3 hours there in total. The views of Chillon from along the lakeshore are particularly nice.

While staying in Montreux we also visited the Gruyère district. We visited La Maison du Gruyére, a operational cheese-making museum. The cheese-making process was interesting to see, and we got to sample three different ages of Gruyère cheese. We also visited the old town of Gruyères and the château there. The Château de Gruyères was another lovely place to visit. The interiors of this château are a bit more current than the others we visited on this trip, as it was lived in until the 1930s. Thus, the feel of the place is more Victorian than medieval. As the château sits atop a hill, there are some fantastic views of the countryside. We also visited the Cailler chocolate factory in nearby Broc. This was a fun place to visit, but be warned that when we went, there were masses of visitors and tour groups. We had to wait about 2 hours for our tour to begin, so we had to entertain ourselves in the gift shop and movie theater beforehand. At the end of the tour you get to sample as many chocolates as you can stand to stuff your face with, so don’t pig out on purchased chocolate before the tour like we did. (If Eric goes back, he’s bringing a water bottle of milk.)

Vevey is just north of Montreux and has a very nice old town and the best photography museum Eric and I have ever been to. You could spend a whole day in this museum because the audio guide has several minutes of audio (in English, among other languages) for almost every single display case, and there are five levels to the museum!

Further north along the lake is Saint-Saphorin. This place is a spectacular little village amid the Lavaux vineyards. It is all old stone houses and cobbled roads, and there are footpaths that take you up into the vineyards. It is an incredibly tranquil place.

We spent the New Year in Lausanne on the final leg of our journey. For New Year’s Eve the tradition is to light up the cathedral at midnight. Eric and I went to see this, and it was OK. We looked at it for about ten minutes and then left. Lausanne itself was just mediocre as a destination — there are some nice shops and churches to visit, but not too much more to recommend it.

When we headed back to France, we found several more cute towns along the shores of Lake Geneva. Morges, Saint-Prex and Nyon are all worth a visit. Morges has a pleasant old town and harbor area. Saint-Prex is a small, peaceful town, and if you can find your way up to the church, the view is worth it. Nyon has a nice château with exhibitions covering the town’s history as a center of porcelain production and the history of the château as the municipal prison.

Switzerland was mostly a good place to visit, but at times it was breathtakingly frustrating and expensive. As for the frustrating bits, they were mainly due to either the universally poor standard of customer service in Switzerland (for example see Eric’s post on Hôtel Bon-Port) or due to the timing of our visit. As we found out, visiting Switzerland just after Christmas and into the first few days of the New Year is not an ideal time – many restaurants, especially in the small towns and villages, close up for several weeks to take their own vacations. Of those that don’t close for several-week vacations, many of the remaining close up on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. So, just watch out for that if you take a trip there yourself around the winter holidays. Also, parking seems to be terrible in all major Swiss cities. There is virtually no overnight parking, and if there is it tends to be very expensive. The high cost of visiting Switzerland was inevitable, but even though our hotels and meals cost more than we would have liked, we found that most of the attractions were relatively inexpensive. The hotels of Montreux and Lausanne actually offer special cards that get you free public transportation within the region, and the one for Montreux gives special discounts at many of the nearby attractions.

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