J&D's Travelog


Savoie, France

July 2005 - January 2006

Map of the Savoie

After a moderately successful stint in Provence, D found himself returning to France for another extended stay. This time he was stationed in the mountainous Savoie region in the southeast - an area known for Alpine skiing and hearty food like fondue, raclette, and tartiflette. While his work was in Chambéry, he made his temporary home in the charming resort town of Aix-les-Bains. J stayed in the States to carry on with her job but flew over a number of times during the nine months D was there to see some of the area's beauty and meet some of the people D has befriended. In addition to the seeing the sights of the Savoie region, J joined D for a number of side trips including Geneva, Torino, the Veneto, and even Köln for New Year's. The Savoie was an independent kingdom that had a great influence on Frane and Italy.
Symbols of the Savoie

Le Savoie

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Savoie, which is known to the English-speaking world as Savoy. To be perfectly honest, neither did I. But it would be negligent to not find out at least something in advance about where I was going, so I’ll share what little I know. Of course, I knew about the more famous parts of the region such as Mont Blanc, Chamonix, Grenoble, and Lake Geneva, but as I found out, there is much more to the area.

Today, Savoie refers to one of the hundred or so départements that make up France. Adjoining it to the north is the Haute-Savoie (High Savoie) which the areas along Lake Geneva (see my nifty map above). To the east, both départements are bordered by the Alps, along which runs the French-Italian frontier. Lake Geneva constitutes the border with Switzerland. However, prior to its annexation by France in 1860, the Savoie was a sovereign state that included western Switzerland, the Piedmonte region of Italy (the westernmost part of Italy around Turin), and extended westward almost to Lyon and as far south as Nice. It encompassed almost all of the western Alps, making it a strategic, and therefore desirable, region throughout its history.

The history of the Savoie is somewhat complicated, but I’ll give you the 50 cent version here for the sake of brevity. As usual, we’ll start with the Romans who made their way into the area in the 1st century BC. Encountering moderate resistance from the Gallic tribes of the area, most notably the Allobroges, the Romans built founded some towns, established major roads, and increased the agricultural productivity of the area. The post-Roman era saw the Savoie have strong influences from the Kingdom of Burgundy to the north, and it was eventually included as part of Lotharingia after the breakup of Charlemagne’s kingdom. The House of Savioe was established by the last Burgundian king, Rudolph III and maintained its independence under Humbert White-Hands after the Savoie officially became territory of the German Emporer, Konrad II. The Counts of Savoie flourished in the Middle Ages by controlling trade across the Alps, and established a capital at Chambéry along the old Roman road between Grenoble and Geneva. By creating a senate at Chambéry, investing tax money back into the maintenance of the state, and giving political and judicial power to local magistrates throughout the Savoie, the Counts of Savoie created a recipe for government that allowed the region to succeed as a sovereign state for nearly a millennium. The Counts of Savoie eventually became dukes and finally kings, once Sardinia was added to the kingdom.

But alas, the strategic location of the Savoie nation and the sheer size of its territory eventually led to its dismantling. Owing to various kings named Louis and a couple of Napoleons, all of whom desired the Alpine region, the western and northern parts of the Savoie were constantly invaded by French troops. Fearing the inevitable, the House of Savoie moved its capital from Chambéry to Turin on the other side of the Alps. Eventually, the parts north of Lake Geneva were ceded to the Swiss Confederation. Through a secret deal in 1859, King Victor Emmanuel II, handed over the original Savoie region west of the Alps to Napoleon III in exchange for the aid of 200,000 French troops to fight off the Austrians. The investment paid off when Victor Emmanuel eventually succeeded in driving away the Austrians, united Italy, and became its first king. His descendants ruled Italy until World War II. Today, the House of Savoie still exists with Vittorio Emanuele, Prince of Naples as its sovereign.

The Savoie people retain a unique identity, and an acute nationalism is pervasive. The inhabitants still have strong ties to Italy and Switzerland, the influence of which can be detected in their features and their cuisine. It is impossible not to notice the Savoie flag displayed prominently throughout the area, noticeably more than the French flag. The ancient Savoie language is derived from Latin, but has not experienced the same revival as Provençal, and is rapidly fading.

Château des Ducs de Savoie.

All you need to know about Chambéry.

Cathédrale Saint-François.


Nestled between the Bauges and Chartreuse mountains and only a stones throw away from Lac du Bourget is the city of Chambéry, historical capital of the Savoie. The Romans founded the settlement of Lemincum on the marshes here as a watering hole along the main roads from Milan to Vienne and Grenoble to Geneva. Today, the city has about 60,000 inhabitants and is fairly modern with some basic industry, the University of Savoie, and numerous museums of art and culture. The old town, having largely been rebuilt after a WWII bombing raid, is a unique mixture of broad sweeping pedestrian zones and narrow medieval alleys.

The real jewel of the city is the château which became the main residence of Savoie royalty in the 13th century as well as housing the Savoie senate. The castle was damaged by fire and rebuilt on numerous occasions, but saw a fair share of residents from the Savoyard counts to Napoleon III to a Don Felipe when Chambéry was briefly under Spanish occupation in the 18th century. In 1502, the Duchess of Savoie had a special chapel built into the castle to house her most prized possession – the Holy Shroud. As with the capital, the Shroud was eventually moved to Turin for reasons of security.

Aside from the château, Chambéry's most notable monument is the statue built for native son General Benoit de Boigne to commemorate his exploits in India. The sculpture displays the heads of four elephants and has some very ornate bronze work from the Grenoble-born sculptor. Sadly, it has nothing to do with Hannibal as we had hoped. The Carthaginian general is believed to have taken the less scenic southern route across the Alps, which makes sense considering his mode of transportation.

One last claim to fame is that Chambéry was the home of celebrated French (though he was born in Geneva) philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau for almost a decade when he was a young man. He reputedly did pretty well with the ladies as he taught music to many of the young socialites of the day. His first mistress, Mme de Warens, lived and eventually died in Chambéry. Rousseau is well-known for his theory that man is ultimately noble at the most basic level and that society corrupts him. His political works preached the role of the masses in sovereignty and are considered by some to have been the roots of communism and socialism. The statue commemorating the influence Chambéry had on Rousseau was ironically melted down by the Nazis for weapons.

The château's Sainte-Chapelle

Stained glass in the chapel.

Christ and the Holy Shroud.

Fontaine des Elephants

Café outside the theater.

An alley in the old town.

A view toward the château.

High in the Beaufortain mountains.

A chalet along our route.

The locals were no help.

Nofort Mountain

Prior to our departure for Italy, weI found ourselves with a gorgeous Sunday to exploit. D had discovered a stunning picture of a nearby citadel in one of his many guidebooks and decided that it was within our range of capabilities to ascend the mountain on which it was perched. So early in the morning, we stuffed a couple bottles of water in our backpack and headed to the Beaufortain region near the town of Bourg Saint Maurice to begin our assault. Eventually, we found the tiny road that climbed from the village up toward our objective. The road narrowed significantly to the point where it was essentially a one way road. At about 3000 ft above the town below, D began to get a little nervous about encountering cars coming the other way, so we parked our trusty voiture where the paved road ended and ventured out on foot.

We walked up the moderate incline for about an hour and could see the noticeable progress, but we still had no sight of the fort. After another hour, we not only began to get tired, but started to doubt the route we had taken. We agreed to go for another half hour and then turn back if we didn’t reach the fort. So after two and half hours of incessant uphill-walking, we agreed to head back down in defeat. There were considerable accusations and finger-pointing, but there's no need to dwell on the negative. Suffice it to say that some poor judgment and map reading led to the whole fiasco. Nevertheless, we had a challenging hike with some exhilarating views of the French Alps.

On the drive down, we passed a sign indicating the turn we had missed that would have led us to the fort on the neighboring mountain. D vowed to return at all costs and see that fort.

The Porte de Savoie leading into Conflans.

The former Olympic flame at Albertville.

Albertville Olympic skating center.

The main square in Conflans.

Fountain in medieval Conflans.

The baroque church of St. Grat.


One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of the Savoie should be the Olympics. The region is renowned for its skiing areas and has played host to three Winter Olympic Games – the inaugural Winter Games in Chamonix (1924), Grenoble (1968), and most recently Albertville (1992). In fact, the next Olympics this coming February is set for Turin, a former capital of the Savoie.

As it were, we decided to visit Albertville to check one more former Olympic host city off of our list. D's friend had described Albertville as this: Before the Olympics it was a small town, during the Olympics it was a big town, and after the Olympics it is a small town again. This turns out to be a pretty accurate description. One characteristic of the Winter Games is that the majority of the competitions don’t actually take place in the host city but rather in the surrounding mountain villages. So our visit to Albertville yielded only a view of the Olympic stadium and skating venues.

But Albertville possesses another little jewel in the form of a medieval town perched above the Olympic city. Conflans, its name derived from its location at the confluence of the Isère and Arly rivers, thrived as a stop along the trade route through the Alps between Milan and Vienne. The Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights of Malta) built a hostelry here to shelter pilgrims and eventually crusaders en route to the Holy Land. Today the town hosts only tourists as most of the buildings are shops, galleries, and artist workshops, but it still retains the charm of a walled city from the middle ages.

Le Mairie d'Aix-les-Bains
Aix-les-Bain's town hall.

Giant chess
Chess in the afternoon.

Le Roche du Roi
Le Roche du Roi.


As previously mentioned, D made his home for nine months in Aix-les-Bains, a lakeside resort town about 20 minutes north of Chambéry. Vacationers come not only for the mountain air or the boating and swimming opportunities but also for the thermal baths. Bains means baths and Aix is derived from the Latin aquae, so it’s not to difficult to realize that the Romans discovered this area and dipped their toes in the 100+ degree water from time to time. There is an arch dowtown that was part of a mausoleum because the Romans believed thermal baths were entrances to the underworld. Now we just build casinos near them. Today, there are three national baths in Aix – Thermes Pellegrini, Thermes Chevalley, and Thermes Marlioz – and French curistes come from all over the country to use the healing waters. There is a poster with drawings depicting the various treatments. Let’s just say that no orifice is safe. We’ve heard that you must have a prescription from a French doctor to have the "full treatment".

Aix-les-Bains has a nice pedestrian zone downtown strip and a beach and water park, but the nicest part of town is down by the Grand Port. One can eat in a number of the restaurants, browse around the boats and yachts, walk out on the pier extending into the lake, or stroll along the plane tree lined Boulevard du Lac towards the Petit Port. Along the boulevard is a large park with ice cream stands, pétanque areas, a skateboard park, and children’s rides. It’s a great way to spend a sunny spring, summer or autumn day with the family.

Aix’s heyday was during the Belle Époque when it was one of the places to be during the summer months. Queen Victoria was a regular visitor as was other royalty. But Aix calls itself the city of writers because, in addition to visits from Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, and Guy de Maupassant (who went to the baths to cure his syphilis), this lovely lakeside resort is where Alphonse Lamartine fell in love with a married Parisian woman who suffered from tuberculosis. They vowed to return the next summer, but she didn’t survive to make it, and Lamartine mourned her in his classic poem Le Lac (The Lake). Some consider Lamartine as the first French romantic poet.

Casino Grand Cercle
The Grand Cercle casino takes your money regardless of nationality.

Which way to Moscow?
Celebrities abound.

Thermes Marlioz.

The beach at Aix=-les-Bains
The beach.

A local pub
A local pub by the lakshore.

Boulevard du Lac
Boulevard du Lac.

Quaint Alsatian half-timber house

A reminder of who now owns the Alsace

Les bouches de Noël


The plan for the holidays was to collect J at the airport in Lyon and head directly up to Germany for a family Christmas with D's parents.  Just before New Years Eve, we were to join our favorite senior citizen bus tour from previous trips to Lower Bavaria and Montegrotto for a tour of Köln in the heart of the Rheinland.  Needless to say, J was suffering greatly from sleep deprivation after spending some 11 hours in the air.  A long ride in the car was not going to keep her awake for long, and by the time we reached Besançon, she was slipping in and out of consciousness - sometimes in mid-conversation.

We had not planned to make the trip all in one day, but instead made reservations for two nights in a small hotel in Riquewihr where D had once visited in his younger days during a family trip to the region.  This would give us at least a full day to experience some of the Alsace at Christmas time.  What makes the Alsace special is its combination of French-ness and German-ness.  Politically, the Alsace has bounced around between France and Germany a number of times as you might expect from a border region between old foes.  Culturally, the Alsatians have a unique blend that draws from both countries.  Today, it is part of France although the architecture, cuisine, and native language lean much more toward German.

Riquewihr, historically known as Reichenweiher, exudes charm.  The half-timber houses lining the cobblestone streets give it that fairytale feel.  The whole town decked out for Christmas and was surrounded by the vineyards that produced the grapes that yielded the wine that provided the inhabitants with a stable income for centuries.  On some of the rooftops, you could see the nests that were home to the indigenous Alsatian storks.  We went to the Christmas market and drank some glühwein while checking out the stalls selling ornaments and crafts.  As night fell, the lights came on to produce an even more magical feel.  J began to fade, so we ducked into an old restaurant to dine on choucroute garnie - an assortment of grilled meats with sauerkraut and potatoes - before turning in for the night.  The following morning, we needed to get an early start to complete the drive to Germany.

Downtown Riquewihr

Strasbourg's Christmas market

A stork nests atop one of the town's watch towers

Decked out for the holidays

Riquewihr's modest Christmas market

A small town square

A city gate

The Fourviere is regarded as "the hill on which we pray" by the citizens of Lyon.
The château at Virieu

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of the Petit Prince, was a famed pilot from Lyon.
Anti-solictor door

There are two Roman theaters on Fourviere - the Grand Theater and the smaller Odeon.
One of many castles in the Dauphiné


J’s holiday visit was also coming to an end. We left early for the airport in Lyon so that we could squeeze in a visit to Virieu. The château at Virieu dates back to the 11th century and was part of the lands which made up the Dauphiné. Originally independent from France and part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Dauphiné was traditionally ruled by the heir to the French throne in exchange for its sustained independence. The idea was to keep the crown prince as far away from Paris as possible yet still keep an eye on him. Since the heir, known as the Dauphin, was typically a child, he exercised little authority and the noblemen of the region were in a constant power struggle. In the mid-15th century, the Dauphin and soon-to-be Louis IX married the nine year old daughter of the Duke of Savoie making him a greater threat to the French king. As a result, the king’s army occupied the Dauphiné and claimed it for the crown.

Saturday market in front of Parliament

Last vestiges of the old Roman wall

Jardin de Ville


In eight months, D had ventured to the north, west, and east to visit various points of interest in the Savoie and Haute Savoie. The one glaring omission was to the south where he still had yet to see the city commonly known as capital of the French Alps and also the former capital of the Dauphiné. Grenoble lies at the junction of the Isère and Drac rivers about 30 miles south of Chambéry. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a beautiful weekend, so we made my way down the A41 on what turned out to be a dreary and blustery morning.

Grenoble began as an Allobroges village called Cularo before the Roman emperor Gratian (from whom Grenoble’s name is derived) gave it city status. Little remains of the Roman era today save for a small section of the original wall. The city prospered by way of its location on the trade routes between Italy and France but was handed around between the Burgundians, Franks, and Provence before coming into possession of the Counts of Albon who made it the capital of the Dauphiné. It eventually became part of France along with the Dauphiné. Thanks to the introduction of hydroelectric power, Grenoble became an industrial heavyweight specifically known for manufacturing gloves.

High above Grenoble is the Bastille - a fortress built by the French to fend off invading armies. Access to the Bastille is gained by the iconic cable cars, known as les bulles (the bubbles), reputed to be the world’s first urban cable cars. Although we strolled around town taking in the sights, our primary goal was to visit the last of the trio of Olympic sites in the Savoie region. The Winter Olympics of 1968 were memorable possibly from the performances of Peggy Flemming and Jean-Claude-Killy but more likely because they were the first to be broadcast on television in color. Quite a few sites have survived the years such as the skating oval, the hockey arena, the flame, and even the athletes’ village.

Fontaine du Lion symbolizes Grenoble's struggle with flooding of the Isère and Drac.

Statue of the Chevalier de Bayard

Le Table Ronde in Grenoble is the second oldest café in France.

Place de Notre Dame

The Olympic skating and hockey venue

Les bulles return from the Bastille

The 1968 Winter Olympic flame

Site of the 1968 opening ceremonies

Copyright © 2005 JnDsTravelog.com. All rights reserved.