Bounded in the north by the Swiss border and Lake Geneva; and in the south by the French department of Savoie, Haute-Savoie offers some remarkable sites to see. Whether you're into nature, history or gastronomy, this 4,000 km² area has something for everyone.
Annecy: the Venice of the Alps
On the north shore of Annecy lake and crossed by the Thiou river and its canals, the town of Annecy looks like a miniature Venice in a magnificent alpine setting. How nice it is to stroll around the old town with its footbridges, decorative houses, and old churches. The main street, rue Sainte-Claire, leads to the castle, which was once the residence of the dukes of Savoy. Crossing over to the other side of the canal, we can admire the Palais de l’Isle (literally the "Island Palace"), a stately 12th century aristocratic mansion, transformed into a museum. On the lake shore, you'll find peaceful gardens –the ‘Jardins de l’Europe’ -a picturesque spot to relax and daydream.
The Castle of Menthon-Saint-Bernard: 1000 years of history
In a majestic setting, with Annecy lake as a backdrop, this château, with its thick ramparts and high turrets, represents nearly a millennium of history. A rare fact: the castle has been inhabited by the same family since its construction. A tour of the castle starts in its immense cobblestoned courtyard. The Castle of Menthon-Saint-Bernard is a jewel of Savoyard architecture and heritage. Visitors will discover eight impressive rooms with sumptuous furnishings and splendid paintings, as well as a 12,000-volume library. No wonder this château is said to have inspired Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle.
Evian-les-Bains: the Pearl of Léman
Between the Alpine foothills and Annecy Lake lies the spa town of Evian, overlooking the calm waters of the lake. Evian was the "home away from home" of the dukes of Savoy, who called the town "the Pearl of Léman". (Léman was an old name for the region and is also the French name for Lake Geneva.) The town has maintained a sort of double identity: it is both an old-fashioned resort town for up-market spa-goers, and a sightseer's town, with quaint steep and narrow streets, punctuated with architectural delights. Around the town, discover breath-taking cliffs and the lovely village of Meillerie, so dear to the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Le cirque du Fer-à-Cheval: simply spectacular!
The name of this spectacular site means "Horseshoe circus". Located 6 km from Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, ranked among the "most beautiful villages in France", it is an amphitheatre of limestone cliffs, some of them 700 m high. Thirty or so waterfalls, fed by melted snow, gush forth noisily. The waterfalls can be seen over 4 km. At the bottom of Le Cirque is a trail that takes you to Bout du Monde (the end of the world), another majestic site at the foot of the glaciers.
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La Mer de Glace: the biggest glacier in France
La Mer de Glace (Sea of ice) is an awesome sight, reached via the picturesque Montenvers rack railway from Chamonix, which hauls visitors up to an altitude of 1913 m. La Mer de Glace is the largest glacier in France. It measures 7 km long, is 200 m thick and 700 to 2,000 meters wide. A blue-hued cave, accessible on foot or via overhead tramway is re-carved each year by the moving snows. Visiting the cave is like visiting the heart of the glacier.
Notre Dame d’Abondance abbey: nearly 1,000 years old
Founded in the 12th century, this prestigious Cistercian Abbey was influential throughout the Alps. Visit the abbey church with its typically Savoyard belfry. Admire the cloister with its elegant keystones. See the magnificent 15th century murals.
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The spectacular Gorges du Fier!
A dozen kilometres from Annecy, the Fier, one of the Haute-Savoie's main rivers, has carved out beautiful gorges. These extraordinary phenomena of erosion are a wonderful sight to see. The Fier river flows at the bottom of a gigantic narrow crevasse. The gorges are accessible to the public via a 250m long footbridge, suspended over the river. Departures are from the village of Lovagny.
Yvoire: medieval town
Amadeus V, Count of Savoy, built a fortress on the edge of Lake Geneva. Today, you can see a castle with a massive tower, ramparts, a vegetable garden with a plant maze called "Garden of the five senses", and winding cobblestone streets that give this village of 650 inhabitants incredible charm. In fact, Yvoire has received the coveted "Most beautiful village in France" label.