The mountainous department of Savoie is famed for its skiing; containing some of the world’s most prestigious resorts. Also in the department is Lake Bourget, France's largest natural lake, on whose Eastern bank lies the pretty spa town of Aix-les-Bains. Sharing a border with Italy, Savoie is situated in the Rhône-Alpes region of eastern France.
The modern department of Savoie was part of the former independent state of Savoy that came into existence following the collapse of the Frankish Kingdom of Burgundy. Savoy was largely absorbed into France in 1860 as part of the treaty of Turin signed by Napoleon III that brought about the unification of Italy.
Savoie has a typical continental climate, enjoying warm dry summers and cold winters. Average temperatures in the department vary considerably depending on altitude and exposure. The ski-season is between December and April, when heavy snowfall occurs; winter days in Savoie, however, are often bright and sunny.
The philosopher Rousseau was credited with writing: “If there is in the world a little town, where one tastes the sweetness of life in pleasant and certain commerce, it is Chambéry". The city was once home to the Counts and Dukes of Savoy, whose legacy remains in the city’s imposing, 13th century, gothic castle, which dominates the cobbled streets of the old town. The castle’s chapel once housed the Shroud of Turin, before the Dukes moved their court to Italy, taking the shroud with them. Two kilometres outside of Chambéry is the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Museum, situated in the philosopher’s former country cottage, Les Charmettes.
Since the 18th century, Aix-les-Bain's has been one of Europe’s most poplar spa resorts, attracting many members of high society to come and bathe in its waters. Queen Victoria was among the many visitors to try out the healing properties of its thermal spas. The city’s clear-blue water, surrounded by white-topped mountains, prompted the writer Balzac to enthuse: “Nowhere could one find such perfect concord between water, mountains, earth and sky.” Elsewhere, the town’s Musée Faure contains numerous Rodin sculptures.
Many resorts in Savoie have been awarded the Petit Montagnard label, which guarantees safe and regulated tobogganing, nursery slopes and other activities for children. Ski passes in many resorts are priced to appeal to families. Many ski stations also offer crèches and snow classes for children. Moreover, resorts such as Courchevel and Méribel offer evening activities such as ice-shows and skating rinks.
Food and Drink
A wide variety of dining options are available in Savoie, from après-ski canteens serving fast food, to the international Michelin-starred restaurants of its larger towns and ski-resorts. The menus of the department's traditional eateries feature many dishes made from local produce such as Perch and Charr, fished from local lakes. Chambéry has many medium-priced restaurants, where fixed menus cost upwards of €20 and local specialties are served, including melted cheese dishes such as Fondue Savoyade and Raclette.
Salted and smoked meats are the other cornerstones of Savoyade cooking, with donkey and goat sausages commonly sold in butcher's shops and restaurants. Other alpine delicacies that feature heavily in Savoie cuisine are polenta made from local maize and the creamy Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie cheeses.
Savoie is a true walker’s paradise, offering glacier walking and routes through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful countryside in Europe. The nature reserves of Bauges, Chartreuse and Vanoise outside of Chamnoix are home to a great variety of mountain flora and fauna, such as wild flowers, birds of prey and the now-scarce European beaver.
Sports and activities
Savoie contains the fashionable pistes of Courchevel 1850, which achieved global fame as the favourite resort of former French president Giscard d'Estaing; the royal families of Denmark, Morocco and Spain are also frequent visitors. It is situated at the eastern end of the Trois Vallee’s, which is the worlds largest ski area, also containing the renowned resorts of Méribel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens, Europe’s highest ski resort.Courchevel is composed of five separate base stations, each known by their altitudes. Courchevel 1850 is the largest and highest; although its highest point is actually only 1747m. It was named 1850 in order to compete with Val d’Isere which is situated at 1850m.
With Roman Abramovich, Flavio Briatore, Roman Polanski and George Clooney all regular visitors to the resort, Courchevel’s après-ski has become legendary. Its huge selection of bars, gourmet restaurants and nightspots, usually boast a lengthy list of glamorous clientele, with Les Caves de Courchevel nightclub being the preferred haunt of the international jet-set.
Courchevel is one of the ‘big-four’ French ski resorts, whose prestige comes from their size, nightlife and the quality of their skiing. Two of the other three, Val d’Isere and Méribel, are also located in Savoie, while Chamonix is in neighbouring Haute-Savoie.
Extreme sports enthusiasts can get their thrills in Savoie through rock-climbing, paragliding, parachuting and white-water rafting on the river Isère. Savoie is also the perfect location for cycling, while golfers can choose between the department’s six different courses, each offering spectacular mountain views.
As well as the general Vin de Savoie appellation, covering Savoie and Haute-Savoie, there are also 17 crus across the two departments. Savoie’s wines tend to be made from obscure grape varieties such as Chasselas and Jacquère and, due to the small number of vineyards, they are not widely available outside the restaurants of its big towns such as Chambéry and Aix-les-Bains.
Ease of Access
The airport of Chambéry-Savoie receives flights from a variety of European destinations, including eight cities in the UK. The department is also within easy reach of the airports of Geneva, Lyon, Grenoble and Turin.The ski train from London to Bourg-Saint-Maurice takes 10 hours from London St. Pancras, with overnight services including the famous ‘disco carriage’.
Value for Money
The numerous ski stations in the department offer a wide choice to suit all budgets. Large resorts such as Courchevel contain many luxury shops and restaurants whose prices are similar to central London. Other resorts are much cheaper, and a basic meal in a ski canteen can be bought from upwards of €5.
Savoie is popular with tourists all year round, thanks to many summer activities such as village fêtes, concerts and festivals. The department combines beautiful alpine scenery, sight-seeing in its towns and relaxing on its lakes, and activities like rock-climbing, skiing and paragliding. Summer or winter, a holiday in Savoie offers something for everyone.