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We've returned from a fabulous trip to France and I'm here to share some stories and pictures! I have lots of ideas for future posts on the area but first The French Alps Trip Report!
French Alps Trip Report: How this trip came to be
We traveled from Israel to Geneva with EasyJet. The trigger for this trip was the great rates they had on a couple of specific flights. Pre-booked in February, flights for the last week of May were priced at $87 (return) which is a pretty sweet deal.
Once the flights were booked, I started looking at our destination. We had six days and Geneva itself seemed expensive and a bit dull. A quick look at the map and it was clear where we would be going: the French Alps! It's only an hour away from Geneva and the area is a great destination any time of the year.
Day 1 - Arriving At Geneva
We landed in Geneva at 5:30 in the afternoon. The flight was good, short and blissfully uneventful with some great views of the Alps on the way.
The flight arrived on time and everything went smoothly in the airport itself. Practically no lines anywhere. Hooray for the efficient Swiss border control personnel!
We didn't spend long in Switzerland though. Climb the stairs, walk for 100 yards, go through a gate and voila! You're in France! The Geneva airport has a French sector which is basically the second floor of the airport. No border control checks, you just walk over into a different country.
We had a rental car reservation on the French side (it was cheaper than renting on the Swiss side/floor of the airport) so we picked up our sweet Peugeot 508. We would have preferred a smaller (less expensive) car but I insisted on an automatic vehicle and in France, this is the cheapest class of vehicle you can get with an automatic gear. Anything smaller comes with a manual gear.
I had booked us a hotel room near Geneva because the plan was to visit CERN the following day.
The hotel was the Relais Crozati, located on top of the hill in the small ski resort Crozet, near Geneva. No snow on the nearby Jura mountains during this time of year, so again, we enjoyed the off-season rates. For $91 we got a clean room for four on the third floor (there was no elevator) with a clean bathroom and good WiFi. Can't really ask for much more and it was far cheaper than anything I could find in Geneva or closer to CERN.
Day 2 - Visiting CERN
We checked out of the Relais Crozati in the morning. We were about to get into the car when the wailing of a loud siren pierced the air. I have no idea what that was all about. I tried Googling the topic later on and all I could find was that the Swiss test their sirens once a year in February. Why would they sound a siren in May, I still don't know. It was slightly disconcerting, but seeing as there was no flash or big mushroom cloud anywhere, we decided to move on with our plans 😉 If anyone reading this knows why they sounded the siren, leave me a comment. I'm still curious.
Our hotel was only 20 minutes away from CERN. We had reservations for the guided tour at 11 and arrived earlier to visit the exhibitions near the visitors center. It took us a couple of hours to get through the exhibitions, mostly because my eldest son and his Dad really enjoy physics way too much and took the time to read everything and engage with the interactive exhibits. If you're a science buff, an hour is probably more than enough.
We also hugely enjoyed our guided tour of CERN which a provided a "behind-the-scenes" look into the project. I plan on writing a separate post about visiting CERN, with a more detailed report and a few important tips, so stay tuned for more details.
Update: You can now read my guide to visiting CERN here.
I hadn't planned on the visit to last as long as it did. I thought we would be out of CERN by noon or so. In fact it was half past one when we wrapped up everything and re-entered our car. Our next destination was the French village of Saint Gervais Les Bains where I had a vacation unit reserved via AirBNB. We had an agent meeting us at the apartment to give us the keys. The meeting had been scheduled for the 2:30-3:30 PM time slot, thinking we'd have plenty of time between the CERN tour and that. Well, with only an hour to go, we skipped lunch and just headed out to the Alps.
What should have been a one hour long trip turned into nearly two hours. A combination of taking the wrong turn in one of the interchanges and rainy weather which slowed down traffic. All in all, we almost missed our allocated time slot and arrived at a quarter past three. Fortunately, the agent turned out to be a very friendly French lady who didn't seem to mind the wait. She gave us the keys and a quick tour of the place and then left.
We booked through AirBNB. We have only had great experiences with them to date.
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Our apartment was just as advertised. A very lovely two-bedroom condo with a bathroom, kitchen and a small living area. Best of all was the view from the porch and the living room windows. Granted, in front of us was another lovely old French building such as ours, but just turn your head to the right or left, and the snow-capped mountains are there in all their glory! In a way, this is where my actual French Alps trip report begins!
It was so lovely, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening just strolling in the streets of the village, shopping in the local grocery store and not doing much else.
Day 3 - Parc Du Merlet
I had a detailed plan for our third day which included a long drive in the Alps. I wanted to drive down to the medieval village of Conflans (on the outskirts of the town of Albertville), continue to the scenic village of Bourg-Saint-Maurice and onwards to the lake called Lac De Roselend with its impressive dam. Our last point was meant to be the village of Beaufort from where we could come back in a circle back to our own small village.
It's a sensible plan in terms of mileage but those miles are stretched across twisted narrow mountain roads so travel time was supposed to be around four hours.
The first 10 minutes were pleasantly spent on the way to the neighboring village Megeve. This is the view we had from that road -
From Megeve, the road began to snake its way up and down hills and valleys. It only took my youngest son 20 minutes to become carsick from all the sharp turns, and we soon had to stop to let the boy rest and get some fresh air.
At this point, both boys and their Dad were demanding a change of plans. They did not want to go on for another three and a half hours of car travel in these roads. They wanted to be out, hiking and being all physical in the mountains and not cooped up within a car being tossed from side to side as the car swerved in and out along the way.
So... we decided to go to a place where I knew everyone would enjoy hiking. A combination of fantastic scenery and wild animals that's hard to beat: Parc De Merlet. We drove back along the same way, then down the scenic Alpine highway to the village of Les Houches (pronounced something like Lezouche). Once in Les Houches, we crossed over to the other side of the highway and braved the sharp switchbacks that brought us up the hills, across from the Mont Blanc itself.
Parc De Merlet is a privately-owned park where you can hike and view free-roaming wild animals such as deer, ibex and various types of mountain goats. As you hike, the entire Mont Blanc ridge is in front of you so the scenery is as good as it gets. It's not easy photographing snow-covered mountains so I hope the pictures do the views even just a little bit of justice -
We hiked the park's trails for about an hour and saw ibex, mountain goats, marmots, deer and a couple of llamas. I may write a separate post about this park as I have a few tips to share about visiting this lovely place as well.
We finally returned to the car and traveled down to Les Houches thinking we could stroll around the village for a bit. It turned out to be a short stroll simply because it's a small village. It was also quite empty and you could definitely see it was "off-season". Definitely no crowds anywhere. We ended up sitting for coffee (for the parents), hot chocolate (for the kids) and delicious French cakes for everyone at a local patisserie.
Once again, we stopped for some fresh bread and new types of cheeses in the grocery store. This kind of food turned out to be so delicious it became our staple food for this trip!
Day 4 - Gorges Du Fier & Annecy
Continuing with the French Alps trip report, this day was not technically in the Alps but these are definitely nearby destinations that are well worth visiting.
On a beautiful crisp morning, we drove west of Saint Gervais - this time mostly on fast toll-roads - and arrived at Gorge Du Fier, a spectacular deep and narrow gorge created over millennia by the Fier river. We bought our tickets (at a very reasonable price of 5 euros per person) and hiked the dramatic hanging trail into the gorge and back. It was simply perfect. A stunning trail with incredible views deep down into emerald pools and streams -
After leaving Gorges Du Fier we drove to the nearby town of of Annecy - another place well worth a separate post. In a nutshell, Annecy is a captivating medieval town which attracts tourists for all the right reasons. Imagine a enchanting medieval town center with canals and its own castle to boot. Match that with beautiful gardens and a stunning turquoise lake surrounded by mountains. That's Annecy for you.
The sunny weather drew the crowds out, locals and tourists, so the place was happily busy (unlike some of the other villages and towns we had visited).
Update: I blogged about what to do in Annecy and you can see more photos of our visit and get the full day's itinerary there.
Day 5 - Hiking & Ambling Around Saint Gervais
I was worried this day might turn out to be too boring but my husband and youngest son say this was the best day of the trip, so who am I to argue?
The two of them set out early in the morning to hike near Saint Gervais. They climbed one of the nearby mountains up to the snow-line where they hiked on snow-covered trails for a bit.
The rest of the day was spent strolling around "our" village, enjoying the sunshine, flowers and ambience of a beautiful Alpine village. We even discovered a local 800-year-old watchtower! It was purchased by the community several years ago and reconstructed and today serves as a small museum showcasing the local tradition of mountaineering. A few more pictures from Saint Gervais -
Day 6 - Heading Back To Geneva
Looking out the window, we could actually see the thick fog below Saint Gervais which made me wonder if we should cancel our plans for the day which included Gorges De La Diosaz and the village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval. The rain was light and sporadic and this being the last day of our trip, we decided to carry on with the original plan and make final decisions on the go.
Early morning consisted of wrapping up our stay in the apartment. Packing the remaining food (not much of it, fortunately!) and our belongings and tidying up and cleaning. I really like staying at vacation rentals but leaving one does take a little bit longer than simply checking out of a hotel. Not a huge deal but you do have to wash dishes (or run the dishwasher) take the sheets off the beds and take out the trash. We always sweep the floors too and give the whole place some TLC. There's always a cleaning person coming over but it's nice to leave the place clean and tidy for them.
Catherine, the lovely lady who met us on the first day, showed up again to see us off and get the keys. She arrived on time, as pre-scheduled for 9:30 and we had a friendly chat about the charming village and lovely apartment. Armed with Catherine's warm Bon Voyage wishes, we drove on once again to Les Houches to visit the Gorges De La Diosaz.
We were relieved to see that the thick fog lay at a very particular height, past which the air was clear and fresh. This meant our visit to the deep gorge was "a go"!
Gorges De La Diosaz only opens in late May and we were there on the second day of the season, meaning the Diosaz river was gushing with huge amounts of snowmelt runoff water. Like Gorges Du Fier, here too there was a suspended trail taking you right into the heart of the gorge. The two places are nothing alike though. Where Du Fier feels like a deep narrow cave with mostly peaceful emerald pools below you, De La Diosaz has a more open vista, lush and green and there is nothing peaceful about flow of the river there. Hiking Gorges De La Diosaz means steps and inclines too. This was not a problem for my boys or their Dad but it was definitely a good workout for me.
Next on our itinerary was the village and nature reserve of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval. We were hoping to get there and hike in the valley surrounded by mountains and waterfalls but the weather did not look too promising. The boys were hungry too, so we decided to start the drive and stop for lunch on the way and then see which way the winds blow, so to speak.
We had a delicious lunch in an American-style diner of all places (Lhottie's Diner in the town of Verchaix). A constant drizzle and fog on the surrounding mountains made it clear that this was not a good day to visit Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval and so we decided to just take our time driving to our final destination of the day, the hotel Campanile in the village of Ferney-Voltaire.
There isn't much to say about Ferney-Voltaire. It's a nice little French village which even has its own small castle but it's not particularly vibrant or picturesque. Its main attraction is the location: only five minutes away from the Geneva airport. Perfect for our early flight back home the following morning.
This pretty much concludes my French Alps trip report. Only six days (seven, if you count the uneventful flight the very next morning). Final word about the weather: Late May is a fantastic time to visit the Alps. We were never cold. In fact, we wished we had brought more t-shirts and even sandals! No crowds and spectacular scenery with snow-capped mountains and gushing rivers were just perfect.
I hope you found this French Alps trip report helpful and enjoyed our photos! Leave me a comment if you did!