TAKING A GAMBLE ON AIX-LES-BAINS
One of the joys of being in Haute-Savoie is the choice of destinations and activities available for day trips. There are dozens of hiking trails around Annecy, and numerous villages and townships to visit; additionally the mountains are not far away and there are at least another 2 lakes within easy reach as well. Spoilt for choice we eventually settled on a day’s outing to the nearby spa town of Aix-Les-Bains. Situated near the shore of Lac du Bourget, Aix-Les-Bains was once a popular holiday destination for Europe’s nobility. Today it still has an air of the haute société about it, though there’s a “realness” to the town that keeps it from feeling too “posh” or contrived. We certainly enjoyed our day wandering along the waterfront and through the streets of this lovely little town!
Well before we made it to Aix-Les-Bains, however, our day started with a stroll through Annecy’s morning food market. Like many towns in France, Annecy has a regular food market that runs 3 days of the week. We’ve become accustomed to the sights and smells and convivial chaos of French markets, and love the atmosphere when the market’s in town. The food on sale is always fresh and locally grown/produced, which is lovely; but really the food is only part of it. Seems to us that a French market is as much a social event as a shopping trip; people stop to chat to the stall holders and with each other, oblivious of how much space they’re taking up or foot traffic they block. But no one minds, after all, it’s what everyone is here for! Even though we’re never there to shop (there’s not much space for a wheel of cheese in a back-pack), strolling through a French morning market has become one of our favourite activities; today was no exception.
Having had our fill of Annecy’s market we headed off to the station and caught a local train to Aix-les-Bains. Situated on a hill above the glacial Lac du Bourget, this resort town is one of France’s best known holiday destinations. It was especially popular during La Belle Époque, and the centre of the town is still filled with buildings from that beautiful era.
The town’s most iconic buildings are the Casino Grand Cercle, built in 1899, and the more modern Thermes Chevalley building. Replacing a much older complex, the Thermes Chevalley is a spa and pool complex that harnesses the fizzy, sulphur waters of Aix-les-Bains and (for a fee) allows you to soak in its warm, eggy embrace. It was these thermal baths that put the town on the map originally and motivated the Roamns to build a town here. Over the centuries many visitors came to enjoy a soak in the Thermes Chevalley; most famously one “Countess of Balmoral*” was a frequent guest.
*That’s the pseudonym Queen Victoria used when she visited Aix-les-Bains!
We weren’t feeling inclined to soak in any sulphurous hot pools and so headed downhill from the centre of town instead, towards the lakeshore. Lac du Bourget is France’s largest fresh-water lake, and makes for a stunning place to go walking, famed by mountains like the 1530m high Mont Revard.
There were hundreds of boats moored in the marina at Aix-les-Bains, and evidence of much recent activity. But, like Lac d’Annecy, it seems the summer crowds have gone and we were virtually the only people there today.
The lakeshore of Aix-les-Bains was left undeveloped until recently due to the risk of flooding, but in the last 10 years numerous new developments have gone ahead. The end result is a rather soulless, modern enclave of hotels and touristy spots that really didn’t appeal. So we kept on walking and just enjoyed the natural beauty of the lake and its views.
Eventually it was time to head back though, so we walked back up the hill to the centre of Aix-les-Bains (which is actually some 2km from the lakeshore), and caught a train back here to Annecy for our final evening in town. And with every night we’ve been here, we had a great meal out in the town, and enjoyed the quiet of Annecy after all the day trippers have gone*.
*Lots of tour buses seem to pull in to Annecy for a few hours every day, on their way from Lyon to Chamonix. Most days there are at least a dozen coaches here between 11:00 and 3:00, which means there’s a made scramble of people taking photos and eating ice cream for a few hours each day, but then the buses all leave and the REAL Annecy emerges. That is, the quiet, friendly, and all together more peaceful Annecy we prefer.
In some ways it surprises us to see that we’ve only been in France about a fortnight – things here are just so easy and comfortable that it feels like we’ve been here forever. We had some concerns about the famed French arrogance and dislike of foreigners who don’t speak their lingo, but so far everyone has been lovely (despite my half remembered childhood French being well below par!). The scenery is spectacular, the history fascinating, and the food an experience unto itself (some of it garlicky and cheesy/stinky, some of it rich and overwhelming, but all of it good). We have just slipped into the rhythm of travelling in France so easily that it makes us wonder if we’ll ever be able to leave….