Annecy is the capital of Haute-Savoie, a department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France, bordering both Switzerland and Italy. To the north is Lake Geneva; to the south and southeast are Mont Blanc and the Aravis mountain range. Known as the “Venice of the Alps,” because of its network of canals, it sits at the head of Lake Annecy whose crystal-clear turquoise waters are surrounded by lush greenery and snow-capped peaks.
The town’s proximity to the Alpine landscape makes it the ideal gateway for exploring the network of trails leading into the surrounding mountains. Of course it’s not without effort and a good way of splitting the exertion is to overnight in one of the many mountain huts or refuges. These all offer typical mountain food of the region and fairly basic facilities, but you can be rewarded with spectacular sunsets and sunrises.
Pointe Percée – Gramusset Refuge
From Annecy, it takes around an hour to drive up to the Col des Annes, the start of the trail to Pointe Percée. When I arrive the mist is down and the rain has set in, so there’s no option but to don waterproofs, put my head down and start climbing. It’s fairly steep but then levels out, and unfortunately visibility is zero. It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise to suddenly find myself climbing the steps to the refuge.
In fact there are two buildings here, the older one the original and now acting as more of a shelter. The other was built recently and all the facilities are completely brand new. The dormitories upstairs are fairly spacious with bunk beds and there’s a bar with draught beer. I arrive just as the food is being served and most of the other guests are climbers.
After discarding my wet clothes, there’s a welcome spinach soup to warm me up, with chunks of homemade bread. After that comes a large tray of Tartiflette – potatoes, local Reblochon cheese, smoked bacon and cream, all baked in the oven. It’s good hearty mountain food and as I eat, my fellow diners are discussing the climbing options for tomorrow.
Next morning the mist begins to lift, revealing the cathedral-like summit of Pointe Percée at 2752m, the highest point of the Aravis mountain range. There are also glorious views of the Pic du Jalouvre and the Bargy range. Already the other guests are setting off for their ascent, attired in complete climbing gear, but I’m on my way back down. I can soon see my destination of La Clusaz lying in the valley down below and after a couple of hours I’m there.
La Clusaz is a charming mountain village, a premier ski destination during the winter months, but also active in the summer with an extensive network of mountain biking trails. There’s an authentic Alpine atmosphere here, the streets lined with traditional chalets, bars and restaurants and outdoor shops. Gondolas whisk you up high above the town, great for sampling mountain fare at one of the restaurants.
My visit coincides with the annual event, the Balade au Clair de Lune – everybody is encouraged to turn off their lights and use candles instead. And it’s not just inside the bars and restaurants, the streets are also lit in the same way. There are processions of drummers and dancers through the town and live bands play for dancing. Although it’s slightly damp, everyone enters into the spirit, and the place is packed with families enjoying this unique interlude.
Refuge de la Servaz
Next day, for another mountain experience, I travel west to Faverges, just at the foot of Lake Annecy, and make my way up the valley of Saint-Ruph. From here it’s a steep climb up through forest to the Refuge de la Servaz at 1434m. On my way I spot wild strawberries in the grass so help myself to a quick woodland snack. I’m in the trees for most of the hike, but when I emerge on the ridge and spy the refuge, I’m rewarded with fantastic views over Lake Annecy.
The Refuge de la Servaz is a fairly basic establishment with the dormitory one big space on the upper floor, crammed with mattresses Christophe, the guardian, makes up for the lack of comfort with his enthusiasm and excellent cooking. There’s just me and three French women and we all dine together.
The memorable meal includes Diots, local 100% pork sausages, cooked in white wine and Crozets, little squares of pasta, in a cheese gratin. After a selection of local cheese, there’s a wonderful dessert of fresh fruit to finish. Then we’re in for a big surprise – outside there’s a hot tube which Christophe has been warming all evening. Everybody jumps in for communal soak, with the twinkling lights of Annecy below.
Next morning I make my way back down and head to Lake Annecy for a wonderful lunch at La Cuillère à Omble. Of course they serve fresh fish from the lake and, as well as Trout Rillettes, I get a whole Omble, Arctic Char, to myself. Then it’s a short drive to Annecy itself and I’m staying in the old town. Even though it’s just the start of summer, the crowds are out in force.
Still that doesn’t detract from its charms. The narrow cobblestone streets, with their pastel-coloured buildings and flower-decked balconies, are lined with designer boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and bakeries. Water is everywhere, with hump backed bridges crossing the winding canals. It’s market day and stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables display their wares.
It’s also very warm and shimmering Lake Annecy beckons. I follow the lakeside promenade, past the boats offering cruises and the sailing and rowing clubs to Plage des Marquisats. This effectively acts as the town beach, with a grassy foreshore full of sunbathers. In front of me is the wide expanse of the lake with the Alpine peaks rearing up behind. It’s the perfect spot for a swim, with the water pleasantly warm enough for a hardy Englishman.
GO: EasyJet flies from London Gatwick to Geneva. From the airport it’s around an hour’s transfer to Annecy.
STAY: Pointe Percée – Gramusset Refuge has 49 dormitory beds.
La Ferme is a comfortable hotel with good local mountain specialities in La Clusaz.
Refuge de la Servaz has 19 dormitory beds.
Hotel Auberge du Lyonnais in Annecy is right in the old town and has an excellent restaurant.
INFO: Annecy Mountains has information about the region.