Worldwide: 48 hours in ... the French Alps

Famous for its long ski season, the snow-peaked French Alps also offer fresh-air fixes and hiking tonics for those craving the great outdoors, says Vivienne Heller
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Why go now?

The French Alps in October is a bizarre concept for many people: too late for relaxing in flower-filled meadows; too early for winter sports. Yet this is one of the best times to visit. The muddy, scarred slopes - a legacy of the long ski season - are cloaked in rich, autumnal colours and ripe with hiking opportunities, while the mountain peaks are still glistening with snow, giving you the chance to test out Tignes' claim that it's open for skiing 365 days of the year. The weather tends to be cold but sunny, and the sharp, fresh air is the best tonic you could offer a work-weary soul.

Beam down

Train and coach are two options, but the easiest and quickest way is to fly to Geneva, then hire a car for the straightforward 2hr trip up into the Alps. Both Swiss Air and British Airways operate several flights daily to Geneva from Heathrow and Gatwick, from pounds 104 plus tax. Easyjet charges just pounds 39 one-way, with one flight a day from Luton. Car hire is fairly inexpensive and well worth the outlay for a short stay: three-day car hire with Budget, for example, costs about pounds 90.

Get your bearings

This particular sector of the French Alps, the Savoie, includes the Tarantaise area and the great Parc National de la Vanoise. The northeasterly gateway to this is Bourg-St Maurice, from which the road loops up through the village of Tignes-Les Brevieres, past Lac du Chevril (created in the 1950s by flooding three villages; the colossal etching on the dam is an image of Hercules commissioned by the village of Les Brevieres at the foot of the dam), then on to Tignes and Val d'Isere.

Check in

Contact Val Hotel for accommodation in the area (04 79 06 18 90, fax 06 11 88, Two good hotels open in Val d'Isere are the Relais du Ski (04 79 06 02 06, fax 41 10 64; 260F half-board) and the Mercure (04 79 06 12 93, fax 41 11 12; half-board from 370F). I stayed at the Balcon des Brevieres, in the peaceful village of the same name - a self-catering apartment sleeping five, well situated for hikes, and at the bottom of the superb Vallon de Sache ski run (contact Claudia on 0171-937 8511; pounds 300 for 3 nights).

Take a hike

A good information pack of walks in the area is available from the Restaurant du Lac, see "Demure dinner", below.

To acclimatise yourself and loosen your muscles, the 4hr, 11.2km Refuge de la Martin walk, in the middle of the Parc National de la Vanoise, is ideal. From the village of Brevieres, follow the marked path on the far side of the water up into the Lavancher wood, whose heavy scent and colourful foliage are balm to the senses. Myriad fungi sprout beneath tangled trees: bring a mushroom guide so that you can feast later on your findings. On leaving the wood, the path becomes steeper, arriving after about 30 minutes at Refuge St Martin, a simple stone chalet where hikers can rest weary limbs. A chorus of sheep bells and simple stone huts dotted around remind you of the ancient farming tradition of transhumance, still practised in the area. Ascend from here to the Savinaz glacier, which, at 2,300m, is one of the lowest in the Vanoise, thanks to its northeasterly aspect. It's awesome to behold, though crevasses make it dangerous to explore. On the way back, an alternative route halfway down leads off to the right in the direction of Tignes-Les Boisses, along a ridge that provides stunning views of the valley and peaks as far as Mont Blanc - look out for eagles gliding overhead. The path eventually descends through the Bois de l'Ours and back to Brevieres.

Lunch on the run

A hefty dose of fresh air and exercise should have helped you to work up an appetite. Find a picturesque perch and feast on local cheese, saussise and hunks of bread. When hiking, always carry plenty of water and high- carbohydrate snacks such as bananas and dried fruit.

Cultural afternoon

If your cultural cravings involve museums and galleries, then you're in the wrong place. "Culture" here is found in the bars, where you can curl up by a roaring fire with a pastis or kir Savoyade, or hobnob with locals over a beer. Only hardened traditional bars are open at this time of year: simply stroll along the main streets and look out for lights burning in windows.

Demure dinner

If you've hired a car, head down to Bourg St Maurice for Le Montagnole, 26 Ave du Stade (04 79 07 11 52; closed Wed). Candlelight, amuses-gueules and a local clientele create an elegant but cosy ambience, and the three- course 95F formule is excellent value: local fare is served up with enough flair to vie with the best London restaurants. Further up the valley, between Brevieres and Val d'Isere, Le Chalet du Lac is a pricier, more robust alternative. Meat is grilled on the open fire, and local dishes such as fondue Savoyade and tartiflette (a combination of potatoes, bacon, onions and garlic) can be devoured for 95F and 110F respectively. Those based in Val d'Isere will find a haven in Le Casserole, in the centre of town, where local produce is served up in a wooden chalet which is warmed by an open fire. All are perfect for replenishing energy reserves after a hard day's hike.

Sunday morning worship

Survey the mountains at night, and you'll see enough illuminated churches to rival the star-strewn sky. Their chorus of bells on a Sunday morning is a heavenly alarm call. Simply take your pick. Tiny Brevieres boasts the imposing St Pierre-aux-Liens, constructed in 1727 on the foundations of an ancient chapel, and if that doesn't suit you, there are 64 others in the valley to explore.

Take a ride

Ski or snowboard enthusiasts will be up the mountain at the first opportunity, and last weekend, a fresh 2ft snowfall made Tignes' glacier, La Grande Motte (3.656m), simply irresistible. The road to Val Claret, in Tignes, is lined with ski-hire shops; Bazoom, at the Rond Point des Pistes, offers skis, poles and boots for just 100F per day. Photos are not required for daily passes, which are available at the base of the funicular for 140F per day; 100F for half a day (after 11.30am) - the glacier opens for action at 8am and closes about 3pm. The funicular takes just six minutes to the top, where a number of pistes beckon (no off-piste activity at this time of year). None is seriously challenging, but the thrill of being back on snow more than makes up for it. Novices can test their mettle on wide, gentle slopes, while the more advanced can pick up tips from tomorrow's Olympic winners - many national ski teams come here for out-of-season race practice.

Bracing brunch

The restaurant at the top of La Grande Motte offers hearty meals or snacks. If the wind is strong, retire here for spaghetti bolognese (about 45F) and a glass of wine, or snatch a sandwich (22F) in between runs.

A walk in the park

If winter sports are not your style, a tough but rewarding hike is to Le Lac de la Sassiere (2,460m). The path begins by Le Cret, a restaurant sign-posted on your left as you enter Val d'Isere, and leads almost vertically up the mountainside and over the ridge. Keep your eyes peeled for griffons: three pairs of these large vultures were introduced to the region 10 years ago; a 10ft wingspan makes them easy to spot. On the other side of the ridge lies the lake, an artificial stretch of water created in 1957. From here, hardened hikers should continue over the Col du Picherou (2,760m), where a panorama of snowy peaks is ample reward. From what feels like the top of the world, the path descends through grassy slopes speckled with blue flowers back to the town.

The icing on the cake

Last week, the mountains were covered in fresh snow. This is marvellous for hiking, as long as you have suitable foot and outerwear: the delicious crunch of snow underfoot, and delicate marmot tracks, only make the experience more sublime; and provide the perfect excuse for chocolate feasts.