Walking in the French Alps: something for everyone

As I discovered on a short summer trip to the French Alps you don’t have to be a rock climber to enjoy the marvels of this mountain landscape. There are great walks to suit all age groups and levels of ability – our party of three  generations from the same family ranged from 14 to 75.

There is something almost too good to be true about this wonderful landscape: the constantly majestic views of mountain tops, the steeply wooded slopes and glacial lakes; the high summer pastures with drifts of wild flowers, white and yellow, blue and purple. The sheer abundance of it all takes some getting used to; after all we were staying in the village of Chatel at the head of the aptly named vallee d’Abondance.

A short stay with grandparents, who have an apartment in Chatel, seemed like a much longer visit, such was the natural beauty all around us, the pure air and crystal clear views. Chatel is an excellent centre for a walking holiday. The road communications are good and the village has plenty of hotel and self-catering accommodation and places to eat.  The local tourist office has good quality booklets and local maps providing an array of walking routes starting from the village itself and further afield.

For example there are shorter 1-2 hour walks up to Les Lacs de Super Chatel – Lac de la Mouille and Lac de La Conche. There are also longer 3 and ½ hour plus walks from the village to adjacent lower peaks such as the Pointe de Recon (1970m), Le Morclan (1970m) and on to the Pointes des Ombrieux (1978m).

A short drive away there are routes up to the higher peaks and alpine meadows, some of which are accessible by chair lifts, kept open in the summer months. A good head for heights is called for when using the lifts, especially when coming back down! You can purchase all-day tickets allowing you to reach some very high out of the way places, inaccessible to all but the hardiest hikers.

Chatel and the surrounding area has become a popular centre for mountain biking. Routes of varying difficulty have been constructed  to run parallel to the chair lifts; allowing the bikers to take their bikes on the lifts to the tops and then ‘cycle’ down to the bottom.

Chatel is a destination quite easy to reach by car. We stayed overnight near Troyes after driving down from Calais. The next morning we drove on towards Dijon and then took the A39 before joining the A40. The route from Nantua towards Geneva is a spectacular drive through high mountain tunnels and along lofty viaducts; the perfect introduction to this amazing landscape.

Chatel itself is approached via Thonon les Bains on the shore of Lake Geneva, along the D22 which takes you deep into the vallee d’Abondance. At the head of the valley, Chatel lies at the approaches to the Portes du Soleil, one of the main winter skiing areas of the Alps.

We stayed three nights,  giving us two full days before travelling on to our eventual holiday destination further south in France.  Our excellent hosts arranged walks for both days, giving us an opportunity to enjoy two quite different routes, both equally splendid.

On the first day we drove to Pre La Joux, not far from Chatel, and took the chair lift up to PlaineDranse and then a second lift, named ‘Rochassons’, up to the starting point for our walk. Our route took us around the side of the Pointe de Cheseryto the high glacial lake, Lac Vert (or Green Lake). For a short while this route joins the GR 5, one of the famous long distance walking routes of France. Our altitude at this stage was around 2000 metres, above us the summit of Chesery was 2249m. The going was very good along a well marked path over undulating terrain leading gradually up to a col or high pass and then down towards the lake.

By now we were anticipating the splendid views of rocky arête but what also took our breath away was the display of wild alpine flowers found amongst the high summer pastures and outcrops of rock. Everywhere we saw drifts of wild rhodedendron, marguerites and daisies, buttercups and clover. Intermingled with these were gentian, cornflowers and bluebells, campanula and white anemonies; the pure wild forms of all those flowers cultivated in English gardens. Some of the marvellous natural rockeries we came across left our English garden creations looking a pale imitation. (For more see English Rockeries and French Alpines)

The walk to the lake was not long, about 2 miles or so. We had lunch at an alpine hut, which served a simple walker’s lunch.  Then we walked up the path from the lake to the col on the side of the Montagne de l’ hiver. From here we had clear views across a steep valley of the Dents Blanches (2756m) and the Dents Du Midi (3257m).

These majestic lines of sheer rock, especially the Dents du Midi look just like ragged teeth and are aptly named. We returned to the ski lifts along the same path. It had been a clear sunny day and it felt good to be out walking at such high altitudes, looking out over the top of the world.

On the second day we visited the local market in Chatel in the morning, well stocked with excellent local dairy produce and honey. Later we had a shorter afternoon walk to the delightful Lac d’ Avouin. We journey first by car, along the road back down the valley towards L’Chappelle d’Abondance, taking a turn to the right at La Ville du Nant, in the direction of ‘Le Ryz’. This led up to informal car parking at the end of the tarmac road on the route to the Col du Conche. Here we headed off on foot, following the footpath sign to the left for the Lac d’Avouin.

This was a splendid short walk along the side of a small valley leading up to the lake, passing through a delightful belt of conifer trees. Lac d‘Avouin, a small tarn sitting at the base of a circular ridge, is guarded on one side by a sheer rock wall, leaving a narrow gap for the approaching path.

Behind the lake the land rises more steadily to paths leading to the Col Serpintinand the Col de Conche.

From these vantage points the horizon opens up to reveal the summit ofMont Blanc, its snow-covered triangular cone summit appearing through a gap in the mountains. We stopped to sit by the lake before returning along the same route back to the car. This was a perfect afternoon stroll.

Here is the view of the snow covered Mont Blanc:

We left early the following morning as the Sun was coming up over the mountains, another clear day with warm sunshine and clear blue skies in prospect. Having sampled the delights of the area we vowed to return for a longer stay and the sooner the better.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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