It's worth taking time to explore the back roads through the French Alps, one of the most beautiful and dramatic regions in the whole of Europe
If you’re planning to drive through one of the most stunning regions in Europe, why would you want to speed through it on a motorway? This was my first thought when working out a route, for a friend and I, between Geneva and Nice. Of course, my way will take longer, and it’s impossible to tell from a map exactly what kind of roads we’re likely to encounter. But we were here to see the real countryside on a driving holiday around Europe, in two home-built kit cars - so the back roads it was going to be.
Having spent an enjoyable day in Geneva, we left in late afternoon and headed south towards the towering peaks of the Alps. A small road via Creseilles took us quite quickly towards the popular mountain resort of Annecy. As we drove in to the town along the wide tree-lined boulevard, we rounded a bend, and in front of me was one of the most awe-inspiring sights of my life. The sun was just setting across the shimmering waters of the lake that stretched out before me. The mountains on either side were golden in the fading sunlight, with the peaks still glistening white with snow. That moment will be etched on my memory forever, and made me glad of my decision to travel this way.
Annecy has been a stopping place on the Alpine route since Roman times, and today is an idyllic base for those who want to explore the surrounding area. I never tire of the pretty little lanes around the castle, the window boxes full of brightly coloured flowers, and the long wide promenade that stretches along the edge of the crystal-clear lake. The canals through the town add to the air of tranquillity, and the little 12th-century fortress that sits on an island in the middle of the trickling waters houses a small but impressive museum.
I like the Hotel du Nord, a pleasant mid-range hotel with nice views across the lake. Just along the road, though, is the very chic (and expensive) l’Imperial Palace. Nice though this is, along with the adjacent casino, it does look somewhat out of place at night, with its whole outline picked out with Las Vegas-style lights.
In the morning the lake looks wholly different, as the thin layer of mist hovers across it, and the mountains have their tips in the clouds. Leaving Annecy, we drove south along the west bank of the lake. The beauty of driving yourself is that you are free to stop as often as you like. If, like me, you have a passion for photography, then a route like this provides numerous opportunities too good to miss. Castles and chateaux, cascading waterfalls and spectacular vistas are all abundant.
In the village of Duingt there is the opportunity to hire a small boat and head out on the lake. Looking back towards the shore, I suddenly noticed two more chateaux that presumably guarded this peninsular at one time.
From Albertville we joined the Route des Grande Alpes, or N902 to give it its less romantic title, which seemed to take us continuously higher and higher, passing Moutiers, Aime, Bourg St Maurice, and eventually arriving at the well known ski resort of Val-d’Isere. This is the heart of the Parc National de la Vanoise.
Only when we stopped and began to walk around did we realise just how high we had now climbed. The air was crisp, clear and cold. It was a sunny day, in mid-July, but there was still an icy bite on my face. But it was stunning, simply stunning. There are views for miles in all directions. Rough, vast rock faces, snow still covering the higher areas, the fast-flowing rivers tumbling over uneven courses, and deep valleys with pale green grass and log cabins stretching for miles below us.
We headed on, and up, over the highest pass in the Alps. At almost 2,800m, driving the Col de l’Iseran seemed more of an adventure than a sightseeing journey. The viewpoint near the summit took our breath away. It was like being on top of the world, and had it not been so cold and windy, I would have stayed for much longer just soaking up the atmosphere.
Instead, we had to head down the switchback roads to Bessans, where we found the extremely warm and friendly Hotel Le Mont Iseran. I liked Bessans. It was more what I expected of an Alpine village, with its stone buildings and old church - a far cry from the mass-produced ski towns we’d passed on the way.
After a comfortable night, a tasty breakfast, and a short stroll along the river Arc, we headed off down the valley. We briefly crossed into Italy at Susa, before again picking up the Route des Grandes Alpes via Briancon, Guillestre, and Barcelonnette. The mountain passes here are just as spectacular, with twisting roads and deep ravines, but already the rocks change to an almost reddy colour, with thick forests lining the rivers.
As we continued south, along the exquisite Verdon valley route, heading into the Alpes-Provence region, the feel again changes, as the rocks become darker, more menacing and stark, and the villages become smaller and more sparse. After a long day's drive, we arrived on the outskirts of Grasse, and the end of the Alps. As darkness fell, we found an excellent hotel ironically called the Panorama. We had certainly seen plenty of those on our trip, and as we relaxed over a glass of local wine, we both promised ourselves we would do the whole thing again some day!