Everybody knows the Alps for its ski range and winter resources, but this summer I had a chance to discover its beauty during the hot season – twice. The first trip was to Les Saisies, a skiing town close to the Mont Blanc and the second to La Feclaz, located 100km away at a lower altitude. Since I have never been to the Alps before, those two locations show me two different point of view to this majestic mountain range. Even without snow, the Alps in the summer time is beautiful in its own way – green, lively and peaceful.
Their bulky and pointy appearance set the Alps apart from nearby mountain ridges. They are so massive that, on clear days, I can see the mounts from the window of Mamie’s house 300km away. From close, the Alps are covered in pines with multiple summits intertwined with scenic valleys. The ride there is always thrilling and slightly scary with steep mountain on one side and deep valley on the other.
Chalet is the typical house in the Alps. Made of wood with a gently sloping roof, chalets were originally used by Alpine farmers when they took their cattle up the mountain in the summer months. During the winter time, chalets would be used to store pasteurized milk products, mostly butter and cheese, and to dry walnuts. When the development of road and transportation in early 20th century gave rise to a booming tourism industry, chalets were converted into vacation houses. Nowadays, most chalets in the Alps serve tourism purposes. The feeling when entering a chalet and leaving the coldness of the mountain behind is unique. The smell of wood, the warmth of light echoing from the low ceiling and the bubbling sound of fireplace all year round created a special, cozy feeling.
My first advice for anyone intending to travel to France and to the Alps is to put your diet aside so you can experience the local culinary scene in full. It is because the most famous delicatessens from the Savoy region are wine, dried meat and cheese. While you are there, don’t forget to grab a few bottles of producer’s vine du Savoie and enjoy it with saucisson, full-leg dry cure ham and a wealth of other charcuterie made locally.
Probably one of the best things France offer the world is cheese, and this region is famous for several types of cheese. Note that, like wine, most well known French cheese varieties are protected under AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée). This means that only products coming from the certified region could carry the specific name. Roquefort must be made in Roquefort, Comte must be made in Comte. Champagne must come from Champagne to be called Champaign. Hence the tale of French winemakers getting angry when the White House serves sparkling wine in a State reception and puts Champaign on the menu. But now, back to the Alps.
Les Saisies is known for Beaufort, also protected under AOC – a type of raw milk cheese in the Gruyere family. Similar to Comte, Beaufort comes in massive drums that weight anywhere between 20-70kg (90-315lbs). Unlike Comte, Beaufort drum has an inward curve along the side. Beaufort is made from Tarentaise and Abondance, two common alpine cow races. You can see herds of those beautiful cows everywhere in the Alps, grazing on the scenic meadows while their cloches chiming into the wind. About 11l of milk yields 1kg of cheese. The milk and the resulting Beaufort has a rather creamy texture and pungent smell. The cheese melts easily and thus, is used to make fondue – a local specialty featuring steamed potato, several types of cheese, garlic, white wine and, of course, no hint of greens.
While in La Feclaz, don’t forget to try the Matouille – a full drum of Tommes de Savoie baked with white wine and garlic in a deep clay plate, served with baked potato and cold cuts. Tommes is a skim-milk cheese that comes in a smaller size than Beaufort. Both La Feclaz and Les Saisies are known for Raclette – another form of melted cheese dish. Remember when I told you to put your diet aside?
During winter, these two stations and the Alps in general are filled with ski vacationers. The scene is, however, very different in the summer time. The Alps in the summer make a great destination for hiking with magnificent view and rich, interesting flora. You can either follow trails along the ski lanes or take the unoccupied lifts to for a higher point of view and more relaxed trip. Without the thick layer of white snow underneath, the lift seems higher and scarier. But I have seen families with dogs on the lift. Twice. I went up and down the hill of La Feclaz in one piece – after all the initial fear is not more than that during a rollercoaster ride. If you seek an even better view, don’t hesitate to try parachuting and gliding services offered to tourists during the warm season. Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget that you go to the Alps to relax. So after the hike or a round of gliding across the mounts, don’t forget to reward yourself with good food and a cozy evening over wine inside the chalets.
Featured image by Gregoire Abrial. Photos in this article belong to Gregoire Abrial, Matthew Abrial and Hang Pham – unless otherwise cited.