Recently restored and once again fashionable, the square-mile old quarter called Vieux Lyons showcases the glory days when Lyons was Europe’s mercantile and financial center. A series of narrow streets form a picturesque labyrinth lined with more than 350 buildings, considered the country’s most extensive and homogeneous grouping from the late Gothic period to the 17th century.
Quaint traboules (covered passageways), unique to Lyons, hark back to the days when they helped people move precious bolts of silk during inclement weather. The traboules connect streets lined with arcaded galleries, antiques shops, charcuteries, Italianate courtyards, and La Cour des Loges, one of Lyons’s most stylish hotels.
The dazzling concentration of some of Europe’s highest-rated restaurants in and around Lyons have made it a magnet, second only to the gastronomic capital, Paris. Of the city’s more than 700 dining establishments, a good number are casual bouchons, Lyons’s traditional bistros.
The homey, family-run Cafe des Federations, with its sawdust- covered floors and sausage-strung dining room, has been a longtime favorite for its wonderful, earthy fare. But it is stellar, innovative chefs like Jean-Paul Lacombe, whose family has run the renowned and charming Leon de Lyons since 1905, who have contributed to Lyons’s fame as France’s mecca of fine dining.
Host to the 1992 Winter Olympics and one of the highest, most attractive, and best-equipped ski locations in the French Alps, Courchevel sits in the confluence of three alpine valleys that make up the world’s largest ski area. Many of its slopes are north facing, with some of the most immaculate grooming found anywhere. Courchevel’s four “villages” are named after their varying altitudes, the best being the highest at 6,012 feet (1,850 meters).
They are cosmopolitan but not intimidatingly chic, and the hundreds of trails, the extensive crisscrossing network of lifts, and the varied terrain (great for near beginners, and wonderful for all levels of intermediate skiers) make this one of the best ski establishments anywhere. Many travelers come to ski the Courchevel sector alone, but it is well linked to other resorts in the Trois Vallees, such as the attractive M6ribel, or Val-Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe.
Courchevel is known for its deluxe dining and luxury hotels. One of the finest is Le Melezin, the first European property of Amanresorts, whose exquisite Asian hotels have transformed the concept of five-star boutique accommodations in the Pacific. Its minimalist luxury is a warm and welcome change from the Tyrolian chalet theme so ubiquitous in these ultra-scenic parts.
No wonder Chamonix was chosen to host the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Long before it was heralded as Europe’s best resort for advanced and expert skiers, Chamonix was a serious mountaineering center and summer capital for climbers. Glacier-wrapped Mont Blanc rears up straight over town, and on a clear day you can see the Matterhorn, 40 miles away. “I never knew—I never imagined what mountains were before,” said Percy Bysshe Shelley after a visit in 1816.
The Chamonix Valley cuts through Europe’s highest mountains and glaciers, providing stunning views and terrain that make for peerless summer hiking and radical off-piste skiing that’s steep, high, and long. The outstanding run—and not just for experts—is the celebrated Valine Blanche, a rugged, uninterrupted 12-mile glacier run of breathtaking scenery.
Even farther aloft is the 12,000-foot needle-pointed Aiguille du Midi, reached by the world’s highest cable car ride, a heart-stopping experience for siding and nonskiing altitude lovers. A cog train accesses the glorious 6,300-foot summit of the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice), the second-largest glacier in the Alps, another alpine wonderland that must have held Shelley in thrall.
In the midsummer months, the region is host to seasoned hikers, many of whom undertake the lovely Tour du Mont-Blanc. The point of the tour is not to make it to the top of the highest mountain in Western Europe, but rather to follow a circular route through France, Italy, and Switzerland and their ever-changing panoramas of glaciers, peaks, and meadows.
Following roads once used by the Roman legions and crossing through a succession of seven valleys (each with its own scenery, cuisine, and culture), you encounter remote villages and customs unchanged for centuries. Take a picnic lunch for the wild- flower-covered meadows.
Everyone hopes to find an authentic corner of France overlooked by tourism, and here it is. The little-visited niche of Beaujolais is often compared to Tuscany, with vineyard after vineyard cloaking folds of rolling sunlit hills.
And lucky are those few who drive over the drawbridge to the magnificent Château de Bagnols, France’s premier country home and a designated historic monument, one of some 150 baronial châteaux scattered throughout this viti-cultural backwater. English owners have painstakingly brought Bagnols back to its former glory with the help of more than 400 craftsmen and artisans.
The walls are once again extravagantly decorated with Renaissance-inspired paintings, and the canopied beds are hung with period velvets and silks, the sumptuous fabrics that made nearby Lyons famous. The antique beds are the château’s tour de force, each a theatrical work of art from the owner’s personal collection.
To choose among the twenty spacious rooms, museum-like but relaxed and cozy, is nearly impossible. In the morning, make a foray into la belle France, or head for Sunday lunch at the Auberge du Cep in nearby Fleurie, for Beaujolais cooking and wines at their best.
This miniature Venice in an alpine setting is an unspoiled medieval and Renaissance treasure. Annecy is crisscrossed by the Thiou River—which creates numerous canals before joining with the Fier, confluent with the Rhone—and sits on the northern shore of Lac d’Annecy.
Of the region Paul Cezanne exclaimed, “What a superb vestige of times past!” In the delightful Vieille Ville (Old City), lovingly preserved churches and flower-bedecked quayside town houses are reflected in crystal-clear rivers and canals crossed by arched pedestrian bridges. (Environmentally conscious local governments have done much to keep the city and its environs pollution free.)
In warm weather, boat excursions visit the shores of the pristine lake. Otherwise, window-shop along the lively, beautifully kept city streets, which contain an astounding number of food specialty shops and elegant antiques stores. Food fans say a visit to Annecy without a meal at the fabled Auberge de Marc Vevrat (still commonly known by its old name, “L’Eridan”) is like going to Agra and missing the Taj Mahal. The virtuoso chef himself picks the rare alpine herbs and fresh wildflowers he uses.
One must also make a visit to the Auberge du Pere Bise, in nearby Talloires. This hotel-restaurant, a picture-book cluster of houses scattered along crystal-clear Lac d’Annecy, has long been a beacon in the French gastronomic world. Sophie Bise, the granddaughter of founder Pere Bise, is one of France’s most esteemed female chefs.
Parisians think nothing of making a long trip here to lunch on lobster tail or mousse de foie gras, plus a sampling from the restaurant’s world-class wine cellar, all served on the pergola-covered lakefront veranda. Sybarites will admire the tapestries and antiques that have transformed the former monks’ cells of this onetime 17th-century Benedictine abbey into luxury living quarters.
A microcosm of the arriere-pays, the rolling backcountry beyond the coastal Riviera, Vence was long a Provencal magnet for artists and writers. Nestled in the hills covered with pines, cypresses, and olive groves, it still attracts well-heeled visitors who want to escape the coast’s comme-des-sardines crowds.
Cognoscenti are attracted to the open-air market, regarded as one of the best in the region, and to Yence’s unpretentious everyday feel. The Matisse Chapel here is a 20th-century tour de force. After recovering from a long illness in 1948, Henri Matisse promised a Dominican sister, who was one of his nurses and sometimes his model, that he would decorate the Dominican Oratory connected to the home.
Brimming with enthusiasm, he began the Chapelle du Rosaire at seventy-seven and died three years after its completion. “Despite its imperfections, I think it is my masterpiece,” declared Matisse after five years of work, “the result of a lifetime devoted to the search of truth.”
Visitors can prolong the experience by checking into the elite Château du Domaine St.-Martin, a handsome inn tucked away on a wooded hillside above the town. The secluded hostelry sits on the site of a 12th-century Crusader castle whose drawbridge and chapel still remain. The present structure was built in 1936 and, with its hillside villas, encompasses 35 acres, with magnificent panoramas at every turn and a soothing pool area shaded by olive trees.
Brigitte Bardot lives. Since first arriving in 1956 to star in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman, la Bardot has never left. A parade of nubile Bardot lookalikes, golden boys, and bon vivant wannabes fill the topless —and sometimes bottomless—beaches, some of the nicest and sandiest on the Riviera.
“The good old days” and their sybaritic hedonism have dimmed over the decades, but St.-Tropez has survived its fame, success, and ballooning summer crowds and has even become fashionable again. Its flirtatious charm remains evident, especially in the early-morning hours or off-months, when the light and innocence of this old fishing town can still be appreciated.
On the other hand, this craziest of resorts is all about its eccentric habitues and impromptu street theater. Maybe Colette started it in the 1920s, when she scandalized the outside world by going around with bare legs. It’s not the place to get away from it all. For nonpareil people-watching, turn up for breakfast—or apres-beach, when everyone has baked at the popular Plage Tahiti (where topless sunbathing is said to have originated) or at Pampelonne—at the portside Cafe Senequier command post on the Quai Jean Jaures.
This is the perennially “in” place to watch the parade of those in various aesthetic stages of beach and resort chic that they could never get away with back home. The St. Tropez glamour quotient remains intact, with flair and dare aplenty.
St. Paul de Vence is a gem of a medieval pedestrian-only hill town north of Cannes, whose ancient charm is not lost despite high-season crowds. Step inside the cool galleries of the Fondation Maeght and be transported by one of the world’s most famous small museums of modem art, with views like no other.
Founded in 1964, this low-lying gallery and its breezy pine-shaded, terraced gardens showcase world-class works by Giacometti, Miro, Calder, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, and others. Many of the major 20th-century artists represented either lived in or regularly visited St. Paul de Vence, dining at the charming La Colombe d’Or and leaving behind their work to pay the bill.
The restaurant and inn, once little more than an informal bistro, is now one of the region’s most renowned, in part because it was the haunt of great artists and writers as well as for the original Chagalls, Picassos, and Legers that decorate the walls of the dining room. The rich and famous check in here, but to experience one of Provence’s perfect stopovers, stay at another small hotel of enormous charm—Le Saint-Paul, right in the heart of town.
On balmy summer nights Vieux Nice—the medieval warren of the Old Town (called bahazouk in the Nigois dialect)—and the popular Cours Saleya buzz with a mix of young and old, locals and tourists. Although Nice is the fifth largest city in France, it has a small-town ambience, and the main market, Tuesday through Sunday, evokes the colors, smells, and wonders of the Provencal countryside just outside town.
The golden era when Nice was Europe’s most fashionable winter retreat is reflected in the deep pinks and ochers of the town’s elegant Italianate architecture (Nice, after all, belonged to Italy; it was ceded back to France in 1860). The wedding cake Hotel Negresco, built in 1912 on the seafront in the grand style of a French château, is one of the Riviera’s great hotels and deserves a lingering visit.
Recently restored, this national landmark shimmers like a gem; the immense 19th-century Baccarat crystal chandelier in the Salon Royal was commissioned by a Russian czar. The Gobelin tapestries on the wall seem too big to be real, but they’re the real thing. Rooms facing the Bay of Angels have balconies overlooking the fabled Promenade des Anglais, where a twilight stroll reminds you why the Cote d’Azur is still the coast with the most.
Another idyllic day on the Riviera, another authentic “perched village,” with wandering cobbled lanes and open-air markets that smell of fresh herbs and cut flowers. Mougins is particularly charming, despite having been discovered decades ago, and has remained surprisingly untrammeled.
Today it has become a gastronomic center for the Riviera as the home of Le Moulin de Mougins, the internationally renowned restaurant of Roger Verge, the master chef who helped put Provencal cuisine on menus around the world. (Picasso was the unrivaled local celebrity until Verge arrived.)
In an atmospheric 16th-century olive oil mill surrounded by palms and mimosas, Verge creates what he calls his cuisine du soleil; a traditional, simple, but modernized cuisine using the aromatic herbs, spices, and sun-ripened vegetables of Provence, mostly from Verge’s own garden. After 35 years, the affable chef and his wife, Denise, will pass the torch to the well-known Alain Llorca, who promises continued success.
A handful of guest rooms are available for people who refuse to eat and run. The decor bears the infallible touch of Madame Verge, whose aesthetic influence is evident everywhere in her husband’s hilltop empire.