France Revisited

After a moderately successful stint in Provence, I find myself returning to France for another extended stay. This time I’m stationed in the mountainous Savoie region in the southeast. Despite stinging criticism of my first attempt at a blog, I have decided to continue the tradition more for my own benefit than for anyone else’s. Putting together a short record of my stay prompts me to get out and about the region, forces me to find out more information about the places I visit, and above all, provides me with a souvenir of which I can remember fondly for years to come. Still, my last blog turned out to be a lot more work than I expected; therefore, I’ve decided to update the content monthly rather than weekly. I'm also taking my wife's advice - more pictures, less words. Other than that, the format remains relatively unchanged.

So let’s get started…

Summer in the Savoie.

Typical Savoie architecture.

Le Savoie

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Savoie, which is known to the English-speaking world as Savoy. To be perfectly honest, neither did I. But it would be negligent to not find out at least something in advance about where I was going, so I’ll share what little I know. Of course, I knew about the more famous parts of the region such as Mont Blanc, Chamonix, Grenoble, and Lake Geneva, but as I found out, there is much more to the area.

Today, Savoie refers to one of the hundred or so départements that make up France. Adjoining it to the north is the Haute-Savoie (High Savoie) which the areas along Lake Geneva (see my nifty map above). To the east, both départements are bordered by the Alps, along which runs the French-Italian frontier. Lake Geneva constitutes the border with Switzerland. However, prior to its annexation by France in 1860, the Savoie was a sovereign state that included western Switzerland, the Piedmonte region of Italy (the westernmost part of Italy around Turin), and extended westward almost to Lyon and as far south as Nice. It encompassed almost all of the western Alps, making it a strategic, and therefore desirable, region throughout its history.

The history of the Savoie is somewhat complicated, but I’ll give you the 50 cent version here for the sake of brevity. As usual, we’ll start with the Romans who made their way into the area in the 1st century BC. Encountering moderate resistance from the Gallic tribes of the area, most notably the Allobroges, the Romans built founded some towns, established major roads, and increased the agricultural productivity of the area. The post-Roman era saw the Savoie have strong influences from the Kingdom of Burgundy to the north, and it was eventually included as part of Lotharingia after the breakup of Charlemagne’s kingdom. The House of Savioe was established by the last Burgundian king, Rudolph III and maintained its independence under Humbert White-Hands after the Savoie officially became territory of the German Emporer, Konrad II. The Counts of Savoie flourished in the Middle Ages by controlling trade across the Alps, and established a capital at Chambéry along the old Roman road between Grenoble and Geneva. By creating a senate at Chambéry, investing tax money back into the maintenance of the state, and giving political and judicial power to local magistrates throughout the Savoie, the Counts of Savoie created a recipe for government that allowed the region to succeed as a sovereign state for nearly a millennium. The Counts of Savoie eventually became dukes and finally kings, once Sardinia was added to the kingdom.

But alas, the strategic location of the Savoie nation and the sheer size of its territory eventually led to its dismantling. Owing to various kings named Louis and a couple of Napoleons, all of whom desired the Alpine region, the western and northern parts of the Savoie were constantly invaded by French troops. Fearing the inevitable, the House of Savoie moved its capital from Chambéry to Turin on the other side of the Alps. Eventually, the parts north of Lake Geneva were ceded to the Swiss Confederation. Through a secret deal in 1859, King Victor Emmanuel II, handed over the original Savoie region west of the Alps to Napoleon III in exchange for the aid of 200,000 French troops to fight off the Austrians. The investment paid off when Victor Emmanuel eventually succeeded in driving away the Austrians, united Italy, and became its first king. His descendants ruled Italy until World War II. Today, the House of Savoie still exists with Vittorio Emanuele, Prince of Naples as its sovereign.

The Savoie people retain a unique identity, and an acute nationalism is pervasive. The inhabitants still have strong ties to Italy and Switzerland, the influence of which can be detected in their features and their cuisine. It is impossible not to notice the Savoie flag displayed prominently throughout the area, noticeably more than the French flag. The ancient Savoie language is derived from Latin, but has not experienced the same revival as Provençal, and is rapidly fading.

Château des Ducs de Savoie.

All you need to know about Chambéry.

Cathédrale Saint-François.

The château's Sainte-Chapelle

Stained glass in the chapel.

Christ and the Holy Shroud.


Nestled between the Bauges and Chartreuse mountains and only a stones throw away from Lac du Bourget is the city of Chambéry, historical capital of the Savoie. The Romans founded the settlement of Lemincum on the marshes here as a watering hole along the main roads from Milan to Vienne and Grenoble to Geneva. Today, the city has about 60,000 inhabitants and is fairly modern with some basic industry, the University of Savoie, and numerous museums of art and culture. The old town, having largely been rebuilt after a WWII bombing raid, is a unique mixture of broad sweeping pedestrian zones and narrow medieval alleys.

The real jewel of the city is the château which became the main residence of Savoie royalty in the 13th century as well as housing the Savoie senate. The castle was damaged by fire and rebuilt on numerous occasions, but saw a fair share of residents from the Savoyard counts to Napoleon III to a Don Felipe when Chambéry was briefly under Spanish occupation in the 18th century. In 1502, the Duchess of Savoie had a special chapel built into the castle to house her most prized possession – the Holy Shroud. As with the capital, the Shroud was eventually moved to Turin for reasons of security.

Aside from the château, Chambéry's most notable monument is the statue built for native son General Benoit de Boigne to commemorate his exploits in India. The sculpture displays the heads of four elephants and has some very ornate bronze work from the Grenoble-born sculptor. Sadly, it has nothing to do with Hannibal as I had hoped. The Carthaginian general is believed to have taken the less scenic southern route across the Alps, which makes sense considering his mode of transportation.

One last claim to fame is that Chambéry was the home of celebrated French (though he was born in Geneva) philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau for almost a decade when he was a young man. He reputedly did pretty well with the ladies as he taught music to many of the young socialites of the day. His first mistress, Mme de Warens, lived and eventually died in Chambéry. Rousseau is well-known for his theory that man is ultimately noble at the most basic level and that society corrupts him. His political works preached the role of the masses in sovereignty and are considered by some to have been the roots of communism and socialism. The statue commemorating the influence Chambéry had on Rousseau was ironically melted down by the Nazis for weapons.

Fontaine des Elephants

Café outside the theater.

An alley in the old town.

A view toward the château.


After a week in a room that was only marginally larger than the bed it contained, I decided to get serious. It was time to find a more permanent place to stay. Prior to my last trip to France, I had done a fair amount of homework and found a number of bed and breakfast style chambres d’hôtes. It paid off brilliantly because I found a more than adequate room run by a nice couple in a picturesque Provençal village. Following the same routine for this trip, I had a few candidates in hand when I journeyed forth to find myself some digs.

My top choice was a room in Challes-les-Eaux, a small fabulous town rife with flowers and slightly off the beaten path yet still within reasonable driving distance to work. The town got its name from the Challes family who settled there from Bresse in the 14th century and built a château near the thermal springs (hence the Eaux part for "waters"). It now has a full-fledged thermal spa and casino, but doesn't see nearly the number of tourists that the nearby spa towns do.

The object of my affection was a modestly sized room with a private entrance and a swimming pool on site. The price was a little high but I had some leverage seeing that I was going to be staying for 11 months. After some awkward discussion with the propriétaire, I learned that the owners don't live there year-round and that the room is really only available for the summer months. Disappointed but undeterred, I ran down my list of candidates but met with similar success – either I didn't like the room or the town or the price. Eventually, I returned to my closet with a bed to regroup.

The thermal baths.

The casino at Challes.

The château at Challes. Now a hotel.

A Home at Last

I was rapidly running out of options but got a tip that there was a sort of extended-stay hotel in a town to the north called Aix-les-Bains. Always the gracious host, my friend offered to come along, and we headed up to take a look. It was not an ideal situation, I was hoping for something more rural and owned by a family so I could interact with the natives a little more. The place in question was located smack in the middle of town and had all the charm of living in a hotel. Nevertheless, the rooms were large with a balcony, underground parking (convenient once winter comes), and a kitchenette. I suffered during my last stay without the ability to cook or even a refrigerator, so the kitchenette was very appealing. With the company discount, the price was right so I signed on the dotted line.

I moved in the following weekend and was finally able to unpack. After a few days, I knew I had made a good decision. Laundry facilities are onsite, and I have access (for a fee) to the pool, sauna, and fitness center in the adjoining hotel. There are also several large grocery stores in the vicinity and numerous bars in walking distance.

My room with kitchenette.

View out to the balcony.

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