Frolicking in the French Alps in winter — without skiing — from storybook Annecy to jet-set Courchevel
Just in front of me, a skier jumped from a helicopter and sped down the treacherous slope, zigzagging wildly as he dodged boulders and soared over moguls. Then, suddenly, catastrophe struck. Unable to see an approaching cliff, he shot off its edge into a free fall.
This is why I don’t ski, I thought to myself as I sipped my mojito and turned away from the extreme-sports videos on the overhead television. The cozy confines of the wood-beamed L’Equipe bar in Courchevel, a ski village high in the French Alps, was a far more agreeable spot to appreciate the Alpine lifestyle than in the bone-shattering temperatures on the icy slopes outside.
Around the timbered town, twilight was settling and the bars were coming alive with D.J.-spun music, live bands, crackling fires and fondue. Parka-clad strollers admired works by Miro and Modigliani in galleries before heading off to dine at some of the nation’s finest restaurants. Who needed skis and poles when confronted with the best apres-ski scene in France?
For many, the French Alps are so fully associated with winter sports that it’s hard to imagine visiting them without buying a lift ticket. Chamonix and Mont Blanc are legends. Grenoble hosted the Winter Olympics in 1968, and Albertville followed suit in 1992. Annecy is a finalist for the spot in 2018. And when the first winter snowfall arrives, a blizzard of ski-mania blankets the region as enthusiasts pull their gear out of cellars and rent half-timbered chalets.
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But the Alps also hold myriad allures for those who don’t feel compelled to careen down frozen sheets of ice and snow in a padded outfit. These same cities and villages hide timeworn streets, colorful literary history, world-class art collections, sublime eating experiences and some of the most decadent night life in Europe. And the snowy season is the perfect time to indulge in them. From the Venetian Carnival in Annecy (held from March 18 to 20 this year) to the glittery international party season in Courchevel, winter brings out the region’s natural beauty and beguiling personality. Better still, thanks to efficient train and bus systems, slaloming between destinations — and through some breathtaking Alpine landscapes — doesn’t risk any broken limbs.
After a nearly four-hour train journey from Paris, I stepped into the streets of Annecy, which seemed to have sprung from a medieval storybook. Narrow passageways spread out in all directions, lined by stony churches and town houses, some gray and Gothic, some painted in sherbet hues. Canals and waterways, rushing with cold mountain water, cut through the town, which is sometimes called “the Venice of the Alps.” From a hilltop in the center, a crenellated fortress known as the Chateau-Musee lorded over the landscape, backed by snow-covered summits.
On this Tuesday morning in January, a scene worthy of a Gallic Norman Rockwell was playing out: swans floated in the canals, old women with shopping caddies and bundled-up throngs crossed small bridges, wishing one another “bonjour” with steamy breath before heading to bakeries smelling of warm baguettes. A postman pedaled a yellow bicycle over the cobblestones and past the town’s most famous street, Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Though born in Geneva, the autobiographer and philosopher grew up in Annecy, where he found abundant material — romantic, sexual, scandalous — for his celebrated “Confessions.” In 1728 the 16-year-old Rousseau arrived on the slender street that bears his name and became the ward of one Madame de Warens, an aristocrat 12 years his senior.
Today Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains one of the loveliest in the town. As I strolled past stone mansions, clarinet scales drifted into the clear, cold air from the windows of a conservatory, and in a storefront a young violin maker stood in a pile of wood shavings, patiently restoring a 19th-century specimen.
“Rousseau was the tutor to the kids in a family of nobles in this building,” said the craftsman, Gregory Carmantrand.
The majestic house where Rousseau took his music lessons when he was younger (No. 13) still stands across from the very white St.-Pierre Cathedral where he played flute. Inside, sheltered from the noonday chill, an organist practiced hymns on the 2,000-pipe instrument, filling the vaulted space with haunting tones.
On Rue Ste.-Claire, an open-air produce market — dating back as far as the 12th century — was in full swing. Steam rose from piles of heated frankfurters and sauerkraut at a stand selling Alsatian choucroute garnie. A nearby table was laden with dry sausage that combined pork with meat from a Noah’s Ark of animals: bull, boar, duck, deer, ostrich. Regional cheeses, from tiny, pungent white discs of St.-Marcellin to huge wheels of golden cheeses from Savoy, were piled at adjacent stalls.
“We call this one the prince of cheese,” declared Dominique Villard as she offered a firm, earthy hunk of Beaufort.
The cheese worship reached its zenith that night as I followed hungry hordes into the bright dining rooms of the rustic Le Freti restaurant to pay homage to fromage, notably fondue, the Alps’ celebrated winter comfort food. Brandishing long three-pronged forks, the crowd looked like a band of gleeful devils roasting their victims as they skewered bread chunks, gherkins and smoked meats that they dunked into caldrons of molten cheese.
Relaxing in Grenoble
Another train journey took me under snowcapped summits, over rushing rivers, through forests of white-bark trees, past hilltop castles and at last to Grenoble, a city of around 160,000. Grenoble does not have a ski area of its own, but it is surrounded by majestic peaks and can be a base for skiers.
Sipping a morning cafe crème in the Art Nouveau-style Cafe de la Table Ronde, said to be the second-oldest existing cafe in France, you could easily imagine that Grenoble is another charming relic, a larger Annecy. Outside, the 13th-century red-brick church of St.-Andre and the majestic Gothic- and Renaissance-style former Parliament building cut stately figures.
But Grenoble, a bastion of the French Resistance during World War II, has long bubbled with progressive ideas. Jacques de Vaucanson, an 18th-century forefather of robotics and cybernetics, grew up there before moving to Paris and creating magnificent human-like mechanical automatons that thrilled the gilded salons of Europe. (An exhibition devoted to his work is on view at the city’s Musee Dauphinois through June.)
The modern French novel also traces its roots to Grenoble, thanks to a native son named Henri Beyle. Witty, acerbic and disgusted by bourgeois values, he reinvented himself under the name Stendhal and went on to write “The Red and the Black,” his gritty tale of social climbing, seduction, religious skepticism and violence in post-Napoleonic France. (A new Stendhal museum is scheduled to open at the end of the year.)
Today, the city is a major university and scientific research center. As I walked through its medieval and Baroque core, sleek trams whooshed past church facades, and gaggles of students filled the bars of Place Ste.-Claire. Thanks to forward-looking venues like MC2, a public theater and concert space, and Le Magasin, a contemporary art space in a 1900 industrial building made by Gustave Eiffel’s workshop, Grenoble is the region’s cultural capital as well.
“It’s a very modern city with its eyes on the future,” said Helene Vincent, the head curator at the Musee de Grenoble, as she sat on a Le Corbusier couch in an airy white exhibition room. “The Musee de Grenoble was the very first museum of modern art in France. It was the first museum to put together a collection of artists from the early 20th century.”
The evidence was displayed around us — a room full of Matisses; a wall of Picassos; masterworks by Braque, Leger, Magritte, Klee, Signac, Bonnard and Chagall (who will be the star of a blockbuster exhibition from March until mid-June). Credit for much of the collection — and the foresight to champion and exhibit such artists when no other French museums were doing so — goes to Pierre Andry-Farcy, who arrived in Grenoble in 1919 to become the curator of a little-known municipal art museum that had almost no budget for acquisitions. Unable to buy paintings, Andry-Farcy (as he was commonly called) came up with a novel arrangement: He would ask painters to donate their works in exchange for a promise to exhibit them.
Come evening, the city’s theaters, music bars, indie cinemas and bookstores draw culture-hungry throngs. On a Thursday night in late January, the Grenews newspaper was filled with options. The “Festival of Cursed Films” — featuring campy sci-fi and monster-movie classics? A one-man “social-pornographic opera” at 102, an alternative performance space in a former industrial building? A tribute to American jazz masters Nat and Cannonball Adderley at La Soupe aux Choux, Grenoble’s premier jazz joint?
I cast my lot with Daphne, a 30-something French singer, who was performing at a church-turned-performance venue called Theatre Ste.-Marie-d’en-Bas. Dressed in a shimmery dark dress and surrounded by an all-male five-piece band, she looked part diva and part deity underneath the Corinthian columns and soaring arches.
Indulging in Courchevel
Yet another train took me on the nearly two-hour journey to the tiny frozen town of Moutiers-Salins-Brides-les-Bains, where a bus shuttled a smattering of passengers higher into the Alps. The bohemia of Grenoble vanished far behind, and Courchevel, an Olympus for billionaires, came into view. It was time for a day and night of indulgence — or at least modest indulgence — and no mountain village in France seemed better equipped to furnish it.
With its winding snow-coated streets and timbered mansions, the town looked like a large-scale gingerbread village. Overhead, an occasional whirring helicopter crossed the blue sky while a sea of gondolas ferried folks up the slopes. In the streets below, the clip-clop of horse carriages mingled with the zip-zip of nylon winter pants as Saturday masses poked into the ritzy La Croix ski shop (where a salesman confided a plan to make “skis with diamonds in them”) and headed off to treatments in hotel spas by Carita, Nuxe, Givenchy and the like.
Some paused outside the Hermes boutique to admire a huge bird making love to a plump woman: a statue of Leda and the Swan by Fernando Botero. It’s one of about two dozen statues by sculptors like Salvador Dalm and Cesar, deployed around Courchevel this season.
“This is the winter St.-Tropez — very bling-bling, gilded youth from all over the world,” said Cyrille Ricklin, manager of Le Paddock, one of the few two-star hotels in Courchevel’s galaxy of five-star crash pads.
Opened a couple of years ago, Le Paddock somehow manages to be both stylish and affordable (with rooms from 85 euros, or $113 at $1.32 to the euro): the perfect base for those of us without an Amex Centurion card or a hospital wing in our name. Ricklin added that you don’t need to be rich, or know how to ski, to appreciate the town.
“Many people come here because it’s beautiful,” he said. “Many come to shop, go to restaurants, to go out at night, to party.”
My own non-ski itinerary consisted of a gondola trip to La Saulire, the resort’s highest point, and a visit to Galeries Bartoux (which also has a branch in New York City) where I ogled works by Dalm, Foujita, Picasso and Robert Indiana.
By sundown, Courchevel was buzzing with a boisterous apres-ski scene. In the sexy design-magazine interior of the Cheval Blanc hotel — which boasts a Givenchy spa, a Marc Jacobs boutique and contemporary art collection — I found my own bliss with a silver pot of hot chocolate (at a comparatively tame 10 euros), Brazilian jazz and glimpses of an experimental art video made by Haruki Murakami and Kanye West.
At the dinner hour, Courchevel transforms into a gastronome’s Shangri-La. With an official population of barely 2,000 and a total of 10 Michelin stars, the town has more starred spots than cities like Marseille, the second-largest metropolis in France.
But epicurean bargain-hunters need remember only two words: Il Vino. The French-Italian restaurant won its first star last year, becoming the town’s most recent addition to the Michelin constellation. Equally impressive, its owner, Enrico Bernardo, is a winner of the award for world’s best sommelier (in 2004), and his restaurant has a 15-page wine list. Better still, with a two-course menu at 39 euros, the restaurant can serve you a meal for less than the cost of appetizers at many of its local Michelin brethren.
On a Saturday night in January, the liveliest restaurant and bar was certainly La Mangeoire, reputed to be the hottest party spot in the Alps. (Tip: Book a dinner reservation well in advance and be prepared to splurge.) Within the packed farmhouse-chic dining room, a din of polyglot chatter — French, English, Arabic, Italian, Russian — resounded from tables strewn with blinking BlackBerrys.
“You have to come during the week!” shouted Bernard Mauruc, a doctor from Toulouse. “The girls dance on the tables. I was here Thursday, and it was crazy!”
As if on cue, the atmosphere heated up. A blonde in a low-cut dress wrapped a scarf seductively around Mauruc’s neck. Then a man approached and planted a rose in her cleavage with a cackle. As the theme to “The Love Boat” burst through the bar, a table of women stood up to dance. By the time “I Will Survive” was pumping, nearly everyone in the room was standing — on tables, on the bar and even the piano — and shout-singing along.
Suddenly the dance music stopped and the theme to “Star Wars” began to boom. It was not to trumpet the arrival of Darth Vader but rather Dom Perignon — a magnum of it (1,000 euros a pop) ordered by a table of European businessmen. It was carried over the head of a waiter in a silvery ice bucket shooting fireworks.
“They always want more here!” shouted Gregory Ferrary Berthelot, a 30-ish broker of luxury real estate, as I sipped a glass of cheapie 11-euro Scotch. He seemed almost as disbelieving as I was.
“I showed a 61-million-euro, 700-square-meter, five-bedroom chalet to a Russian client and he said, ‘Why are the rooms so small?’ There are no limits here!”
“And most people here at Courchevel don’t even ski.” added his wife, Emma.
When I admitted that I didn’t either, she was unfazed. “Come to party! If you know St.-Tropez, it’s the same here, but on the snow!”