Visiting the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern France is an absolute must. Stunning mountains, picturesque lakes and quaint towns make up this famous ski area. While the skiing in the area is supposed to be fantastic we found Chambery has a lot to offer in the summer as well.
As the train rolled towards the French Alps the landscape changes from green fields to glistening lakes, jagged mountains and quaint villages mixing French and Swiss architecture to create picture perfect buildings. After spending three and a half weeks traveling through the green fields of the French countryside I was elated to see the towering mountains against the beautiful blue French sky.
Chambery is a small town about two and a half hours from Turin, Italy. The Italian influence is felt in the food and the style of the squares. Knowing this ahead of time didn’t prepare me for almost every restaurant being Italian. I loved the French influence on Italian traditions, using different cheeses on the pizzas and pastas. The dishes in Chambery contained more salmon and shellfish, creme fraiche, and exotic mushrooms than we have experienced in Italy. The two cultures coming together in food made for some seriously great meals. We loved strolling through town to one of the small restaurants and enjoying a romantic dinner and wine and then strolling home in the cool evening air. People eat earlier here than in other parts of France so we found it was very important to be at the popular restaurants between 7:30 and 8:00. The early dinners make for a quiet town at night, perfect for strolling and walking off your wine from dinner.
Our first full day in Chambery we had breakfast in their most spectacular square, Place Saint-Léger. While it is a street and not technically a square it has that same feeling of an Italian or Spanish Piazza. The wide pedestrian filled, cobblestone street is filled with tables from the flanking restaurants and bars. The buildings are all unique with great architectural details, both French and Italian influenced, and multi-colored. The cafes and bars are more cutting edge in the drinks and food they serve than we have seen in the rest of France, which was a great change. After breakfast we walked through town and stumbled on a really cool medieval castle built into the side of a hill on the edge of town.
The Chateau des Ducs de Savoie was the home to Dukes and Lords for hundreds of years. There is a beautiful chapel with the most incredible faux painted ceiling I have seen. The chapel had gorgeous stained glass rising up to meet the incredible ceiling. The chapel was a beautiful mix of medieveal and modern. Evidently the Shroud of Jesus was held here for many years until they gave it to Turin where it is now kept. The chapel now houses a replica of the Shroud of Jesus. While parts of the Chateau date over 1,000 years old the majority of it was rebuilt through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries due to fires, growth and architectural preference. We took a tour of the 14th and 15th century part of the castle, which was not offered in English so it made it a bit challenging to understand. The tours are offered almost everyday during the summer months. Inside the ticket office building there is an absolutely incredible display of the money used in this region over the years. It was a fascinating way to understand the transition of power and the collection holds hundreds of coins in perfect condition. They were found in the bowels of one of the buildings which allowed the perfect preservation. There is a 70-carillon of bells which are one of the largest ensembles in the world mounted outside of the chapel. Unfortunately they only ring them on the first and third Saturday of each month, which is supposed to sound really incredible.
Chambery is full of great shops all located in old buildings, most located in the fabulous old town area. There is a grand avenue with arched walkway, similar to that in Grenada, Spain, with a lot of shops. This avenue leads you to the famous 4 elephants monument. The monument was built for a general who returned from India with a mass of wealth which he bestowed on Chambery in public works and welfare.
Our second day in Chambery we walked over to the Musee des Beaux-Artes area. I loved this area, so open with grand buildings and gorgeous views of Mont Granier. We sat in the large square basking in the summer sun which seems to shine a little brighter here than anywhere else in France. There is a really nice park, the Parc du Clos Savoiroux, on the top of a hill overlooking the town and offering a spectacular of the surrounding mountains. The park is so peaceful with nice little stone sculptures, families picnicking on blankets and people on park benches enjoying the cool summer weather. The road from the Parc du Clos Savoiroux leads to the house where Jean-Jaques Rousseau lived with his mistress from 1736-1742.
Unfortunately for us we were in Chambery on a Sunday and Monday during August, the vacation month in France so most of the shops were closed as well as the museums. We still had a great time walking around the city and relaxing at the cafes. We didn’t find many people who speak english in Chambery but all of the people were so friendly and helpful.
During the winter months Chambery is full of people from all over Europe who come to ski the surrounding mountains and enjoy the winter landscape the French Alps have to offer. I imagine this gorgeous old city would be quite the place to see in the winter time. For me I loved it in the summer too. It was a great way to experience French culture, unchanged by tourism, and to appreciate the gorgeous variance of landscapes in the country.