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French Alps and Lyon

After exploring the proud cuisine capital of Lyon — which, at least in its own mind, rivals Paris — we head for Chamonix, in the shadow of Europe’s tallest peak: Mont Blanc. With the classic alpine resort as our springboard, we make some high-altitude cheese, then ride the lift up to Aiguille du Midi and over to the border of Italy. And we hike the Tour du Mont Blanc — the trail that circles that iconic mountain.

Travel Details

Virginie Moré

Virginie is a talented guide who offers excellent private tours of Lyon, including city walks, food-tasting tours, and visits to nearby villages.

Lyon's Roman theaters

Two ancient theaters spread out on the side of Fourvière Hill, adjacent to the Lugdunum Gallo-Roman Museum. The bigger one was built under the reign of Emperor Augustus and expanded by Hadrian — at its zenith, it could hold 10,000 spectators. Today it seats 3,000 for concerts. The small theater, an "odeon," was acoustically designed for speeches and songs. The grounds nearby are peppered with gravestones and sarcophagi.

Notre-Dame Basilica

This ornate, gleaming church fills your view as you arrive at the top of Lyon's Fourvière Hill. Inside, elaborate neo-Byzantine (late 1800s) mosaics tell stories of the Virgin. For a thrilling view out over the city, book ahead for a rooftop tour, or just take in what you can see from behind the church, which is still quite a lot: The Renaissance roofs and uniform chimneys of Lyon's old town, modern skyscrapers, parts of both rivers, and greater Lyon spread out in the distance — and on the clearest afternoons, Mont Blanc.

Atelier de Soierie

Within this silk workshop you'll see stretched silk canvases, buckets of dye, and artists in action, doing silk printing and screen painting by hand. Friendly staff members speak some English and are happy to field questions while they work. Upstairs, a boutique sells handmade silk creations — mostly scarves and ties for a wide variety of prices.

Café Restaurant du Soleil

This bouchon serves Lyon's tastiest quenelles, offering five types, including the traditional brochet (pike), scallops (my favorite), and original varieties made with wild garlic. The atmosphere and setting, both inside and out, is unforgettable.

Aiguille du Midi

The Aiguille du Midi is the most spectacular mountain lift in Europe — and the most popular ride in the valley. If the weather's clear, the price doesn't matter. To beat the hordes and clouds, ride the cable car (20 minutes each way) as early as you can and have breakfast above 12,000 feet. While you can reserve one to seven days ahead for a later time, sights and trails get busier the later you go — I find it's best to leave no later than 8:00 (no reservations needed). If you arrive later in the day, you'll likely be assigned a lift time and will have to come back.

From the Aiguille du Midi, you can ride all the way back to Chamonix; or — way, way better — get off halfway down at Plan de l'Aiguille, where you'll find a scenic café, paragliders jumping off cliffs (except in July–Aug), and plenty of spots to just hang out in the sun. But the best reason to get off at the halfway-down point is to follow the wonderful trail over to Montenvers and the Mer de Glace, from where you can catch a cogwheel train back into Chamonix.

Panoramic Mont Blanc gondola

The little red Panoramic Mont Blanc télécabines ferry up to four people per cabin high over ice, snow, and rocks between the Aiguille du Midi and the Italian border station at Pointe Helbronner. Hang your head out the window, enjoy the silence, and explore every corner of your view. At Helbronner station there's a cafeteria, hall of crystals, access to a climber's refuge (with view terrace and restaurant), and, most importantly, a 360-degree viewing platform for killer views from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. From Helbronner, you can turn around and return to Aiguille du Midi, or descend into Italy on the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car.

Montenvers and the Mer de Glace

From Chamonix the cute cogwheel Train du Montenvers toots you up to tiny Montenvers to see the dirty, rapidly receding Mer de Glace glacier and enjoy fantastic alpine views up the Vallée Blanche. To reach the receding glacier from the Montenvers station you can either walk down 500+ steps (it's more every year; on the way down signs show the former extent of the glacier over the years) or ride a free gondola and walk just the last stairs. The ice cave, a hypnotizing shade of blue-green, is actually a long tunnel dug about 75 yards into the glacier. Near the station the Refuge du Montenvers, a former hotel built in 1800 for tourists who'd arrived here on foot or by mule, still has a full-service restaurant and basic accommodation. A "Glaciorium" behind the hotel houses a small but worthwhile exhibit on glaciers of the world.

Tour du Mont Blanc

The trail around Mont Blanc is one of Europe's top long-distance hikes and, while demanding, it's doable for any fit hiker. Trekkers are rewarded with top-notch mountain vistas, of course, as well as medieval bridges, deep gorges, ancient trade routes with a thousand years of ruts worn into the stone, farmers making cheese the old-fashioned way, tiny alpine chapels, and inviting huts offering a break and a drink. Camping is forbidden on this circuit, and you'll need to reserve well in advance for a spot in one of the route's refuges, which range from simple huts without electricity to venerable old hotels. While private rooms are available, most hikers share a co-ed dorm with facilities down the hall. If you don't have time for the whole route, a good option is to hike the section from Chamonix to Courmayeur, Italy — roughly half the loop — and return to Chamonix by bus via the Helbronner and Aiguille du Midi lifts (or, far less scenically, by bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel). For more tips, check out Cassandra Overby's Explore Europe on Foot.

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in France. That's the summit of Mont Blanc. Chamonix is in the valley floor, the great city of Lyon's about an hour that way, and we're gonna see 'em all. Thanks for joining us.

France is a country with lots of variety, from grand cities to awe-inspiring mountains. After exploring the proud city of Lyon — which, at least in its mind, rivals Paris — we head for Mont Blanc, with one of the classic alpine resorts, Chamonix, as our springboard.

We'll join the bustle in a mountain resort, and chill in a rustic alpine lodge. We'll dangle over a sea of ice, sample a classic long-distance hike, be dazzled by neo-Byzantine art, celebrate the summit of Europe, and make some high-altitude cheese. And, this being France, we'll dine well — hearty in the mountains, and fine in the city.

France, the biggest country in western Europe, has glorious Alps in the east. We start in Lyon, then head to Chamonix in the shadow of Mont Blanc. We'll ride the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi, and then cross over to the border of Italy. Then we hike the Tour du Mont Blanc — a trail that circles that iconic mountain.

We're starting in Lyon, the gateway to the French Alps. Straddling two mighty rivers and on the border between the regions of Provence and Burgundy, Lyon has been one of the leading cities in France since ancient Roman times. After Paris, it's arguably the most historic and culturally important city in the country.

Despite being one of France's largest cities, Lyon has an old center that feels peaceful and manageable. Traffic noise is replaced by pedestrian friendliness and lots of green transport. Along with its characteristic Old World lanes, Lyon has grand quarters with 19th-century architecture that feels much like Paris. And it also has a modern cultural center.

To sort it out, it's always nice to have a local connection, and I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Virginie Moré.

Rick: So what's special about Lyon?
Virginie: Well, Lyon might not be the capital of France — however, in Lyon we are very proud, and we tend to say that we have more capital titles than Paris has.
Rick: Such as?
Virginie: We were the first Roman ancient city of Gaul.
Rick: So, the capital of Gaul?
Virginie: The capital of Gaul. Then we were the city from where Christianity spread all over France. In the 16th century, we were the capital of the Renaissance. During World War II, we were the capital of the Résistance against the Nazi oppressor.
Rick: So, that's four capitals?
Virginie: But let's not forget the last one, which might be the most important: We are the capital of food — way before Paris.
Rick: Food!
Virginie: Yes!
Rick: Bon appétit.
Virginie: Bon appétit!

A park showcases the city's archeological treasures. Its impressive ancient Roman theaters make the importance of Lyon as a Gallo-Roman capital clear.

You hear the term "Gallo-Roman" a lot here in France. The Gauls were the original French tribe. Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered them, and they were assimilated into the vast Roman Empire. In many ways, the France we know today grew from this Gallo-Roman civilization.

Virginie: In the first century, the Roman city of Lyon had a population of 50,000 people — which is four times as big as Roman Paris. So the city was a critical hub for transportation, and it became the economic, religious, and administrative capital of Roman Gaul.

And Lyon's grand churches attest to the city's importance as a leading Christian center. In about the year 1870, the Prussians (from Germany) were threatening the city. The local bishop vowed to build a tribute to the Virgin Mary if the city was spared. It was, and construction commenced. This church, the Basilica of Notre-Dame, was ready for worship just in time for the outbreak of the next war, World War I.

Inside, everything is covered with dazzling neo-Byzantine art celebrating Mary. It's all about Notre Dame — "Our Lady." Amble slowly down the center aisle. Scenes glittering on the walls illustrate a Virgin Mary–centric sweep through history — church history on one side, French history on the other.

These scenes, like about everything else in the church, lead to the high altar, where Mary reigns as Queen of Heaven.

An unforgettable way to experience the church is to climb to its rooftop. With a guided tour, we enjoy a close-up look at the architecture, a grand view of the city, and more reminders of how, here in Lyon, the Virgin Mary is golden.

The streets of Old Lyon are lined with well-preserved Renaissance buildings. The city grew rich from its silk industry, trade fairs, and banking.

Virginie: Lyon is famous for its traboules, which are hidden covered passageways — that enables you to cross from one street to another, being protected. So, 500 years ago, the noble families of Lyon used to live here. See, look at this fine Renaissance staircase.
Rick: That's beautiful!
Virginie: There are more than a hundred of those passageways in the Old Lyon.
Rick: So, Lyon is honeycombed with these?
Virginie: Exactly. And when silk was the main industry in this city, they used to transport the silk from one street to another — being covered from the weather.
Rick: OK.
Virginie: And more recently during World War II, the Resistance fighters used them to escape the Nazis.
Rick: That's right, because Lyon was the leading Resistance city.

This part of the old town is Lyon's historic silk district. Lyon's silk industry was huge during the Industrial Revolution. At its peak, in the mid-1800s, it was churning with 30,000 looms. The characteristic tall windows ensured that weavers working the looms had enough light for the longest workdays possible.

And it was the Jacquard loom, invented here in Lyon in the early 1800s, that revolutionized this industry. This loom — amazing technology for the time — automated much of the process, allowing one person, rather than an entire family, to weave the precious cloth. With the shuttle loaded with colorful silk thread, the loom worker patiently wove the prized fabric.

This silk workshop [the Atelier de Soierie] welcomes the public to drop in to see silk printing and screen painting done in the traditional way. Buckets of paint are artfully mixed by hand. A vast collection of hundred-year-old print blocks still provides the patterns to decorate the cloth. Lyon helped establish the industry of such printing on silk and cotton. This technique made beautiful silk less costly and therefore more accessible to the masses.

Upstairs a boutique sells handprinted silk — with a delightful array of colorful ties and scarves.

Back in the old town, Lyon's characteristic bouchons are small restaurants that evolved from the days when mothers would feed the silk workers after a long day. True bouchons are simple bistros, serving traditional dishes.

Virginie is taking us to a favorite of hers [Café Restaurant du Soleil]. With its tiny kitchen and hard-working waitstaff, it entertains an appreciative crowd of diners. And each dish is an adventure.

Rick: Oh, looks good. Wow!
Server: Escargot?
Rick: Oui. Merci!

Rick: Tell me about your salad.
Virginie: So, I have a salad du soleil; it has the foie gras — which — the French love their foie gras.
Rick: OK.
Virginie: Some duck, because you get duck here; duck there, and then a bit of salmon just to feel a bit healthier.

I'm having one of my favorites: escargot.

Virginie: …and twist to get it out.
Rick: And pull — and we have our little friend.
Virginie: Et voila, l'escargot! And then you enjoy!
Rick: I think escargot deserves a little red wine.
Virginie: So here we have some Beaujolais.
Rick: Uh huh.
Virginie: Which…Beaujolais comes together as the third river of Lyon. We have the Rhône, the Saône — but the Beaujolais flows even more into the city. Santé!
Rick: Here's to river number three!
Virginie: River number three!

As I float downstream in the Beaujolais, our main dishes arrive including duck, the traditional quenelles — or, fish dumplings — and for me, tripe.

Rick: I was a little nervous to order tripe, but it's the local dish.
Virginie: You're being very brave, but it is a local dish.
Rick: And I knew if I didn't like it I could have some of yours.
Virginie: And you want some of mine?
Rick: But — no, because I like it.
Virginie: You like it? Very good. And I'm eating what we call the quenelle. And this is a fish dumpling. And this is another specialty of Lyon — I would never order quenelle anywhere else but in Lyon.

It's clear why Lyon is the food capital of France.

From Lyon, we drive east into the Alps — into a valley dominated by Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak.

The alpine resort of Chamonix, nestled in the valley, is filled with enthusiasm for the surrounding mountains. Tourists and avid climbers alike mix it up in the streets.

Statues celebrate famous mountaineers with their sights set on Mont Blanc. These men were the first to climb it, back in 1786. After that triumphant summit, mountain climbing became fashionable. Chamonix boomed, and to this day it serves the dreams of serious climbers and day hikers alike.

For advice on finding just the right hike, the helpful tourist office can get you oriented. The staff knows the weather patterns and can match your abilities with the most interesting hikes in the area.

We're heading for a station 12,600 feet high, just across from the summit of Mont Blanc. From there we hop on a gondola and soar high over the glacier to the border of Italy.

The well-organized lift handles huge crowds in peak season. We're here on a sunny Sunday in August, and it's packed. Within minutes, the powerful cable car sweeps us up 10,000 vertical feet from Chamonix to a pinnacle called the Aiguille du Midi.

From the top of the lift, a tunnel leads into the rock, where we make our final ascent — by elevator — to a commanding perch. Before us spread the Alps. You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc. At nearly 16,000 feet, Mont Blanc is the top of Europe. Up here, the air is thin. People are awestruck by the grandeur of these mountains. And, back on the floor of the valley, nearly two miles below, is where we started: Chamonix.

The Aiguille du Midi station is a maze of tunnels and stairs leading to various thin-air amusements and stunning viewpoints.

This is one of the highest lifts in Europe. Everything's breathtaking. At 12,000 feet, even the stairs are breathtaking.

For an easy thrill, don't miss the glass box. You can stand in midair with no risk…but plenty of fear.

This ice tunnel — like a gateway to oblivion — is from where skiers and climbers depart. From here, tourists get to see why Chamonix attracts climbers from all over the world.

For your own private glacial dream world, hop on to the petite gondola and head south to Helbronner Point, which marks the border of Italy.

Dangling silently for 30 minutes, we glide over the glacier. From here, it's clear why the glacier is called the Mer de Glace — "sea of ice." And below us, safely navigating deadly crevasses, small groups with mountain guides enjoy the challenge of their choice.

We're surrounded by a majestic world of jagged rock needles — called aiguilles in French. The Giant's Tooth, not climbed until 1882, was one of the last to be conquered.

The cable stretches three miles with no solid pylon for support. It's as if we're floating. And here comes Italy.

Helbronner Point is the French/Italian border station. From this 11,000-foot-high station, the lift descends into Italy's remote Valley of Aosta. Hikers from both countries enjoy the sun and the views. Among countless peaks, you can pick out the perky Matterhorn in the distance. And you can look down on the classic hundred-mile trail that circles Mont Blanc — part of which we'll be hiking later. But today, we're heading back to Chamonix.

Chamonix hosted the first winter Olympics in 1924 — and it still feels like an international festival. Whether it's après-ski or après-hike, the streets of Chamonix are always lively. And with all this strolling ambience, one of my favorite valley walks is simply through the town.

Chamonix was one of the original alpine resorts. Until about the year 1800, people didn't climb, or hike, or even paint mountains much. Mountains were a pain. Then, in the 19th century, the Romantic movement had people all across Europe communing with nature.

Eventually engineers constructed a state-of-the-art array of trains and lifts to get the influx of nature-hungry city folk high into the mountains with ease. One of the first, this two-car cogwheel train — inaugurated in 1909 — transported turn-of-the-century visitors to the edge of the Mer de Glace glacier. And it's thrilling visitors to this day.

This train was built over the objection of a couple hundred mule owners who figured it would put 'em out of business. I'd say they were probably right.

The Mer de Glace is France's largest glacier — four miles long. In the 1600s, the glacier extended much farther downhill — actually threatening to block off the valley. But now, it's going in the opposite direction: receding — dramatically.

When we travel, we see and experience vivid examples of climate change. For me, this shrinking glacier is one of the most poignant. When I first came here, back in the '80s, the Mer de Glace was hundreds of feet higher than it is today.

From up above, on the observation deck, it's hard to imagine that just a few decades ago the glacier was so much higher, nearly filling this narrow valley. A cable car [gondola] descends, taking visitors closer to the glacier. From there, the hike down to the receding "sea of ice" gets longer each year. Disturbing markers show where the glacier was just a short time ago. A touristy tunnel is carved deep into the ice. Hiking into it, you find yourself in a cool, dripping world of translucent blue. And, on an ice carving meant to call attention to climate change, tourists pose obliviously.

I'm meeting up with Cassandra Overby, author of Explore Europe on Foot and an expert on Europe's long-distance hikes. We'll join her for a couple days as she hikes the classic Tour du Mont Blanc.

Before any serious hike in this region, it's smart to drop by the mountain guides center in Chamonix to review plans and be sure you know all the latest. You can get an individual consultation to tailor your hike to your time frame and ability.

Europe has many iconic long-distance hikes, and one of the most popular is the Tour du Mont Blanc. While the Mont Blanc massif offers some of Europe's most demanding mountaineering, this accommodating trail is flexible — enjoyed by hikers with a wide range of abilities. It's like a huge park — part in France, part in Italy, part in Switzerland — and it's busy June through September.

Cassandra: Tour du Mont Blanc circumnavigates Europe's highest peak. So, you go around it in about 10 days, each day about 10 miles for a total of about 100. Each day you see a different valley, a different glacier, a different view of the great mountain.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is partly in wooded farmland and partly above the tree line in the company of glaciers. The appealing thing about it for American hikers is the delightful mix of nature, history, and culture. The people you meet on the trails come from many lands, and your days are filled with cheery greetings. We're in France for this section, so it's "bonjour!"

Hikers here have plenty of options. You can hike as little or as much of the route as you like. But you must reserve your beds well in advance. One thing I really appreciate: You can hire a transfer service to take your luggage to the next hut. That frees me to hike with just the essentials in a small day bag.

And with Cassandra's help, I've chosen a route I'm comfortable with.

A typical day on the trail is about 10 miles and around six hours of walking — and the route is never dull. This bridge actually dates back to Roman times, and for much longer than that, its river has been carving this gorge.

Cassandra: So, one of the really interesting parts about this route is that it used to be an old Roman road. And there was a Celtic settlement just down the way, so in addition to Romans and Celts, these paths were also used by shepherds taking their stock to different fields.

Mountain huts — called refuges — are placed, conveniently, a day's hike apart. Our first night is at Nant Borrant, a mountain lodge dating back to the 1800s.

Huts are basic — like hostels for adults. Hikers share co-ed dorms and follow the mountain hut etiquette: Bring your own sleep sack, no boots inside, and so on. Personal chores are done upon arrival; then it's time to relax. While very simple, up here the little things feel luxurious. A refreshing beer after a day on the trail hits the spot.

Dinner is rustic. There's no menu — hikers enjoy whatever's served. And here, way up in the French Alps, I'm happy to consider this "high cuisine." Soup with mountain cheese, tasty sausage with potato au gratin, and, to compliment it all, a hearty red wine from Savoy — that's the region we're in. The culture of the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of respect for nature, a joie de vivre, and an international camaraderie.

In the huts, it's early to bed and early to rise. After a quick breakfast, we're on to the next leg of our route.

Since each day you try to cover about 10 miles, it's important to eat and stay hydrated as you go. Fortunately, the Tour de Mont Blanc's enjoyable combination of wilderness and commerce means the trail is well-developed for the needs of hikers along the way. And small shops are ideal for assembling a rustic picnic.

A day's hike is punctuated by encounters with the mountain culture, like a dairy farm making cheese pretty much the way they have for generations. The farmer's focused on his work and proud of his product. He treats us to a sample, and we buy a nice slice for the trail. Clearly, cheese is the energy bar of the Tour de Mont Blanc.

Tonight we're sleeping in a bigger refuge. This one's a bit more remote, high above the tree line, but with the same hearty food, simple dormitories, and great company.

The next morning, the convenience of the baggage-transfer service is obvious, as bags are taken to a variety of destinations depending on each hiker's plan. As we head out on what'll be my last day on the trail, I realize that after so many decades, I'm enjoying a brand-new European experience — an experience I wouldn't have found without a great guide like Cassandra.

Rick: Cass, what are the most important things people should know when they're hiking like this?
Cassandra: You know, there are only really three big things that you need to think about. The first one is: Be prepared for time in the outdoors. So, at a minimum, you need good shoes, some great layers, a solid backpack, and a good map. Number two is: Be really proactive about your comfort when you're on trail. So, eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, and the moment that anything feels uncomfortable — if it's your backpack, or your shoes — just stop and take care of it before you go on.
Rick: And finally…
Cassandra: Don't be intimidated by all of the gear, or the athletic nature of walking. You don't need to be a hiker. You don't need to be a super athlete to enjoy this kind of travel.
Rick: Just look at my gear and look at what shape I'm in — and I'm having a blast.
Cassandra: Right. It's not about exercise, this kind of thing is best when you slow down. So, there's a hut around every corner — stop and take a coffee. Or in the afternoon, have a victory beer if you had a big climb. When you find a stream, soak your feet. That's really how you enjoy this.
Rick: It's like you're on vacation.
Cassandra: It should be fun.

Cassandra's hiking the rest of the route. But my luggage is back in Chamonix — and I will be too, in time for dinner.

I hope you've enjoyed our look at this corner of France — the great city of Lyon, the mountain resort of Chamonix, and something new for me: a sample of a classic European long-distance hike. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.

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