The hidden valleys of the Trois Vallées


The Trois Vallées (or Three Valleys) region of the Savoie are mostly known to English winter holiday makers where the three stations join to form the largest ski resort in the world. But the area has so much more to offer year-round, with winding roads leading you to hidden valleys deep in the Parc Nationale de la Vanoise. As with all rides in this region, be sure to take the time to stop for photos en route!

Warning: regardless of sunny skies and optimistic weather reports, the descents from Champagny le Haut, Pralongon, and Bozel are often shady, the roads can be wet and even icy so pack that extra layer of clothing.

With my latest hideaway not fimg_7538ar from the spa town of Brides-les-Bains, I was eager to explore what this micro-region had to offer beyond the out-and-back routes to Courchevel, Meribel, and Les Menuires. And in peak fall, I wasn’t disappointed.

Starting from Moutiers, climb the montée des Frasses – included in the 2016 Criterium du Dauphiné – to get you out above the valley above the Doren de Bozel river, which remains shaded much of the day thanks to the steep valley walls. The 8km, 6.5% climb brings you up to the village of Montagny, rewarding you with views of the Grande Casse along the way. After a cold snap in early October, the peaks across the Vanoise were already white with snow.

From Montagny, enjoy a gentle descent to Bozel – and img_7562be sure to enjoy the view of the typical alpine church on the way. [Note: there’s a little montée up to the hamlet of La Cour on the left that I will see if I can fit in before it closes and will update accordingly].

Once in Bozel, I like to do the following loop clockwise, starting with the climb to Champagny en Vanoise but it could also be enjoyed counter-clockwise. Also, between seasons, the only place with any cafes or shops open will be Bozel, so be sure to refuel here if you need it.

img_7561From Bozel, it’s a 4km climb up to Champagny en Vanoise, averaging 7%. Once you reach the village, keep your eyes peeled for the first turn on the left, signposted to the Vallon de Champagny le Haut, which will take you through the center of town. And up the remaining 3km or so to the valley. You will see the road wrap around the mountains further up as you approach the turnoff. There are some steep sections but overall it’s still an average 7% to the top.

In peak fall, the hillsides are resplendent with orange, yellow, and red hues. These fade away as you head above the treeline and a small valley stretches out before you. A waterfall streams down the left flank, a small hamlet with tiny church is dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks of the Vanoise behind. In the winter, this nordic skiing hideaway must be magnificent.


The road dead-ends after the village but it’s only a few kms back to Champagny en Vanoise from where you can either loop back around to Bozel via La Villard, or if you have the time, it’s worth heading up to the ski town of Pralgonon en Vanoise.

Compared to the climbs up to Champagy en Vanoise and Champagny le Haut, the road to Pralognon en Vanoise is a breeze. Often around 3 – 4%, you’ll slowly wind up a couple of shady hairpins before reaching the village. Pralongon is not the prettiest town but you feel as though you’ve reached the high mountains as a steep, rocky cirque surrounds you. [Note: if you also enjoy hiking, there’s a stunning walk up to the Col de la Vanoise just above Pralongnon]

Again, nothing will be open in town between-seasons so make sure you bring a snack for a stop or be prepared to wait till you get back to Bozel for a coffee .

From here, you’ve just got an easy, winding descent back to Bozel, with stunning autumn colours and relatively few cars. Enjoy a coffee/hot chocolate on the terrasse in Bozel before heading back to Moutiers. The San Roch is the local hangout – fondly called The Red Lion for all the Brits that frequent the terrasse – but the view is worth the stop for coffee, hot chocolate, or even a beer!

One note, the descent from Bozel is not only cold and shady but also filled with impatient drivers en route to/from Meribel and Courchevel. Also, I would advise returning via Brides-les-Bains as the main road after the turnoff is downright dangerous. From Brides, you can rejoin the Frasses montée and descend more safely to Moutiers.

Le Col du Petit Saint Bernard (or why you should ride to Italy for lunch)

The Col du Petit Saint Bernard is an Alps classic. The almost-30km climb, while long, will reward you with sweeping views down the Tarentaise valley and lunch in Italy at the top. If spending two hours trundling up the <5% grade isn’t for you, then there is a steeper, more interesting, and frankly prettier, route via the villages.

From Bourg St Maurice, follow the regular route up towards Séez and follow the signs for Montvalezan, which will be on your right after the first few hairpins. You’ll climb up through the picturesque hamlets of Montvalezan, Le Chatelard, and Hauteville, the valley spreading out below.


The road is simple enough to follow, take the first sign to La Rosière but not the second. You will eventually join the main road about 2 km below the ski station, which is another 7km from the summit. Once you reach the main climb, the gradient will ease off, giving your tired legs some relief from the 8 – 12% grades you’ve been crawling up for the last 10km or so.

And once at La Rosière, the final 7km are a breeze, with gradients varying between 3 – 5%. I’ve been up here once before, in early summer, with walls of snow on either side of the road as you neared the 2188m pass.


The main climb, while a classic, can be long and slow

The alpine landscape in autumn is perhaps even more beautiful. Wild, exposed, and windswept, with jagged rivers of red. As we approached the top, the summit was quiet. Many of the refuges had already closed for the season, a family hiked across the plateau, accompanied by an enormous Saint Bernard dog. The ultimate cliché. By this time, we were starting to feel pretty chilly & more than a bit peckish so no time to stop for photos!


Once at the col, we continued on for the extra kilometre across to Italy, where we ducked into the restaurant to escape the cold and windy weather. After a sticky hot chocolate, panini, pasta, and coffee, we weren’t particularly looking forward to stepping out into the weather, which seemed to be getting windier and colder.

Luckily, we were sufficiently distracted by the view and once we hit La Rosière, the wind died down and the sun warmed us on the long descent to Bourg St Maurice.

An out-and-back is not generally my favourite, but the sun was shining, and sometimes it’s worth the slog for lunch in Italy. 

Sometimes you just buy the cheap cheese

Perhaps a better title for this post would be ‘when my cheese man tries to offload the cheap cheese [on me]’. Not that I am complaining. As a lover of all cheeses, I will happily take the offcuts and the oddballs that he clearly needs to be rid of. At the stall, my beloved cheese man could see the distrust in my eyes as he tried to sell me a tomme with cumin. At a great price, he promised. “Sure, why not, go on”, I replied, as he rung it up, with a quite delicious Tomme de Perseille for a total of EUR 3,00.

The week prior, I had insisted on trying the cheap French blue and an Haute Savoie brie – the two hefty slabs coming to just EUR 2,80. And so I have decided to lump these four cheeses together in the same post, united by their cheapness, if nothing else.

It reminds me a bit of when I lived in Washington, DC, and I would buy the little cheese tidbits from Wholefoods. Small scraps, that always sold for about $1.50, they seemed like such a bargain and you never knew what fun you would discover. Or so I thought. Now, I can obtain approximately 10 times the amount of cheese that is approximately 100 times the quality, at approximately the same price. France, I love you.

As he handed me the entire slab of Tomme de Cumin, I tried to get him to slice it down. “No, you’ll eat it really quickly,” he assured me. I’m not sure if something was lost a little in translation, or if I should just accept it as a compliment. As always, I was happy to rid him of the bizarre he couldn’t otherwise sell.


The blue & brie


Starting with the “brie”, perhaps because it was the least inspiring. Soft cheeses are not a local speciality. And whether it is the climate or the culture, they tend not to be particularly good. For sure, the brie was edible and would not be out of place on a cheese plate in Australia. It was superior to many bries I’ve eaten outside France. But I’ve come to expect a little more locally. It was smooth and mild flavoured, with a taste that was improved by the addition sun dried tomatoes. I would describe the overall feeling as ‘pleasant’ but I was disappointed that it didn’t have that runnier texture I associate with some other bries, not matter how long I left it sitting on the counter.

Perhaps that is a quality that would make it the perfect hiking brie or sandwich-for-a-long-train-ride brie. It is less likely to spoil, maintains its integrity, and is still pleasantly ‘brie-like’ at the end of the day. Not to mention seriously cheap. The poor (wo)man’s traveling brie.

Next was the blue, which I actually quite enjoyed. I tend to eat almost anything but have never been a particular fan of roquefort, the sheep’s milk cheese from the south of France. Perhaps the combination of mould and tangy sheep’s milk is just a little too bitter for my tastes. The other blue – in fact, I have no real idea where it came from, so apologies if you’re out looking for it – was milder without being supermarket-y. It was smooth and tangy, without any of that chalkiness you sometimes get. It was perfect with bread and would have been complimented well by fresh fruit. Which of course I didn’t have.


Spot the cumin

As for the Perseille, it is not the first time I have tried a Tomme de Perseille (you can find my review in a previous post) but this one was completely different. It still had the goat/cow’s milk mix but where the first was crumbly, this one was smooth. The first one I tasted was tall and firm, where this was stout and creamy. With so few makers of this cheese left, I wondered if perhaps they had a little more artistic licence. I have no idea which was closer to an ‘ideal’, but both were absolutely delicious in their own way. This perseille, though, just melted in the mouth, almost spread onto the bread, and had a delicate flavour that was delicious even on its own. Both get the thumbs up from me.

Finally, the cumin. I don’t know if it’s even worth giving this cheese a review. It was mostly as advertised – like a tomme with a stack of cumin seeds. It may be popular in Italy, it may have digestive or other health benefits, but frankly I prefer my cumin and my cheese to be separated. Preferably by at least one meal. Still, I of course plugged away at it. The flavour was so intense, and the cheese so hardy and filling that I just ate chunks on its own, as I procrastinated instead of working on one of the many writing assignments I had that week. Verdict: a hardy, procrastinator’s cheese that will tingle your taste buds but you may not rush to purchase again.