The greatest of all philosophers, Jean- Jacques Rousseau, whose “Social Contract” first set out how man ought to be treated by the society to which he belongs, walked into Chambéry, then part of the pocket Italian state of Savoy, in September 1731. He was living a hand-to-mouth existence, virtually an orphan, his mother dead and his father on the run. But at Chambéry dwelt Madame de Warens, who became Rousseau’s mistress, and gave him an idyllic respite from the cares of the world while he developed his best ideas.
Louise Eléonore de Warens hated her childless marriage and had abandoned her husband with the help of Duke Victor-Amadeus, throwing herself at his feet as he passed through Evian. The stingy ruler must have been much taken by Louise because untypically he gave her a lavish pension. She used much of it to set up home with Rousseau at Charmettes, a charming country residence in a delightful wooded valley just south of Chambéry. The house can be visited (except Tuesdays) and is preserved just as it must have been in the eighteenth century. The garden has a vast collection of old medicinal herbs, recalling the philosopher’s particular interest in botany.
According to Rousseau’s “Confessions”, he was only sixteen when he first caught sight of Madame de Warens at Annecy in 1728 but it made him resolve to do something worthwhile with his life. This was a true love match but not one destined to end happily. After six years Rousseau had outgrown Louise intellectually and spiritually and moved on to Paris. Madame de Warens invested unwisely in mines and factories and died in poverty in July 1762.
Chambéry remained Savoyan until 1860 when it was handed over to France in return for French support for Italian unification. The old quarter, with its narrow cobbled streets and quaint courtyards, still has a distinctly Italianate air. The château was the home of the dukes of Savoy before they left for Turin and the bubbling fountains, indoor staircases and aristocratic turrets are all evidence of its past. The one exception perhaps is the nearby Fontaine des Eléphants, whose bronze trunks are a bizarre tribute to a count who died intestate, thereby unwittingly leaving the town the riches he made in Indian commerce.
The heart of the old town is place Saint-Léger, with expensive cafes for foot-weary tourists. It leads into the rue Croix-d’Or, where the finest mansions were built in Chambéry’s heyday. Look out especially for the hôtel de Châteauneuf with its superb listed railings, the Hôtel des Marches with its Louis XVI façade and a splendid staircase, and the Hôtel de la Pérouse with the Flaming Heart fountain.
Chambéry is the historic home of trompe-l’œil painting, a technique whereby imaginary vistas that look extraordinarily real are created by the artist’s sleight of hand. It owes its origins to the scarcity of stone, as sculptors deprived of the opportunity to make real three-dimension objects resorted instead to painted decorations that achieved the same illusion. The Saint François-de-Sales cathedral contains the largest area of trompe-l’œil paintings in Europe.
Within easy reach to the north, Aix-les-Bains lies on Le Bourget, the largest natural lake in France. The fresh water is warm, up to 25 degrees in summer, and ideal for swimming and diving. If you tire of the lake, Aix has a casino, a racetrack and a demanding golf course. Mont- Revard dominates the town, and its paths, used by hiking enthusiasts, offer a panoramic view of Mont-Blanc.