Chambéry is a surprising place. Back in the days when Savoy was an independent state, the Dukes of Savoy made this their capital. Between 1295 and 1563, the town became the political centre of one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties. The evidence of that is everywhere on display in the Ville Ancienne. Chambéry’s attractive and well preserved Old Town is a fitting backdrop for the House of Savoy.
The Ville Ancienne’s crowning glory may well be the Château des Ducs de Savoie, a castle that dates to the 13th century, but it is the ancient lanes, flanked by well-preserved medieval townhouses, and narrow alleyways that lead to hidden courtyards, that make exploring Chambéry such a rewarding experience. Add to this some good museums, including a fine collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, and it feels like a town with a lot to offer.
Yet, somehow, Chambéry seems to remain a well kept secret from many who visit this area for the delights of Lac du Bourget and the nearby mountain ranges. Although it was August and the outdoor tables at cafes and restaurants were busy, at times the streets felt deserted. We parked in a tree shaded road close to the Musée des Beaux-Arts and set off exploring.
It was lunchtime when we arrived and we were lucky to stumble across a shady outdoor restaurant next to the Cathédrale Saint-François-de-Sales. Delicious local dishes were accompanied by a glass or two of regional wine. The neighbouring cathedral was closed, a shame since it contains vast trompe l’œil paintings inside. From the outside it looks very ordinary for a town with this history and aristocratic connections.
The area near the cathedral is filled with alleyways, narrow streets, and pretty courtyards that are a pleasure to wander through. Eventually we arrived in the Place Saint-Léger, a long, narrow street lined with half-timbered buildings. It is nothing like a traditional square, but is pedestrianised. As we walked down it, every few metres there were vaulted passageways leading into the web of interconnected courtyards.
We left the Place Saint-Léger and headed down the charming Rue Basse du Château with its very own ‘Bridge of Sighs’. Dating from the 14th century, it’s said to be the oldest surviving road in town. You emerge out of its narrow confines into the Place du Château, where you’re confronted by the enormous Château des Ducs de Savoie. It’s impressive, but nothing less than you’d expect for the House of Savoy.
For all its architectural glories, probably the most famous sight in Chambéry is also one of its most peculiar, the Fontaine des Éléphants, Elephant Fountain. Know locally as the quatre sans cul because only the front halves of the elephants are visible, this 1838 fountain honours Général de Boigne. A Chambéry native, he came from humble origins but made a fortune in India as a military adventurer.
On his return from leading the army of the Indian State of Maharashtra, de Boigne gave lots of money to public works in the town. This was the pre-British Raj era when Europeans, lured by the chance of making fortunes in India, were offering their services to Maharajahs. India was one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and some, like de Boigne, got lucky. Many others never returned, while India was slowly decapitated by colonialism.
We finished our trip at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. They make much of the fact that Victor-Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont-Sardinia and son of the House of Savoy, donated twenty works to the museum. Yet, other donations are largely responsible for the fine collection of Italian works from the 16th to the 18th century, not to mention a number of German, Flemish, Dutch, and French works.
We liked Chambéry a lot, it had the feel of an authentic Savoy town without too much tourism. It would make a good base for further explorations.
2 thoughts on “Elephants and ancient history in Chambéry”
A very good College friend of mine was from there… been several time. didn’t recognise anything. LOL. I think it has changed. For the better…
A beautiful place, love that shot of Rue Basse du Château