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Sifex France Guide to Ain

The Ain (pronounced like the French for one, un) département stretches from flatlands beside the Saône river a little north of Lyon to the mountains overlooking Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as the French always call it). In the west, Bourg-en-Bresse is the capital of the département, and of the Bresse area, a lush and productive plain where the famous Bresse chickens are raised – unique in meriting an AOC designation, a guarantee of high quality. The area of the Dombes, closer to Lyon, is studded with lakes, and home to the largest bird park in Europe, the Parc des Oiseaux. The Dombes includes one of the most famous villages in France, Pérgouges; also try the likes of Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, with its wonderful display of timberframe and brick buildings. Pressing east, you hit against the southern flanks of the Jura range, the first, Revermont ridge, strung with delightful villages, which continue across the magical deep valleys of the Bugey, bound by the Rhône. The Ain ends with the Pays de Gex spying on Lake Geneva, a frontier territory where the great Enlightenment writer Voltaire sought refuge.

Bourg-en-Bresse is an elegant town, but it is rivalled by adjoining Brou, whose abbey contains the most magnificent Renaissance church, while the cloisters have been converted into a substantial fine arts museum. Other towns of particular note include Nantua set beside a vibrant lake, home to a haunting war museum, and Belley, birthplace of the great 19th-century food writer and philosopher Brillat-Savarin. In the Gex, you feel the pull of Geneva; the Swiss often come to relax across the border in such towns as Ferney-Voltaire and Divonne, the latter with golf course, casino and spa establishment on offer.

While the Bresse and Dombes are relaxing, low-key areas, in the Bugey, the natural setting becomes more dramatic, with splendid villages tucked below soaring heights. Some places, like Cerdon, are surrounded by surprisingly high vineyards climbing the limestone flanks. The Valromey, set below the vast brooding Grand Colombier mountain, also has many delightful wine villages, plus the beautifully presented Marais de Lavours marshlands. At the southern tip of the Bugey, the village of Izieu recalls with great dignity the tragic arrest of Jewish children here during the Second World War.

Nordic cross country skiing is a great winter pursuit in the Bugey and Gex, while mountainbiking, quad biking and hang-gliding are highly popular summer sports in several spots across the Ain. Regional culinary specialities include Bleu-de-Bresse cheese, melting quenelles (light fish dumplings) in Nantua crayfish sauce, frogs legs, pike or carp from the ponds in the Dombes, and of course the famous AOC chickens of the Bresse, served in a variety of delicious sauces. For more information on the Ain, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.

© Copyright: Sarah Francis and Philippe Barbour 2005 - Copyright Images :

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