Welcome to Thonon-les-Bains, capital of the Chablais Region and sub-prefecture of Haute Savoie. This walking tour of the lakeside, with the theme “From Castle to Castle”, will introduce you to a period of Thonon’s history, from the Middle Ages to the present. From Thonon castle to Rives castle, from Bellegarde castle to Fléchère and Ripaille castles, you will see the various facets and riches of a city that developed on the shores of Lake Leman until it became the reputed spa that it has become today.
Place du château
You are now on the place du Château, an emblematic site for all the citizens of Thonon. In the Middle Ages, this was the administrative centre of the town. Thonon castle was a fortress built by Count Amadeus V of Savoy in 1288, initially established here due to town’s economic growth and its strategic position. Marie de Bourgogne, wife of Amadeus VIII Duke of Savoy, refurbished the castle in the beginning of the 15th century. It was destroyed during the hostilities that opposed Savoy and Geneva in the 17th century. The esplanade itself later became the property of the town. Lined with linden trees, it became a popular gathering place and the site of fairs until the beginning of the 19th century.
The Thonon funicular, skirting Rives, is certainly the town’s most visited heritage site today. It’s an agreeable way to reach the port of Rives from the city centre avoiding the incline of some 165 ft separating the upper town from the village of Rives. The Swiss engineer Auguste Alesmonières built it in 1888. A particular feature is its curved route; it is one of the world’s only funiculars where the cars pass each other on a bend!
This picturesque neighbourhood at the foot of the town was built in the middle of the 13th century on a quadrangular plan, before being fortified in 1295. Fishermen and boatmen, called Rivaillons, once occupied this village with its steep, narrow streets. It long remained apart from the upper town and it was only in the 19th century that two lavoirs, or washhouses, were built: a small one opposite Rives castle and a large one rue du port. Next to this there was once an industrial icehouse that supplied hotels, fishermen and residents.
Tower of Tongues/ Château de Montjoux / Rives Chapel
Rives chapel, dedicated to St Pierre and St Paul, was built in 1860 by Count Joseph Gerbaix de Sonnaz. Private at first, this small gothic-style chapel was bequeathed to the parish before becoming the property of the municipality in 1976. Opposite the chapel is the “tower of tongues”. Built in the Middle Ages, it overlooks the fishing port below. Where does its strange name come from? To find out we need to go back to the time when butchers came to pay their tithe to the lord with the oxen and cows’ tongues they had butchered. This right to bovine tongues was a feudal tax, paid for each slaughtered head of cattle.
CGN Landing Stage
Here you are on the landing stage of the CGN or Compagnie Générale de Navigation. This Swiss company owns lake shuttles that ply the Swiss coast from Thonon. Iconic figurehead of Leman, the company was created in 1873 by joining three existing lake companies, which then shared navigational services. The CGN now owns a fleet of sixteen boats, which offer rapid crossings or cruises on Lake Leman. Three main lines function today: the first two go to Lausanne from Thonon and Evian, and a third line goes to Nyon from the medieval village of Yvoire. The point can be seen from the west coast of Leman.
Fishing Port and Fishing Ecomuseum
You are at the fishing port, where a dozen professionals are still active. Each one owns a hut, a sort of workshop where they stock, cut, transform and sell their catch, which then goes to shops in the region. If you come in the morning you can also buy whitefish, trout, char or perch directly from them. The lakeside restaurant owners particularly appreciate these fish!
Old Customs House and Place 16 aout 1944
If this square and the port date to the end of the 19th century, after Annexation to France in 1860, its name refers to a more recent historical event. It recalls the fighting at Rives during WW II that led to the liberation of the city. Before you is the former customs house, the work of Louis Moynat, renowned local architect, who also built the hotel school, and the Versoie “mushroom” in front of the thermal spa. Behind the building is the city’s marina, protected by an imposing jetty. With some 800 moorings, it is one of the biggest on Lake Leman. The boats of the CGN used to pass through here before the landing stage was built in 1987. The port of Thonon is a popular place to stroll, with its playground and plane trees, especially during the summer when the brasserie and restaurant terraces are full. Various events take place here at that time, especially open-air concerts and entertainments for children.
SNLF / Fish Farming
Near the large grassy esplanade that delights picnickers in good weather, you can see the building of the sailing school, called SNLF, or the Nautical Society of French Leman. The school is one of the actors that enabled the town in 2010 to obtain the label France Nautical Station 4****, a distinction rewarding the quality of service and the variety of nautical practices; Besides sailing, paddle, wakeboard and rowing, you can participate in whitewater activities, testing the paddle or hydrospeed on the Dranse, a river that empties into Lake Leman. You will also find water and fishes in the building on the other side of the esplanade at the Rives estate fish farm, which restocks the lake! Created in 1885, it is one of the first in France. Its main function is to collect fish eggs during exceptional fishing expeditions to raise them in pools before releasing them in the lake for good.
La Fléchère Castle + Ripaille quay
Although the path leading to the municipal beach is lined with old villas, the eye is mainly attracted to the imposing retirement home on the hill, Les Balcons du Lac. La Fléchère Castle used to stand here. Built in the 15th century, it went through the hands of several families before becoming a Capuchin convent in the 19th century. The Jesuits later occupied it, followed by the Sisters of Charity. The bronze statue of the Sacred Heart on the terrace was painted white during WW II so as not to be confiscated for melting by the Nazi occupants. The present Ripaille Quay was reclaimed from the lake and replaced the original quay. This was generously offered by the Engel-Gros family, owners of the Ripaille estate.
The biggest lake in Western Europe! Some 45 miles long and 8.7 miles at its widest point, the lake is crossed from east to west by the Rhône, which is its principal affluent, supplying 75% of its water. Its maximum depth is 1,017 feet, about the height of the Eiffel Tower! Today it is the biggest Alpine lake in Central and Western Europe. Leman has had different names, first called Lausanne Lake, then Geneva Lake before adopting its present name of Leman. The name seems to come from Celtic Lem meaning “big” and an meaning “water”.
Municipal Beach – Ripaille Forest
The municipal beach was created in 1952 by the Thonon architect Maurice Novarina under the initiative of Georges Pianta, mayor of Thonon from 1944 to 1980. This choice bathing installation is located in a six-acre planted garden featuring several pools and access to the lake. The public can also directly reach the lake and the pine grove by a path bordering the municipal beach and the Ripaille vineyards.
The Ripaille Geosite is one of the twenty emblematic sites of the UNESCO Chablais Geopark. This prestigious label is rewarded to areas presenting landscapes and geological sites of global importance. Chablais Geopark extends from the southern shore of Leman to the summits of the ski area known as Les Portes du soleil. With the Luberon, Haute Provence, the Massif des Bauges and Monts d’Ardèche, it is one of France’s five world geoparks.
Ripaille Castle is one of the jewels of Haute Savoie. Ideally situated on the shores of Lake Leman, it was built in the 15th century by Amadeus VIII, first Duke of Savoy in order to create a hermitage and a retreat for a great lord. Several religious orders successively owned it, including the Carthusians who occupied it from the 17th century until the French Revolution. The restoration of the Château began in 1892 under the initiative of Frederic Engel Gros, Alsatian industrialist and art connoisseur. The leading architects were employed to renovate it in Art Nouveau style. Thanks to Engel Gros, Ripaille became an example of modernity in 1900.