Annecy: the Pearl of the Alps

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Our American friend here in Carcassonne, Carol Etheridge, owns and runs a tour company: Best of France Travels. (If you fancy a lovely time in some beautiful regions of France, without any organizational fuss, you can’t do better than Carol.) As you can imagine, the pandemic has pulled the rug out from under hospitality companies like hers. But, in the summer of 2021, American travelers were more than eager to book visits to France. Carol’s agenda was looking much better. Then the delta variant scuttled it all. Travelers dropped out by the droves. Carol had to face reality; she cancelled the scheduled 2021 tours. All the hotel and activity owners — except one — agreed to refund her sizable deposits. The one hotel that refused to offer refunds is in Annecy, in the foothills of the French Alps. Carol decided to turn an expensive foul situation into some pleasure for her and her friends. She reached out to folks like us in Carcassonne and offered the rooms that she had booked for the Magnificent French Alps tour. She wasn’t offering the tour to us, just the opportunity to enjoy the hotel and Annecy. Since she was going to be there too — the first time that she would stay in the hotel without having to lead a tour — we quickly said yes.

The alpine Lake Annecy is always the star. The lake and mountains beg you to go outside, be active, move. Annecy seems to be a town of outdoors people. 

One of the grand ways to enjoy it is to bike along its shore. However, for people like us, un-sportsmen that we are, electric bikes for hire are the ticket. Beautiful, well designed and maintained bike paths run almost the entire circumference of the lake. Visitors like us pedal along at a scenery-absorbing pace. Lycra-bedecked speed cyclists zip by, heads down, backs horizontal. Local folks cycle or scoot, often while looking at their phones. It felt like it would be bad form to be in a car.

Glaciers in the last ice age scraped out the long course of what has become Lake Annecy. The melting of the glaciers 12,000 years ago filled the gash to beautiful effect.

From lakeside plaques:

The Bout du Lac (actually the head, not the End of the lake) opens onto a territory that has managed to preserve the last great natural landscapes looking out on Lake Annecy, with the 84-hectare Bout du Lac Nature Reserve…. It is the last great wetland of the lake, a remarkable witness to the changing environment in the last 20,000 years and to the birth of Lake Annecy…. After the glaciers melted some 12,000 years ago. there were two separate basins, the “Petit Lac” (Little Lake) and the “Grand Lac” (Big Lake). As a result of a tectonic event, the Roc de Chère was lowered and the two lakes were united. The Roc de Chère, despite being located on the other shore, is part of the Bauges Massif. The shows on the surface: it is the Roselet islet, on which prehistoric people built stilt houses.

Another way to explore the lake was from a floating lunch table. We booked a lunch “cruise” up and down the length of the lake. 

We had seen the boat docked between the old town, the lovely Jardins de l’Europe park and the lakefront. Through its generous windows, we could see a large dining room. We thought, this is September, folks have gone back to work and school; we’ll have lots of empty seats around us for some good healthy social distancing. However, as the embarkation hour neared, hordes of silver-headed visitors gathered on the pier. Ah! September is when people like us — retirees — have out-waited the summer throngs of families and workers (whom we love!). We emerge and take over tourist sites. So, the dining boat was full from window to window. We are grateful for the French requirement of the Passe Sanitaire (proof of vaccination) for access to any restaurant.

from the model plaque:

Le Libellule (The Dragonfly)
This large cruise catamaran is the largest boat that has sailed on Lake Annecy.Its inauguration took place on May 28, 1984. The boat had as godfather of actor Jean-Claude Brialy and as godmother actress Marie-José Nat. The singer Jackie Quartz and director Claude Chabrol were also guests.Singer Alain Damecour (under the pseudonym “Alain Gerald”) composed, wrote and recorded a 45 rpm record that included two titles: “Libellule” and “On the Lake”; 10,000 45 rpm discs were pressed for the occasion.From the original diesel propulsion, in 2019, this boat was converted to greener, gas propulsion. Two groups of electrical generators of 20 horsepower provide power 300 KW electric. It has a reserve of fresh water 10,000 liters.This dining boat could accommodate up to 300 people. 35,000 meals are served each year.

(The food was not bad. The views were better.)

Back on land…

Well-maintained 16th-century buildings comprise the historic center of Annecy. Cafés, restaurants, tourist shops and a surprisingly large number of ice-cream shops fill this pedestrianized neighborhood. Charm everywhere you look.

Traces of the Gallo-Roman Boutae have been found nearby. The seat of the counts of Genevois from the 10th century, Annecy was attached to the dukedom of Savoy from 1401 and became important during the Reformation when the bishop’s seat was transferred there from Geneva in 1535 along with monastic institutions expelled from Geneva during the Reformation. St. Francis de Sales was bishop (1602–22) and, with St. Jane Frances Chantal, founded the first Convent of the Visitation of the Virgin in Annecy. In 1728 the 16-year-old Jean-Jacques Rousseau took refuge in the city. Annecy, along with the rest of Savoy, became part of France in 1860. (source)

One of the most famous landmarks, Le Palais de l’Isle:

Le Palais de l’Isle, or The Island Palace
Built in the 12th century in the middle of the Thiou canal. It is currently the Center for the Interpretation of Architecture and Heritage for the Agglomeration of Annecy, but in the past it has had very diverse functions. Palace of the lord of Annecy in the 12th century, it became an administrative hotel when the Count of Geneva moved to the city. It has also been, in turn, the seat of the judiciary, the Mint, since the reign of Amédée III of Geneva (around 1356), and a prison before being classified as a historical monument. (source)

fun inexplicable public art

Annecy exudes prosperity. Our first thought was that the reason must be, as always, “location, location, location.” We were thinking of the beautiful lake and mountains. That is part of the answer. The other part of the answer comes from the fact that Geneva is about a 45-minute drive away. Geneva, and Switzerland in general, are notoriously expensive. In our experience, about twice as expensive as just over the border in France. So there are plenty of people who live in France and work in Geneva. Their straddling the two economies drives up the prices in nearby French territory, including in Annecy.

Like just about any city, town or village in France with a big hill, Annecy boasts a medieval castle overhead. We thought a little climb on a sunny day would help offset all that we had eaten the night before. And, even if it is (as we now say thanks for a good friend of ours) ABC — Another Bloody Castle — why not check it out.

The castle has a long history, of course.

Listed as a Historical Monument in 1902, Annecy Castle became the residence of the Counts of Geneva in the 13th and 14th centuries. Over the following two centuries, successive modifications transformed the castle, giving it the unique appearance we can admire today.  The resulting structure is a combination of medieval defensive architecture and renaissance elegance, inspired by castles in Ile de France. Abandoned as a residence in the 17th century, the Annecy Castle was later used as military barracks until 1947. (source)

The forecourt is impressive….

….and the gardens offer splendid views over the city.

Inside, we didn’t find rooms furnished from some medieval period, telling the story of the Counts of Geneva. We found exhibition spaces, into which had been inserted perfectly fine exhibitions that have nothing to do with the castle.

But we did come across this:

Hmmm. Are they serious?

And then we found a panel across the room on the wall:

Did these hydropitheci, half man and half fish, belong to an amphibious branch of the first hominidae? Confronted with this mystery, our first reaction is to say to ourselves that mermaids only exist in myths and fables. However, this theatrical museum setting makes us doubt and challenges our critical spirit. Is it a hoax? But even if it is, who is it harming? A visitor, taken in? The museum, which approves and exhibits this “poppycock”?Everyone familiar with the work of Joan Fontcuberta will recognize that it is him behind the pseudonym Jean Fontana. This artist from Catalan’s work draws its strength and relevance from its ambiguity and questions in museography professionals to question what we hear from museums, those former place of scientific exhibition that lent to debates and questions. The artist invites us to beware of  narrations and keep our critical spirit as we look at these pictures, even if they are exhibited in as serious a place as a museum.

Annecy, it’s the simple pleasures. Taking a break in the lake-front city park, les Jardins de l’Europe. Strolling beneath the allées of trees and along the water’s edge. Shopping in the attractive boutiques. Meandering in the morning produce market. Seeing kids’ taking sailing lessons. Cascading flowers on railings. Beers outside along the canal.

One of our first evening meals was on a Monday. Many restaurants choose Mondays for their day off, so we’ve learned to take what we can find, and not expect much. Online, I found Brasserie Brunet, which wasn’t far from our hotel. Reviews pointed to tasty comfort food, nothing fancy. It turned out to be the best meal of our visit to Annecy: fresh, both traditional and creative, lively staff, nice atmosphere.

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