The last time I was in Annecy was about seven years ago, when it was merely a convenient stopover on a back-roads drive to Monaco. We’d arrived after dark, and had the briefest glimpse of the town and its magnificent lake, through an alpine mist, as we continued our journey the following morning. But even that was enough to immediately add it high on my list of places to return to someday.
Well, that day had arrived, and as we drove the half an hour south from Geneva I couldn’t help but wonder if this small mountain town would live up to my hopes. I needn’t have worried. One glimpse of the sun setting over the mountains, throwing silhouettes of the castle across the calm waters of the lake, and I knew I was going to succumb to its charms once again.
Annecy nestles on the edge of a large, weaving lake, to which it gives its name, around 450 metres above sea level in the French Alps. Its roots go back to Neolithic times, and it was a favourite stopover for Roman troops on their route north from the 1st Century BC. In the Middle Ages its fortunes rose again, as one of the most important towns of the Duchy of Savoy, and much of the rich medieval heart that visitors see today derives from the wealthy period before it was integrated into France.
Today, the old town area is totally enchanting, with meandering narrow streets alongside crystal clear canals. Pretty rows of medieval buildings, fronted with colourful facades that overhang arcaded shop fronts, hide enticing passageways that lead to hidden courtyards, or small bridges over the waterways.
Probably the best advice regarding planning your exploration on Annecy, is don’t. Just wander, and enjoy discovering what’s around the next corner, through a small alleyway, or under an enticing archway. There’s a certain mystique about this quaint town, a feeling that although you are enjoying what you’re seeing, there could be well be something even better hiding just out of sight.
Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays are market days, and many of the streets and bridges in the old town come alive to the bustle of locals and tourists hunting for bargains. Local produce from the surrounding mountains is in plentiful supply, as are arts and crafts – many traditional for this region. A small crowd shields one stall that lurks under a covered arcade. The pungent smell gives it away, however, and the unmistakeable aroma of assorted French cheeses blends perfectly with the equally inviting taunt of freshly baked bread close by.
Just across the canal, an elderly man sits whittling walking sticks of all shapes and styles. His weathered face wore a permanent grin beneath a checked flat cap, and he seemed happy that passers-by just took an interest in his craft. The market brings the town to life, and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the compelling vibrancy that surrounds it.
But there is more to see, and never enough time. The castle is the focal point of many visits, sitting on a hill grandly overlooking the quayside and the lake beyond. It was built by the Counts of Geneva, who lived here from 1219. When Annecy fell under the control of the Duchy of Savoy, it became the residence of the Dukes of Genevois-Nemours in the 16th Century. They fortified the entrance with a portcullis and drawbridge, and added a parapet walk that can be enjoyed by visitors today. As well as all manner of historical artefacts, arts, and period furniture, the castle today also houses the Alpine Lakes Regional Observatory.
Back down a long paved set of steps, and across a narrow arched bridge, stands the impressive Saint Pierre Cathedral. Built in 1535 for the Fransiscans, it was actually the Bishops of Geneva who soon took refuge here, following the Reformation in Geneva. The light grey stone exterior is fairly plain when compared to major French cathedrals elsewhere, but inside it’s adorned with some sumptuous marble stucco, and the 19th Century organ is listed as a historical monument in its own right.
For lovers of fine architecture, Annecy has a wealth of churches and other notable buildings to see. Most have a long and impressive history, although not all have been continuously respected. I was intrigued by the tale of the Church of Saint Francis, in a broad square close to the quayside. The existing church replaced a convent in the 17th Century, but a century or so later, following the suppression of the clergy’s properties, was converted to a textile factory. After a hundred years of producing calicos, it was restored, and in 1923 given to the Italian community as their church.
Across the main road is the Hotel de Ville, and beyond the well maintained Jardins de l’Europe lead down to the waters edge. There are pleasant walks, and on fine days there are boats, pedalos, windsurfers, and swimmers all vying for space in the gloriously blue waters. A tree lined promenade stretches around the northern edge of Lake Annecy, with hotels and the town’s most desirable residences hugging it. Behind the modern town and commercial district, reach back almost to the feet of the mountains.
But it’s the lake that draws most travellers here, just as it’s done for thousands of years. Lakes everywhere have a certain allure, but Lake Annecy, perfectly set with the alpine peaks as a backdrop, is magnificently appealing. Regular cruises on the lake leave from the main quayside below the castle in Annecy, either to tour half or the full lake. We opted for the one-hour half-lake tour, which gave a good flavour of the lake. There was a commentary by the all female crew, but sadly only in French. However, to be fair it didn’t detract from our enjoyment much, and there was more than enough to keep our attention throughout the journey.
Of course, there’s a whole different perspective on the town, and the surrounding mountains, when viewed from the boat. For a start, you get twice as much for your money, since the reflections in the clear waters are so sharp you see everything twice. Water skiers use the boats wash to create jumps behind us, and canoeists wave, no doubt cursing under their breath about the disruption we cause them.
There is no shortage of ways to enjoy the lake. Apart from the cruise, it’s easy to hire small craft, sailing boats, or canoes. There are water-skiing and fishing trips to be had, and for an alpine lake it is surprisingly warm for swimming. That is a result of warm thermal springs that rise up from the lake floor. If you want to enjoy the lake from the shore, then cycle paths completely surround it, and bike rental is simple. You can even try a pony trek or carriage ride.
As our cruise comes to an end, we ease back into the narrow inlet alongside the mooring. From here, the view from the boat’s upper sun deck gives a wonderfully picturesque panorama of the town and the castle above. With a clear blue sky, and equally clear mountain air, it’s a view that will be firmly etched on my memory for many years.
There is another Annecy, though, one that comes out at night. It has a totally different feel, as the pavement restaurants and bars liven up, and the promenades are full of people, well, promenading.
We were fortunate to be staying close to the old town centre, at the friendly and pleasant Hotel des Alpes. It’s just a few minutes walk to the main street, and more importantly back again at the end of an enjoyable and tiring night.
Close to the cathedral, on the pedestrianised Rue du Paquier, is the excellent L’Etage bar and restaurant. As you climb the well-worn stone steps to the first floor of the three hundred year old building, there’s a warm inviting atmosphere that seems to grab you and pull you in. It’s intimate and homely, in a way only the French can do, and the food was simply superb. Tender beef cooked to perfection, partnered by a finely latticed potato stack, and complimented by an ideally recommended local wine.
So, was I glad I added Annecy to my ‘must go back’ list? Absolutely. So much so that even after this trip it’s still there!
Hotel des Alpes, 12, rue de la Poste – 74000 ANNECY – Tél: +33 4 50 45 04 56
L’Etage, 13 rue du Paquier, 74000 Annecy. Tel: +33 450 51 03 28
Compagnie des Bateaux du Lac d’Annecy, 2 Place aux Bois, 74000 Annecy
Tel: +33 450 51 08 40