The rush of tourists to Geneva, Chamonix, Mont Blanc or Burgundy sweeps them past beautiful, medieval Annecy.
Unless you’ve wandered too far south from the Swiss lowlands around Lake Geneva or too far east from Burgundy, you may not know of Annecy. It’s north of the attractive major French ski areas and west of the Swiss Alps, about 50 miles from Mont Blanc. A casual glance at a map places Annecy in the middle of nothing, surrounded by interesting areas just a little bit closer or further. And that’s a shame.
I’ve crisscrossed France on numerous routes over the years and probably passed within 50 miles of Annecy several times without realizing it. Annecy doesn’t deserve to be at the bottom of a list to be seen after all else has been explored.
In late July 2014 my wife Chris joined me at our prearranged spot in Paris’s Gare de Lyon and boarded one of France’s high speed trains, the TGV. Following a switch to a regional train in eastern France, we arrived in Annecy’s new train station less than four hours after leaving Paris.
Like many French towns, there are concentric stages of development. Located on the north end of Lake Annecy, the town is a series of concentric half circles. The newest, probably started in the 1990’s has the shopping centers, the larger commercial and retail businesses, and the areas of large apartment development. The middle slice is mostly those buildings, more compact, a little dated, which were built starting in the late 1950’s when France was getting back on its feet, recovering from World War II. And, at its heart lies the center of old medieval Annecy.
There are certainly reasons to visit the first two parts of town. The very helpful and efficient tourist office is located in a newer complex with a nice view of the lake. Our hotel, the comfortable and charming Hotel des Alpes, is close to the train station in the middle slice. And, the surrounding area of lake and villages deserves attention. Each day we hiked to other villages, sometimes taking the ferry from Annecy’s small port, enjoying the view from the water, and alighting after a few stops down the lake to walk back to Annecy.
But I was drawn to old medieval Annecy, a place where you can dream of an older, slower way of life. This is where roads follow natural contours instead of being straightened to the will of large machinery. The buildings are less square, adapting to their terrain and centuries old land claims describing property lines as starting from the corner of a church which was torn down in the 1800’s and proceeding to the tall oak, which was felled by lighting a hundred years ago. The history here goes back not centuries but millenniums.
The large hewn stones were wrestled into place one after another to build two and three story structures of homes and businesses combined. They stand today as they have for centuries. The twists of cobbled streets and paths lead through cool areas away from the summer’s heat. And canals, carefully directed, controlled by dams and gates and chutes send their blubbering waters sweeping against moss covered stone walls, under bridges, and away from the lake.
At night, when the last light of the sun is a dim glow and the skies are blue black, old Annecy murmurs, even with the summer crowds. The splash of sunlight on the racing canal water make its tumbles sound insistent during the day, but as night falls, the waters, running at the same speed, seem more muffled.
Old Annecy is where many of the restaurants are, featuring their Savoyard specialties of cheese and crisp white wine. This is regional cooking where the differences are distinct and a point of pride. The open markets are here too, heaped with artisan foods, fresh produce which truly is fresh, sausages and meats spread in abundance. Cheeses are stacked with abandon and what cheeses they are! With luck a table can be found canal-side at a restaurant where a long and delicious meal can be enjoyed while watching the almost hypnotic smooth rush of water sparkling from café lights.
Here, too, on the weekends is where the flea markets and mercantile sales take place on the streets. Eastern France’s attics and basements have been rummaged through for our amazement, and it’s worth strolling among the tables and awnings if for nothing else but a reminder of how life was once conducted without electronics and automation. Old silver, old dishes, old linens—enough to make several old table settings—are piled high, tumbling across tables of trestle and plywood.
I touch the old silver, the old stone, stand and let the sun warm my face. I have the luxury of imagining how it was, ignoring the mud, the lack of running water, the chilblains, the sooty old woodstoves which couldn’t keep those stone houses warm. Here in old medieval Annecy one can slip a bit from pesky reality and dream.