Nov 3rd, 2017, 05:22 PM

Annecy: the 'Venice of the Alps'

By Lindsey Joy
Image credit: Lindsey Joy
A weekend escape in the French Alps to balance out the hustle and bustle of the city.

Paris is an amazing city. It's magical,  beautiful, and inspiring, a place that people dream about visiting, or even residing. As the saying goes, “Paris is always a good idea.”

I am one of the lucky ones who can now call the City of Light home. But Paris, like any big city, can wear on you at times. City life can be noisy, fast, and over-crowded, making you feel like you never have privacy or space to breathe. And it hasn’t helped matters that the weather has been particularly gloomy. A constant grey sky and rain do a number on your mood. I thought I got Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) when I lived in Minnesota, where it snows for six or more months of the year; but living in Paris has made me feel like I have Snoopy’s rain cloud following me at all times.

So, what’s the remedy for the city blues? One of my best friends lives in New York City and she told me her secret to staying sane and balancing out the hustle and bustle of the city is to get out of the city on the weekends. Now, my workload and budget won’t allow me to do that every weekend, but I desperately needed a solo weekend getaway to somewhere sunny and filled with nature.

Cue: Annecy. I had never heard of the French town of Annecy (pronounced like “Nancy” without the ‘N’), until a few weeks ago when a Frenchman was describing this idyllic vacation spot. After showing me a picture of the crystal-clear, almost Caribbean-green lake the village lays on, lined with full foliage and deciduous trees, Annecy quickly moved to the top of my possibilities list. Once I saw the full sun symbol and 70s temperatures in the forecast for the weekend I was considering, the decision was easy. Even though my train tickets weren’t super cheap by European standards, my mind was made up. This was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

The Venice of the Alps

Travel guide Rick Steves refers to Annecy as France’s answer to Switzerland’s Luzern: a charming, medieval old town with a beautiful landscape, surrounded by picturesque views of the Alps-lined waterfront. Annecy is in the southeastern Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France, 22 miles south of Geneva on the Swiss border. It's nestled on the northern tip of Lake Annecy, France's third-largest lake, whose waters are considered the cleanest and purest in all of Europe, mainly after strict environmental policies were put in place in the 1960s to protect its pristine quality. The clear green-hued water flows from the lake into two canals and the Thiou River, which run through Annecy's "Old Town" historic center, giving the town its nickname, "Venice of the Alps".

Annecy’s natural landscapes and beautiful views make it ripe for a plethora of outdoor activities. The town is full of green parks with pedestrian-friendly paths that wind along the waterfront. From here, you can choose to bike, hike, swim (if it is warm enough), or horse-back ride, amongst many other options. In order to get oriented on the first day, I chose to take a one-hour boat tour with Compagnie des Bateaux du Lac d’Annecy, which travels around the border of the lake, offering great views of local châteaux and the peaks of Mont Veyrier and La Tournette. The water was so calm and clear, it almost looked like we were sailing on a sheet of glass. Standing on the edge of the ferry boat deck, I breathed in the crisp, clean air and let the troubles of the big city wash away. The serenity of it all actually made me a little misty-eyed. This was exactly what I had come here for.

Boat ride views. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Château de Duingt on Lake Annecy. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Easy as Riding a Bike

I'd been on an actual bike only once in the last twenty years, but given Annecy's promotion as a bike-friendly city, I pretty much didn’t have a choice but to get back in the saddle again. The next day, I rented a bike for an afternoon for €15 from Roul' ma Poule and rode seven miles to the southern lake village of Duingt. On my way, I passed beach revelers, lakeside cafés, and fields with relaxing cows grazing in fenceless pastures. The one-hour ride each way was easy for even for an amateur biker like me, hugging the lake away from traffic on smooth flat paths. Once at Duingt, I took a short, but steep, hike up the main hill to take in some great views of the Château de Duingt, which protrudes on a small island out into Lake Annecy.

The short hike brought me to an unexpected and curious discovery: the cave of “Our Lady of the Lake”. It's a shrine on the top of a small, stone stairway surrounded with plaques of thanks to a symbolic maternal figurine for various different blessings accumulated over the last 200 years. There was no additional information or explanation about the cave or the shrine anywhere to be seen, but to me this made it all the more special and serendipitous. Sometimes moments like these are the best ones — unexpected, unexplained, but beautiful and inspiring at the same time. They remind me why I love to travel so much. As the J. R. R. Tolkien quote goes, “Not all that wander are lost.”

Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Image credit: Lindsey Joy.

Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Return from the Pasture

Once I returned to town, I discovered that my visit fortuitously coincided with Annecy’s once-a-year cultural festival, Retour des Alpages, or “Return from the Mountain Passages.” Every autumn since the Middle Ages, the town celebrates the herds’ return to the lower valley from the mountain pastures where they “summered.” The ritual is celebrated with a parade of elaborately and artistically decorated cows (completed with giant cowbells), goats, and even geese led through the streets of Annecy. In addition, the festival exhibits traditional arts and crafts, vendors selling goods particular to the Savoyard region, street food, folk groups, and demonstrations of old trades, such as the hand-churning of apple cider. It felt like the Alpine version of America’s state fairs: a great, local get-together that celebrates the heritage of the area.

Here I bought locally produced honey, body lotion made from donkey’s milk (“lait d’ânesse”), artisanal soaps, and indulged in some of the Savoie region’s mountain-hearty specialties: sandwiches made out of hot, melted raclette cheese (made-to-order and scraped off cheese wheels right in front of you), tartiflettes (scalloped potatoes served with sausage and more melted cheese), and the sweet treat of bugnes (“angel’s wings”), pastries made out of fried dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar; a more dainty, but indulgent, cousin to funnel cakes. I learned that there is a tradition for men to give angel wings to their wives on Friday the 13th in order to avoid bad luck throughout the year. I thought I better take matters into my own hands and buy myself some good luck.

Vendor dressed in traditional Savoyard clothing selling local fruits and vegetables. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Preparing tartiflettes for the fair crowds. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Decorated cows and goats before the "Retour des Alpages" parade through the city. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Bugnes pastries, otherwise known as "angel’s wings.” Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

The Kindness of Strangers

After eating a couple kilos of cheese, I returned to my charming Bed and Breakfast in the next-door town of Verier-du-Lac to sleep off my active, but relaxing day. As much as possible, I try to stay outside of city centers when I travel throughout Europe, especially at accommodating B&Bs if I can find them. To me, they are an all-inclusive version of the Airbnb phenomenon. Even if this location was slightly difficult to get to, the luxury of having a real bed (vs. a pull-out-couch) to sleep on, a private bedroom terrace that overlooked the lake, and a traditional French breakfast waiting for me in the morning, made it worth the extra €20 taxi trip.

My last morning, I shared breakfast with a lovely middle-aged couple from Lyon, Sabrina and Frank. After telling them about how I was planning on doing a 90-minute walk to town to get to the train station to avoid the cost of one more taxi ride, not only did they offer to drive me to town in their car, they basically adopted me for the rest of the morning. On the way to the train station, the three of us stopped at Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, a castle high above the towns below, with more breathtaking views of the lake. After a picturesque drive back into Annecy, Sabrina and Frank dropped me off at the train station, exchanged hugs, and welcomed me to Lyon anytime I wanted to visit. As I boarded the four-hour train ride back to Paris, I felt like I finally exhaled as I settled into my seat. The serene lake, the crisp air, the mountains, and the kindness of strangers filled my veins and rejuvenated me, just like the doctor had ordered.

Traditional French breakfast at the B & B. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.

Balcony view of the lake from my room at the B&B. Image Credit: Lindsey Joy.