Wedged between the mountains of Haute Savoie, France, just 35 miles south of Geneva, is an enchanting turquoise blue body of water, known today as the ‘cleanest lake in Europe.’ It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s Lake Annecy was so polluted that city officials considered condemning it as unhealthy. Instead, they put in place some of the strictest environmental rules in Europe as well as strategies to protect the region’s natural and historic treasures. Sixty years later, Lake Annecy is a picture-perfect town and one of the most beautiful and popular resort towns in the French Alps.
The ancient cobblestone alleys are crisscrossed by a labyrinth of old canals and rivers, earning the town the nickname of “Little Venice.” In the spring and summer, masses of blooming flowers decorate the city streets. The colorful building facades are reflected in the crystal clear waters of the Thiou River and canal where swans sail gracefully to and fro.
In the middle of the Thiou Canal sits the quaint Palais de l’Ile, a triangular fort built in the 12th century as a residence of the local lord and then the rulers of Geneva before becoming a prison and a museum. It is one of the most photographed monuments in France. Climb the hill to the formidable Chateau d’Annecy, built by the Princes of Savoy, for incomparable views of the lake and the Alps. Today, it houses a museum that includes modern art juxtaposed with Savoyard arts and crafts as well as an exhibit on the geology of the region.
Beneath the Chateau, wander the ancient Rue Sainte Claire with its romantic arches dating to the 17th and 18th centuries or explore the shops that fill the medieval spaces of the Passage des Echoppes and the Passage Ruffaz. On market days the streets are filled with farmers and local merchants carefully stacking their produce. Here you will find only the freshest local fruits and vegetables, piles of Reblochon and Tome des Bauges cheeses, hams, and meats. Pick up some picnic fixings and a bottle of wine, stop at the bakery for a freshly baked baguette and voila! Head over to the lakefront Champs de Mars park for an impromptu picnic under the giant, centuries-old trees.
The area near the Pont des Amours (Bridge of Loves) is one of the most picturesque spots in Annecy, especially in the autumn when the park turns orange and yellow, complemented by the multicolored boats lined up along the canal. To truly experience the lake, however, you have to get onto the water. There are all types of cruises to choose from. Take the water taxi to the picturesque villages of Talloires, Menthon St. Bernard and Veyrier. If the fairytale castle at Menthon Saint Bernard looks familiar, it is because it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle in Sleeping Beauty. If you want a more luxurious experience, take the lunch cruise which winds its way along the base of the Tournette Mountain under 7,000-foot steep slopes while you dine on such regional specialties as Tartiflette ( a gratin of potatoes, bacon, onion, and Savoyard cheese).
If you happen to be in Annecy at the time of the summer solstice, don’t miss the annual Festival of light when the city comes alive with musical performances of all kinds. In early August, a massive fireworks display lights up the skies, water, and the mountains.
Annecy is a unique, scenically magnificent town, immortalized in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher and writer who said about his visit, “Now I have been happy, now I have lived.” Thanks to the forward-looking city fathers in the 1960s and their successful efforts to save the lake, we can say the same.
IF YOU GO
From Geneva, you can drive to Annecy in under an hour. If you drive, there are several parking lots around the periphery of the Old Town. Go to www.lac-annecy.com for a parking map. There are also regularly scheduled buses from the Gare Routiere to Annecy (www.gva.ch for the bus schedule. The city is also served by a TGV from Paris. Don’t forget your passport if you are going to France from Switzerland.