Settled by the Romans and once the cherished home for counts and dukes of Geneva and Savoy, Lake Annecy is a hidden gem whose pristine waters and charming villages have yet to be discovered by the touring masses.
After spending two days in Geneva, we drove south across the border into France where an hour later we reached the medieval town of Annecy, located at the north end of its beautiful namesake lake in the French Alps.
Hidden away in the Haute-Savoie region of France, Lake Annecy is fed by pure mountain springs and surrounded by majestic mountains whose peaks are still snow-capped well into spring. Its shores are dotted by a handful of pretty towns, which are connected by a twisting two-lane road as well as a small public ferry that sails around the lake in summer.
I had heard about this magnificent lake from my wife Gail, who as a high-school exchange student from England had spent two summers here during the late 1960s in the picturesque village of Talloires. And now, accompanied by our friends Barry and Toni, we were about to discover why Gail had been so keen to return to this area for many years.
After reaching the top of the lake in Annecy, our driver turned left onto a small road that hugs the shoreline and drove 12 kilometres south to Talloires, where we decamped into one of the most beautiful hotels in the region. The Auberge du Père Bise is a gorgeous Alpine-style lodge that sits right on the edge of Talloires Bay and offers breath-taking views of Lake Annecy, and is just steps away from the ferry dock. This Relais & Chateau hotel also features two outstanding eateries, Bistrot 1903 and The Restaurant, which boasts two Michelin stars.
The village was bustling with visitors as we had arrived in the middle of the Talloires Fête du Livre, an annual gathering of contemporary French authors, including those already acclaimed by critics, as well as young rising stars. Former French President François Hollande (Les leçons du pouvoir) was among the 30 authors participating in the two-day event, which included book signings, discussions, and readings.
After a delicious lunch at Café de la Place, we strolled through the heart of the village past a local bakery, a small church, the town hall, and several lovely hotels on our way down to the beach and surrounding park. The park is where townsfolk typically gather on weekends and holidays during summer to escape the heat, and is where Gail spent a good deal of time during her visits. Unfortunately, it had just started to rain so we had cut short her trip down memory lane and console ourselves with a glass of wine at the nearby beach café.
We woke up the next morning to beautiful sunshine, so decided to hop aboard the passenger ferry which sails clockwise around the lake to Annecy, and calls at the most popular towns including Veyrier, Menthon, Talloires, Doussard and Duingt. It turned out to be a convenient way to see most of the lake, and a reasonably timely way (one hour) to reach our destination at Annecy’s old town, which features a fresh produce market several days a week, including Sunday mornings.
Nicknamed “Pearl of the French Alps” because of its idyllic setting in the mountains, Annecy was settled by the Romans in the first century because of its strategic location on the route between Geneva and Italy. The Dukes of Savoy eventually took control of the town from the counts of Geneva in the 14th century, before it finally fell to the French in 1860.
The old town of Annecy has retained much of its medieval charm, with a restored castle still overlooking flower-lined canals, winding cobblestone streets, and pastel coloured houses. Construction of Château d’Annecy began in the 12th century, and it became the residence of the Counts of Geneva in the 13th and 14th centuries. Over the following two centuries, the castle was modified, resulting in a combination of medieval and renaissance architecture. Today the chateau has a museum, various exhibits, and a marvelous terrace that offers expansive views of the town and Lake Annecy below.
After touring the castle and medieval town, we took the ferry back to Talloires where we had a marvelous French dinner at the Atelier de la Charpenterie. Then, before turning in for the night, Barry had a chat with our hotel clerk about one of the region’s most popular tourist activities – paragliding – and discovered that the Annecy basin is one of the world’s leading locations for the sport, and regularly hosts major paragliding competitions.
While three of us were hesitant to jump off the edge of a mountain and do a 950 metre vertical drop to the valley below, Barry keenly signed up for his virgin flight (80 Euros). As arranged, a car showed up at 11:00 am the next morning and took Barry up the mountain to a launch site high above the end of Lake Annecy.
Once on site, Barry was shown the two-seat paraglider that novices share with a certified instructor and was briefed on details. It’s important to note, he was told, that contrary to a parachute where someone jumps off or out of something, paragliders do not jump out of anything. Instead, a paraglider works more like a plane in that it takes off on a gentle slope and glides down to a pre-selected landing zone.
Once briefed, Barry was suited up in a harness, escorted onto a green launch carpet with his pilot Antonio, and took off for a 15-minute flight. If Barry experienced any momentary regret after take-off, Antonio soon put any concerns to rest. He told Barry that a previous passenger had been the famous American journalist and author Bob Woodward, and if the man who broke the Watergate scandal trusted him, Barry should too!
After Barry’s successful flight and landing, we retreated to the Auberge du Père Bise for a nerve calming mid-day cocktail, followed by a delicious lunch at L’Osmose du Lac in the nearby village of Menthon-Saint-Bernard.
This charming village features a medieval castle that some claim provided Walt Disney with the inspiration for his Sleeping Beauty Castle. It’s also home to the century-old Le Palace de Menthon, a gorgeous neo-classical hotel that sits on the edge of the lake.
Tomorrow, we would be heading back to Geneva and catching a train to Milan. But for now, all we wanted to do was savour our final hours in this “Pearl of the French Alps.”