A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Annecy

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Our arrival in Annecy put us firmly in the former territory of the legendary House of Savoy, which was ultimately deposed by the French government in the late 18th century. Annecy is well-known as a city of canals and is often called the Venice of the Alps but the scenic body of water that travels through the old town from Lake Annecy is actually the short river Le Thiou. The canals of Annecy are short, discontinuous, and murky so the comparison to Venice isn't really justified. The old town is quite beautiful, however, especially in the areas directly on the river and the adjacent narrow alleys.

We had some difficulty meeting up with our Airbnb host in a nondescript apartment complex a few blocks from the old town. He had neglected to advise us that there was a barrier gate at the entrance to the complex that we couldn't pass and seemed bemused that we weren't able to drive directly to the front of our building. Eventually I had to strike out on foot and meet up with him at the apartment in order to get the fob that opened the gate, return to the car and then drive in. It was an annoying rigmarole that we've been through dozens of times in southern Europe but seems to be gradually becoming less frequent. We deposited our belongings in the apartment and immediately set off for the old town. We passed through one of the medieval stone gates and found ourselves on a very busy and colorful street lined with antiquated buildings and countless restaurants. We immediately noticed that the wear and stains on the building facades created a different atmosphere from the polished and freshly painted surfaces of the old towns of Lausanne and Zürich.

After a couple of turns in the old town we found ourselves on one of the innumerable pedestrian bridges over Le Thiou. This was the view that was most reminiscent of Venice with outdoor cafes lining the walkway on the north bank of the river. As we walked east towards the lake we got a better view of the iconic Palais de L'Isle. This small but imposing fortress was built on a natural island in Le Thiou in the 12th century and was mainly used as a prison as recently as World War Two. It was subsequently restored and most of the building is now a museum.

It was now the peak dining hour and I realized we needed to focus our attention on the final meal of the day. The old town had become substantially more crowded in the half hour since we had arrived and it seemed we might have some difficulty finding a table in one of the busy establishments around us. Surely enough we were denied at several restaurants before being seated at a rather touristy place on the north side of the river. It wasn't a great meal but the menu was faithful enough to the local Savoy specialties and we felt we could have done far worse. The old town was especially beautiful as the sun disappeared behind the buildings and the streetlights began to glow.

We might have spent more time absorbing the atmosphere but the crowds were only growing thicker and it was clear that the area was a prime destination for late night drinking. It suddenly seemed that bars and nightclubs were everywhere and we decided it would be a good time to take a look at the lake shore. We followed Le Thiou to the east and walked along the promenade of the city park Jardins de l'Europe. From here we could see across the peaceful lake to the mountain range on the opposite shore. Once we completed the semicircle around the park we crossed the Le Vassé canal via Pont des Amours. Local legend says that anyone who kisses on the Lovers' Bridge will stay together forever. Mei Ling and I weren't aware of that at the time but since we have no doubts regarding the permanence of our relationship I don't think we missed an important opportunity.

I knew that there was a festival of animation taking place in Annecy that week but up to that point we hadn't seen any sign of it. We walked back west along the canal between the Jardins and Le Pâquier, an enormous grassy field often used as a staging ground for festivals and other cultural events. We saw hundreds of people seated on the grass in front of a giant screen and decided to join them despite my misgivings about the late hour. There was a sense of anticipation but unfortunately the screen was just showing ads and short previews in a loop. We waited for about twenty minutes before I decided that we were jeopardizing our early arrival at the morning market. Of course just as we finished corralling the kids the screen jumped to life but I overrode their protests and we made the long walk back to the Airbnb.

In the morning we decided to pack the car and drive to the market instead of taking our purchases back to the Airbnb. It was a significant walk from the Airbnb to the old town and I'd seen some good sized parking lots close to the center the previous night. I figured we'd get a good jump on our day by having breakfast in the market and continuing onward. We also didn't have to worry about cutting our market visit short to get back to the Airbnb in time to make our ten o'clock checkout. What I hadn't figured was that those nice half-empty lots would be packed full of cars even at eight in the morning which forced us further away from the old town until we'd lost most of the gains we'd made by driving. I also had a near miss accident drifting out of my lane in a rotary while I was looking for the entrance to a lot, which was a good reminder of the inherent dangers of driving in a series of unfamiliar cities and countries. We eventually found a spot and entered the old town from the east near the Jardins de l'Europe. We could see right away that it was going to be a great market, even larger and more energetic than the previous morning in Thonon. Naturally all the usual fruits and vegetables were there but there was also a good selection of cooked food ready to eat. The sheer density of the colorful and appetizing food on the counters was almost overwhelming. There were fresh juices for the kids and an amazing variety of meats and cheeses with a Savoyard twist. One local specialty I learned about from the cheese vendor was Tomme de Savoie, a wheel-shaped cheese with a grey rind. There were countless varieties of tomme, which is just a generic term in the French Alpine region for round cheeses made from skimmed milk.

We bought ourselves some stewed chicken, roasted potatoes, and black bread and found a cafe which agreed to let us eat at one of their tables once we purchased coffee and croissants from them. We sat outside and soaked in the morning energy while we filled our stomachs. After breakfast we made another pass through the entire market to make sure that we hadn't missed anything. It was easier to focus on the small details now that we no longer had to worry about putting together a meal and finding a comfortable place to consume it.

Once we had taken our final swing through the market we found it hard to make our final departure. Even though Annecy was more of a tourist magnet than we had hoped we still found it to be irresistibly beautiful. The reflections of the colorful old buildings and medieval stone walls in the clear waters of Le Thiou is a sight I don't think I'll ever forget.

Twenty minutes west of Annecy the River Fier has cut a narrow and deep canyon through solid rock over countless millennia. In 1869 a narrow walkway was built along the limestone cliff providing tourist access to the natural attraction known as the Gorges Du Fier. Apparently we were stepping out onto this very same path although neither the solid wooden blanks nor the sturdy metal railings appeared to be a hundred and fifty years old. This was the kind of activity we had been accustomed to on previous trips to the American Southwest and Iceland but it seemed incongruous in such a historic and refined region as Savoie. The path was set about midway up the moss-covered cliff, enough to create a thrill but not so high above the narrow river as to be vertiginous. Because of the turns and twists in the gorge there was a new discovery around every corner. Some of the rocks had been given strange shapes by the gradual erosion from the rushing water so that we saw a face in one place or an animal in the next. The kids kept running ahead and out of sight which made me nervous even though the platform seemed very secure. At the end of the serpentine path was the Glade of the Curious, a field of eroded limestone full of deep, irregular potholes known as giant's kettles.

One of the trademarks of our road trip itineraries is that we never bypass a potentially interesting city. I would rather slow the trip down than realize at some later date that I had driven right past a place we would have enjoyed seeing. Perhaps that's why we take such a long time to pass through geographic areas despite exploring individual cities so quickly. For many people travel is all about skimming through the highlights and the top ten lists but for us we like to see some of the places that the tourists ignore. That's the reason that we found ourselves in the small city of Chambéry, the historic capital of the Savoy region.

We only had a couple of hours and everything we wanted to see was in the old town but all the roads leading inward were marked with a sign that had a red circle on a white background. I figured that meant no entry except for locals, a common designation in southern Europe that can lead to stiff fines if violated. It wasn't too hard to find a spot on the major avenue that ran along the southern edge of the old town so we parked there and entered by foot. We soon found ourselves in a lovely network of old streets that were busy without having any touristic vibe whatsoever.

Over the last two days the weather had been getting warmer and it appeared we were at the beginning of a heat wave. The late afternoon in Chambéry's old town was uncomfortably hot so to keep the kids going I told them that we were hunting for an elephant. Of course I meant La Fontaine des Elephants, a fountain at the other end of the old town that had become a symbol of the city. I knew exactly where it was but I pretended not to know how we were going to find this elephant. The kids immediately became very enthusiastic and competitive about the hunt and started seeing elephants everywhere. They were the first to notice that there were circular brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones stamped with images of elephants and concluded that they were a trail to the target elephant. I figured out that they were only a guide for tourists to reach the old town's designated attractions and had to drag them away in the correct direction. Along the way we ducked into ancient courtyards and traversed enchanting medieval alleys such as Rue Basse du Château and Rue du Sénat de Savoie.

Besides the fountain the only other specific destination on my list for Chambéry was the chocolatier Cedric Pernot. We arrived a little before their closing time and I didn't get the impression the proprietress was thrilled to see us. I imagine they get more than their share of the few tourists that pass through the town and probably a lot of parents don't stop their kids from touching the chocolate and the display cases. We did monitor the kids pretty carefully, especially Spenser, as we admired some of the more elaborate constructions. Eventually we bought a few relatively inexpensive chocolate covered biscuits and escaped the penetrating gaze of the lady behind the counter.

Cleo was naturally the first one to spot the elephant fountain and shouted in victory. It is quite a remarkable structure for a region that has so little to do with elephants. The fountain was built in 1838 to commemorate native son Benoît de Boigne, who distinguished and enriched himself as a merchant and general in India before ultimately returning to his hometown. Before his death de Boigne contributed much of his fortune to the establishment of hospitals and other public edifices in Chambéry. De Boigne's connection to India indirectly resulted in elephants becoming the unofficial symbol of the city. Water gushes from the trunk of each of the four elephants on the fountain and I realized that if I leaned back far enough I could achieve a simple solution to the oppressive heat of the city.

On the way out of the square I felt a sudden sharp pain in one of my toes as though it was being pierced by a needle. I immediately thought a piece of glass had worked its way into my sandal and pulled it off to inspect the damage. There was nothing in my sandal and no sign of blood on the injured toe which now felt as though it was being squeezed in a vise. I looked around and saw a few yellowjackets buzzing around a grate a few steps back and I realized I had inadvertently caught one in my sandal and been stung. The toe remained extremely painful for several minutes and I just stood where I was feeling my heart pound and waiting for the pain to subside. Surprisingly my toe never swelled or reddened and eventually the discomfort dissipated. We resumed walking and it was like the sting had never happened. At this point we were just a couple of blocks from the River Leysse which marks the northern boundary of the old town. Remembering Le Thiou from Annecy I thought it might be worth walking the extra distance but unfortunately the river was nearly dry and the surroundings were rather unattractive. On the way back to the car we admired the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy which is still the seat of the local government.

In the end we were quite happy we had set aside a couple of hours to explore Chambéry. It was quite a contrast to Annecy whose old town was more beautiful because of the river but also smaller and much more touristy. There was much more of a feeling of discovery within the small alleys of Chambéry and we felt that our strategy of visiting lesser known cities was validated. Now it was time to move on to Grenoble, a city with a familiar name that I actually knew very little about.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:05 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family chambres family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog gorges_du_fier

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