There’s Something About Annecy

The water is clear; we can see down to the bottom of the canal. The limestone which has settled on the floor of this famous scene has given the water a beautiful turquoise hue. The whole lake looks like this. It is impossible to wrap your head around the colour of the water: it feels artificial, as if you are standing in the most immersive 3D virtual reality system. Then a child asks for an ice cream, and you’re back. This is Annecy; it’s in France, and I suspect that you’ve seen lots of pictures of the place.

The face of Annecy is that of foliage, and it is a face it wears well. As we bob gently on the lake, the town is hidden by a shroud of greenery; modern apartment blocks softened by foliage. Against the cloud-capped mountains, Annecy sits low and unobtrusive; unusual, given the colossal sprawl of the city beyond the trees and the shore of the lake. It is a welcoming, comforting sight on the return trip.

The vieille ville is a rabbit warren of tunnels and arches, of passageways and alleys, of old wells and modern shops. Everything is bespoke; nothing comes from the familiar, worn identikit package of old European towns. It takes slightly longer to navigate, but it is so much more worth it in the end. Every corner carries another opportunity to indulge in yet more bewildering flavours of ice cream.

The pictures I had seen of Annecy are all telling lies. Yes, the triangular prison building pushing its way down the river is there, as are the lights and the impossibly vibrant array of flowers pouring out of every basket. However, so are the people: People, people, everywhere and not a one working for a living. Tourists flood every photo I have of Annecy: how do the Instagrammers manage it? Really, do they come out in the wee small hours or do they meticulously cut every body out of each shot?

The heat of the place was so strong as to make taking a shower a recreational activity. While it was still technically possible to move, the urge was to bathe. And so bathe we very much did: in the lake.

Lake Annecy is a beautiful place to spend a period of time, but certain things must be looked past. All of the little towns around the lake are precious, and undeniably French. Except for the shores. The shores, at any point in the summer months, are infested with tourists, and largely teenage ones. The beaches are private, and have to be paid for. The result is that each one becomes home to a form of summer camp, with listless parents in the shade and gaggles of teenagers enjoying cool clear water, flirtatious encounters and massively overpriced hot dogs. It could have been anywhere on earth.

The room is airless; the whole apartment is airless. I have to reconcile myself to the memory that I was asked to make this decision. The pretty, central flat with no air conditioning or the functional, off the beaten track one, with air conditioning. I chose the pretty one, and it blew me away. For the first night, anyway: After that, even the Dyson fan couldn’t touch the sweltering death we walked in to every time we came back from the glorious cool of the stairwell. I’d still recommend the place.

It was almost as if the heat followed us. On the way out there had been a cooling breeze which had made the lake a pleasure to ride upon. On the way back, through the petit lac to the grand lac, the sun was burning its way through my ear; I struggled to cope. I hid indoors, a metal roof to protect me, while my daughter frolicked with her grandmother. I was a vampire, cowering from the dawn.

Then came the rains. And boy, did they come. We chose to spend the day at the Gorges du Fier, a place suited to water flowing fast and free, but we had not realised how wet we would all get. Even with ponchos, acquired from a tourist shop, we were all soaked through within minutes, our only footwear woefully inadequate for the downpour or the slippery rock formations. We all shivered.

That said, the gorge was an absolute marvel, and one which I would very happily recommend. Hewn from the very living rock by nothing more than the crushing, abrasive weight of millions of years of rushing water, the scale of the place is intoxicating. Notwithstanding the silly need to view every single formation as a face, or a dragon, or a footprint, the site is very well organised, with a warm emphasis on making geology fun for children. My daughter certainly enjoyed the whole adventure.

A big box of fire sits at the heart of the table. A small pan sits on a ceramic holder, next to a tray of slices of local mountain cheese. You’re unsure of how to tackle it, and aware that some people are staring at you, wondering how it’s done; expectant of a lesson in the dark arts of Raclette. In reality you have as little idea as them: all you can do is melt the cheese under the inferno which is sitting far too close to the misadventurous infant you care so deeply for. Dive in to the cheese, my friend.

A free day, unplanned. What to do? You’ve been near here before, on the Swiss side, so thats draws you in. You attempt to work out options, but everything ends in a brick wall. It is impossible to get anywhere but France from Annecy. Switzerland is a mere 40 km away. The lake beckons instead.

A family huddles together in a doorway, a corner, under the cover of a medieval arch. This comes as some surprise given the beauty of the town. They look healthy, and the child looks clean. You are too busy wondering if this is real, or if they are performing for the tourists, to proffer any money to them. There have been worse sights in this country, but it still adds a hard quickening to the pulse.

The first night was a struggle: the friendly neighbourhood Italian restaurant – family run, no less, an array of Savoyarde fayre amongst the generic provender – was closed, against the advice of the all-knowing Google. You were never good at improvising places to eat. Cooking, yes: dining, no. So you all ended up at the kebab shop, by a canal. With a bit of pointing at pictures and some pidgin French you managed to get fed, and it was delightful: the meat spicy and freshly cooked; the bread soft. As with all French fast food outlets, ice cold beer was a soft drink option, and it soothed the very soul.

And on the final day you are introduced to the new town: all concrete, glass, steel and anonymity. It is a dim reflection of the magnificent vieille ville it surrounds and supplants. It’s slightly disappointing in its way, but necessarily disappointing. Still, without it where would all of Annecy’s waiters live?

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