Annecy, France: is it really France's prettiest town? It's all subjective, of course, but a lot of French like to say so.
It's certainly a lovely city, and named the second-best French city in which to live. It's been called the Venice of the Alps, a French fairy tale and one of France's top 10 cities. Even CNN calls it one of France's most beautiful destinations. And the Michelin guide calls it "one of the most remarkable landscapes in the French Alps", itself an area already famous for its remarkable areas.
So what is it with this small city most tourists never get around to visiting?
Let me start by saying this will not be an objective story. I won't be fair or impartial. In fact, I'll be ridiculously biased.
You see, I'm a little protective of Annecy - because I live here. At least I live nearby, over a mountain around here, that's like being a block away.
So yes, this is in a way my town.
The first thing you'll notice about Annecy is the setting. With a lake this beautiful, it's going to be hard to tear your eyes away and head into town. Still, if you want to get it out of your system, it won't take much more than half an hour to drive up the mountain to enjoy Lake Annecy from above. If you're not in a driving mood, a stroll or a bike ride along the shore at sunset will re-energize you, an activity the French call "se ressourcer", to re-source yourself. But you may feel like you need to see the lake before you tackle the city.
Leaving the lake behind (only temporarily, don't panic!) and heading into town - about a minute away - is another world altogether, filled with food and history and character.
I'm going to provide you with a list of things to do below - but you'd be forgiven for throwing it out and spending a day or so just walking.
Your starting point will inevitably be the center of town, along the Thiou River (reputed to be Europe's smallest). Tiny shops, cafés and restaurants almost tumble over one another in an effort to be cute and outdo one another with flower boxes and pretty views. A stroll under the medieval arches at dawn, before visitors crowd around, can feel like a walk through a past century.
But once you've walked around, taken your selfie against the backdrop of the old prison and slurped a licorice or violet-flavored ice cream cone, what can you actually do in Annecy?
So yes, all of the above are fun, glorious even, but if you're feeling adventurous or want to do something a little less usual, there's plenty of that, too:
The mountains around Annecy are spectacular and any sunny summer day you'll see the sky above the lake dotted with paragliders. One of my favorite outings is to drive up to the Col de la Forclaz and then walk up to the jumping off point for paragliders. While I'm not adventurous enough to throw myself off a mountain (that vertigo, remember?) I do get a thrill from watching others do it. Before driving up, stop by Pauvert near the old town and stock up on top-of-the-line salads, cold cuts and why not half a lobster or two and make a picnic of it? If you'd rather eat than paraglide, there's the very tasty La Ferme, a rustic farm where the cows are right next door. This, by the way, is one of the world's best-known paragliding sites, in case you were wondering... (photo Philippe Royer)
Each year, on the first Saturday of August, this small town of 50,000 swells to 200,000 as people congregate to see Europe's most spectacular fireworks. They date back to a "Venetian" celebration in 1860 in honor of Napoleon III's visit - the fireworks have somewhat evolved since then.
Here's something that might make your heart drop: a suspended lunch over Lake Annecy. And if that's too tame, why not try spending the night hugging a cliff, under the stars? Just writing those words make me gulp (I tend to break out into a sweat above the third floor) but it's suitable for children over 10, so surely it's survivable? Check out the excitement at Inax-adventure - they apparently even have a heart-pumping version. As if...
Some of you may remember these - you may have even owned one or traveled long distances back in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the Volkswagen van! Now you can rent one and drive around Lake Annecy, reliving that misspent youth in vintage style. It does look like fun!
Once you get tired of all that action, head back into the old town and have what some people consider the world's best pastry - the Mr Smith (the green apple tart) at Philippe Rigollot, winner of the world's best pastry chef award. On two separate visits I tried four pastries and I'm partial to the dark rich chocolate ones... and the apple... and the passion fruit... and the...
The city has its beauty but what truly raises it out of the ordinary is the setting, the rippling lake and towering mountains that fringe it. By 2020 you'll be able to walk or cycle all the way around but meantime, many stretches are finished and can give you a sense of its beauty.
Use the Google Map below to navigate around the lake, which you can do in both directions. I've done it both ways and it's equally pleasant. Watch out for rush hour - you want to keep well away of traffic heading into Annecy for work in the morning and back home in the evening.
I've driven around Lake Annecy on my own several times, stopping in different places - always fun and restful as long as you avoid rush hours and peak weekend times. You can drive around quickly, in a couple of hours, or you can take your time and stop off at each of these villages. In summer, your day lasts a lot longer and you can take far more advantage of daylight hours. You could also consider driving in the opposite direction from the one I list below, starting in Annecy in the morning, driving up to the Col for lunch, spending part of the afternoon watching the paragliders, coming back down, having a bit of a swim and walking around some of the local villages, with an early dinner at one of the renowned establishments nearby. This means that you'll be only a short drive from Annecy after dinner. Or you can visit each side in a day, spending the night in-between. Doesn't matter. It's all gorgeous.
Like most towns in France, there's a Roman around the corner. In the case of Annecy, traces of civilization date back to 3100 BCE, with the town evolving into the medieval Annecy we know and love today. When the chateau was started in the 12th century, the city was called Annecy-the-new, to differentiate it from Annecy-le-Vieux, or Annecy-the-old, a Gallo-Roman settlement on the hill above the city and which still carries that name. This is confusing, as people visiting see the name 'old' and head for what they think is the Old Town. It's not.
Between the building of the chateau and the 15th century, Annecy was razed several times by fire so what we see today is "only" five or six centuries old. Modern, almost.
Being close to Geneva made Annecy a refuge for Catholics fleeing the Protestant Reformation in Geneva and earning it the nickname "Rome of France". Even philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it home for a while, but for no particular religious reason.
Today Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie, having finally joined France in 1860. That may have been 150 years ago, but a hard-core nucleus of Savoy separatists still haven't accepted 'French rule' and believe the region should be a sovereign country. In fact, my own village of Seyssel (which spans two provinces, the Haute-Savoie and the Ain) is connected by a bridge: halfway across it, someone painted a white 'border' with the words "Savoie" on one side and "France" on the other.
Annecy may be France's prettiest town but it's still far off the tourist trail for foreigners (except the Swiss, who have always visited). It wasn't even a dot on the tourist map until the steam train arrived in the mid-19th century. What was once the 'end of France' is today a quick half-hour drive from Geneva over a scenic and dizzyingly high motorway.