For those that love the French culture and the villages, towns, and cities where it flourishes, Annecy (pronounced something like Ann-see) is a jewel. If you just like to travel but don’t have a crush on France, it’s still a jewel. Connoisseurs of travel derive supreme pleasure from beauty in all its forms, especially it’s something we’ve never seen or is otherwise rare and unusual.
Reason 1: Fleurissement
I don’t speak French nearly as well as I should, but I’ve learned enough to know that some many French words and concepts don’t translate perfectly to English. For example, the word fleurissement translated directly to English means flowering or blooming. But when “fleur-EES-mon” rolls off the dulcet tongue of a native French speaker, it conjures more than just blooms and blossoms. it brings to mind the fullness of all that flowers are, their delicate fragrances, the joy we feel in a flowering meadow on a perfect spring morning. At least that’s how I perceive it.
Whether you’re strolling along the shoreline path that rings Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) or walking through the vielle Ville (the old town) admiring the buildings, shops, and market stalls, Annecy is awash in the vivid colors of the fleurs (flowers) that adorn virtually every window, railing, roadway, pathway and roundabout.
The denizens of Annecy are so enthusiastic about the enfleurissement of their ville that they have devoted an impressive 18 square metres per resident to green spaces. Their skilled efforts have resulted in their hometown winning the coveted quatre fleurs (four flowers) designation as a Ville Fleurie (Flowery Town) for 40 straight years. The ‘Concours des Villes et villages fleuris’ is an annual national “competition” that awards communities across France for their enfleurissement efforts.
The Concours fleuris is not really a competition because the participants are not competing against each other, only vying for the right to have their towns distinguished by the Ville Fleurie designation.
Canals and Kodak moments around every bend
Towns that achieve this elite status are unique wherever you find them. But Annecy, located as it is in the footprints of the massive glaciers and tectonic forces that sculpted the region’s lake, mountains, valleys, and ridges, has an enormous advantage. It is a town adorned with stunning natural beauty that is brilliantly enhanced by the liberal placement of beaucoup fleurs. In fact, it’s hard to find a public space in Annecy that is not adorned with seasonal flowering plants of every description. With fragrance and beauty on every street, Annecy may well be the first French city to win its cinquième (fifth) fleur.
Reason 2: Fromage (Cheese)
Most French regions are distinguished by unique culinary specialties. In the Aquitaine, it’s foie gras, the delectable terrine made from duck and goose livers. In Cancale, on the coast of Brittany, oysters are the tasty pièce de résistance. And in Haute-Savoie, the smooth and flavorful local cheeses are the heart and soul of their haute cuisine.
Raclette is served at many of Annecy’s restaurants. It’s a dish you shouldn’t miss, especially if you’re fond of cheese. If you’re not fond of cheese, it may be because you haven’t tasted raclette. The dish takes its name from a local cheese. It’s simple to prepare but is best served with a special apparatus that melts the cheese and gives it a golden crust, and warms the potatoes, peppers, and cured meats that are served with the cheese. The raclette cheese itself is made of cow’s milk and is semi-hard. It’s ideal for melting. Once it reaches a gooey consistency and develops a golden-brown crust, it’s scraped onto a plate and eaten slowly with bits of roasted (or boiled or grilled) potatoes, cornichons (tiny pickles), and salami or other sliced and cured meats. It’s the sort of meal that’s meant to savour and it goes without saying that it’s remarkably rich.
The Swiss are credited with its creation, but the residents of the alpine regions of France and Switzerland have added their own twists. Eat it slowly, and eat less than you’d like to. An unexpected influx of fat in the form of very rich cheese can play havoc on an unaccustomed digestive tract.
Fond of Fondue
Fondue is the other beloved alpine cheese dish that most Annecy restaurants serve. If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying the Haute-Savoie variations, you’re missing a wonderful treat. Fondue is an art form as much as it is a meal and the Annecy locals are fondue artisans of the highest order. The trick seems to be not just in the consistency of the melt, but also in the selections of the cheeses and the wine that it’s made from. The right combination is hard to surpass. And once again, Le Frati has a reputation for getting it right. Fondue is not an appetizer, it’s a full meal. It is served with bread, but also ham and boiled potatoes.
Tartiflette (Savoyard specialty)
The Annecy locals have significantly advanced the science of its preparation. As with raclette and fondue, the heart and soul of tartiflette is cheese, but in this case, it’s reblochon which is a cheese unique to the Savoy. It’s made from the milk of extremely content grass-fed cows that graze in the high meadows of the Aravis massif. The texture is soft and creamy. Although scalloped potatoes may be a very distant relative of the tartiflette, you mustn’t be fooled into thinking that they’re similar. The two dishes are as distinct as aardvarks from elephants, and distant relatives, too. Tartiflette is undoubtedly a comfort food, but comfort food that’s in its own class. When tartiflette is well prepared, it will include the finest potatoes, thinly sliced, lardons (bacon), shallots, garlic, cream, and of course reblochon. Some twists to the basic recipe may include tomatoes as a topping.
Honorable mention: Annecy and the Savoie and the Haute-Savoie regions take pride in creating regionally unique pork sausages called diots (pronounced something like dee-you). They are traditionally cooked in white wine, but can also be grilled or broiled. During market days and festivals, they’re often served from stands scattered through the town along with grilled onions and a generous helping of polenta. You can try them pretty much any time at many of the touristy restaurants in the old town, like O Savoyard. The food there is adequate, and the ambience is nice. They maintain lots of outdoor tables when the weather allows it.
Reason 3: Spectacular Geology
Knowing about the processes that formed the incredible landscapes around Annecy makes them all the more impressive and lovely.
Alpine Glaciers: Rivers of Ice
Glaciers can be thought of as incredibly large bulldozers or as powerful rivers of ice. They move much more slowly than water, but they do an amazing amount of work and they do it faster than liquid water can. Erosion and transport that might take water for countless millions of years may take a glacier only a few millennia. Then, powered by the mighty gravity engine, they move downwards, shoving everything out of their paths and scooping out deep furrows that often become lakes after the glacial ice melts, like Lake Annecy.
When you look south from the northern shoreline of Lac d’Annecy, you can see lots of evidence that glaciers have been busy in Annecy’s neighbourhood. The lake itself is a combination of glacial scooping and large-scale faulting. The axis of the lake follows a strike-slip fault, the same sort as the San Andreas fault in California. The ridges to the south, including Mt. Veyrier and Mt. Baret, are composed of Tethys sediments that are large upward folds called anticlines. They were folded by the collisions of the continents that closed the Tethys. then carved by ice, wind, and water. A little further south, Mont Parmesan reaches just over 6,000 feet above sea level. The white rock that caps Parmesan is limestone, a remnant of the Tethys. The cliffs of Mt. Veyrier and the Dents de Lanfon (Teeth of Landon) are also ancient marine sediments. These ridges are recreational treasures. Outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, cross-country skiers, rock climbers, paragliders and hang gliders are drawn to these landforms year-round.
Gorges du Fier
This incredible geologic feature could stand alone as an excellent reason to visit Annecy. In the end, no mention of the region’s geology would be complete without including this fascinating little gorge. The Fier River flows across a plain of glacial debris underlain by molasse, sedimentary material that accumulates in basins in front of rising mountain chains, in this case, the Alps. As the mega forces that formed the mountains continued to push them higher and higher, weathering and erosion carved off the material that would create the molasse into the basin in front of the new mountain range. This material is probably over 100 million years old. Known locally as the Urgonien limestone, it’s found in Belgium and parts of southeast France.
Urgonien limestone is well-cemented and challenging to erode. And yet the vigorous little Fier River managed to cut a deep, narrow notch right through it in a remarkably short period, probably less than 20,000 years.
At its deepest, the gorge is about 120 feet deep. But it’s narrow, in many places only 5 feet wide. TSo the walkway that allows visitors to stride through the very heart of the gorge is an engineering marvel. The walkway design, though, was nothing compared to its construction of it. Just walking on it requires a fair bit of nerve.
The gorge is just 7 miles from the Annecy’s vielle Ville (old town). If you don’t have a car, you can to the gorge on a public bus for a couple of euros. Unfortunately, the nearest bus stop is half a mile from the gorge entrance, but it’s a lovely walk. A visit to Annecy is not complete without seeing the gorge.
Reason four: Retour des Alpages festival
In mid-October, Annecy celebrates the end of summer with a rousing celebration that they’ve held annually since the middle ages. It’s the Return of the Alps, also known as the Descent of the Alps. Historically, it marked the return of the cattle and other livestock from the higher alpine pastures to lower ones.
Although the festival is celebrated in Annecy, it includes many surrounding communities. It is an extremely well-attended event, and for a good reason. The Savoyards know how to celebrate. They line their streets with food, drink, and craft booths. They sell diots (the local pork sausage specialty) with savoury polenta by truckloads and all sorts of local cheeses and other delicacies. They sing, dance and have fun. Lots of it.
The local mountains, valleys, and gorges may reveal millions of years of geologic history. Still, the Retour des Alpages and the ancient cobbled streets of Annecy’s Ville reveal hundreds of years of human history. The traditions that sustained the ancient Savoyard communities have not been forgotten.
Where to Stay
We stayed in a flat near the lake on our most recent visit. They rent by the week, a great deal. You’ll REALLY need bikes because the trail around the lake is irresistible on a sunny day to even a casual biker.
The flat is close enough to everything to make it pretty much perfect for a long stay in Annecy. We only met the owner’s daughter in law, she is delightful. Besides being a fascinating person, she is accommodating and made great recommendations.
Annecy is a French treasure not just for the ancient city and the old chateau but also for the exquisitely lovely and ancient mountains, valleys, and gorges surrounding it.
There are endless recreational opportunities on the lake. A bicycle path encircles the lake, hiking in the nearby mountains and ridges, rock climbing on the sheer rocky prominences overlooking the lake, and paragliding from the steep slopes above the lake.
I’ve only visited in the summer and fall. I fell in love with both the town and the area. There are many nearby ski resorts if you’re interested in a winter getaway. Because Annecy is a Ville Fleurie, a spring visit would probably present too many photo opportunities to count. Geneva, Switzerland, is a little over half an hour away, and Chamonix is just over an hour. If you’ve considered booking a trip there, don’t hesitate.