Reason 1: Fleurissement
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 when it’s something heretofore unseen or rare and unusual. That’s one very good reason that both first-time and returning visitors are eager to come to Annecy.
I don’t speak French nearly as well as I should but I’ve learned enough to know that there are many French words and concepts that 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. And although it may not be an official word in the French lexicon, I’ve seen the word “enfleurissement” used to convey the idea that Annecy locals have taken such pride in, which is to richly adorn their already lovely town with flowers of every description and adapted to nearly every season.
Whether you’re strolling along the shoreline path that rings Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) or sauntering 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 amazing 18 square meters 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 at least 40 straight years. Organized by the French government in 1959, the Concours des villes et villages fleuris (towns and villages in bloom competition) 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. The Ville Fleurie award ranges from un fleur, the equivalent of a nod for a good effort, to Annecy’s full quatre fleurs ranking, a distinction shared by only 226 out of over 12,000 towns and cities that participate.
Towns that achieve this elite status are special wherever you find them. But Annecy, located as it is in the footprints of the massive glaciers and tectonic forces that sculpted the lake, mountains, valleys, and ridges of the region, 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 festooned 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 if such a distinction is ever recognized.
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 but it includes more than just cheese.
It’s simple to prepare but is best served with a special apparatus (pictured above) that melts the cheese and gives it a golden crust, while warming 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 becomes gooey 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 (small pickles), and salami or other sliced and cured meats. It’s the sort of meal that’s meant to savor and it goes without saying that it’s remarkably rich. The Swiss are credited with its creation, but the denizens of the alpine regions of France and Switzerland have added their own twists. Eat it slowly, and eat less than you’d like to. And wash it down with plenty of liquids, preferably wine. An unexpected influx of fat in the form of very rich cheese can play havoc on an unaccustomed digestive tract.
Don’t hesitate to give it a try at Le Freti located at 12 rue Sainte Claire in the old town. I don’t think they take reservations, check their opening hours and go during the week if you can. You’ll spend 20 euros or less per person on a good raclette with wine. Important tip: drink plenty of wine or water during and after the meal. It will help ease the passage of the raclette through your digestive system.
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 artform 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 from which it’s made. The right combination is hard to surpass. And once again, Le Freti 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. Extremely filling and satisfying.
Tartiflette is a 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 very content grass-fed cows that graze happily 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 are from elephants, which are distant relatives, too. Tartiflette is undoubtedly a comfort food, but a 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. Le Lilas Rose is reputed to prepare a decent tartiflette, but for what is purportedly the best (and most expensive) in the region, visit Veyrier-du-lac, a nearby village on the lake, to experience the 2-star Michelin tartiflette at Restaurant Yoann Conte. Although I can’t vouch for it personally, you can find plenty of online reviews that should whet your appetite.
Honorable mention – Annecy along with the Savoie and the Haute-Savoie regions take pride in creating regionally unique pork sausages called diots (pronounced something like dee-yoh). 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, the ambiance is nicer than the food. They maintain lots of outdoor tables when the weather allows it which is reason enough to eat there. O Savoyard doesn’t really cater to locals, which may be an important clue. The prices aren’t unreasonable.
Reason 3: Spectacular Geology
Stonemasons. sculptors, quarrymen, and anyone else that works with stone understand that it requires enormous patience. The supremely patient forces of nature, under the forbearing tutelage of time itself, have created some incredible masterworks in the area around Annecy.
As an artistically illiterate layperson, I enjoy art a lot more when I learn about the artist and the techniques she or he used in their creations. Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings took on much deeper meaning to me when I learned about the progression of his skill, how he ordered his brush strokes, his compassion for the poor, and the migraines that may well have influenced the way he saw and thus painted the world. In the same way, knowing about the processes that formed the incredible landscapes around Annecy should make them all the more impressive and lovely so I’m giving you a quick primer, below.
Time out of mind. It took many millions of years to create the landscape of Haute-Savoie region and the Alps beyond. The story of their creation is not a simple one. Unraveling the details required years of peering deep into the past and far below the ground’s surface. What earth scientists have found fills volumes. This “Cliff Notes” version is mercifully much shorter, but at least hits the high points:
The Tethys Ocean – Birthplace of the Alps. The Alps and the sub-alpine region where Annecy lies were birthed in the Tethys Ocean. If you’re checking your atlas to locate the Tethys, you won’t find it unless you’re using a very old one. That long-forgotten sea was squeezed from existence about 65 million years ago when it found itself between itinerant continental plates that wandered into each other. But before the “big squeeze” that dried it up, the Tethys was a very respectable ocean, at least as large as the modern Atlantic, teaming with life.
Oceans are good at accumulating thick sequences of marine sediments. The sediments that stacked up on the floor of the Tethys ocean were produced from the land masses that surrounded it and from the organisms that lived in it. The land masses included a large one that later became modern-day Europe and Asia (Eurasia) to the north and India, Africa, and perhaps a smaller piece or two that was also traveling northward. These land masses were made of the same kinds of rocks of which modern continents are composed, including things like granite and basalt, as well as metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
It goes without saying that it’s a slow process for solid rock to be broken down into cobbles, pebbles, sand, silt, and the clay that accumulate as sediments on a seafloor. It would take a long time to produce the thousands of cubic miles of sediments that accumulated in the Tethys basin if you used an army of modern rock-crushing equipment. But when the only process that’s doing the work is weathering caused by wind and water and freezing and thawing, it takes a really, really long time. In fact, it may have taken most of the Mesozoic, the geologic era when dinosaurs were the dominant species on land and marine reptiles ruled the seas. The first fish fossils are found in Mesozoic sediments, and many invertebrates species appeared then too, along with a richer diversity of plant life.
A grand collision. The Mesozoic lasted for more than 180 million years, which was enough time for lots of sediments to build up in the Tethys. By the late Mesozoic, about 65 million years ago, the Tethys had been closed by the colliding continental plates and the sediments that covered much of that ancient sea’s floor began to be warped, folded, and pushed upward as the continents mercilessly pushed and shoved each other.
Continental collisions involve enormous energies, but they happen very slowly. The average tectonic plate moves between about 2 and 5 centimeters per year, which is slower than your hair grows. So if you have a fear being crushed between colliding continents, you can relax. You’ll have plenty of time to step out of the way.
Competing forces. Near the end of the Mesozoic, the forces that closed up the Tethys and pushed it’s bottom to the top were in full swing. The Alps and several other mountain chains in Europe were being created out of both the Tethys sedimentary rocks and the crystalline basement rocks that lay below them. The result was to warp once horizontal sedimentary layers into massive folds that were thrust ever higher as they were compressed between the slow but inexorable power of huge landmasses moving in more or less opposite directions.
While compressional forces worked to shove the folded sediments and older basement rocks ever higher, the same erosional forces that created them in the first place set to work to sculpt and shape the relatively new mountains. Liquid water is the undisputed queen of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation, but her phase cousin, ice, is another massive force that is very good at turning big mountains into smaller, but more interesting ones.
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. Massive erosion and transport that might take water countless millions of years may take a glacier only a few millennia. Powered by the mighty engine of gravity, they move inexorably downslope, shoving rock and earth out of their paths and scooping out deep furrows that often become lakes after the glacial ice melts, like Lake Annecy.
Geologic time is divided into eons, eras, epochs, and ages. The Tethys Ocean existed during most of the Mesozoic Era. The Mesozoic is the time of “middle life”, the era of the dinosaurs. The final Mesozoic Epoch was the Cretaceous, the end of which was marked by the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Mesozoic started about 260 million years ago and ended about 65 million years ago, around the time that the Tethys was squeezed shut and the Alpine Orogeny (mountain building) began. The building of the Alps has continued throughout the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era (sometimes called the Age of Mammal)s. Enough pressure probably still exists beneath the Alps today to continue to force the mountains ever higher, while ice, water, and gravity work to make them shorter. In other words, after 65 million years, the Alpine Orogeny is not done.
The Pleistocene Epoch started about 2.1 million years ago in the late Cenozoic Era. Throughout much of the Pleistocene, the climate was considerably colder than it is today. In fact, earth scientists think that the there were as many as 30 distinct glaciations or ice ages during the Pleistocene and that many of the interglacial periods of warming, like the one we’re in now, were shorter than the glacial periods.
During the coldest parts of the glacial periods, up to 30 percent of the earth was covered with ice. Much of that ice has been in the form of glaciers (hence term “glacial period”). And even though only 10% of the earth is currently covered by ice, some of that 10 percent is still in the Alps, including a number of very active glaciers which have been among time’s sharpest tools for mountain sculpting.
Glaciers move in two distinct ways. The first is by internal flow. This happens when sufficient snow accumulates in a location where the temperature doesn’t rise above freezing year round. When the pressure of the overlying snow becomes high enough, the individual snowflakes re-crystallize to make ice that is much denser than just packed snow. The new crystal structure is plate-like, causing the ice to respond to gravity be deforming. When this happens, the internal plates flow past one another with relative ease. Internal flow is also called “creep”.
The second mechanism of glacial movement is basal sliding. This happens when the pressure and temperature at the bottom of the glacier are sufficient to melt some of the ice. The meltwater lubricates the glacier, allowing it to slide over the ground. In conjunction with internal flow, basal sliding provides the mechanism for glaciers to move billions of tons of ice and rock over long distances. The results are nothing short of spectacular.
Pleistocene glaciers have been whittling away at the Alps and other high ranges for the last 2 million years. They’ve carved and transported billions of tons of ancient Tethys sediments and any other rocks that got in their paths. They’ve exposed the older granites and other crystalline rocks that were once deep below the continental shelf of the ancient Tethys sea.
The handiwork of time 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 neighborhood. The lake itself is a combination of glacial scooping and large-scale faulting. The axis of the lake more or less 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. Mont Parmelan, a little further south, reaches a just over 6,000 feet above sea level. The white rock that caps Parmelan is limestone, a remnant of the Tethys. The cliffs of Mt. Veyrier and the Dents de Lanfon (Teeth of Lanfon) 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: On of the natural wonders of the Haute Savoie
Gorges du Fier. This incredible geologic feature could and does 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 that is 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 form the molasse into the basin in front of the new mountain range. This material was deposited in a shallow sea during the Cretaceous and 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 difficult to erode. And yet the vigorous little Fier River managed to cut a deep, narrow notch right through it in a remarkably short period of time, probably less than 20,000 years.
The limestone is broadly folded into an upward arch or anticline and the gorge is cut at right angles to the fold. At it’s deepest, the gorge is about 120 feet deep. But it’s narrow, in many places only 5 feet wide. The walkway that allows visitors to stride through the very heart of the gorge is an engineering marvel. The design of the walkway, though, was nothing compared to the construction of it. The building and maintenance crews must have nerves of steel since it’s secured to the sheer walls of the gorge between 60 and 80 feet above a narrow but sometimes violent torrent. Just walking on it requires a fair bit of nerve.
The limestone is smoothly sculpted throughout, with many strange and intriguing shapes carved into the ancient stone. The total length of the walkway is around a third of a mile, so the round trip is under a mile. But it’s a pretty cool mile.
Getting there. 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. The nearest bus stop is a little over half a mile from the gorge entrance, but it’s a lovely walk. You can find directions, including the bus routes, and opening hours here. The entrance fees are about 6 euros for adults.
A visit to Annecy is not complete without seeing the gorge. A word of caution: on my last visit, 4 buses carrying students arrived shortly after we did. Although we initially had the walkway to ourselves, several waves of teenagers came bounding down the walkway after we’d made it about halfway. I didn’t read the engineering specifications for the walkway, and I’m sure it was designed with lots of extra load-bearing capacity, but I was still a little unnerved by the vibrations and creaking as the torrent of teens swarmed around us. If you have a choice, avoid visiting during school tours.
Reason four: Retour des Alpages festival. On the second Saturday of 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 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 savory polenta by truckloads along with all sorts of local cheeses and other delicacies. They sing. They dance. They have fun. Lots of it.
The local mountains, valleys, and gorges may reveal millions of years of geologic history, but the Retour des Alpages and the ancient cobbled streets of Annecy’s vielle ville reveal at least hundreds, maybe over 1,000, years of human history. The traditions that sustained the ancient Savoyard communities have not been forgotten. And many of them continue to sustain the mountain residents if for no other reason than the tourists that flock to see how life once was in the Haute-Savoie.
Where to Stay
There are lots of possibilities for lodging in Annecy, including an Hotel Mercure near the city center. On our most recent visit, we stayed in a flat near the lake (within about 700 feet). It was a two bedroom with a well-appointed kitchen, small balcony, and a secure bike room for the bikes we rented at Roul ma Poule (meaning “roll my chicken”, I think – it provides lots of opportunity for making stupid rolling chicken jokes while you’re biking around the lake). 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. You can book it through Homeaway.com, here. We only met the owner’s daughter in law, she is delightful. Besides being a fascinating person, she is extremely helpful and made lots of great recommendations.
Annecy is a French treasure not just for the ancient city and the old chateau, but for the exquisitely lovely and ancient mountains, valleys, and gorges that surround it. There are endless recreational opportunities on the lake, a bicycle path that 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 lots of nearby ski resorts if you’re interested in a winter getaway, but I don’t know enough to recommend them. Because Annecy is a Ville Fleurie, a spring visit is 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. There’s isn’t a downside, at least not one that I’ve encountered.