There is no doubt that Annecy is one of the most beautiful towns in France, probably Europe. A wealth of 16th and 17th century buildings in the Old Town, the Vieille Ville, attest to its rich and complex history, but Annecy’s spectacular location nestling on the shores of Lac d’Annecy with soaring Alpine peaks as a backdrop, is the real reason it is known as the ‘jewel of the Haute-Savoie’.
It is the canals that flow through the ancient town that have earned it another sobriquet, the Alpine Venice. It’s an overblown comparison, Annecy is no Venice, except in the sense that it suffers from a form of mass tourism that threatens to overwhelm it. A visit to the glorious Vieille Ville on an August afternoon was an exercise in crowd control without the control.
If Annecy is a place that rewards getting out early before the crowds arrive, and staying late after many have returned from wherever they came, it is also true that you can still find quiet spots away from the main tourist sights. It was remarkable how few people made the journey up the hill to Château d’Annecy – it is a very steep climb. Even fewer seem to make the hike to the Basilique de la Visitation, from where there are great views.
In the Vieille Ville proper though, the afternoon crowds turn a visit into a contact sport. On our first day we had snagged an outdoor table at the Café des Arts in a square close to the enigmatic Palais de I’Île, the top sight in town. We had seats and cold beer and were people watching when, as if trying to defy the laws of the universe, a cyclist came aggressively wobbling into the square and tried to navigate the crowds. Optimism of the highest order.
The crowds extended onto the bright blue-green waters of Lac d’Annecy. In the early morning the still water reflecting the nearby mountains was a sight to behold. In the afternoon, the water’s surface was cluttered with small boats and pedalos as people tried to escape the heat of the day. The contrast between the quiet streets of Chambéry, where we’d come from, and Annecy’s frenetic energy couldn’t have been more striking.
For all of that, I defy anyone to stroll around the shores of the lake towards the hamlet of Chavoire and not be glad to be here. The views are magnificent. We had arrived in the morning and after finding our hotel we set off for a walk along the lakeside. Local people were jogging, walking their dogs or strolling, the crisp morning air was refreshing after our drive.
We walked past the grandiose Préfecture de la Haute-Savoie, a wedding cake of an architectural statement, and down the shaded Esplanade de l’avenue d’Albigny to the equally grandiose Casino Impérial Annecy, set in lovely gardens on the lake’s edge. From here you can look back over the lake to Annecy, the rooftops of the Château and bell tower of Église Saint Maurice poking above the treetops.
We ambled back towards the town, the temperature already giving warning of the mid-30ºC still to come. We reached the Pont des Amours. To many, this bridge is famed as the most Instagrammable spot in the whole town. It’s famed in our household as the place where a good friend who’s from Annecy fell, fully clothed, into the water in mid-winter as a child.
We crossed the bridge into the Jardins de l’Europe, 19th century English gardens with lots of trees in front of the town hall. From here we took a deep breath and plunged into the narrow maze of medieval streets that make up the Vieille Ville.