Huddled by soaring mountains crowned with spiky snowbound peaks, Sallanches, St Gervais and Megeve are three small neighbouring ski villages snuggled halfway between Chamonix and Annecy. St Gervais and Megeve are fashionable skiing hotspots, best reserved for those who can afford paying a shilling for a penny; Sallanches is not far behind. Visiting Sallanches and Megeve is a matter of choice but St Gervais on the southwest corner of the Chamonix valley is inevitable for those who envisage touring further towns in the Savoie region. Its train station lying on a main train route is the only transit point (in the area) that affords a link between Chamonix and the western towns of France.
Reaching St Gervais from Chamonix is an easy train or bus ride. The Mont Blanc Express trundles between St Gervais and Martigny in Switzerland twelve times daily in peak season passing en route through Chamonix. The forty-minute Chamonix-St Gervais trip is not completely covered by the Carte d’Hote; so, buy a ticket from the train station prior to departure. If you envisage travelling further on after St Gervais (for example, to Annecy), buy a ticket for the full trip so as to avoid queuing up for another ticket in St Gervais. Using the southbound Chamonix bus to reach St Gervais is equally quick and trouble-free. The departure point is the bus stop on Allee Recteur Payot, west of the parish church. Buy a ticket from the driver on boarding; the Carte d’Hote does not cover you beyond Servoz.
Train trips between St Gervais and Annecy run every hour on workdays (less trips on weekends) but of these, only two are direct. The others require a change of train at Roche-sur-Foron and take considerably longer. One of the direct trains (and maybe the most conveniently timed) leaves St Gervais at 11:00 am and reaches Annecy just before 12:30 pm. The 10:00 am non-direct trip from St Gervais does not reach Annecy much before this time. So, if you arrive in St Gervais early, it is advisable to tour the village (expect a tiny rambling network of medieval streets nestled against a pretty backdrop of soaring peaks and lots of backstreet shops with old wood-panelled facades) instead of embarking on a train trip that never seems to reach its destination.
Most travellers arrive in Annecy by bus or train. Furnished with the latest ticket-selling machines and information points, the new bus and train stations are near each other on Rue de l’Industrie, a short walk north of the historic quarter. Crossing Place de la Gare in the direction of the centre brings one on a sizable leafy square crisscrossed by a grid of streets where several convenient bus stops for local transport are located. Operated by SIBRA, local buses travel only to the suburbs and neither traverse the historic quarter nor venture into other lakeside towns or villages and are therefore of little interest to sightseers. Reaching the medieval centre or the legendary Lac d'Annecy from here comprises after all a mere ten-minute stroll along pretty streets, delightfully lined up with boutiques and street cafes.
One block east of Place de la Gare, Rue de la Poste is a convenient shortcut linking the train station area with the medieval quarter. The city’s main post office at the corner between Rue de la Poste and Rue Royale marks the spot where the street becomes narrower and changes name to Rue de la Republique. The medieval quarter kicks in here, with bags of old-world charm and floral displays for which Vieil Annecy is renowned. The shops suddenly change face from stylish boutiques and branded shoe stores that show off their wares in modern all-glass shop windows to smaller wood-covered niches that deal in handicrafts, tobacco products, chocolate creations and cheesy concoctions exclusive to the town and its surroundings. As one crosses Canal du Vasse (one of the two canals branching out of the River Thiou), Rue de la Republique mutates into an enchanting cobbled-stone walkway, mystical in the absence of crowds, buzzing with street clamour when the swarms of visitors take over. The climax of delight is reached steps further down on the ancient stone bridge that spans the Canal du Thiou. Steps from here climb down to the canal’s promenade. But before enjoying the graceful atmosphere of the street cafes lining up the promenade, delight in the view from the bridge that stretches out as far as the Palais de l’Ile (a seventeenth-century building located on a tiny island exactly where the canal gets wider). Bordered with blooming geraniums and trailing multi-coloured petunias and cut across by several tiny bridges decorated with more overhanging floral displays, the Canal du Thiou is a portrait-pretty spot not unlike the canals of Venice but perhaps more colourfully picturesque and definitely cleaner. Less colourful but equally enchanting is the view from the opposite side of the bridge. The black mechanical contrivance you see partly submerged in the water is nowadays a purely ornamental attraction. But in the absence of electrical power two centuries ago, it was used to pump water out of the canal, utilizing a system of wheels that turned by flowing water.
Once here, one can either climb down to the canal’s mesmerizing promenade and walk in the direction of the Palais de l’Ile or else continue straight ahead along Rue de la Republique to the end. The second option is bereft of scenery but pays off with a gem of a tiny historic core that cannot be more authentic and freakish. As Rue de la Republique unfolds into Rue Ste Claire, the atmosphere becomes more intimate and utterly typical of a medieval town steeped in myth and legend. Rue Ste Claire is a long winding cobbled alleyway lined up with arched corridors on both sides. Hidden under the arches in semi-darkness are small traditional speciality shops that sell ‘petits bouts’ of any eatable you may ever imagine. Utterly tempting are the displays of exotic cheeses, chocolate bonbons, fruit tarts and ‘viennoiserie’ that one can revel in (their smell but not their taste) simply by wandering along Rue Ste Claire and the side passageways that radiate out of it.
Revelling in the flavoursome smell of the shop displays is only an introductory temptation to what awaits food connoisseurs every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday when Rue Ste Claire, Place Ste Claire, Pont Morens and the southernmost part of Rue de la Republique turn into one uninterrupted ‘marche en plein air’. Elbowing for space are hundreds of colourful stalls selling the widest range of farmland produce and additional food items imaginable. From crispy greens and exotic fruits to mountain berries and home-grown strawberries, from crunchy baguettes and ‘pains au chocolat’ to custard-filled brioches and nutty croissants, from cured-meat products to olives-cum-herbs delicacies, all items on display come close to harvest-to-table freshness. Savouring the smell as you wander around the stalls is equivalent to delighting in the natural aromas of Annecy’s gastronomic scene; savouring the taste is equivalent to getting hooked to one of France’s most cherished country-life cuisines.
Every last Saturday of the month, the historic core takes a different face altogether. From early till late, the food-market streets change into a showcase of antiques, collector’s items and second-hand articles. Going around poring over the displays (glassware, bronze and ceramic figurines, philatelic and numismatic collections, old paintings and prints, odd ornaments and war memorabilia) is gladly received by most vendors. Finding a required piece to complete your collection is however not easy because the displays are utterly large and in most cases disorderly.
Where the open-air market comes to an end, Rue Ste Claire narrows into Rue de l’Ile. Barely three metres wide, Rue de l’Ile is a squinting passageway lined up with several worn-out houses of character typical of seventeenth-century Savoyard constructions. On looking closely at the crumbling columns and the moth-eaten wooden beams supporting the weight of the overhead structures, one is amazed how these houses have withstood the test of four centuries of existence.
Rue de l’Ile turns into a haunted place of inexplicable secrecy, quiet and forlorn, as it unfolds into Place des Eflechers from where a steep incline climbs up to Castle Square. Alternatively, continue along Rue de l’Ile to the end where one can revel in what are perhaps Annecy’s best well-preserved medieval dwellings. You are now right at the foot of Annecy’s thirteenth-century castle. Climbing up Impasse du Trippoz from here is not for the weak-hearted but any effort is paid off at the top with a pretty square that unfolds into a number of picturesque downhill passageways (try Passage Nemours or Passage St Maurice), each of which leads back to… somewhere in the historic centre. But before climbing down, make sure to visit the Castle Museum for a well-organized display of traditional handicrafts, Savoyard furniture and fine art. Poring over the exhibits is interesting and inspiring but the castle rooms with their unique and varied décor offer perhaps more justification for visiting.