Straight out of the Middle Ages, Annecy’s Vieille Ville is composed of a spider’s web of cobbled-stone passageways crisscrossed by gushing canals ribboned with tiers of overhanging floral displays. A footloose ramble through Annecy’s historic core gives one the opportunity to delight in the atmosphere of a bygone age characterized by colonnaded archways, distorted laneways, tiny stone bridges, street names reminiscent of religious staunchness and rows of preserved medieval houses that still retain their seventeenth-century appearance. Fossicking amidst the displays of the three-times-weekly outdoor food market (held here uninterruptedly for more than a century) is an entertaining experience that pays off with cheap prices and harvest-fresh produce. Fossicking your way out of the semi-dark cryptic dungeons of the Palais de l’Ile (the central building on the Canal du Thiou) is not that entertaining but climbing up to the first floor compensates for the spooky feeling of the ground floor with an interesting collection of exhibits related to Annecy’s history and architecture.
Such a concise overview of Vieil Annecy can never give a true picture of the old-world ambience that prevails within the precincts of the historic core. But at least, it seeks to expose the essential features of tradition that contributed to Vieil Annecy becoming a prime visitor’s attraction.
No less appealing but on grounds of natural beauty rather than old-world charm is the vast area of parks east of the city centre. These parks, sheltered from one side by a captivating backdrop of soaring snowcapped peaks are nothing but tended zones of greenery that extend over the embankments of the legendary Lac d’Annecy. The lake is itself a major attraction. Almost ten miles long and two miles at its widest, it is a huge body of clean water that provides for each and every water sport imaginable. In addition to being a water-sports arena par excellence, the lakeside is dotted with a series of charming rural villages that beckon dreamy souls seeking a sanctuary of tranquillity far from the rowdy madness of Annecy’s parks and beaches. If you are looking for an isolated beach, a secluded nature reserve or a sequestered mountain trail, consider leaving Annecy for a day to spend time in the fairy-tale ambience of another settlement on the lakeside.
Reaching the lake from the centre of Annecy involves just an easy ten-minute walk. Any eastbound street (Rue Vaugelas, Rue Sommeiller, Rue du Paquier) positioned between the train station and the historic quarter heads straight to Place de Liberation. The big glass-and-steel building in the centre of the square is the Centre Bonlieu, a purpose-built three-floor shopping centre ideally located between the historic quarter and the lake. Besides the usual cluster of branded boutiques, the centre accommodates two self-service restaurants, space for government offices, a children’s library and on the ground floor, as you enter from Place de Liberation, the Office de Tourisme du Lac d’Annecy. Like all tourist offices in the Savoie region, the Annecy Tourist Office offers quick service, first-class accommodation and activity information and any other additional assistance requested. The declaration on the official tourist-office guide: ‘we stay at your disposal all year round’ cannot be truer.
Exiting the Centre Bonlieu through its southern doorway (next to the cafeteria) brings one right in front of the Champ de Mars, a half-mile-long grassy playground cut across by a network of intersecting footpaths and cycling paths. Crossing Avenue d’Albigny (a wide thoroughfare leading to the eastern residential quarter of Annecy-le-Vieux) from the Centre Bonlieu in the direction of the lake brings one on a pretty gravelled promenade that snakes along the water's edge straddling the entire parkland. Champ de Mars with its flat grassy overlay is ideal for walking, cycling, sunbathing and picnicking. Grabbing a seat right on the shoreline is equivalent to revelling in the lively atmosphere provoked by a line of boat-rental stands that have set up shop here. The atmosphere is as colourful as it is lively: endless rows of shimmering pedal boats, rowing boats and kayaks in flashy coloration tied up to floating pontoons; colourful parasols sheltering ticket-selling huts right on the water’s edge; girls in bright beach costumes handing out tempting promotional material and… a countless number of multi-coloured sailing boats scattered further out across the bay. Whiling away the time in an invigorating atmosphere like this is entertaining and satisfying but looking on without embarking on a boat trip is tantamount to missing out more than half the fun. So, engage yourself in pedalling or rowing even if you haven’t ever done so before. Hiring a motorboat to wander around the lake is very expensive and requires a special police permit. The Tourist Office assists those looking out for a permit but unless you envisage staying in Annecy for a long time, give this option a miss and stick to using your hands or feet. The clean lake environment is after all not worthy of your pollution.
South of the Champ de Mars and separated from it by the end section of the Canal du Vasse just before the latter unfolds into the lake is another picturesque parkland named the Jardins de l’Europe. Unlike the Champ de Mars which is grassy but treeless, the Jardins de l’Europe is a forested zone sheltered by age-old trees (look out for rare species labelled with botanical names) and graced with patches of manicured shrubbery. Walking along the semicircular gravelled footpath lining the water’s edge pays off with stunning mountain views that serve as a backdrop to terraced chalet residences on the other side of the lake. Linked to the Champ de Mars by an elevated iron footbridge, the Jardins de l’Europe is the spot most newlyweds choose to pose for photographs. The city’s Town Hall (where marriage documents are signed) stands conveniently on one edge of the park, right across from the historic centre. The iron footbridge, appropriately named Pont des Amours with its pretty romantic lakeside setting then becomes a natural hosting stage for the newlyweds.
The Canal du Thiou unfolds into the lake south of the Jardins de l’Europe. Anchored here to the piers (Quai Napoleon III and Quai Bayreuth) when out of action are the cruising boats of the Compagnie des Bateaux du Lac d’Annecy. Several lake excursions starting from here are available. The ‘Grand Lac’, a small open cruiser with a sunshade deck operates one-hour non-stop trips across the lake eight times daily; the ‘Omnibus’, a larger boat with both open-air and sheltered seating runs two-hour trips around the entire lake five times daily while the flagship of the fleet (the MS Libellule) operates trips complete with meals (at 12:30 with lunch, at 20:30 with dinner and entertainment) twice daily. Tickets sold from the ticket-selling booth on the quay are available half-an-hour before departure.
The far corner of the Champ de Mars is brought to a close with a promenade that stretches out eastwards in the direction of what is perhaps Annecy’s wildest natural habitat. Named Parc Charles Bosson, this consists of a forested reserve graced with sandy beaches, rocky shores, reedy marshes, play areas for children, pitches for playing bowls and sweeping lawns hedged in with floribundas and trailing ivies. Entering the park through the Champ de Mars side gives one an opportunity to wander along winding footpaths lined with trimmed hedgerows and across stretches of groomed lawn, parched where sunshine passes through, soft and moist where dense foliage provides cover. Wandering around aimlessly in the direction of the shoreline puts you somehow or other on a pretty sandy beach (supervised but free) ideal for swimming and sunbathing. A short distance further east, the huge white complex right on the water’s edge is the Hotel Imperial, a classic grand building that in spite of its age still appears as stylish as any other imposing hotel in Annecy.
Beyond the Hotel Imperial, Park Charles Bosson is quieter and for the most part secluded. The beach, still pleasant for swimming is covered with pebbles rather than sand; the trees lining the footpaths are unpruned and unruly and so more natural. Walking further east along the shoreline, one encounters an extensive space reserved for floating pontoons where hundreds of colourful fishing boats are tied up ready for use. Further east, the lakeside changes into a reedy marsh alive with fish and several species of waterfowl that either live here perennially or else migrate here as the climate becomes favourable. Interesting particularly to ecologists are the information signboards (complete with pictures and scientific data) that help you discover the fauna inhabiting the reed bed.
Unlike Parc Charles Bosson which is for the most part uncultivated and natural, the western side of the lake thrives with sports-related establishments. The indoor Marquisats swimming pool housed inside a state-of-the-art sports complex and the Base Nautique (mostly, a school for water sports) are two of the most renowned in the region. The adjoining sandy beach is perfect for a dip, although it is often taken over by practising school children.