Only a few cities in France can boast of being situated between a gorgeous lake and snow-capped mountains. Nicknamed “the Venice of Savoy” for the enchanting canals that cross an old town centre clustered at the foot of a medieval castle, or “the Rome of the Alps” for a past comprising Catholic influence challenged by Protestant Geneva, the capital of Haute-Savoie will never leave the visitors insensitive of its charm.
The charms of Annecy by its lake
Annecy is located in the north of the French Alps, 40 km south of Geneva, Switzerland and 50 km from Chambéry. Annecy is part of the “Alpine Furrow“, an axis stretching over 330 km from Geneva to Valence, passing through the cities of Aix-les-Bains, Chambéry and Grenoble. Annecy is the capital city (préfecture) of the French département of Haute-Savoie.
Description of Annecy
The commune of Annecy is relatively small compared to other French cities, with a population of over 124,000. Together with the neighbouring suburbs and towns, Greater Annecy houses more than 160,000 inhabitants, making it the 5th largest urban zone of the Rhône-Alpes region after Lyon, Grenoble, Saint-Etienne, and Annemasse-Genève.
Rue Carnot, with its extension to the Courier shopping centre close to the railway station, is the real shopping centre of Annecy where nearly all the commercial chains can be found from FNAC to Monoprix and Séphora.
Several streets perpendicular to Rue Carnot also offer a great shopping area such as Rue Royale, which is more specialised in luxury shopping such as jewellery, tearooms, haute-couture and banks. Other shopping streets include Rue de la République, Rue Sommeiller, Rue Président Favre, and Rue Vaugelas…
In the historic town, Rue Sainte-Claire and Rue de l’Île focus on shopping linked to tourism: restaurants, ice-cream stores, souvenir shops…
Markets in Annecy
Annecy runs six market places including the popular market in the old town at Rue de la République on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday mornings.
Carrefour Hypermarket in Annecy
Annecy is the historic home-base for Carrefour, one of the largest hypermarket chains in the world now having its headquarters in Boulogne Billancourt, near Paris. The first Carrefour store opened on 1 January 1958 in suburban Annecy on the ground floor of a building named “carrefour”, meaning crossroads in French.
Annecy has been twinned with the following cities:
- Cheltenham (England) since 1956
- Bayreuth (Germany) since 1966
- Vicenza (Italy) since 1995
The old town
At the edge of its turquoise lake, Annecy is one of the most beautiful and popular resort towns of the French Alps, though the tourist traffic can get a bit overwhelming in high season. Historically, it enjoyed a brief flurry of importance in the early 16th century, when Geneva opted for the Reformation and the fugitive Catholic bishop encamped here with a train of ecclesiastics and a prosperous, cultivated elite.
The most picturesque part of the old town lies at the foot of the castle on the hill, a warren of lanes, passages and arcaded houses, below and between which flow branches of the Canal du Thiou, draining the lake into the River Fier.
The houses, surrounded by canal-side railings overflowing with geraniums and petunias, are incredibly beautiful.
From rue de l’Île on the canal’s south bank, the narrow Rampe du Château leads up to the castle, former home to the counts of Genevois and the dukes of Nemours, a junior branch of the House of Savoy. There was a castle on this site from the 11th century but the Nemours, finding the old fortress too rough and unpolished for their taste, added living quarters in the 16th century, which now house the miscellaneous collections of the Musée du Château.
Objects on display range from archeological finds from around the lake, including a rare Bronze Age pottery kiln, to Savoyard popular art and woodwork, and a small aquarium. There’s also an interesting exhibition on the geography of the Alps.
At the base of the castle is rue Sainte-Claire, the main street of the old town, with arcaded shops and houses. At the west end of the street is its original medieval gateway.
Parallel to rue Sainte-Claire on the other side of the Thiou River (rue Rousseau) is the cathedral, where Rousseau once sang as a chorister.
From the cathedral, you can continue on rue Royale or you could make your way back towards the canal. Here you’ll find the picture-perfect Palais de l’Île, a tiny 12th century fort which served in turn as palace, mint, court and prison (until World War II), and now holds the History of Annecy with a few exhibits relating to the town’s past glories and the old prison cells.
A few steps to the north, the 15th century church of St Maurice conceals some great 15th and 16th century religious art.
Across the square to the east of the church, the Hôtel de Ville backs onto shady public gardens, from where a bridge crosses a canal to the lakeside lawns of the extensive Champ de Mars. The Pont des Amours is a famous meeting point for romantic couples. Overlooking the lake and the mountains, it is definitely a romantic place!
Main sights in the surroundings
There are so much to discover around Annecy that it would take months to explore all that the region has to offer. Here is a selection of some of the sites to visit while staying in Annecy.
The surrounding mountains
While Annecy’s high-season crowds may be bearable for only a day or two, the town’s environs offer a number of agreeable excursions. As well as Boat Tours, cycling is an enjoyable means of appreciating Lake Annecy. The 40 km road circuit of the lake is a very popular Sunday morning activity among sporty Annéciens and a traffic-free cycle route follows the west shore of the lake. The surrounding hills offer walking and mountain-bike excursions to suit every level. Experienced walkers should enjoy the relatively undemanding ascent of La Tournette (2351m) on the eastern side of the lake, while gentler walks and cycle routes are to be found in the forests of the Semnoz mountain on the lake’s west side.
Although a very busy road encircles Lake Annecy, a far more tranquil way of appreciating the lakeside is aboard one of the frequent boats that depart from Annecy’s canal-side port, with the possibility of stopovers or returning later in the day. Trips stopping off at various points on the lake are offered by Compagnie de Navigation on place aux Bois, beside Quai Bayreuth.
On the east shore of the lake, signposted out of the village of Menthon-Saint-Bernard, is the fantastic and turreted Menthon Castle. Inhabited since the 12th century and birthplace of Saint Bernard, the patron saint of mountaineers, the fortress was extensively renovated in the 19th century in the romantic Gothic-revival style and possesses a fine collection of period furniture and views across the lake back to Annecy.
The Gorges of the Fier River
The River Fier, which trickles out of the lake through Annecy’s picturesque canals, has cut a narrow crevice through the limestone rock at the Gorges du Fier. Signposted off the D14 at Lovagny, a footpath leads down into the 300m long gorge which is reached along a high-level walkway pinned to the gorge side.
As you pass along, you’ll catch glimpses of the Château de Montrottier, which can be reached by continuing along the path for another 3km. The castle, which dates from the 13th century, possesses an eclectic collection of furniture, earthenware and lace as well as exotic objects from former French colonies in West Africa and the Far East.
16 km north of Annecy, on the way to Geneva is the highway which spectacularly crosses over the gorge of the River Usses, 140m below. Known as the Pont de la Caille, the present bridge was built in 1925. At the time it possessed one of the longest single spans in Europe. Next to it is the stunning original bridge, built under the orders of the King of Sardinia, Charles Albert, in 1839, and now disused. Its crenellated towers, supported by two dozen cables, are an impressive example of 19th century engineering.
Events in Annecy
The major cultural events in Annecy include:
- the Venetian Carnival of Annecy (March)
- the Marathon of Lake Annecy (April)
- the Annecy International Animation Film Festival (June)
- the Lake Festival, one of Europe’s biggest fireworks displays above the lake (August)
- the Annecy Italian Film Festival (September)
- the Return from the Alpine pastures (October)
- the Saint-André Fair (1st Tuesday of December)
- the Christmas Market (December)
Our pages on ANNECY
Annecy in our French blog
A selection of articles written in French in our blog.
How to get to Annecy
Close to Geneva but relatively proximity to Lyon, Annecy is easy to access by car, train or plane.
Annecy is easily reached by car from Geneva, Grenoble and Lyon through the network of reliable motorways crossing Savoie from west to east and north to south.
From Paris, take the A6 to Macon in Burgundy, from where you will cross the Jura mountains via the “Autoroute Blanche” (the White Motorway) which ends at Chamonix. Milan and Turin in Italy are not far away either, thanks to the famous long tunnels through Mont-Blanc and Mont-Cenis.
If you travel from Australia or America, take a flight to one of the Swiss airports (Zurich or Geneva) and rent a car from there! Geneva is actually the closest airport and arguably the most convenient for visiting the Savoie region.
The TGV from Paris can take 3.30 hours if you take a “direct” trip which has limited stops along its way and avoids Lyon.
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