10 Sep Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret
There’s a city in the French Alps that crowns an incredible, deep-blue lake. From the lakeside, sweeping mountains rise to rocky peaks grey-green in the sunlight. It’s my favourite place, and I’m going to share it with you.
I didn’t know whether to write this post. It feels a bit like I’m giving away a family secret, or that at the very least there should be some kind of initiation ceremony before I tell you. But the whole point of this blog is share my travel secrets with you lovely people, and I’m about to give away my biggest one: My favourite place to escape to in Europe. And you might just have never heard of it.
I love exploring new places, but there remains a part of me that finds huge pleasure returning to those that tug most at my heartstrings. It’s one thing to enjoy a flying visit, but it’s something else to spend some time really getting to know somewhere.
For me there’s a region that occupies a special place in my heart, that keeps luring me back – Lake Annecy, in the French Alps.
I first arrived in Annecy in 1991, and despite being 5 years old I have incredibly vivid memories of my first trip. I remember watching the Tour de France whoosh by us on a roadside – a travelling carnival of anticipation followed by a blur of cyclists – I saw soaring mountains for the first time and I paddled tentatively in the lake fresh from my first swimming certificate. The colour and warmth of the place stayed with me.
Since then, I can’t count how many times I’ve returned, both with my family as I grew up and more recently with my other half. Each visit adds to a rich patchwork of memories and a greater understanding of, and love for, this region. I’ve followed new paths, explored new towns and relived my favourite places. And as I do, somehow the magic grows.
So here’s my ode to one of France’s most beautiful cities and one of Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes. I think you’re going to like it.
This is the first in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can also check out 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France and Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation for more about this region.
Let me introduce you to Lake Annecy
Annecy is the largest town in the alpine department of Haute-Savoie in eastern France. It sits at the top of a lake 14km long, which is the third largest in France and the cleanest in Europe. Whilst the surrounding peaks are tipped with snow in winter, it remains relatively mild at the lakeside until the summer sun beckons in warm, dry weather more akin to the Mediterranean than mountainsides.
Lake Annecy and it’s mountainous surroundings are the most spectacular outdoor playground for those who love walking, cycling, swimming, sailing, running, paragliding, skiing, paddleboarding – in short, for those of us who love exploring and love dramatic landscapes. For most people who come to visit, this is what brings them here – but it’s also what keeps a smile on the face of the locals you meet.
Go beyond the lake and you’ll find one of France’s lesser-known but most beautiful cities. You’ll also find lakeside towns and villages where old and new comfortably rub shoulders, where old farming traditions remain an integral part of village life but outdoor sports enthusiasts and campers are welcomed with open arms. Sit in Café de la Place in Menthon-Saint-Bernard nursing a noisette and ponder whether you could find a more perfectly French spot to pass the morning. It’s a region that’s moving with the times, but it’s not worried that the ancient charms of alpine life will be lost – they’re very much still alive here.
You don’t need to compromise here. You can enjoy the delights and comforts of a city, with ancient streets to explore and cosmopolitan Geneva just around the corner. There’s also the great outdoors on your doorstep, at it’s grandest scale.
But mystifyingly, word hasn’t spread far. Annecy is popular with French holidaymakers, and reasonably well-known in Northern Europe. But mention Annecy in the UK and you’ll normally hear “Where?” in return. Search online and you’ll find little more in the English language than some of France’s most unassuming little towns. It’s still a region for those in the know – and that’s a part of its charm.
The city of Annecy
There are two parts to the city of Annecy: the medieval streets of the old town that lap against the shores of the lake, and the modern, vibrant city that’s alive with culture and people.
The ancient thoroughfares of the old town cluster around the River Thiou – a rushing body of turquoise water that’s bridged by wrought iron beauties heavy with colourful flowers. The pastel facades of buildings hint at the city’s alpine location – wooden balconies peek out from upper floors, stone arcades hint at crisp winter weather and rooftops starts to look a little chalet-like – but they’d look equally at home in the Languedoc or Provence.
There’s also plenty to keep you occupied beyond the charming corners of the cobble-stoned vieille ville. If history is your thing, there’s a majestic little castle perched above the town, the Palais de l’Isle – an ancient prison situated mid-stream of the Thiou, and a smattering of Italianate churches that look especially good lit up an night. But I’d recommend experiencing Annecy like a local.
Come into town early and pick up a breakfast pastry at Marmillon on Rue Sainte-Claire (or try one of their magnificent homemade praline meringues). Then get a flavour for the award-winning local produce at the thrice-weekly street market, and watch the hustle and bustle of a quintessentially French spectacle over a coffee. Pick a restaurant a little way off the main street or alongside one of the little canals for dinner, and savour alpine flavours. And for a truely magical end to the day, stroll the Jardins de l’Europe to the lakeside and the Pont des Amours, and watch the lights dancing on the water at dusk.
The lake is the living, breathing heart of this region. And whilst every alpine lake has a spectacular, raw beauty, there’s something extra-special about Lake Annecy.
First, it feels almost impossible to escape views of the water. It seems like wherever you look, vistas open up that capture it’s magic from a slightly different angle. The colours of the water, the reflections on its surface, its setting in this spellbinding landscape – it all changes as you move and look upon the water from different places.
Secondly, you need to embrace the lake like a local (it won’t take long to resist). If there is one thing the locals love to do, it’s be in, on or next to the water. The lakeside beaches are glorious emerald green expanses of grass gently sloping down to the water, packed with picnickers and paddlers, serious swimmers and sunbathers every single day from early June to late September. In every village you’ll find moorings and slipways for boats and on a breezy day the lake swarms with yachts and dinghys. Paddle boards and kayaks are an everyday entertainment. The beautifully clean and clear water is an irresistible temptation the moment the sun is out. Here it’s not just about looking at the lake – it’s all about enjoying it.
The mountains around Lake Annecy are alpine, but not high alpine. Approaching from the north (as most visitors do), you’ll meander through a landscape of rolling hills and valleys. But nothing aside from the altitude change hints at your alpine approach. It’s not until you’ve navigated your way through the city streets and appear, all of a sudden, at the lakeside that you’ll see any big peaks. But when you do, it takes your breath away for a moment. Every time.
These beautiful creatures rise into the distance from the town of Annecy: to the north is largely alluvial plain, but each side of the lake is capped with majestic peaks – not as high as some of their southern and eastern cousins – but no less awe-inspiring. The western side, côte ouest, is generally less explored, but miss it and you’ll miss the imposing Mt. Semnoz. It’s a hiker’s and cyclist’s dream with unmissable views from the alpine meadows at its peak on a clear day.
It’s the eastern side of the lake, côte est, that’s home to the biggest peaks and the most challenging walking and climbing. The rocky outcrops of La Tournette and the jagged teeth of the Dents de Lanfon dominate the skyline and attract some serious climbers as well as alpine wildlife. There’s walking aplenty in the luscious evergreen woodland of the foothills of these peaks, whilst the high alpine meadows above blossom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the late spring and early summer.
Annecy is all about contrasts and complements, city streets and rugged mountain peaks. And whichever you prefer, there’s no escaping the mesmerising waters of the lake. For someone like me who finds it hard to make a call between the wild beauty of rural France and energy of a city break, this region is the perfect compromise – and one that has kept me coming back for nearly 25 years.
I’m ready to go back again already, do you want join me?
If I’ve piqued your curiosity about Lake Annecy, you can find out more about my favourite things to do in this region in 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France or find practical travel advice in Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.