Annecy: the pearl of the French Alps

by Mark.McGettigan

Within an hour of Geneva airport lies the hidden gem of Annecy, where spending a few days by the lake is the perfect antidote to a busy life and hectic work schedule


For most people, flying into Geneva on holiday means winter sports - but within a stone’s throw of the airport is one of the French Alps' hidden jewels: the town of Annecy. Nestled on the shores of the cleanest lake in Europe, this historical town is an ideal spot for getting away from it all. From a morning boat trip around the lake to an afternoon getting lost in the winding, cobbled streets, Annecy is oft overlooked but never forgotten.

Chances are most keen skiers will have stopped at Annecy at one time or another – the toilets on the lakefront are a common stop for tour operator coaches on the route to and from the major ski resorts of Val d’Isère, Meribel and Les Arcs – but that’s where their Annecy experience will end.

However, there is far more to this lakeside town than a convenient rest break on the road to the airport. The tightly packed streets lend themselves perfectly to the market that erupts in the town on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays; and while the idea of French street markets may seem as caricatured as striped jumpers, onions and bicycles, when they do them this well, who’s complaining? The selection of meats, cheese, fruit and veg makes it an ideal opportunity to stock up for the afternoon’s adventure – the cycle route around the lake, all 20 plus miles of it.

A boat trip on the lake is a must; and the tour boats conveniently leave from the harbour opposite the main avenue into the pedestrianised Old Town (right by the car park with the infamous toilets). But there is something entirely more satisfying about pedalling your way round its entirety, stopping for a picnic along the way on one of the many little beaches and gaining much needed refreshment from some of the bars and cafes along the way; all the while taking in the tremendous views afforded by the rings of mountain ranges that climb off into the distance. Twenty miles may seem a long way, but there are very few climbs, and personal experience has shown that a chilled glass of white wine at one of the many canalside bars in Annecy is the perfect way to overcome any stresses and strains caused by your exertions.

At the entrance to the old town sits, commandingly,  one of Annecy’s (and reputedly France’s) most recognised and photographed landmarks – the Palais d’Isle. Sat in the middle of the canal that runs through the heart of ‘old’ Annecy, this one time prison (as well as coin mint, court house and many other occupations during a very chequered past), forms a striking focal point for the town. Flanked as it is by restaurants and bars on both shores – ideal places for sipping a morning coffee, enjoying a pre-dinner aperitif or even dinner itself - it is often the most memorable aspect of a visit here.

Its enduring appeal is undoubtedly helped by every street artist (of which there are many) selling their attempts to capture its essence, every guidebook having it emblazoned on the cover and 73.5 per cent of all postcards having it as their image. Yes, it’s fair to say that the people of Annecy are proud of their little Palais. And justly so. It’s also possible to take a trip inside, where you can marvel at its Tardis-esque interior (they even found room to fit in a garden/courtyard!). But when it comes to being one of France’s most photographed monuments, it’s hard to know whether it’s a chicken or egg scenario at work...

As for accommodation in Annecy, it’s almost impossible not to stay in a charming hotel with brightly coloured shutters on the windows, window boxes bedecked with flowers, wrought-iron balconies and an antiquated lift – unless you opt for a modern commuter hotel on the outskirts of the town. But it’s also worth looking at their location because being in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Annecy is very much part of the appeal – especially if that hotel happens to include a view from a bedroom window (or, even better, a balcony) of the Palais d’Isle lit up at night.