Many Americans have heard the French cities of Lyon and Chamonix. Fewer know of Annecy, a lakeshore city that is situated—as the crow flies—about midway between those other two locales. With a mountain backdrop and a crystal-clear lake in the foreground, Annecy is a vibrant locale and a visual jewel. Last year one French organization, after surveying more than 34,000 municipalities, scored Annecy as the best place to live in France.
If you enter by car, take care—the city is splattered with crosswalks, and here pedestrians rule. Shoppers, families and professionals heading out on lunch breaks will not stand on roadsides waiting for cars to halt, but will strut into streets without hesitation—and vehicles must flinch to a halt before them.
This attractive city—a 45-minute drive from Geneva in Switzerland—was home to the Counts of Geneva in the 13th and 14th centuries, as well as to the subsequent Counts of Savoy. The previous residence of these counts is now a handsome white hillside castle and museum which often hosts art exhibits.
In the 16th century the city became a center for the counter-reformation, as well as a refuge for those fleeing the Calvinist Reformation in Geneva. With its splendid lakeshore view of peaks, and its stone arches and colonnaded walkways, the city resembles a semi-Alpine version of Lugano (although with more sports inclined youth, and fewer bankers). With walkways along its canals and the river Thiou, portions resonate as a reminder of Venice.
Continental France is divided into 13 administrative regions, which are in turn subdivided into departments. The Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region of southeast-central France includes a dozen departments, including Haute-Savoie, of which Annecy is the largest city and also the administrative center, or prefecture. Its population is about 170,000.
Annecy’s old town includes pedestrian bridges, clock towers, stone public squares and beautiful architecture. Alleys, organically built over centuries, wind and split and increase the joy of getting lost. Near the intersection of brick laid Rue Carnot and Rue Royale streets stand pillars to the commerce of eating: boucheries, boulangeries, chocolateries, crêperies and comptoirs—frequented by often well-dressed clientele. Here you can purchase—to go—homemade candied orange slices coated with chocolate, or ravioli made with butternuts, hazelnut crumble and parmesan cheese.
This is where Sarlat meets Strasbourg—a lively and attractive location buzzing with down to earth daily commerce. Towering ancient stone apartments perch near a river that runs beside (and sometimes under) structures. Bicycles with baskets cruise across cobbled streets past ancient stone water wells.
Annecy prides itself as a green city—boasting 28,000 trees in parks and having captured an award in 2015 as one of nine ‘best flowered’ cities in France. Here, fitness meets finesse; dawn by the lakeshore is routinely seen by ample bikers, hikers, joggers, and even early morning Segway tour groups.
Couples constantly gather on Pont des Amours along the lakeshore—the bridge of love—with its vast and commanding vistas of peaks and water.
Annecy hosts the annual International Animated Film Festival (in June this year; in 2020 it was virtual, with participants paying and watching films at home). It is also a launch point for multiple sports that include golf, paragliding, water activities and mountaineering, as well as an unexpected recent boom in snow shoeing.
Although EU leaders discourage non-essential travel within and between member countries, as of January 18th France allows non-EU (or Schengen) residents to enter the country if they present a negative Covid-19 result that was issued in the previous 72 hours. Yet restrictions still pinch at any sort of leisure travel. On January 16th the French national curfew was established as 6:00 p.m., and bars and restaurants in the country (except for take away orders) have been closed since late October. Additionally, France will decide this week whether to impose another lockdown of some sort in February. On a Friday afternoon during a recent January visit, the old town and lakeshore of Annecy bustled, but many other streets appeared desolate.
In time Annecy will reopen. Visitors will—presumably—be back in force. Consider visiting the city at that time, when you can stroll along Quai de Vicenza, then along Quai Napoleon III past barges and tall evergreen trees in the adjacent park. Walk toward the open lakeside, breathe in fresh mountain air and enjoy this beautiful, healthy locale that will rekindle the rewards of travel.