As we loaded the last bags into the car, turned on the engine, and with it the air con, I think the whole family sighed in relief. Paris had been the kind of hot that makes you comfortable only when standing under the shower, and that’s not a very practical way to spend an evening with three small children.
We arrived in Annecy in the late afternoon. There were mountains, a deep blue lake, and clouds threatening rain at any moment, a far cry from the sweltering hot Paris we’d left behind in the morning. A day appreciating the very straight, very flat very empty French motorways had brought us 365 miles from our last pitch on the banks of the Seine and for the first time we were exploring a part of the world that none of us had ever visited before.
It’s my first view of the lake that will stay with me; crystal clear water under a clear blue sky and all around the mountains reaching for the sky, first green wooded slopes and then the chalk white cliffs glowing in the evening sunshine. Breathtakingly beautiful and the start of my
passion obsession with trying to capture it on camera.
We camped up on the side of the hill, at a site that would win any award for ‘swimming pool with a view’, putting our tent up in the near dark while the lights of the villages around the lake twinkled into life.
And there we rested.
When we first started to plan this trip we read a few accounts of similar journeys and everyone had said to take your time, go even more slowly than you think you need to, both for you and for the children, and we’d thought we were, but by the time we made it to Annecy we were all in need of a rest. The heat of Paris, it’s busyness and our efforts to cram in as much as possible into two days had left H and I worn out and we wanted nothing more than to sit at our camping table, watch the view, do a little sketching or knitting and try to keep the children out of the mud as much as possible. So that’s what we did, well for a morning at least.
Because one of the key differences between Annecy and Paris is that as Suzanne forewarned us, Annecy’s weather is just a tad more British. In fact I would go so far as to say that it’s a classic English summer; rainy with occasional sunshine. And as zipping five people and the camping table into a four man tent isn’t terribly appealing, or even a great idea if you want the tent to dry out, we loaded up the children and went exploring.
Circumnavigating the lake was a must, and even though there weren’t any beaches, we found a little jetty and some pebbles where we could dip our toes and look out across the water. The hill behind our campsite was one of the peaks in the Tour du France route (complete with signs) and we drove up the steep and winding track to the Col du Lescaux, trying to imagine a road full of riders all busting a gut to get to the top. Full credit to them, it was exhausting just thinking about it.
On the way back down we turned onto a side road because it was marked “route scenique” and there before us stretched the lake, still that amazing blue colour despite grey skies. And with the children having a snooze, We headed up to Thones through the gap in the mountains, imagining it full of snow and towering great cliffs of ice on either side when winter comes.
It is a very very beautiful part of creation, and definitely set up for outdoor adventures. Every morning there seemed to be a handful of serious climbers heading off from camp at 6am for a day’s hiking, every other car had a bike rack and had our little ones been just a bit older we could have been seriously tempted to hire some bikes for the cycle path that runs all the way from Annecy to the foot of the lake.
As it was we confined ourselves to a serious potter around Annecy, starting with a fabulous breakfast at a little cafe on the side of the canal; croissants, tartine (bread, butter and jam) and an amazing croque Monsieur . Annecy has a sleepy start to Saturdays and it was one of the only places open when we arrived which made it a pretty perfect spot to people watch as streams of visitors started to arrive. Exploring after breakfast it was easy to see why it’s such a popular spot, the old town is full of tiny streets, cobbles, gorgeous archways, and even a fountain.
And that’s all before you get to the canal. In the stillness of a bright morning it reflected all the colours of the houses lining its banks, the colours of their window boxes dancing on the water, and if you could tear your eyes away, the up above them were the mountains. Judging by the number of pictures that H took I think there’s a good chance he wants to paint it just as much as I wanted to spend a whole day taking pictures.
After we’d had our fill of the little cobbled streets, and as they began to fill up with everyone coming out for a lovely long Saturday lunch, we climbed up to the top of the hill for a look at the Chateaux, which included an art exhibition, an entire tower given over to the history of the lake, including acquarium, and some lovely big rooms perfect for a little dancing. But best of all were the views. Looking out over the rooftops gave a very homely picture of Annecy; we could see into roof terraces and gardens, spot the stove for the summer kitchen and the ski store for the winter, the brilliant red geraniums overflowing their pots and the stripy awnings pulled against the rain as much as against the heat. And far away in the distance the smoky green blur of the foothills of the Alps disappearing into the clouds.
The rest of that first day in town we simply went wherever looked fun. We ate a picnic lunch on a bench by the lakeside, burnt off some energy in the local playpark, took the girls for a go on another beautiful carousel where Kitty road a moving boat and Elma befriended two Dutch children that were sat with her on a wonderfully decorated elephant.
We watched a marionette show about an old man and a boy fighting over a bench (much more entertaining than it sounds), and around another corner found what I think might be the cleverest bit of street entertainment yet.
Dotted around were buckets of bubble mix with sticks with string slung between them next to them ready to be dipped. Dip your string, open the sticks, walk backwards, close the sticks and you’ve made the most enormous giant bubbles. Anyone could have a go, the guy running it was there to show you how to do it, and it was free but donations welcome. We could have played for hours.
The next day it was time for the lake. With water that pretty I was never going to be able to resist going in it or on it, and as the little ones are just that bit too little to put in a boat by ourselves, we booked ourselves into the mini one hour tour on the big boat.
Oh what a beautiful hour it was. The mountains came out of the clouds for a moment to show themselves off to their best advantage, the sunlight sparkled on us and turned the big black clouds in the distance a moody slate purple, and the water was bluer than blue.
Lake Annecy is known for being one of the world’s least polluted lakes; in the 1960’s the local authorities prevented anything being dumped or discharged into the lake and it’s stayed that way ever since. From our campsite we could see patterns of turquoise and navy on the water that stayed regardless of the sunshine or the clouds and it was only once we were out there that we could see the cause; the water is so clear that even in the deepest part of the middle of the lake colour of the water shows whether the bottom is sand or rock.
Despite the rain, despite our camping pitch turning into a quagmire, despite eating all of our meals in Annecy squished into our outer tent, despite feeling that we might never be dry again, Annecy stole our hearts. It is such a beautiful spot and I’m a little gutted that it didn’t win its bid for the Winter Olympics because it would have been awesome there. I am however certain that one day we’ll be back, possibly in the winter to see the snow, and definitely when the children are older so we can go walking and cycling and sailing and swimming and then if they’re really old enough H and I can abandon them one evening and go on one of the boat cruises that serves you supper as you gently potter around the lake. A girl can dream.
And while I’m dreaming I’ve put together a little video postcard of our time in Annecy. Watch out for two of my favourite clips possibly ever, when one evening after supper I asked Pip and Elma what they thought of camping. The background noise, that would be the rain hammering down on the tent!