It turns out that I’m a fickle traveller – less than a year after I decided Strasbourg was my new favourite French spot, I’ve already defected and lost my heart to Annecy. It must be something about the canals as both places are set around a network of waterways. But as well as having a perfectly preserved old town with historic buildings and canalside cafés, Annecy also throws in a turquoise lake and stunning mountain scenery. It’s not somewhere with lots of famous sights to visit, but rather somewhere perfect for a bit of aimless wandering, eating and drinking. The town’s compact size means you can easily spend a few hours exploring then relax for the afternoon on the lakeside beach or in one of the restaurants along the water’s edge. So here are some of my favourite things to see and do in Annecy.
Meander around the canals
Annecy’s old town – or Vieille Ville – has more waterways than it does roads, all surrounded by pretty, pastel-coloured buildings. The water comes from the River Thiou, which at only 3.5km long is one of Europe’s shortest rivers, connecting the River Fier to Lake Annecy. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in scenic surroundings. The river splits and rejoins around the old town, creating islands linked by arched bridges, which are draped in flowers over spring and summer. A network of narrow streets and passages take you past turreted castles, quirky shops and a seemingly endless number of gelateria to get your ice cream fix. There are also plenty of cafés and restaurants, most of which have tables lined up along the riverbank to soak up the sun. It’s somewhere to go wandering, get lost and see what you can discover.
Climb up to the castle
Built on a hilltop, the Château d’Annecy literally towers over the town, so you’ll burn off that gelato on the climb up to the top. The castle was built as a residence for the Counts of Geneva from the 13th to 16th centuries, but was later damaged by fire and abandoned. Eventually it was turned into a barracks before being bought by the town after the Second World War and restored back to its former glory. Now it’s used as a museum with a couple of different sections – one with local furniture, sculptures and art, and the other with exhibits about the people and wildlife living around the lake. Also don’t miss the castle terrace which has a fantastic panoramic view down into the old town and out across the lake.
The castle is open 10.30am–6pm daily from June to September, and 10am–12am and 2pm-5pm (except Tuesdays) from October to May. Entry costs €5,20 for adults or €2,60 for students/under 25s.
Set sail on the lake
France’s third largest lake, Lake Annecy is known as the blue lake, and you can definitely see why when the sun hits its clear water. It’s Europe’s cleanest lake (though I wouldn’t advise drinking it) with the water coming from snow melting in the Alps. There are walking and cycling paths along the edge of the lake, as well as sandy beaches in the summer. But one of the best ways to see the lake is to get out on the water. A one-hour boat trip takes you on a circuit around the lake, past pretty lakeside villages and an island castle, backed with snowy mountain peaks. From spring to autumn there are also longer two-hour cruises and a shuttle between the lakeside villages, as well as lunch and dinner cruises on the MS Libellule.
A one-hour boat trip around the lake costs €14,20 for adults and €9,60 for children 5–12. Trips run between 7 February and 20 December 2015, from one to eight times a day depending on season.
Fill up at the market
There’s something about French markets, with their huge piles of colourful vegetables and pungent smelling cheeses. And Annecy’s has one of the best locations, along the bridges and narrow streets of the old town. Markets are held on Tuesdays, Fridays and weekends, selling fresh local produce from fish to flowers. You can check out the local specialities, and if you want to buy the stallholders will usually let you taste first. Well worth trying are the tasty salami-style sausages made with flavours like mushroom, goats’ cheese and hazelnut, as well as the creamy reblochon creamy cheese, used in mountain dishes like tartiflette. And if you’re in town on the last Saturday of the month, there’s also a big arts, crafts and flea market.
Get sent to prison
Right at the heart of Annecy’s old city is the Palais de l’Île – the town’s most famous and photographed building. It was built back in the 12th century on a triangular island between two forks of the river. It looks like a miniature castle but has actually been used as a mint, a courthouse and a prison over the years. Today it’s home to a small museum about local history and architecture, but is best appreciated from the outside. Take a walk through the old town at night too and you’ll see it all lit up. Lights in the canals shine upwards and the turrets at the front of the Palais are lit from inside so the whole place glows in the dark.