Before moving to Switzerland six years ago, my exposure to lakes and mountains had been quite limited. Coming from the UK, most family holidays had been centred around the seaside. Tom grew up in landlocked Switzerland and hence spent most of his family holidays around lakes and up mountains. During my time in Switzerland, the majesty and drama of the Alps has now captured my soul. Enough so that it was my choice to spend New Year in the picturesque French Alpine town of Annecy in winter.
Lac d’Annecy, Europe’s cleanest lake
We took the train from Basel via Geneva. Although Annecy is only 35km south of Geneva, the train route is quite circuitous and takes about 2 hours. For this reason, I’d recommend driving if you are coming from Geneva and can rent a car.
We had rented an AirBnB apartment which was right in the very centre of the tiny old town. After arriving, we took a walk down to the lakefront. The old town itself is hugged by two narrow canals that flow out from the lake like two arms. They join together again further downstream to form the River Thiou, and these two canals have led to Annecy being given the nickname “The Venice of the Alps”. Lac d’Annecy has been subject to strict environmental regulation since the 1960’s. Because of this, it now enjoys the position of being the cleanest lake in Europe. One glimpse into any part of the lake or river confirms this. The waters are as clear as looking through glass, making the bottom of the lake look deceptively close.
Grilled cheese, but not as you know it
After a small Vin Chaud at the Christmas market on the lakeside (more on the Christmas market later), we went and found a place to eat for dinner. We had not booked and given the time of year, we were turned away from a few places. Eventually, we found a table in a place called Le Chalet. The service and the food were both very good. We shared a raclette, which although is a fairly common dish for us, here the method of grilling the cheese was novel. The waiter brought a small grill out to our table and suspended a wedge of cheese under the arms of it. The advantage of this is that you can grill as much or as little as you want at one time just by moving the grill arms. We ate the lot!
Cheese-based dishes are popular Alpine food, and perfect for warming up when visiting Annecy in winter. You can learn how to make a delicious cheese fondue in our post about 3 reasons to love home-made fondue.
Exploring the Old Town of Annecy in winter
The next day we explored the town. The two main sites of the town are the Chateau d’Annecy and the Palais de l’Isle. The Chateau sits atop a small, steep hill and dates back to the 12th century. Today, it houses two museums and an observatory. The Palais de l’Isle is the gem of the old town and is best viewed from the canal bridge next to it, which is usually full of eager photographers. At one time the Palais was a courthouse, today it houses a local history museum.
Christmas Markets – the best of Annecy in winter
Most French, Swiss and German towns have their own Christmas markets and Annecy in winter is no exception. However, unlike many of the Christmas markets, this one was still open over the New Year period. The markets of Annecy are split between the lakeside, and the main town square which is set further back from the lake.
The market stalls are set up with many cute and unusual gifts, like the cake-shaped candles that look almost good enough to eat! There are also various food stalls and eateries around them. Tom got himself some escargots to go with his vin chaud, whereas I decided to stick with a chocolate crépe. When visiting Annecy in winter, the Christmas markets are a must-visit. If you love Christmas markets, then check out our post about the Strasbourg Christmas markets.
More cheese please
We had booked a table at O Savoyard, a restaurant close to our AirBNB which specialises in local cuisine. For the starter we shared a dish of local goats cheese with dried beef. The cheese was divine, like a small light cloud of creamy delight.
For the main course, I had a tartiflette, which is a local dish of potatoes, onions, lardons and Tamié cheese (yes, more cheese!) cooked in a skillet. It was melty and stomach-warming and the perfect dish for a freezing day in Annecy in winter. Tom had traditional Savoyard sausages cooked with, yep, yet more cheese with white wine and served with polenta. His verdict was that it was full of umami flavours and the ultimate comfort food.
After another cheese-based meal, we went down to the town hall where they had a really spectacular little light-and-sound show beaming on to the front of the building. I guess most people had already seen this as we were the only ones watching, but we were mesmerised – it was freezing cold but we stood watching this show for a good 20 minutes! This is one of the more unique attractions of Annecy in the winter.
The next day, we decided to go for walk around the lake. Firstly because nothing was actually open. It was New Years Day and the good cafe-owners of Annecy were taking advantage of their hard-earned lie-in. Secondly, we really needed to start walking off some of them cheese kilos.
We went to the lakeside and started walking around clockwise. Although we knew that at 38km, walking the perimeter of the lake would be beyond us for New Years Day, we made it a good 4km around before we started walking back just to find somewhere to get a hot drink. The mountains and much of the lake were shrouded in mist for most of our walk. Although this meant the views were not so spectacular, it gave the lake an ethereal, mystical sense that simply cannot survive when sun emerges and the mountains start doing their majestic thing. Walking around the perimeter is one of the best ways to experience the lake of Annecy in winter.
“Venice of the Alps?”
The Venice of the Alps is not an entirely apt nickname. In some ways, it is justified: there are canals and tourists with cameras. In others, the charm of Annecy in winter is a million miles from the bustle of Venice, particularly down by the lake on a misty morning.
As our trip ended, we decided we would love to visit again in the summer to enjoy the activities on the water and the mountains in warm weather. Either summer or winter, we can recommend this little jewel of a town to anyone who is looking for something to do to while away a couple of days in the French Alps. Particularly if that something involves cheese.
If you loved our post about Annecy, then you may also enjoy our photo gallery of Annecy in winter.