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LAKESIDE ROMANCES : L'AUBERGE DU PERE BISE, Lake Annecy, France : Living It Up at Two European Luxury Hotels, Where Waters Lap at Shorelines, the Surroundings Are Intoxicating and the Dining Is Positively Sinful

July 31, 1994|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews, editor of Traveling in Style magazine, is working on a book on the cooking of Nice and Liguria

TALLOIRES, France — Sometimes I wonder if I deserve Pere Bise. Sometimes, as I turn through the gates of this remarkable old hotel-restaurant in the Haute Savoie region of France, into the little gravel courtyard ringed with flowers and flowering trees, I ask myself if I've really been all that good.

L'Auberge du Pere Bise, to give it its full name, inspires that kind of thinking because it seems so much like paradise. Located on the banks of Lake Annecy, in the village of Talloires, about 350 miles southeast of Paris and 30 miles south of Geneva, Pere Bise is a splendid place, at once elegant and easygoing, charming and sophisticated. It is hardly the most luxurious hotel in France (or even on Lake Annecy), and its restaurant, though very good, can seem old-fashioned. But in its exquisite geography, and in the way it matches its services to its setting, Pere Bise is nonpareil.

I fell in love with Pere Bise for the first time by long distance when I saw a photo of it in some travel magazine or other, circa 1965. The shot showed a small complex of alpine-flavored buildings with tile roofs peaked and overhung like wimples, surrounded by trees and flowers and separated from a pristine lake by nothing more than an expanse of thick green lawn. On a stone terrace facing the lake were tables napped in white and chairs with luminous blue cushions. Rippling reflected sunlight danced around two or three small boats out in the water. Across the lake were a few large chalets couched in green and behind them rocky hills, rising steeply and turning from deep green to greenish blue as they approached the powder-blue sky. It all looked so perfect that I wondered if ordinary tourists would be, or even should be, allowed to visit the place. I also thought that I would surely like to try.

I finally got to Pere Bise in the early '80s. By that time, I had traveled reasonably widely elsewhere in France, and in Italy and Scandinavia, and had seen plenty of pretty lakes and (at least from a distance) plenty of exquisitely situated hotels and restaurants. I was looking forward to finally seeing Pere Bise, but at the same time I had become, quite frankly, a bit blase--and, anyway, I half feared that I'd find the fabled beauty of the place somehow diminished with the years, or learn that it had been exaggerated in the first place--a question of clever camera angles, maybe.

I needn't have worried. I pulled into the aforementioned gravel courtyard and, before even registering, walked out across the lawn to the edge of the lake and just stopped and stared. Then I turned back to look at Pere Bise and stared some more, like a schoolboy transfixed by a beautiful woman, and as much by the implications of her past as by her beauty. Then a young man in a crisp white shirt and black trousers appeared, greeted me, asked if he could fetch my bags and led me into the reception desk. I signed in, and in so doing, though I didn't realize it at the time, signed a contract promising to myself that I would come back here as frequently as possible.

Since that first visit, I've managed to return maybe half a dozen times, which is not as often as I'd like. Besides, though it may be paradise, it's expensive as hell.

My most recent stop at the place, earlier this summer, was a brief one. I had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles from Geneva, but instead of spending the night in that Swiss city, I decided to sneak in a visit to Pere Bise (it's not much more than a 45-minute drive from the Geneva airport). I arrived in Talloires around 3 in the afternoon, checked into my attractive but hardly luxurious $200-a-night room, freshened up and then strolled out to drink in the intoxicating surroundings. (The glass of Champagne on the terrace would come later.)

Lake Annecy occupies part of a glacial valley framed by the Bauges mountains to the south and the Alpine foothills that stretch up to Geneva in the north. Its form is eccentric: Its top portion, the so-called Grand Lac, is an irregular oval with an elongated tip, tilting slightly to the northwest; then it constricts, jogs to the east and ends in the droopy Petit Lac, shaped rather like a teardrop about to fall. Talloires overlooks the narrows between the two parts of the lake, and the views from its hills and shoreline are defined and partially limited by small promontories and curves of land up and down the lake. This lends the town's relationship with the lake an appealing intimacy. It seems manageable, inviting even, especially looking north and west from the auberge--and indeed it is a pleasant place to swim, its water pure and clean, though icy even in summertime.

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