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Where Time Glides By

The lakeside town of Annecy in the French Alps has captured the hearts of philosophers and royalty through the ages. Now it's a haven for tourists and swans--lots of them.

January 27, 2002|PETER WORTSMAN

ANNECY, France — "God is calling you. Go to Annecy," a clergyman told Jean Jacques Rousseau, a 16-year-old runaway from Switzerland who went on to become the noted 18th century writer and philosopher. Though the clergyman hoped the young man would find a spiritual haven, Rousseau instead found romance in this sparkling lakeside town that seduces pilgrims to this day.

I first experienced Annecy's charms by accident in 1969. A young waiter-in-training at a resort hotel in the Swiss Alps just next door, I had planned a day trip to Geneva but boarded the wrong train, crossing the French border and stepping off in Annecy. About all I remember is the sun shimmering on its deeply blue lake and the stain of a melted Roseau du Lac, a local chocolate and coffee confection that I'd left too long in the pocket of my white shirt. But Annecy called me back.

A brief stopover with my wife and kids in 1999 whetted our appetite for more. Where else can you stroll along flower-lined quays by pristine canals with floating swans, drop in at a downtown castle and dungeon, boat or sunbathe on a vast lake ringed by snowcapped ridges, frolic on nearby alpine meadows and dine on fondue or freshwater fish? Rousseau had the right idea.

When we returned for a five-day stay last summer, our pretext was the Fete du Lac, an annual fireworks and water spectacle held in early August. The celebration dates back to 1860, after Napoleon III helped liberate Italy from Austria and the Italians rewarded the French by giving them the province of Savoy (pronounced sav-WA). Today Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie region and still one of the prettiest towns in France.

Little did our family suspect that attending the festival had also occurred to about 200,000 other folks, who converged on Annecy from all directions and created gridlock. (The city is, after all, only about 25 miles from Geneva and 50 miles from the Italian border.) Even with spectator tickets in hand, it was sheer havoc jockeying for a lakeside spot to watch the 2 1/2-hour extravaganza (last year on a Brazilian theme), surely the most lavish, flamboyant and lengthy fireworks display I have ever seen. Frogmen dragged floats evoking indigenous deities rocking to a samba beat.

And when the rockets finally burst forth, it was like a volcano streaking the sky, the mountainsides and the sloping rooftops of Annecy's old quarter, the whole effect mirrored in the lake. Though my French wife, Claudie, and I, both experienced travelers, initially bemoaned our lack of judgment to have come at such a time, our 6-year-old son, Jacques, and 11-year-old daughter, Aurelie, were in heaven, and Annecy will forever sparkle in our memories.

Dragging the kids away early to head off the crowd, we walked from the shoreline to the city's old quarter, which we practically had to ourselves--except for the languid swans floating by.

Returning the next day after the throng had dispersed, we happened upon a living statue of Rousseau portrayed by a motionless mime in white. A more permanent marble bust graces the courtyard just off the Canal Notre-Dame, where Rousseau first set eyes on the love of his life, Madame de Warens, a 28-year-old who was 12 years his senior. His lover's house here was replaced by a bishop's palace fronting a street now named after the philosopher, but today the building is the city police headquarters.

Human presence can be traced from 3100 BC on a spot not far from Annecy's present site, where the Thiou River empties into the northern tip of Lake Annecy.

The original lakeside village, one of the oldest settlements in the Alps, fell to successive invasions, most notably Celts, followed in the 5th century by Romans. Emperor Anicius Olybrius built himself a grand villa on the lake, Anneciacum, thought to be the source of Annecy's name.

In subsequent centuries the Savoy region kept changing hands. Sacked and rebuilt, Annecy went from mountain metropolis to backwater burg to strategic stronghold, probably reaching its peak in the 17th century, when it became known as the Rome of the Alps as Catholic theologians and intellectuals fled Geneva after it embraced the Reformation.

In the 19th century European nobility rediscovered Annecy as an idyllic vacation spot, building lavish palaces on the lake. The commoners soon followed, but the city has kept its air of grace and elegance, upheld by geranium-filled flower boxes at every bend and symbolized by those regal long-necked swans.

"Don't they ever get a neck ache?" asked my son, more accustomed to pigeons.

The pedestrians-only historic district is filled with buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries. But Annecy's oldest structure and centerpiece is the perfectly preserved 12th century Palais de l'Isle, a former prison and mint that sits in the middle of the Thiou River.

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