With its stunning lakeside position on the shores of Lac d’Annecy, and surrounding snowy-topped mountains, the historic town of Annecy – the capital of Haute-Savoie – is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. From being on the water to floating through the skies above, Judy Armstrong picks her four favourite ways of seeing the area.
1 From the air
On a clear day, any time of year, the air above Lac d’Annecy twirls with colour. One of the world’s top ten destinations for paragliding – known as ‘parapente’ in France – it is a natural magnet for pilots. Most start in Talloires, on the ‘sunny side’ of the lake, where the cliffs are a launch point for experienced pilots and for newcomers, who fly tandem. With the silence, and feeling of weightlessness as the nylon wing lifts pilot and passenger, it is the closest a human could ever get to being a bird.
The thrill of a flight over Annecy has me jiggling on my toes as my pilot, Viktor, takes me into the blue void above the lake. My heart stops, then soars as the wing fills with air. We rise on a thermal and ease toward the mountains, soaring, gliding and spinning, first facing the peaks, then turning to the lake, and back again. As we fly higher, the lake becomes a darker blue, slashed with silver by small gusts of wind. On this east side of the lake, the cliffs are grey and yellow; on the far side the peaks of the Bauges Natural Park loom in white limestone, topped with verdant green. Valleys become savage scoops, houses are toys scattered by a child’s careless hand, yachts are specks on the water. Viktor points out the snowy peaks of the Vanoise: “If we were a little higher, we would see Mont Blanc,” he says. And he sighs with happiness: “I have lived in Annecy for many years, but for me the magic is in the air, and in the mountains.”
2 On foot
Annecy is made for walking: on traffic-free paths in the historic centre, through the parks and promenades around the lake. But step back a little: the lake and town are surrounded by majestic massifs – the cliff-rimmed plateaux of the Bauges, the spiky Alpine peaks of the Aravis and nearer still, the forested mountains of Veyrier and Baron. Footpaths climb the flanks, form balconies along and traverse through these wonderlands which, from lake level, form the north-east skyline.
Of course, it is possible to hike from the lakeside, but given the option of a 15-minute drive, I jump in a taxi to the Col des Contrebandiers, 600 metres above Annecy, on the shoulder of Mont Baron. It is a glorious afternoon’s march, through a beech forest to the edge of sheer limestone cliffs, and on to the flat summit of Baron. As I walk, the view offers a startling contrast between trees, rock walls and the lake; luckily there are plenty of places to sit, breathe and enjoy. The huddle of buildings that forms Annecy is so far below that I feel as if I’m walking in the sky. Having travelled along the cliffs’ upper rim, the trail descends to the lake in a zig-zag-zig through the trees. Young men and women are jogging up the same path. This is their back garden, their afterwork training ground, and I feel privileged to be sharing it.
3 By bike
The protected cycling piste along the western side of Lac d’Annecy is one of the most popular voies vertes, or green ways, in France. Thousands of walkers, rollerbladers and cyclists use it daily, with locals and visitors enjoying the exercise and tranquillity. It is so well-loved that a project to loop a cycleway around the entire lake is due to be completed by 2016. The work is under way, with new pistes between Menthon, Talloires and Angon already accomplished. The end-result will be around 40 kilometres of a safe cycleway, cementing Annecy’s reputation as a pedaller’s paradise.
I decide to cycle clockwise around the lake, with a picnic lunch from the morning’s market. Setting off across the Champ de Mars, I pedal away at a sedate pace. Within minutes, I pause for coffee at Le Petit Port, before following signposts for the Tour du Lac. A cycleway guides me along the eastern shoreline and up a small rise to Veyrier-du-Lac. The stretch from here to Menthon will be the final link in the piste project, but I’m a year too early, and so ride carefully on the road. To my right are panoramic views over some of the most desirable real estate in France; to the left I catch glimpses of the Château Menthon-Saint-Bernard. I pedal down to Menthon’s beach and follow the road along the shore to the picturesque port. Now for effort: the climb around the Réserve Naturelle du Roc de Chère, a promontory of rock and woodland, accessible only on foot. Zooming downhill to Talloires, I flash past the Cascade d’Angon, a waterfall gushing out of a narrow canyon, and around the lake’s southern end to Doussard. The famed voie verte is my companion for the final 18 kilometres, gliding through meadows, woodland and pretty villages, back to Annecy.
4 On the water
There’s no denying it: despite the beauty of the historic town centre, the glorious gardens and the gastronomic restaurants, the main reason for Annecy’s magnetism is the lake. The oblong kink of blue, 14 kilometres long and up to 3.5 kilometres wide, is the jewel in the watery crown of Haute-Savoie. It can be explored by catamaran, pedalo or kayak, but the easiest way to discover its secrets is on a cruise from the quays where the River Thiou drains the lake through the historic centre. I climb aboard La Belle Étoile. Clear of the port, we pick up speed and the commentary, in French and English, begins.
Besides the statistics (summer temperature 24°C, dropping to 4°C in winter; narrow point of just 800 metres, perimeter 32 kilometres, maximum depth 82 metres), I learn that Édith Piaf, Sir Winston Churchill and David Beckham have stayed at the Impérial Palace at the north end of the lake; that the same family has occupied Château Menthon since the 12th century; and that Paul Cézanne painted Le Lac Bleu when he stayed in Talloires in 1886. As the flow of facts continues, I admire the ducks and grebes bobbing near the shore; the manicured lawns sweeping down to the water; the creamy cliffs of the Roc du Chère where divers gather to investigate deep cracks in the lake bed.
Classified as a nature reserve in 1977, it has a micro-climate created by heat reflecting from the lake, resulting in both Alpine and Mediterranean flora.