My brother invited me out to visit him in Annecy. After some humming and hawing I decided to go – my main concern was whether his flat would be habitable by someone with my high standards.
Thursday, 16 February
My v saintly husband drove me to the airport at 5 in the morning and I flew into Geneva at the crack of dawn (OK about 10 local time).
I had decided to spend the day in Geneva. I have been to Geneva before for work but never really explored it as a tourist. When I arrived in the city, it struck me how clean the air seemed. No wonder they sent invalids to Swiss sanatoria.
The first thing I saw was the Jet d’Eau and I know that they’re very proud of it but I’m sorry Geneva, it is the world’s most boring city landmark.
I followed my guidebook to the centre of the old town. The weather was absolutely beautiful. I had my lunch outdoors on the square. I had tartiflette – getting into the spirit of my Alpine adventure – and I was delighted with myself.
The old town was almost entirely car free with many cyclists. Pleasing. It didn’t seem to be touristy at all really although there were many shops selling tourist tat near the station – perhaps a Thursday in February is not peak tourist time. The old town was reasonably quiet and I was able to walk in the footsteps of Calvin (very big man locally) pretty much on my own.
The cathedral is very plain in a manner that is quite strange if you’re used to Catholic churches. That’s the altar:
They had Calvin’s chair as well. Suitably plain.
They had a monument to the Dukes of Rohan as well which I really liked but all I could think was “the riders of Rohan going to the aid of Gondor”. Different family.
Overall, it was very plain but whoever decorated the side chapel – the chapel of the Maccabees – did not get the memo and that is quite the sight particularly after the main cathedral.
Calvin feels very present in Geneva.
So, mind you, does Jean Jacques Rousseau who also seems to be something of a local hero.
There were posters everywhere for local referenda. Michael says “I told you they operated by direct democracy voting on every issue and you didn’t believe me”. I believe him now.
I went to the musÃ©e des beaux arts which is a big building with a slightly eclectic collection. Some nice pictures. I enjoyed this one by Hoppner of Lady Stafford as Hebe.
And also this one by Rigaud of the snappily tilted Elisabeth Charlotte of Bavaria, Duchess of OrlÃ©ans and Princess of the Palatine. Wikipedia says that she “gained literary and historical importance primarily through preservation of her correspondence, which is of great cultural and historical value due to her sometimes very blunt descriptions of French court life”. I am not surprised.
In some ways this was probably the most interesting picture. It sets the biblical scene in Geneva and you can see all kinds of contemporary local colour in the background including soldiers, farmers and houses on stilts in the mud (some of the stilts are preserved in the city museum, honestly, not fascinating).
The museum had a couple of rooms which were transported from a castle or big house, alas I forget where (wainscotting, old furniture, you know the kind of thing). Outside these rooms, a young Indian woman was hovering. She approached me, “Do you speak English?” She asked whether I would mind going around the rooms with her as she was afraid to do so as they were very creepy and there was no one else around. I found it a bit odd but I was happy to oblige. She was from Delhi and had just arrived in Geneva to study. I said that my sister had lived in Delhi. She asked where I was from and then told me that her sister had been working as an actuary in Dublin for the past seven years. Small world and all that.
For the record, the rooms were not at all creepy but I am middle aged and clearly not as imaginative as she was.
I also took in the city museum. I always enjoy a city museum. The contents can be so…varied. This was my first guillotine.
I found the basket to catch the severed heads singularly unnerving. Maybe I am more imaginative than I thought.
There was a really excellent audio visual display where they projected old maps on to a relief on the floor showing how the city had grown. Possibly I have been influenced by nearly 22 years of marriage to my map loving husband.
Then I headed off to the bus station which was quite grim. There was a bus there from Kosovo (Pristina to Geneva direct). Imagine all that distance and you couldn’t even afford a cup of tea at the end of it (making assumptions about income levels in Kosovo but honestly I paid â‚¬4.50 for a cup of tea in a transport caf type place across the road from the station, dear for anyone for God’s sake).
The bus ride to Annecy (difficult to pronounce, I assure you) was uneventful other than my role as an interpreter between the bus driver and a young Japanese woman (he was keen to explain to her how to get a â‚¬10 refund and it was complicated).
It was about an hour to Annecy and Dan was waiting for me. His flat was actually very clean and comfortable. I was delighted. And, you know, relieved.
Friday, 17 February
My brother had taken the day off work and he drove us up to the 3 VallÃ©es. I’m only used to the kind of ski holiday where you stay in the resort so it was pretty weird to be driving up but Dan was really familiar with everything and dropped me at a ski hire place right beside the lift where I could also get a ski pass. It took about five minutes and was super handy. I was, honestly for the first time ever, very impressed by my brother’s organisational skills. Also the guy in the ski hire place had spent six months in Cork in 1993 and he gave me a 25% reduction and a free helmet for the day. What’s not to love?
I haven’t been skiing since 2019 and I was pretty nervous especially since I had hurt my knee. I haven’t been skiing with my brother in more than 20 years when I was much better than him but he’s been practicing in the interim and my limited prowess has lessened. He spent a season in Chamonix a couple of years ago skiing every day and he’s really good now (at least compared to me). I went very slowly down some blues and greens and he was super patient.
We had a lovely lunch up the mountain. He seriously suggested that we could get sandwiches from the Spar in the town and eat them in the gondola going up. The horror. He still has some things to learn. We had to queue a little bit to get in and people with reservations were slipping past including some famous English actor – unknown to me but the English man behind and Daniel were suitably impressed. Apparently he was in a number of shows none of which I had seen. Low levels of thrills, frankly. Which is not what could be said for the tartiflette which was, frankly, superior to the offering in Geneva. What? I was in the mountains.
Having had a pretty successful day until about 3, things started to go downhill (hah!) and much of the last run of the day I spent on my bottom. I didn’t injure myself as I was proceeding very slowly but it was icy and when I went over I was stuck like a beetle on my back (technically on my side). The skiing world chamionships were on and that must be why a woman labelled National Team of Haiti was around to come to my aid. I mean I don’t think she was on the team – more part of a supporting cast but I feel that as an Irish person I should be at least as good at skiing as someone from Haiti. Definitely, definitely not so.
Dan was an absolute hero nursing me down the slopes but I felt a bit foolish and disgruntled. I have never been a brilliant skier but I was fine on blue and green and could do a red on a good day but look at me now.
Saturday, 18 February
My sister was coming in via Chicago where she had been for work. My brother went off to the airport to collect her (I was very relaxed about getting the bus until I discovered that literally every other person who has visited him has got a lift, however, I was so pleased with him after the previous day that I couldn’t be annoyed).
I spent the morning exploring Annecy and reading the local paper. I read a horrendous story of some misfortunate skier who had an accident on the slopes and was being skied back to safety by someone pushing a stretcher. You know the kind of thing. Anyway as he was being taken down the mountain a skier (or possibly snowboarder) took out the guy pushing the stretcher and the stretcher went flying down the mountain where it was finally stopped by some trees but having started with a simple broken leg the skier had much more serious injuries after this. And obviously trussed up like a chicken there was absolutely nothing he could do in his stretcher to halt its breakneck progress. How singularly unfortunate was this guy? I mean did I feel lucky now? Oh yes I did.
Annecy is absolutely beautiful and quite charming. The bishop of Geneva hung out there when Calvinism was having its moment and it was the catholic counterweight to Calvinist Geneva. Be that as it may it doesn’t seem to have done the local churches much good when the revolution came and they were used as stables. Poor old Jeanne de Chantal was dug up.
The Alps are visible from many of the roads in the town. They provide a spectacular but, alas, increasingly unsnowy backdrop to the town.
The town has a river and a number of canals and like many another spot (Bruges, Ghent, Cork) calls itself the Venice of the North.
I was shocked (SHOCKED) to see this sign outside the Monoprix.
I had a bit of a wander around the shops. I am pleased to report that in Annecy they will let you speak French and will not insist on speaking English to you. The traditional quintessential Annecy thing is a child chimney sweep. In the mountains the population was poor and things were tough. Rather than having an extra mouth to feed in winter parents would send off children as young as six with what I think we would now call a gangmaster and have them sweep chimneys for the winter. As Mr. Waffle said, they seem surprisingly proud of their history of child labour. Actually, the enthusiasm seems to be dying out a bit and there were relatively few child chimney sweeps about.
I was extremely impressed by the tourist office where I went to pick up a map – truly excellent advice on what to do and where to eat. I couldn’t help comparing it with Rye in England (a beautiful place to visit but one where you have to pay for the tourist map of the town and the tourist office is underwhelming, public private partnership gone too far).
When my sister got in she was tired having flown from Chicago via Heathrow. My brother and I let her have a nap and went up to a small resort near the city – Semnoz – (just a couple of lifts and a pub really) for a drink and a look at the views. The views were spectacular but there is no doubt that snow was in short supply. It hadn’t snowed since mid-January and we had our drinks outside in a sea of mud (which in happier times would have been snow).
The sunset was spectacular but it is hard to do it justice with a photo.
I’m sure there will be snow again but the trend is not cheering. In the car we listened to an article about future proofing ski resorts. Apparently the 3 VallÃ©es can cover 65 square kilometres with artificial snow at the touch of a button but the smaller and lower resorts seem doomed. One of the people interviewed said that perhaps in 50 years people will come to the resort just to see snow as there won’t be any elsewhere. Honestly I did feel a bit that I was fiddling while Rome burned.
My sister having somewhat recovered from the rigours of her flight felt able to dine out so we did. Satisfactory.
Sunday, 19 February
We cycled around the lake, a distance of 38 kms. My longest ever cycle and it was amazing. Here is your intrepid reporter wearing the ski jacket that she bought for her first ski trip in 1990. Vintage. Honestly it must have been enormous when I bought it in Modena where I was studying at the time as it is still a little baggy.
It was almost all on segregated cycle paths and the views were superb.
We stopped for lunch in a delightful little town (the venue was recommended by the tourist office and the woman also recommended that we book – two excellent pieces of advice). It was quite lovely.
The chemist Berthollet is from there for those of you interested in chemists.
My sister still recovering from her trip found it a bit more trying than my brother and me but she had hired an electric bike so it was less exhausting for her. Although she was the only one in the group suffering from jet lag
Our afternoon stop was near the end but I became tense that we might not get the bikes back in time. In fact there was no need to worry. A truly excellent day and unlike my skiing day, at no point did I fall or feel like I might die amid a happy bunch of five year olds (this is who you ski with on the green slope) and better again I wasn’t at all stiff or sore afterwards. A strong contrast with my post ski experience.
Monday, 20 February
My sister was staying in a hotel in town having (probably correctly) deemed my brother’s flat too small for all of us. I walked into town and we met for breakfast and explored the joys of the bus station (much nicer than Geneva) from whence we would both be going back to the airport in due course.
She was still a bit under the weather so went back to bed. Meanwhile I had a nice lunch and a boat trip on the lake which I would highly recommend. I tried to tempt my sister out but she couldn’t face it as she had been extravagantly ill on her most recent boat trip. And although she conceded that the lake in Annecy was unlikely to present the same challenges as the ferry to Skellig Michael she was steadfast in refusing to go.
It was a shame because I think she might have liked it. It was interesting to see from the lake the places we had explored on shore the previous day on our cycle ride.
When I got back to land, my sister had been consulting guides and offered the glad tidings that the castle was open on Mondays. An extremely unlikely development designed to trap the unwary. We had an enjoyable poke around.
There were some nice paintings of the local area. It was a lot more snowy in the 1800s.
There was a chimney sweep. Naturally.
And a pleasing wooden statue of Saint Hubert (patron saint of hunters, in case you were wondering).
Tuesday, 21 February
The three of us met for breakfast and then my sister took the bus back to Geneva (the only other guest my brother has had to explore the joy of the bus).
My brother and I drove up to a slightly nearer resort called La Clusaz. This seemed to be almost entirely full of French families whereas the 3 VallÃ©es had a lot of English and Irish groups. It’s a smaller resort but still plenty big enough for me. I thought the snow was a bit worse but there were some lovely long easy trails through the forest which I enjoyed although the workmen shovelling snow from the sides on to the piste were a bit unnerving.
I fell over because my skis stopped suddenly on grass. Easy enough to get up I suppose but unpleasant. I really had a complete failure of nerve and refused point blank to go up to the top of the mountain and ski down a red with my brother. We had lunch up the mountain in a less lovely self service restaurant (I took my eye off the ball there) and then skied slowly down to the bottom. I sent my brother off up the mountain and took the button lift up and down the nursery slope. Humiliating? Well yes. Enjoyable? Also yes.
I finished up and went into town where everyone was dressed up for mardi gras. Asterix was the theme in the cafe where I went for a restorative vin chaud.
My brother made it safely off the mountain and we went into town where we had a booking at a lovely restaurant. I’d got him a voucher for there for Christmas so it seemed a bit unfair that I should get to benefit but he didn’t seem to mind and we both really enjoyed our dinner.
Wednesday, 22 February
Up at the crack of dawn to get my flight home. I have to say my brother was a brilliant host. He went to loads of trouble and I had an excellent time. Who would have thought it?
My kind husband collected me from the airport and after some confusion we managed to find each other. This enabled me to forgive him when I found that he had turned off the Aga. It was considerably colder in Dublin than in Annecy so it went straight back on again. The bill is truly terrifying and probably not great for the future of snow either but there it is.
The blossoms were out on next door’s plum tree and spring was a lot further along than when I left it. All in all nice to be home. I want Mr. Waffle to contemplate a spring break in Annecy next year though. We will see. Meanwhile, I have bought myself a Christmas table cloth as a souvenir. Mr. Waffle got a chimney sweep fridge magnet. Delighted.