Piers Letcher fills up on fromage and tartiflette in the picturesque town of Annecy
As New Yorkers have the Hamptons, Parisians have Annecy – an arresting little town perched on the edge of a flawless turquoise lake against a backdrop of frosted French Alps.
As well as being a welcome getaway from snooty waiters and the Metro, Annecy is also famous as the town most French people would live in, given the chance – and it’s not hard to see why. A network of canals zigzags its way past a lofty castle and through medieval streets where the air is thick with the smell of local cheese and window boxes overflow with red geraniums.
Perfection does come at a price – Annecy’s alpine idyll has developed a reputation for being expensive and elitist. If you have cash to splash, there’s no end of fancy hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants that will welcome you. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Annecy can also be enjoyed on a more modest budget.
Strolling the ancient streets is the easiest and most cost-effective way to get your bearings – indeed, with countless humpback bridges, old stone steps and narrow passages, it is clear that Annecy’s town planners had a flagrant disregard for anything on wheels. Take in the Palais de l’Île – the 12th-century prison that sits like the prow of an old stone ship in the middle of the main canal – then clamber up the steep hill above the old town to see the castle at close quarters and gaze down on the jumble of cobbles and canals below.
Back on the streets, avoid the smarter, pricier boutiques of the main thoroughfares and dive down some of the darker sidestreets such as Passage des Echoppes or Passage Gruffaz. Here you will stumble upon tiny shops tucked into corners and under stone arches where you can spend hours browsing dusty tomes of Baudelaire or piles of antique lace tablecloths.
Look out for La Procure on Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, a tiny bookshop where the shelves groan with volumes old and new, and Antiques et Puces on Faubourg des Annonciades, a mini emporium of French knick-knacks. On the last Saturday of every month, the streets of the old town play host to more than 200 antiques stalls where you can hunt for bargain Louis XV furniture and local wood carvings.
The food market that takes place every weekend is a sneaky way of getting a free lunch – with a strong ‘try before you buy’ tradition, it’s easy to fill up on fabulous local meats, hunks of cheese and freshly baked biscuits without handing over a euro.
One shop not to miss is La Crèmerie du Lac on Rue du Lac, a fromage utopia. A cool cave of cheeses stretches back into the gloom behind the main shop, filled with shelf after shelf of fragrant beaufort and ash-covered chèvre. Unsurprisingly, Alain, the owner and fromageur affineur, is passionate about his cheese and will gladly chat to customers over a nibble of roquefort.
If you’re still peckish, try a hearty plate of the local tartiflette – bubbling reblochon cheese swimming over layers of potatoes and onion. It’s cheap and warming, and you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day. Head to Le Pichet, a cosy, chalet-style restaurant on Rue Perrière, for the best tartiflette in town.
Out on the lake, elegant steamers ply the waters – complete with high-end floating restaurants and extortionate cocktails. Instead, burn off that tartiflette by hiring a bike, or be romantic and wobble round on a tandem.
Avoiding the surrounding mountains, the 40km trail that skirts the lake is wonderfully flat; all along the western shore the old railway track has been converted into a smooth bicycle path. Whizz past lakeside villages and green meadows, whoop your way through the old, echoing, vaulted tunnel halfway down the lake, and munch on a baguette as you gaze across the waters.
Many people miss it, but don’t ignore the Bout du Lac Nature Reserve. Here, keen-eyed naturalists can look out for kingfishers and beaver footprints among the pine trees and gurgling streams.
Serious cyclists will want to head for the hills, especially the Col de la Forclaz (1,157m), located high above the eastern shore. It’s a long, steep climb, but the view from the top is worth the pain – from here you can look down onto the deep-blue lake some 700m below, with a perfect castle perched on a promontory in the foreground, villages strung out along the shores, and Annecy itself shimmering in the distance.
For a halcyon ending to your thrifty weekend, head back to Annecy where an old bal musette, complete with accordions and songs of the 40s, is set up every Sunday afternoon in the park.
A lilting waltz on a hazy summer afternoon makes for a fine pre-aperitif activity before you settle with a cool beer and some free live jazz in a tiny medieval courtyard at the Café des Arts.