My trip to the Republic began in the Confederation. Specifically the Confederation of Helvetica or CH for short, otherwise known as Switzerland.
Acceptable names for geographical entities would be one of the first things to learn as I disembarked from my flight at Geneva airport. I was told not to refer to the lake of the same name by that epithet. Rather, it should be addressed as le Lac Léman. This designation stretched back to Roman times when it was part of Cisalpine Gaul – the Gauls on their side of the Alps as opposed to Transalpine Gaul to the west.
Geneva, the city of refuge and shelter for political exiles, only happens to be the largest settlement of many on the shores of this massive body of fresh water. Therefore, especially to a patriotic Française, it has no right to lay claim to the entire aqueous territory, which is equally French and Swiss.
The departement I was visiting la Haute-Savoie or Upper Savoy – it is one of two Savoys, as one of the postcards I was kindly gifted by my host’s mother informed me. The Savoy has at various points in its history been part of Lotharingia, the Kingdom of Burgundy and the Holy Roman Empire prior to its contemporary Frenchness.
I’d been on a class trip to Switzerland in secondary school where we’d visited the UN in Geneva and gone on the cable car up Mont Blanc from Chamonix. This stay, however, would be more shoreline and historical than Alpine and diplomatic.
My base was the quiet village of Anthy-sur-Léman. It was, indeed, very quiet. There was no shop, just a couple of restaurants, only one of which was open, and a place to buy fish open on weekdays 9-12 (also closed).
I was informed that most people living there are what is known as frontaliers. They work in Switzerland where the wages are high and reside in France on the other side of the lake where living costs are comparatively low. My friend aspired to join this class and work for a Swiss law firm in Geneva. It makes economic sense, from an individual perspective.
People don’t just merely exist here though. Apart from hobbyist lake fishing, the area is a spa region. Its biggest town (barring the capital Annecy, further inland – more on that later) is Thonon-les-Bains, in other words “the baths”. In German it would be a prefix – “Baden-something” (even if that’s also Baden, see “Baden-Baden”).
Something I noticed in the semi-rural villages skirting the shore of the Lac Léman is the abundance of fountains. Most came with a warning affixed – “l’eau n’est pas potable”. The water’s not potable. In Germany where public taps appear it says simply, “Kein Trinkwasser”. Is there an ideological difference here? I feel as if the French is more informational – at your own risk, whereas the German, in referring to a verb, is more behaviourally proscriptive. It was from the fountains that I learnt some more French signage lore – SVP – s’il vous plait.
I’m new to this country’s abbreviations and shorthand. The last times I visited I was a complete cultural ignoramus. To be fair, I was a child when I was taken to Paris without a clue about its history. I knew nothing of the revolution! Then there was the aforementioned cable car where I think my knowledge of the French language extended to being very pleased with myself to be able to recognise that the hot chocolate I enjoyed at the summit of Mont Blanc was indeed “chaud”.
I get the impression that Chablais is not a particularly touristy region and I liked that because it made for a more culturally immersive experience. Regular readers will know that I do a fair bit of solo travelling and I enjoy it. When travelling alone, though, one is quite often in survival mode, constantly planning and working out how to acquire essentials in a non-embarrassing and semi-competent way. With a guide and companion, this base-level stress evaporates and you are enabled to experience things otherwise debarred.
Previously I mentioned the capital of la Haute-Savoie – Annecy. I had looked it up beforehand in a bit of pre-trip googling. It looked gorgeous. Beautiful turquoise waters surge in between narrow medieval streets situated in an Alpine amphitheatre. Could we go there? I suggested tentatively on WhatsApp. It’s about an hour’s drive. The reply: a tourist trap, so cliché. Haunt of the Anglos. We’ll not go there. Instead – to Yvoire.
Another example of something I’d never have been or unlikely to have been, brave enough to do on my own was the meal out in a relatively fancy restaurant where the waiting staff only laughed at me at the very end when I came to pay on my way out. It basically comprised a glass cube stretching out over the lake, which was great for the first 40 minutes or so before it got dark.
I was fascinated by the tremendous-smelling baskets filled with unidentified battered objects being delivered to the surrounding tables. Can we have that? I suggested. They weren’t on the starters list; aperitifs – 9 euros. Okay then. We were presented with whitebait coated in the thinnest veneer of batter; the tiny fish’s eyes starting up at us was slightly off-putting. It seemed the smell had a more potent effect than the taste which was pretty much batter with a hint of fishy oil offset by a little ramakin of tartare sauce. Not something one can gorge on. Ironically, it seems what we ended up having was basically a fancy version of fish and chips, albeit freshly caught from le Lac Léman.
The highlight of the trip for me was the first full day. We began by taking in not one but two medieval castles – one each for adjacent summits, known collectively as the Châteaux des Allinges. These belonged to the Count of Savoy, a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor in days gone by. They are named respectively, Château Vieux and Château Neuf. In the latter, there was a chapel containing a fresco from the 10th century, remarkably well-preserved. Its colour palette reminded me of our single painted stone fragment in Glasgow Cathedral’s lower church. It was special to have these heavily stylised, almost cartoonish depictions of the evangelists to ourselves for a good 10 minutes, even though there was what appeared to be a pilgrim group having lunch in the courtyard outside. The site is associated with St Francois de Sales who was a late 16th/early 17th-century churchman tasked with winning back the inhabitants of Chablais to Catholicism after they had been persuaded by the Calvinist teachings radiating from Geneva.
From this doubly fortified hilltop, we descended down the valley past cowbelled cattle and notices about forest hunting rules. That gave me the feeling of the type of holiday I seem to have developed a liking for of late. The kind where you just walk without knowing precisely what’s in front of you but with a definite ultimate destination. You notice the subtly alien nature in your vicinity – the rustle of the brush denoting neither lurking wrens nor nervous robins but flighty lizards. You seek strategically placed waypoints where an ambiguous fork appears.
This trip did not quite have the purpose of my Aachen visit, but being relieved of purpose, and surrendering to the curated itinerary of another has its appeal too. My typically serious travels will resume in the summer as I visit another kaiserliche Hauptstadt and embark on the English leg of the Camino de Santiago.