Monday, April 13, 2015

Hanging out in Annecy France until the cows come home

French traditional street food, unbelievably picturesque medieval town, and french geese - can things get any more charming? The October weekend trip to Annecy in France to celebrate their Retour des Alpages exceeded our expectations. We showed up just expecting to see grazing animals parade down the street, but the additional festival in this beautiful location made for a full weekend.

Living in Europe has allowed us to experience small festivals that are harder to catch if we still lived in the US. On our never ending hunt for the next festival, we learned about the "Retour des Alpages" (French) or "Alpabfahrt" (German), which is the celebration of the return from the alps.
Annecy, France is located just outside of Switzerland in the  Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône-Alpes region.


As the autumn fades and the high grazing lands morph into a wintery wonderland, pasture animals are brought down to the villages where they are keep warm in barns until the spring. The tradition of celebrating the return of the grazing animals to the village (as well as their return back to the alps in the spring) dates back to the Middle Ages. This celebration has historically taken place throughout alpine Europe and is still celebrated in many villages. Traditionally, villages hold this ceremony when the weather is suitable for the animals to move locations. This uncertainty of date complicates planning for those wanting to watch. The most famous ceremony of this type in Northern Switzerland is in the village of Appenzell. Few villages keep the same date from year to year, which facilitates planning. Annecy holds theirs on the second Saturday of October.
2014 Retour des Alpages Poster


Starting at 9AM, Annecy steps back in time by transforming the old town into a family friendly traditionally themed festival. Scattered throughout the village you'll find several stages with live folk music and traditional handicrafts for sale. Vendors sell local foods like sausages, fried doughs, cheeses and fresh apple juice throughout the streets. Maps of festival are available at information booths, which are attended by multilingual staff.
2014 festival map
Annecy's old town during the Retour des Alpages Festival.
Fried handmade treats prepared on location.
Sausage in a baguette. Plenty of food venders to keep us satisfied until dinner.

Throughout the festival, one can find traditional craft demonstrations and a few places where visitors can give traditional craft-work a try. We really enjoyed that many people worked in the festival wearing traditional costumes.
Rural lumber sawing demonstration.
High quality hand woven baskets for sale.
Traditionally made butter; formed and available for immediate sale.
Even opportunities for young visitors to get their hands dirty.

Just outside the old city wall, animals are kept in waiting pens for their big moment in the parade. In addition, we found small animal pens at two of the main squares: Place Sainte Claire and Place François de Menthon. Visitors are welcome to visit the animals and snap a few photos. These pens are not petting zoos; they're an opportunity for young kids and kids at heart to see the animals up close.
In the middle of the action at Place Sainte Claire.
The animals seemed to enjoy all the attention.

The Parade

The festival's grand finale is a parade of farmers, traditionally dressed locals, musicians, and farm animals. Just before 2PM, venders along the parade route pack up and the streets become thick with spectators with their cameras. At half an hour before the parade, we secured a nice spot and waited for the start. Too bad some pushy lady decided she wanted our sport and stood right in front of us - grrr. Positioning for that perfect photo can get competitive.
Clearing the parade route.
All the hard working farm hands made an appearance.
We are all young at heart.
First time witnessing obedient geese.
Finishing off the parade with a herd of cows!

The number of spectators in the old town can be a bit overwhelming. If you want a little more breathing room, then it's best to view the parade further along the route in the newer portion of Annecy. This will also buy some more time if you're arriving late because the parade moves slowly.
View of  Retour des Alpages Parade from our room at Hotel des Alpes in the newer portion of town.

The town of Annecy

Aside from the festival, Annecy made for a nice weekend trip. If it weren't for the festival, we would have kept busy just strolling around the charming pedestrian old town with its picturesque walkways, enjoying the Sunday farmers market, window shopping in the many bouquets, and visiting the historic sites. Annecy is located right along Lake Annecy's edge and in close vicinity to the alps. It is a popular springboard for road or mountain biking, hiking and simply enjoying time by the lake. 
Annecy's Palais de l'Ile
Picturesque spot for a farmer's market.
Sampled several flavors of nougat before selecting which we'll bring home.
Annecy's Sunday market, where we stocked up on dried sausage.

Like any proper trip to France, we brought along our appetite ready to try the local specialties while still indulging on favorites from home.
Trying Tartiflette and a selection of local cured meats at Le Bon Lieu.
French dinner with a river view at Le Bastringue. Clever idea of turning a kids book into a menu.
Sometimes an expat just needs a bagel sandwich, at Boston Cafe.

Getting to Annecy

Traveling from Geneva, Switzerland to Annecy, France by public transportation was a breeze. After a short walk from Geneva's central train station to the city bus station, one can take a direct bus to Annecy's central train station. You can alternatively drive half an hour from Geneva to Annecy. Since we enjoy using public transportation and we didn't want to deal with finding public parking during a festival, we figured it would be best to take the bus and train.
Switzerland's amazing public transportation system never gets old; especially with a new book to read.
The train view of Lac Léman, AKA Lac de Genève
Bus between Geneva and Annecy wasn't too shabby.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Paris and Nuit Blanche

Every time I visit Paris, I like it a little more.
Place des Vosges

The first time I went to Paris, I frankly had the preconception that the city of lights was overhyped. During that visit we quickly crossed off the biggest highlights during a 12 hour layover and left. I would have been happy not returning for a long time.

Several years and visits later, I have come to enjoy the ritual of hanging out with friends for hours at a time in restaurants and cafés more than actually sightseeing. Besides, Paris has so many museums and famous places that it is overwhelming (and personally speaking, boring after a while) to see a lot during a single visit. So now my main priority while visiting Paris to enjoy good company and food.

This time Laure and I joined our friends Marc and Andrea from Zurich.
Andrea discovered Brasserie Julien, where we had the fanciest meal of our trip.
The best part was actually the dessert.
Andrea and Marc were able to charm the waiter to bring out a last flambéed dessert although they were supposedly out of them. 

We also checked out a cool cocktail bar named The Little Red Door, which served great drinks. The seemingly (and confusingly) secret façade plus the Prohibition-era interior definitely gives the vibe of a modern day Speakeasy, which has become fashionable nowadays.

Marc in front of the Little Red Door.
The real entrance is not actually where you would expect.
Exquisite drinks in the low-lit atmosphere of a modern day Speakeasy.

Easily the most memorable culinary goodie was the croissant at Blé Sucré. Laure and Andrea liked it so much that they went back on a later day. On that second day, they met someone that was writing about the café in article for a travel magazine.
The texture of the croissants at Blé Sucré is just how it should be: crispy on the outside and soft and airy in the inside.
A distinguishing attribute of these croissants is the hint of sweetness.

As for the actual sightseeing part of the trip, we checked out Montmartre district in the 18th arrondissement. It's one of Laure's favorite areas; probably because of the hilly streets that remind her of our former neighborhood in San Francisco, Telegraph Hill.
Our book-guided tour started near where raunchy cabarets sprung up in the late 1800's.
We checked out this huge church named Sacré-Cœur.
And Laure wore the right shoes for this graffito.
The Red Windmill.
Café des 2 Moulins was one of the sets in Laure's favorite movie, Amelie.
Lapin Agile was the watering hole of Picasso and other artists as well as some crazies.

We passed by a place named Le Bateau Lavoir, which basically offered low cost shared housing for artists. Some of those artists were famous; most notably Picasso. This reminded me of the recent trend in the tech world of similar shared housing for engineers working on start-ups. I wonder if future generations will look back at those the same way we look back at Le Bateau Lavoir.
Le Bateau Lavoir once housed Picasso among other famous artists.

In addition to Montmartre, Laure and I went inside the Notre Dame cathedral, which I had been wanting to do for a while.
Notre Dame.
We also grabbed some Gyros in the Latin Quarter.
Gyros with french fries is a thing.

Andrea found what turned out to be the coolest part of our trip: Nuit Blanche. Nuit Blanche ("White Night") is an annual event where many museums, churches, and public spaces become one huge free museum of contemporary art that is open all night. The event is so large that we found it impossible to see it all in one night.
Walking path signs for Nuit Blanche were stenciled onto the sidewalks.
This church housed a projection of laser like special effects that animated in synchronization with techno sounds.
The laser animation and sounds were generated by these two "scientists" in lab coats on their computers.
Even Notre Dame displayed some artistic videos.
One of the train stations under construction was repurposed as the set of a light and sound show.
My favorite performance was this cellist playing classical music in a dramatically lit square.

I recommend Nuit Blanche to others that want to check out something apart from the typical tourist attractions in Paris. It is a worthwhile local event that encourages you to escape the confinements of a guidebook and join the Parisians.