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.

History

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

Festival

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.