If you are in the French Alps and you happened to purchase a guidebook for the region, chances are, you stopped flipping the pages when you saw a page-sized photo of Lake Annecy. With water oh so blue and ancient chateaus littered around the lakes’ shore, it is hard to resist jumping in your European-sized car and buzzing over there for the day. Add to that, paragliders and outdoor enthusiast’s wildest dreams and a chance to tour the castle that inspired Sleeping Beauty’s castle and Annecy is a must see.
As with each day in France, we had good intentions of waking up early and leaving for the lake, but it takes time for ten adults to wake up, go into town for Cafe Ole’s and pain au chocolat and then pack for the day. We didn’t hit the road until after 10am.
The two hour drive to Annecy was over before we knew it and we quickly found ourselves winding through a much bigger “town” than we were expecting. Following the signs, we made it to the lake and the quaint part of town but then struggled to find a place to park the car. Much of Europe was not built with parking in mind. We eventually found a spot and wandered to a walking street with a row of outdoor restaurants that screamed, “cute French restaurants in a cute French lake town.”
Now I have to say I was a bit nervous about traveling to France with a poor grasp of the French language because I’d heard the French can be rude when you don’t at least try to speak French. I’d tried to learn French with the best intentions but alas, life and young kids and demanding jobs that take up much of my evening, made this a more challenging task than I was anticipating and I boarded the plane to France *hoping* the French were actually more forgiving than I’d heard from others.
With the exception of this single meal in Annecy, all of the French people we interacted with were quite pleasant in spite of the fact that we all completely butchered their language. During this particular meal, we made an effort to figure out what the French menu said and then order using words that were intended to sound like the French language. It apparently didn’t matter because the waiter seemed quite grumpy with us and we had a little bit of the impression that they were back in the kitchen spitting in our soup. We made it through the meal and started on a self-guided walking tour of Annecy.
The tour was nice but I would have preferred to have a real guide because I didn’t learn much as I kept forgetting to read the guidebook. We did see a gorgeous lake with a whole lot of water sports going on, old buildings and a lot of cute, quaint town.
Annecy’s history is a little hard to follow as it has been a part of quite a few different countries/kingdoms from France to Geneva and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The lake is the third largest in present-day France and is known as Europe’s cleanest lake due to strict environmental rules put in place in the 1960s. The most intriguing tourist site in Annecy was the Palais de l’Isle, a castle in the centre of the Thiou canal, built in 1132. It was the primary residence of the Lord of Annecy as early as the 12th century, and later became the Count of Geneva’s administrative headquarters, then alternately a courthouse, a mint, and finally a jail from the Middle Ages until 1865 and then again during World War II. The Palais de l’Ile was classified as a Historical Monument in 1900, and today houses a local history museum.
At the conclusion of our walking tour, we drove around the lake to tour Le Chateau de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. We barely talked ourselves into the last tour of the day, which I was thrilled about as I was dying to see the inside of a chateau. The tour started in a 13th century kitchen where the English-speaking guide explained the many innovations employed at the chateau which were ahead of its time. I was most intrigued by a trolley system they used to deliver food from the kitchen to different rooms in the house. It was also interesting to learn that in the 10th century, Bernand Menthon, the son of the family was betrothed to a woman who he apparently did not want to marry so he snuck out the window and ran away to become a monk. Giving himself up to God was evidently his calling as he founded the hospice at the Great Saint Bernard pass and raised dogs to help those in the mountains, eventually being canonized as Saint Bernard, the patron saint of skiers.
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From there we toured St. Bernard’s chapel, then the key room followed by the library with an expansive collection of over 12,000 books from before 1800 most of which date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The tour continued through the last Countess’s tapestry-covered bedroom and a great hall filled with extremely antique furniture and portraits of the many Menthons through the ages. Boy do hairstyles change over centuries. It was also neat to learn that the family had successfully hidden Jews in the castle during World War II. Good people those Menthons. Our last stop was another kitchen turned dining hall and gift shop.
It was fantastic to see eight rooms of the chateau but it left me wanting more. The castle/chateau has 105 rooms over four levels and I couldn’t understand why we were not invited to see more of them. The tour guide answered my question when he explained that the living Menthons still live in the castle. I couldn’t believe it! Two people, one of which, a descendant of a family who had occupied and renovated the castle for over 1000 years were still living in at least some percentage of the other 97 rooms. I walked around the castle wishing I could peek inside the windows of the rest of the castle, but those castle walls do a good job of keeping away peeping tourists.
We took in the view for a little while, checked out the noisy peacocks living right next to the castle and then drove down towards the lake and had a nice swim. After changing into dry clothes, I learned that we would be taking the most outrageous scenic route you can possibly imagine home, up the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. These mountains are two famous climbs in the Tour de France that it turns out television does not do even the slightest bit of justice for how steep and precarious the roads over the mountains are. My nerves from the ride to Villard Notre Dame the day before were already frayed and I started to wonder if I was going to have PTSD from the Alps. For the third day in a row, I found myself giving myself a mental pep talk that eventually I would look back on these adventures fondly, assuming I survived them.
We slowly but surely made our way up to the summit of the Col du Galibier at 8,678 feet, all the way hoping that our tiny car stayed on the narrow road. At certain points, the three of us passengers in the car were literally leaning into the mountain, subconsciously willing the car to stay away from the dramatic edge of the incredibly steep mountain.
Unfortunately, the carrot at the end of the slightly scary adventure, a restaurant in a small town on the descent called La Grave was closed so we were forced to drive back to Bourg d’Oisans and beg a pizza parlor stay open and serve us. We must have looked desperate enough that they made us what tasted like the best pizza ever. All of that beauty and excitement coupled with a bit of stress sure does work up an appetite.