ANNECY, France: Surrounded by mountains and healthy-looking people, Lake Annecy is a smaller French version of Switzerland’s vast Lake Geneva.
In the winter, the fortunate local residents ski. In all seasons, they climb the peaks, cycle around and swim in their glorious lake.
Life in general is very pleasant. Hence the shock was all the greater when in September Annecy found itself swarming with police and international media, drawn to a brutal killing in woodland above the lake.
Three members of a British-Iraqi family were shot dead in their car, and at the roadside, a French cyclist unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time was also slain. A 4-year-old girl hid for eight hours beneath her dead mother’s skirts. Her 7-year-old sister was seriously injured.
The locals compared it to “l’affaire Dominici” – the killing of three Britons in their car in a different part of the French Alps in the 1950s. That crime was never conclusively solved and the ongoing fascination with it has inspired films.
Annecy’s press voiced concern about horror tourism as visitors made their way to the scene of the crime in the Combe d’Ire (literally Valley of Wrath), near the idyllic village of Chevaline. They may well have been going there anywhere as the area is stunningly beautiful, even by region’s exceptional standards.
Correspondents with local knowledge offer tips for the other sights to explore during a short stay.
Annecy is about 30 km from Geneva, home to the nearest airport for international flights. From Paris, it’s either a daytime train ride of just under four hours, or a slow night train to arrive in Annecy early in the morning.
You also need to decide what transport you’ll be using during your 48-hour stay. The Annecy way to travel is by bike and enjoy to the full the 35 km of “piste cyclable” (cycle track) that circles the lake, so come prepared with no more possessions than you can cram into a rucksack or panniers.
Arriving from the station, make your way southeast from the station to the Vieille Ville (Old City) – an area of narrow and enticing medieval streets on either side of the Canal du Thiou.
10 a.m. – On the island in the middle, the Palais de l’Isle, built in 1132, was once the home of the Lord of Annecy. It later became the Count of Geneva’s administrative headquarters, then a courthouse, a mint and a jail from the middle ages until well into the 19th-century and again during World War II. It now houses a display of the city’s and region’s history.
11 a.m. – The quaint surrounding streets, with their open air markets selling local produce, deserve an hour of wandering.
Midday – Au Fidele Berger at 2, rue Royale, between the old town and the station, was established in 1917 to serve up exquisite patisserie and hot chocolate. Lunch options include quiche and salad.
2 p.m. – Time to hire a bike. Roul’ ma Poule offers “comfort” models or more expensive racing bikes from a shop on the edge of the lake at 47, avenue du Petit Port.
Depending on how fit you are and the weather conditions, tackle the “piste cyclable” at your own pace. It makes use of the old railway route and tunnel, links up to gentle villages, and is frequented by cyclists of all ages as well as effortlessly cool rollerbladers.
A fine evening destination would be Talloires, Annecy’s most exclusive spot on the lakeshore.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can approach it via a tour all around the lake. Alternatively, you can head straight there and take in the scenery at a leisurely pace.
If you’re feeling flush, you can dine in Les Terrasses du Cottage and look out on to the turquoise lake. The adjoining hotel Le Cottage Bise has four-star accommodation and an air of old money.
8 a.m. – Time to follow the Annecy folk up one of their favorite climbs – La Tournette, at some 2,350 meters, the highest peak of the region.
It’s achievable for the moderately fit and there are chains to help with the last few meters of scrambling over rocks, snow-clad for most of the year.
From Talloires, you can also cycle a few, steep kilometers to the hamlet of Montmin, or you could order a taxi, but remember to make arrangements to be collected later. The walk takes roughly 6 hours 30 minutes. You’ll also need a picnic and a map would be wise.
9 a.m. – Near the church of Montmin there is a sign on a lavoir (washing trough) pointing you to La Tournette.
Follow it through the village and up a tarmac road, which becomes a rough track.
The route is marked with green splashes all the way and takes you through woodland, past a dry riverbed, through a wide rocky gulley and along a col with spectacular views. On a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc.
There is also a wealth of wildlife. You are more likely to hear the squeal of marmots than to see them, but the bouquetin (ibex) are far bolder.
Wolves have also been reintroduced and the locals insist they won’t hurt you, although shepherds have been complaining bitterly about lost sheep.
6 p.m. – Time to head back to Annecy, either by taxi or by bicycle.
If you opted for a taxi, you could have dinner and then take the night train.
If you’re on your bike, you won’t be able to return it to the hire shop until morning, forcing you to spend another night with the healthy lake-dwellers.
Annecy has a wealth of eateries in the medieval center.
It also has the Centre Bonlieu arts complex, which hosts festivals and has matinee as well as evening performances for the rainy days when the great outdoors is less alluring.