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Annecy is a French fairy tale

My kind of place: This quaint medieval delight is packed with charm, history, culture and stunning views, writes Victoria Pyke.

Some of the many stores and cafes that line the streets alongside the Thiou river in Annecy, which lies in the shadow of the Alps. Hemis.fr / Getty Images
Some of the many stores and cafes that line the streets alongside the Thiou river in Annecy, which lies in the shadow of the Alps. Hemis.fr / Getty Images

Why Annecy?

In the shadow of the Alps, just 40 kilometres south of Geneva, this quaint French town of 50,000 inhabitants has more than a touch of the fairy tale about it. According to the local tourist board, Walt Disney used Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard - the majestic castle perched over Annecy's breathtaking lake - as inspiration when creating the castle in Sleeping Beauty.

The town sits on the northern tip of Lake Annecy and boasts plenty of charming shops to satisfy spending urges within its pedestrian-friendly, medieval centre. And then there's the culture, with ample churches and monuments to discover.

For those needing yet further enticement to visit, on July 20, the world's leading cyclists will start the penultimate stage of the Tour de France at Annecy, and, on August 3, at the annual Lake Festival, 200,000 spectators will gather to witness an astounding 70-minute firework display, complete with music, lights and special effects.

There's more to the lake and its surrounding waterfront than just spectacle, though: hike the lakeside trails, cycle its 45km perimeter, or paraglide from the granite peaks that frame it. And, if you're visiting in the winter, skiing is an option.

A comfortable bed

L'Impérial Palace (www.hotel-imperial-palace.com; 00 33 4 50 09 30 00), which originally opened in 1913 and hosted luminaries such as Winston Churchill and Edith Piaf, is a four-star, 99-room hotel on the lake's edge. A double room with park view is €310 (Dh1,461) per night, including taxes. Pay €80 (Dh377) more for a lake view.

A little way around the lake you'll find one of the oldest hotels in France, L'Abbaye de Talloires (www.abbaye-talloires.com; 00 33 4 50 60 77 33). This four-star abode was once a chapel, then a monastery, before being converted to an abbey in the 17th century. Paul Cézanne, the impressionist, stayed between 1895 and 1896 and painted Lac d'Annecy on the shores. Today, French actor Jean Reno is among the popular hotel's shareholders. Rooms from €180 (Dh848).

Un Lieu Unique (www.unlieuunique.com; 00 33 6 15 32 12 22) offers three self-contained apartments around Annecy's Old Town area. It is somewhere between a boutique hotel and a luxury bed-and-breakfast. Prices from €140 (Dh660), including taxes.

Find your feet

Starting at L'Impérial Palace, pass the town's beach and head along the tree-lined Avenue d'Albigny. With the lake on your left, enter Le Pâquier, a large green expanse that borders the lake, opposite the town's shopping district. Here you can hire boats and pedalos to venture out onto the pristine waters. Cross the Pont des Amours (Lovers' Bridge) and enter the Jardins de l'Europe (Europe's Gardens). As you exit the gardens, on the right is L'Hotel de Ville (the town hall) and the churches of Saint Maurice and Saint François - it is here that Saint Francis of Sales is now entombed.

Follow the Thiou river to the Palais de l'Ile, the star of most postcard images of the town. This pre-18th century building was once used as a prison. Take your picture here before criss-crossing the river to explore the medieval streets.

Shop, or dine, in the many quaint stores and cafes that line the streets, then head to the Musée-Château. The restored castle, built between the 12th and 16th centuries, once served as a residence for the Counts of Geneva before it was abandoned in the 17th century. Its elevated position offers stunning views.

Meet the locals

Annecy is very much a tourist town and the locals are friendly, encouraging and patient with those using their school-learnt French.

Book a table

Clos des Sens (www.closdessens.com; 00 33 4 50 23 07 90) has two Michelin stars and a terrace overlooking the town. The original menu is €140 (Dh660) per person, featuring locally caught red mullet, and there is also a discovery menu for €96 (Dh452). Yoann Conte (www.yoann-conte.com; 0033 4 50 09 97 49) in Veyrier-du-Lac also has two Michelin stars. Chef Conte took over the business from his mentor Marc Veyrat, the renowned French chef who specialises in molecular gastronomy. Enjoy Conte's signature set menu for €189 (Dh891) or the seven-course discovery for €159 (Dh749). Both establishments have accommodation.

Alongside the river, near the Palais de l'Ile, are numerous eateries offering fish from the lake and, thanks to the proximity to Italy, excellent pizzas. As the town is close to the Alps, fondue is readily available. Don't leave without trying the local Savoyard dish tartiflette, with locally sourced salmon.

Shopper's paradise

On the last Saturday of every month, Annecy hosts a large flea market throughout the old quarter. The wares range from vintage furniture to antiques and jewellery.

There are markets throughout the week for fresh, local produce in Annecy and around the lake.

There is a blend of unique artisans, to tourist-friendly and high-street names, plus a shopping centre, Courier, and a large Galeries Lafayette department store.

What to avoid

Avoid jumping into the often tourist-filled brasseries on the waterfront. While food standards are consistently high, there are some great finds to be made slightly off the beaten track.

Don't miss

The Omnibus ferry stops at the villages around the lake. You can hop off to explore and board a later lap back to town. If that seems a little too energetic, then opt for a lunch or dinner cruise on-board the MS Libellule (www.annecy-croisieres.com). Until September 2, you can enjoy a cabaret-style musical atmosphere while the chef prepares fish fresh from the lake for €39.50 (Dh186).

Go there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct to Geneva from Dh3,580 return, including taxes. The flying time is six hours.


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