As someone who’s trying to see the world, I was initially a bit sheepish about coming back to France for the second autumn in a row. There are so many countries I haven’t visited yet! But Melissa and I keep seeing openings for housesits in France that are too good not to apply for. And if we’re lucky enough to get picked for them, how can we say no?
Plus, France is a nation with very distinct regions. This fall we were back in east-central France, only about 120 miles from last fall’s housesit. But the scenery, history, traditions, and local cuisine were completely different. Last year we were in a rural village (population 200) in the southern part of the historical region of Burgundy. This year we were in the lakeside city of Annecy (pop. 130,000) at the foot of the French Alps.
This region was part of its own country, the Duchy of Savoy, until 1860, making it one of the last areas to become part of mainland France. Today, the mountainous Savoy region is split among France, Italy, and Switzerland. The nearest big city to Annecy is Geneva, Switzerland, just a 45-minute drive away.
Annecy has a strong Savoyard identity. Many restaurants proudly feature traditional Savoy dishes—which, in the fall, include a lot of cheese fondue, lake fish, and creamy or cheesy potatoes. Savoy flags are common. At first, Melissa wondered why she was seeing so many Swiss flags in Annecy, until she learned that the traditional flag of Savoy is almost identical.
Annecy has a beautiful setting: on the edge of a long, narrow lake ringed by mountains with limestone cliffs. You can see mountains from the ends of many streets, including in our suburban neighborhood a few kilometers from the center of the city.
The oldest parts of Annecy are wonderfully picturesque. A clear, shallow river flows out of the lake through the old town. It’s lined with pedestrian walkways full of shops and restaurants (including the outdoor cafe where Melissa and I ate fondue while she sketched the painting at the top of this post). On either side of the river are cobbled streets with medieval and Renaissance buildings, many set on arched arcades that lead to more shops and restaurants. A castle dating from the 13th century sits on a high point just above the old town.
Other than the castle hill, Annecy is fairly flat. It’s a lovely place for strolling, whether along the pedestrian shopping streets or in the lakeside parks. On weekends with good weather—which we had a lot of in October—the old town can get very crowded with French and international tourists. Annecy’s location makes it easy to combine with visits to Geneva, Lyon, or Alpine French towns such as Chamonix or Grenoble (both past sites of the Winter Olympics).
The people we housesat for described Annecy as a very sporty place. There are hiking and skiing and paragliding in the mountains, swimming and boating and paddle boarding on the lake, and cycling everywhere. A bike path around the lake was recently finished, and people are flocking to it. On one of the last fine days of early November, we tried to rent electric bikes to cycle around the lake. But all of the shops we tried had already sold out. So we took a bus to a village halfway down the lake and had a beautiful walk along the bike path, admiring the scenery and watching paragliders circling far overhead.
Annecy doesn’t have much in the way of museums. There are some bits of city history in the Palais de l’Isle, a medieval building on the river that served, at various times, as a palace, a prison, or a royal mint. And there are some art and natural history exhibitions in the castle. (For a first-rate art museum, head south to Grenoble, as we did for a getaway.)
Likewise, the churches in Annecy aren’t particularly pretty. Some of them are notable, though, as the houses of worship and burial places of Annecy’s two saints: Francois (Francis) de Sales and Jeanne (Jane) de Chantal. In 1610, they founded an order of nuns called the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary (or Visitandines), which spread around the world and still exists today, focusing on education and charity.
Annecy came into its own in the 1500s, when the Bishop of Geneva moved his headquarters to the city after Geneva as taken over by Calvinist Protestants. From our wanderings around Annecy reading plaques, we also learned that Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in Annecy for many years and that Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne spent a summer on the lake. (His paintings of the area have all gone elsewhere.)
The house we looked after in Annecy wasn’t as picturesque as the 500-year-old stone farmhouse we lived in last fall. But, being from the 20th century, it was much warmer. The house had a beautiful glass sunroom on the back, perfect for enjoying views of the fall color on the trees and the first dusting of snow on the mountains. Our house was close to two bus lines and a five-minute walk from all the French staples: bakeries, butcher, fishmonger, produce market, cheese shop, grocery store, cafes, and a cinema. No need for a giant automatic-transmission rental car this time.
What made our Annecy housesit really notable were the three cats we looked after. Most of the pets we take care of are ordinary breeds or mixed mutts. These cats were Siberian Neva Masquerades, a rare breed from Russia. (The owners got them while living in Moscow for many years.) They’re large, hardy cats with exceptionally thick fur to help them withstand Siberian winters.
Their fluffy white and gray coats and round blue eyes make them very pretty animals. But what really won us over was their affectionate natures. The cats would seek us out regularly for petting and scritches or to lie next to us on a couch or table. (Open laptop keyboards were a favorite resting place.) The only downside was that we had to vacuum the floors, sofas, and chairs every day to keep the tufts of fur under control. But for the chance to spend a month with such sweet and adorable kitties—and to experience a new part of France—the daily vacuuming was well worth it.