Our epic European adventure was winding up, however, it turned out the best part was still to come, but first, a quick recap of our trip thus far:
- Part 1: After months of planning and countless itinerary changes due to Covid, we finally arrived in Baden, Switzerland, but as luck would have it, a couple from the group of friends we had wanted to catch up with for Christmas there had Covid. We still managed to make the most of it and ended up having a fantastic time.
- Part 2: We traveled from Zurich, Switzerland to Lyon, France and it seemed like we were constantly eating, stopping off at some awesome markets along the way, and then making complete fools of ourselves on the final day.
- Part 3: We then had an anticlimactic and, to be honest, dull time in Nice, France for a few days over the New Year’s period, but things improved when we spent two nights in Aix-en-Provence.
Now we were on the final leg of our trip, which meant jumping on a train once again. One of the places we had planned to stay when we were first organising this holiday was Venice, a city that neither of us had visited before, but both had always wanted to, however, for some bizarre reason Italy’s health ministry banned all tourists from Singapore on December 16. Well, if we couldn’t visit the real Venice, maybe we should just spend a night in the Venice of the Alps while we were still in France, a place called Annecy:
Annecy is the prefecture and largest city of the Haute-Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of Southeastern France. It lies on the northern tip of Lake Annecy, 35 kilometres (22 mi) south of Geneva, Switzerland. Nicknamed the “Pearl of French Alps” in Raoul Blanchard’s monograph describing its location between lake and mountains, the city controls the northern entrance to the lake gorge. Due to a lack of available building land between the lake and the protected Semnoz mountain, its population has remained stagnant, around 50,000 inhabitants, since 1950. However, the 2017 merger with several ex-communes extended the city population to 126,924 inhabitants and 170,753 for its urban area, placing Annecy seventh in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
Switching from the counts of Geneva’s dwelling in the 13th century, to the counts of Savoy’s in the 14th century, the city became Savoy’s capital in 1434 during the Genevois-Nemours prerogative until 1659. Its role increased in 1536, during the Calvinist Reformation in Geneva, while the bishop took refuge in Annecy. Saint Francis de Sales gave Annecy its advanced Catholic citadel role known as Counter-Reformation. The annexation of Savoy merged the city to France in 1860. Sometimes called “Venice of the Alps“, this idyllic and touristic representation comes from the three canals and the Thiou river, which passes through the old city. The city experienced an industrial development in the 19th century with silk manufacturing. Some of its industrial legacy remains today with the headquarters of NTN-SNR bearings, Salomon, Entremont and Dassault Aviation.
From the end of the 19th century, Annecy developed tourism around its lake summer facilities, winter resorts proximity and cultural attraction with its castle renovation and fine art museum opening in 1956 and the Animated Film Festival since 1963, hosted in Bonlieu’s cultural centre.
So that’s exactly what we did.
Wednesday, January 5, 2022
We bid farewell to Aix-en-Provence, caught yet another train and arrived in Annecy at around 4:00pm. We had unloaded a lot of gifts to our friends while we were in Baden, Switzerland for Christmas, but we had also accumulated a lot more food and wine since then, plus Anna had bought her fair share of dresses and other items since we had been in France so when we arrived at the train station our taxi driver refused to help me load our bags and suitcases into the car, citing a “sore back”. I’m not completely convinced that was really the case, but I didn’t particularly care, I was more than happy to dump our luggage in the boot by myself so we could check into another exceptionally cool abode for the night, Le Boutik Hotel, and then get outside as soon as possible to appreciate this stunning town. We loved our hotel room, but that could wait, it was now time to explore so we immediately exited the hotel the moment our suitcases were on the floor of our room and wandered around Venice of the Alps, just taking in the gorgeous scenery, looking through some peculiar shops, and, much to Anna’s delight, stumbling upon a cafe with a huge range of macarons and pastries.
Our first look around Annecy:
We very well may have gone a little too hard in the cafe so our final dinner in France would have to be a slightly lighter one than usual, but there was still a bit of time to walk this load off as well. We spent the next three hours strolling along the Thiou river, considered to be one of the cleanest rivers in all of Europe and the source of the city’s canals, passing the beautiful Palais de l’Isle, the main image for this entry, several times in the process:
The Palais de l’Isle is a 12th-century castle on an island in the river Thiou in Annecy’s administrative headquarters. It mostly served as a prison and courthouse until the French Revolution. It again was a prison during World War II. The Palais de l’Ile was classified as a Historical Monument in 1900, and today houses a local history museum.
Once we had passed a man fishing in a well we were starting to get hungry again and although we had eaten a lot of cheese on this trip and would have plenty more to come when we returned to Switzerland, we still hadn’t had raclette on this journey through France, but fortunately Le Freti, a restaurant specialising in raclette and fondue, was nearby. Dinner was spent dipping ham, pickles, bread, and vegetables in melted cheese or just scraping it onto our food and then it was time for our last night out in this country.
We stumbled upon a small bar that seemed like my type of place, owned by a Chinese guy who first moved to Annecy as a student, then started a Chinese restaurant, but sold it in the end to buy the bar. When he first saw Anna he started to speak to her in Chinese, no great surprise there, however, one thing I wasn’t expecting to see in a rather small city in France was a guy walk through the door in a GG Allin hoodie! If you have no idea who GG was, just click that link for the basics, but if you’re brave enough and actually want to see the man do his thing (both figuratively and literally), find yourself a copy of the documentary Hated: GG Allin And The Murder Junkies, but just make sure the kids are out of the room, it’s definitely NSFW! Anyway, I went up to the guy and mentioned the hoodie and we had a couple of new friends for the night when he knew I was more than aware of who GG Allin was. It’s also worth noting that this guy wasn’t crazy like the man on his clothing, just completely inebriated.
A look back at dinner, drinks, and a bit of the city:
Thursday, January 6, 2022
We only had a few hours to take in this town by the light of day before we were to be driven over the Swiss border and into Geneva so we had better get going. We did our usual thing when we woke up, packed our stuff, when out for a coffee, and had a look around the shops in Annecy, taking a few photos along the way on one of the only sunny days we had had so far, and before long it was time to meet up with our driver for the 45-minute trek back into Switzerland. There was so much red tape to cut through when we had first traveled from Singapore into Switzerland, almost all of which was at the Singapore end, including Covid testing, proof of vaccination and boosters, and a bunch of printed official QR cards to prove that the information we were providing was legitimate so we wanted to make sure that we had all bases covered and not mess up our return over the border. As we were approaching the checkpoint I asked our driver if there was anything else we’d need to provide or at least consider when we went through immigration, his reply being, “Unless you’re carrying a kilogram of cocaine, nope”. He wasn’t kidding either, the guard just asked our driver where he was going and that was it, they didn’t even look at our passports!
Once we had arrived in Geneva we were back on the train again for a 2.5-hour journey to Zürich. When we arrived our plan was to grab a beer and wait for our now virus-free buddies, Tom and Leonie, with whom we had intended to spend Christmas almost two weeks earlier, plus two other mutual pals from our local pub back in Singapore, Peter and Ray. They had been staying in a chalet with some of our other friends in Chamonix, France, where Pete had just proposed to Ray, and then made their way down to Zürich to hang out with the rest of us, the last time all six of us had met up together being back in late 2019 while Tom and Leonie were still living in Korea so this was going to be a great couple of days.
Anna and myself started out quite early as we waited for everyone else and when they all arrived it turned into the type of night you would expect from a bunch of mates who hadn’t all caught up together in a couple of years, first fondue once again for dinner followed by quite a few drinks. Leonie had an early dentist appointment the following day and left a little after the fondue stage of the evening, but to be honest, its all a bit of a blur so here’s what my phone says happened that night, as well as our last glimpse of Annecy earlier in the day:
Friday, January 7, 2022
This was the day Anna had been looking forward to the most on this trip. While initially planning our holiday, which was originally going to be to Germany, she had been researching saunas and thermal hot springs and had discovered one where everyone is naked in Baden-Baden, something I never figured would appeal to her, but this woman always finds ways to surprise me. We had spent a few months living in Germany in 2015 so obviously we pivoted away from there once Vaccinated Travel Lanes opened between Singapore and other European countries, but there were some of the most famous thermal baths in the world to check out back in Baden, Switzerland too, however, that was for a little later in the day, because there were other matters that needed to be taken care of first. When I was packing for this adventure I figured I wouldn’t need shorts when we were staying in Switzerland and the Alps in the middle of winter, but I guessed incorrectly once again as these baths weren’t naked so the bulk of Friday was spent wandering around from store to store in Zürich, searching for reasonably priced swimming attire. We knew that the spa we were going to would have rental shorts, however, not only did they seem more expensive than we had anticipated actually buying a pair would be when you were just going to be returning them in an hour or two, but there were other factors such as what had previous wearers done while donning them, as well as how often they were washed. Don’t get me wrong, Switzerland is extremely clean and orderly, but I guess living in South-East Asia for the past 14 years has left me a little cautious when it come to these situations.
We got up, got coffee, and then we were out scanning menswear and sporting goods shops in order to find a pair of shorts for me while taking in a proper look at the city of Zürich itself for the first time during the day and while completely sober. I guess purchasing any items of clothing that generally tend to be worn during the warmer months of the year isn’t a common situation here in the middle of January, because it took a significant amount of time and quite a few rejections before we finally actually came across swimming attire. I thought I had found a pair in one of the first stores we visited, but they looked a bit tight — It turned out they were children’s ski pants. Another store had a single pair of shorts for sale, but they were padded women’s shorts. Sure, I don’t really have an ass, but still not a good look on me. I thought I’d hit paydirt when we finally discovered a pair only to see that they were going to set us back CHF80.00 (US$87.00) for some shorts that I would have on for two hours tops and then may become part of my gym rotation when I got back to Singapore. For a bit of perspective, the shorts I wear to the gym come from Uniqlo and are currently on sale for S$14.95 (US$11.00), however, this pair was going to cost me what equates to S$118.00 or the equivalent of purchasing almost eight pairs of my usual gym shorts. We decided to keep looking, but the only other shorts we encountered were a pair of Puma ones in the train station that still cost CHF30.00 (US$33.00), but I had no other choice if we wanted to enjoy the thermal baths. I told you this was an expensive country.
Once we had been extorted out of a substantial amount of cash so I could avoid wearing communal shorts, it began to snow so we headed over to the station to catch the train to Baden and go to the spa.
A quick look around Zürich, as well as Baden in the snow:
We figured that if the name of a town translates into “Baths”, then Baden might be the correct place to enjoy some thermal baths:
The Baden thermal baths are the oldest known thermal springs in Switzerland. They are located in Baden and in neighboring Ennetbaden in the canton of Aargau , on both sides of a distinctive bend in the Limmat. At the intersection between the Swiss Plateau and the Folded Jura, the thermal water flows through layers of shell limestone and rises in the spring area through fissures in the Keup layer above to the surface. Of the total of 21 springs, 18 are in Baden and three in Ennetbaden. The water is on average 46.6 ° C and has a particularly high proportion of calcium and sulphates. With a total mineralization of 4450 mg / l, it is the most mineral-rich in the entire country.
The Celts were the first to use the healing power of thermal water during the late La Tène period. At the beginning of the 1st century the Romans built important thermal baths in the immediate vicinity of which the small-town settlement Aquae Helveticae was built. Possibly the bathing business continued to exist in late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages. Written sources about the baths have been around since the 13th century. During the rule of the Habsburgs and after the conquest of Aargau by the Swiss. Baden was one of the most important health resorts in Europe and was visited by numerous high-ranking people. Not least because of the baths, the confederates held their most important meetings here from 1416.
Obviously the baths are a little less archaic now than they would have been when the Romans first built them two millennia ago and the one Anna had booked tickets to was called Fortysevenº. When we first arrived it looked on the inside like your regular health club, resplendent with an array of both rental shorts, as well as some for purchase, once you had passed the front counter, but I no longer needed any so we went to our respective change rooms and before long we were in the water. The layout of the baths was pretty simple; there were two indoor baths, one thermal with a giant shower part attached for full emersion, the other the same as the outdoor temperature. There were also two outdoor thermal baths, one of them an enormous communal bath, the other a smaller, private bath. We started off in the indoor thermal bath and it was really nice and relaxing. While in we saw a woman get into the one that was the external temperature and submerge herself to about her waist, just hanging out in there for a bit before exiting, and this gave Anna some hope. I’m not a fan of the cold so I wasn’t going in there, but Anna decided to give it a try and to be fair she managed to submerge both feet up to the ankles for a few seconds before she had had enough and came back out with me.
The outdoor baths were connected to the indoor ones by a small archway with large plastic sheets hanging down over the water, much like on the baggage carousels at the airport, in order to keep the cold out. Initially we thought the idea of sitting in a thermal pool outside in the snow was insane, but we were pretty much the only people indoors the entire time we were there, everyone else was just relaxing in the water outside. We figured that that was the thing to do and we had paid for tickets for the opportunity to try it so why not go outside for a bit? That turned out to be the absolute right thing to do in this climate, it was simply glorious in there. Our bodies were obviously warm, because we were submerged in 47ºC (116.6ºF) water, but our faces weren’t cold outside either due to the heat from the bath emanating upward and the snow evaporating above us.
I guess it was in an effort to prevent creeps from doing their thing, but cameras weren’t allowed in the baths, however, we managed to sneak a phone into the pools while we were alone, both inside and out, to take a couple of quick snaps of ourselves (although I wasn’t allowed to post one of Anna getting into the freezing cold bath) before putting it back in Anna’s bag and making our way to the large communal pool for the rest of our time there:
We had plans to have dinner with Peter and Ray at Tom and Leonie’s apartment that evening so once we were done at the thermal baths we began to walk up there, constantly commenting on how nice our skin felt the entire way through the dark and snow en route. When we arrived, Leonie had knocked up a fantastic lasagna, so the cheese-level was significantly toned down for us for this particular dinner, but still off the charts by the average person’s standards. The six of us sat around, eating and chatting, until it was beer o’clock and we headed down for a Friday night at the pub, mine and Anna’s skin feeling completely rejuvenated.
Saturday, January 8, 2022
It was our last full day of this long adventure and neither Peter nor Ray had ever been to Europe before, despite Pete having worked in the shipping industry for a significant period of time so we met up with them to spend the day exploring other areas of Zürich. Despite Leonie’s incredible lasagna from the previous night, we were quite hungry when the four of us met up and it was time for lunch. Fortunately we stumbled upon Zeughauskeller, a restaurant in a 15th-century building full of historic artefacts and old weaponry. Actually, why not let them tell their story for us, mistranslations, typos, and all:
Our house was built in 1487 – before Columbus even discovered America. The name «Zeughaus» means an “arsenal storehouse” in whitch weapons and ammunition were stored and were also maintained there. Unfortunately, during the Middle Ages, the Swiss experienced more war than peace. Legend has it that the crossbow from William Tell, our national hero, was issued here.
Since 1926, the arsenal building has been peaceful and sociable. The weapons are gone and visitors from around the world will be welcomed by our hospitable hosts.
Your host Tony Hammer, the second in a large dynasty, ensures day after day, with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm and with his motivated team of 80 employees for your comfort.
That last paragraph is a little difficult to comprehend, but the rest of their story is pretty cool, plus the menu seemed decent as well so this would be where we would be having lunch, however, the four of us all agreed that, despite how much we loved it, maybe we should have something a little less cheesy today. Sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes it was. When we had finished eating we paid up, but not long after we realised we had been given the bill of the next table, which was significantly more. We had no problem getting it sorted with the staff, but we had paid by credit card and they were unable to refund us back to our cards so instead they had to figure out the difference and pay it back to us in a wad of cash.
Anyway, here’s Zeughauskeller:
With our collective bellies full, yet really only containing residual cheese from the night before, we decided to traverse a bit more of this town, first a flea market where I found a couple of great buys, and after that Peter and Ray wanted to take a look at some of the architecture, Ray being particularly fascinated by the old churches in the area. We walked up to one church and as we were getting close to the entrance, the doors swung open and a woman was being helped outside by four men, her with her eyes rolled back in her head and making a weird sound. Had they been conducting exorcisms in this particular place of worship? Possibly and if so, were they successful or was this woman still suffering the effects of potential demonic possession? The latter is a definite no, but we still decided to seek out a different church to examine. The next one we came across was in the Münsterplatz, the Fraumünster:
The Fraumünster (lit. in English: Women’s Minster, but often wrongly translated to [Our] Lady Minster) is a church in Zürich which was built on the remains of a former abbey for aristocratic women which was founded in 853 by Louis the German for his daughter Hildegard. He endowed the Benedictine convent with the lands of Zürich, Uri, and the Albis forest, and granted the convent immunity, placing it under his direct authority. Today, it belongs to the Evangelical Reformed Church of the canton of Zürich and is one of the four main churches of Zürich, the others being the Grossmünster, Prediger and St. Peter’s churches.
In 1045, King Henry III granted the convent the right to hold markets, collect tolls, and mint coins, and thus effectively made the abbess the ruler of the city.
Emperor Frederick II granted the abbey Reichsunmittelbarkeit in 1218, thus making it territorially independent of all authority save that of the Emperor himself, and increasing the political power of the abbess. The abbess assigned the mayor, and she frequently delegated the minting of coins to citizens of the city. A famous abbess during this time of great power was Elisabeth of Wetzikon.
However, the political power of the convent slowly waned in the fourteenth century, beginning with the establishment of the Zunftordnung (guild laws) in 1336 by Rudolf Brun, who also became the first independent mayor, i.e. not assigned by the abbess.
The abbey was dissolved on 30 November 1524 in the course of the reformation of Huldrych Zwingli, supported by the last abbess, Katharina von Zimmern.
To be fair, upon entry it just appeared to be a generic European church, fitted out with stained glass windows, an alter, some artworks of the crucifixion, and the largest pipe organ in the canton of Zürich. There were also some ancient archaeological relics inside, including a 15th century sandstone head, most likely representing Mary as Queen of Heaven, that was partially destroyed during the Iconoclastic Fury, but it was once we got into the basement that things got interesting. What remained of an ancient crypt was down there, now forming Fraumünster’s Crypt museum:
Since the last renovation in 1900, the crypt under the choir of the Fraumünster abbey was sealed, and has made public since 19 June 2016. The oldest part of the church preserved the abbey’s Holy Relics until the Reformation in Zürich banned the Roman Catholic adoration of saints. The foundations of the crypt date back to the 9th century when the abbey was founded. The crypt also comprises an exhibition on the history of the Reformation in Zürich, on the architecture and local history, assisted by a multimedia information system that illustrates the foundation fragments of the crypt, and how the church was rebuilt from the original Romanesque construction phase to its present Gothic appearance, on occasion of its establishment guided by Dölf Wild, the archaeologist in charge.
We had a look inside the crypt for quite some time, including seeing the Foundation Charter issued by King Louis on July 21, 853, complete with the royal monogram at the time, and then wandered around some more of the city, but Ray was starting to fade. However, this is some of what we got to see before she did:
That night our friend Felix was returning from Germany after spending some time with his daughter so Anna, Peter, and myself were having dinner with him and his wife, Judith, at their place again with two of their friends, however, Ray wouldn’t be able to make it. We feasted on some traditional German meatballs that Felix had made and then, while Judith stayed back and entertained their guests, we went down to meet Tom and Leonie again for one last night at the pub (right), just making the most of sitting around with a beer each, chatting, plus one of us secreting a pink goo from their eye, for the last time until we get to see each other again, whenever that may be.
We had a fantastic time over the course of the two and a half weeks we spent in Switzerland and France on this long awaited getaway. Whether it was relaxing in the thermal baths in Baden, eating like royalty and then embarrassing ourselves in Lyon, walking through street fights to find somewhere to party on New Year’s Eve in Nice, constantly getting lost in Aix-en-Provence, or taking in the sheer beauty of Annecy, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun if it weren’t for the company. Thank you so much, Judith and Felix, for collecting us from the airport, entertaining us on Christmas Day, and showing us around town on the first leg of this trip, and to Tom and Leonie for cooking dinner for us and simply making time to hang out when you had both only just recovered from Covid days before, we both truly appreciate it. And as for Peter and Ray, I guess we’ll probably catch you this weekend at the pub.