This time last year, my boyfriend and I were in Geneva for the Christmas markets; and by pure chance ended up being there for the city’s biggest festival of the year! The L’ Escalade festival is Geneva’s celebration of the town being rescued from foreign invasion back in the 1600’s, and not in the way you would expect.
The Hisory of L’Escalade Festival
In 1602, Geneva was its own state. A city protected by fortified walls and its own army, Geneva was a stronghold. After centuries of battle defending themselves against the Catholics and then the Protestants and then the Catholics again, Geneva had settled as a Protestant city, forming allegiances with other great cities of Europe.
The Duke of Savoy however, was not one of these allies; and in December 1602 he had planned a surprise attack of the city.
Now we heard this story from the woman leading our free walking tour (a must do by the way); and she said it all comes back to a woman called Catherine Cheynel. She was a poor woman who, at the end of each day, would buy the last of the vegetables from the market. She would take them back to her home above the city walls and make soup for her young children.
On the night of 11th December Mrs Cheynel was stirring her cauldron of soup when she thought she heard a noise: Tap! Tap! Tap! It was unusual for anyone to be outside the city gates after dark, so she went to the window to see who was there. She saw no one but called out, “is anyone there?” No reply came, so she went back to stirring her soup.
Then she thought she heard voices, so again went to the window to call out: “is anyone there? Do you need help?” Again no reply came, so back to her cauldron she went.
A third time she heard sounds from outside her window; by now she had had enough and decided to teach these pranksters a lesson! She hauled her cauldron of soup to the window and threw it out(!) scalding the Duke’s soldiers scaling the wall, disguised in black uniform! The screams of the men roused the guards of Geneva, who fought off the attack and prevailed over Savoy.
L’Escalade Festival Annual Celebrations
Now every year, on the Saturday closest to December 12th, Geneva celebrates the bravery and cunning of Catherine Cheynel. The people of Geneva dress in historic medieval outfits, and parade through the streets of the old town, playing the anthem of the festival on their flutes. There is a race around the old town, and in the evening live music and celebration in the square outside the cathedral.
It was an absolute joy to experience this wonderful tradition, the atmosphere was incredible and I feel so lucky to have stumbled across this festival. I have to say I think my favourite part of the tradition is the chocolate cauldrons – we are in Switzerland after all! In the evening of the 11th, when all the family gather, the eldest and youngest members smash the chocolate pot shouting “Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République!” (Thus perish the enemies of the Republic) and revealing the marzipan vegetables inside! I mean talk about attention to detail!!
All in all, the Christmas markets were wonderful, especially for only their second year! But it was the L’Escalade festival that was the highlight of the trip. The surprise of it and the enthusiasm for the tradition was infectious, and following the parade was a great way to wander round the city!
I highly recommend Geneva to anyone who gets the chance to go, it’s a stunning city, in a stunning located, well worth a look.
For gift ideas for travel lovers, read this Blogmas post: https://www.emgoingplaces.com/2020/12/christmas-gift-guide-for-the-travel-lover-in-your-life/