Enchanting Yvoire on the shores of Lake Geneva


View of the lake from Château d’Yvoire, one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France © SHUTTERSTOCK

In Haute-Savoie, on the shores of the majestic Lac Léman (Lac Léman), Jan Mitchell discovers the charms of one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, where time seems to have stood still.

As the magnificent Belle-Époque paddle steamer slowly approaches the old port, my expectations grow. Then, the charming medieval fortified village of Yvoire, in Haute-Savoie, is revealed little by little. With its castle rising majestically on the shores of Lake Geneva, it is truly a magical place. To immerse yourself in its narrow and cobbled streets, with its old stone houses, is to go back in time.

I gratefully take the brave captain’s arm as I step off the elegant ship and make my way to dry land. Yvoire has two ports: on one side the fishing port, the Port des Pêcheurs, and on the other the marina with a promenade, the Port de Plaisance.

Yvoire enjoys an enviable location on the French shore of the lake, between Geneva and Évian-les-Bains. A dazzling gem between lake and mountains, it is known locally as the Pearl of the Lake, with the Alps providing the perfect backdrop for this perfect haven of peace. On a clear day, the crown jewel, Mont Blanc, reveals itself in all its glorious majesty. Everywhere, multicolored flowers run along the narrow streets, climb the tiled roofs, overflow from planters and tumble onto wooden terraces. It is therefore not surprising that Yvoire is ranked among the Most Beautiful Villages of France and is also an award-winning Ville Fleurie at the national level. The village is pedestrianized, which reinforces its relaxed and tranquil atmosphere. As I walk along the small, curving alleyway that leads to the center, I notice a lovely boutique displaying an amazing range of gifts. My eyes fall on a delicious cream lace parasol. After asking the beaming trader for the price, then deliberating for two whole minutes, I convince myself that this is exactly what I need for my visit. As I continue on my way, my parasol receives admiring glances from passers-by, which seems to me to fully justify my extravagance.

green streets of Yvoire
The lush greenery of the streets of Yvoire © Shutterstock

From farm to fortress

In its beginnings, Yvoire was a village of farmers and fishermen, before assuming an important military role for half a century. It was Amédée V, Count of Savoy, who decided to make it an impregnable fortress at the beginning of the 14th century. He realizes the importance of the strategic location of Yvoire and fortifies the village during the war between Savoy and the French province of Dauphiné.

Construction of the castle began in 1306, with its foundations resting in the lake. Its military vocation was to monitor the passage of ships and to control the road which linked Geneva to the upper Rhône valley and to Italy. At that time, there was no way around Yvoire. The road crossed the village, and two fortified entrance gates, built by order of the Count of Savoy, controlled the passage. The fortifications of the village of ramparts and gates remain today. The castle has belonged to the Yvoire family since the 17th century and although beautiful to admire, it is not open to visitors.

The two existing entrance gates are the Porte de Nernier and the Porte de Rovorée, both classified as Historical Monuments. Some houses in the village are backed by the ramparts. Looking up, passing under the Porte de Nernier, I see the loopholes and the level on which the ground rested. I also notice the hinges that remain from the huge wooden gate, which closed every evening.

The main road, the Grande Rue, connects the fortified gates to the east and west. There are three other picturesque little roads that start from here: rue de l’Église, rue des Boulangers and rue des Jardins. I am the first of them and find myself on an enchanting little square, the Place du Thay. A sunny place on the terrace of a nearby brasserie, Le P’tit Cabri, catches my attention and I contentedly sink into it. While the friendly waiter takes my order for a big cream, I get excited about the picturesque roads of the village. He informs me that two other streets, rue de la Liberté and rue du Lac, have only been open through the gardens of the Château d’Yvoire since the 19th century. In anticipation of lunch, I then inquire about local specialties. He urges me to taste the fish from Lake Geneva, famous for its perch. Other delicacies, féra and arctic char, fished since the 13th century by the lords of Yvoire. Delicious cheeses from the neighboring Chablais region of the French Alps, such as Reblochon, are also to be tasted and pair well with a glass of Crépy, the local wine.

Plus Beau Village is nestled right on the shores of Lake Geneva
In addition, Beau Village nestles right up to the edge of Lake Geneva © SHUTTERSTOCK

Sensory gardens

My thirst quenched, I wander lazily along the rue du Lac, which goes down to the fishing port, and meets the Jardin des Cinq Sens.

Nestled in the heart of Yvoire, opposite the castle, this labyrinth of more than 1,300 varieties of plants and flowers evolves with the seasons. It is inspired by medieval gardens, in the spirit of the village. It deserves its Remarkable Garden classification awarded by the Ministry of Culture. Visitors are invited to awaken the five senses: look, listen, smell, touch and even taste! Duly intrigued, I immerse myself in the plants and fruit trees of each unique region. Each garden has an evocative name, such as “Alpine Meadow”, “Garden of Touch” and “Cloister of Medicinal Plants”. Plants and trees of all shades of green stand proudly in their place, inviting you to touch their foliage. I am encouraged to gently brush the back of my hand along the Primula Auricula, with its delicate lemon blossoms and ear-shaped leaves. I regal my eyes with the deep blue of the clematis, which delights me at every turn. I breathe in the intoxicating scent of a profusion of vintage roses. They have some competition with Salvia Elegans (also known as pineapple sage), with its aromatic green leaves giving off a tantalizing scent of pineapple.

The beautiful medieval garden city of Yvoire
The beautiful medieval garden city of Yvoire on Lake Geneva with the Château d’Yvoire and the Alps rising up in the background © Shutterstock

A haven of relaxation

As I enter the ‘Jardin du Goût’, I am invited to savor some of the delicious fruit that grows there by one of the friendly gardeners. His team lovingly takes care of the many lush, flowery occupants of the gardens every day and is eager to answer visitors’ questions. He informs me that their motto is the same as that of the Yvoire family: slow feast, which means “hurry slowly”.

As I continue to explore, I then discover a surprising space, where I decide to relax on an inviting bench. I gaze with wonder at the deep green plant structures that form the cloister. This is my favorite spot and provides a perfect space for reflection, with the gentle sounds of birdsong and the lapping of water coming from a delicate fountain in the center.

Reluctantly taking my leave of the gardens, I continue along the rue du Lac, which leads enticingly to the shores of Lake Geneva. Known as Lake Geneva, it is the largest body of freshwater in Western Europe, stretching over 72 km. Located at an altitude of 372 m, with a maximum depth of 310 m, it is mainly fed by the Rhône, which flows from one end to the other, leaving Lake Geneva. In 1886, the Geneva dam was built to handle fluctuations in the water level: in winter and spring, the level of the lake is lowered to allow the ice to melt from the peaks of the surrounding mountains.

Eager to immerse myself even more in the past of the village, I go back slowly towards the Grande Rue, stopping at La Maison de l’Histoire which, tells me an enthusiastic guide, was created in 2006 to commemorate the 700th anniversary. from Yvoire. I enjoy the incredibly detailed models of the castle and the village, and discover the rich heritage of Yvoire. Archival documents reveal its fascinating history and I dwell on the Extente of 1333 (similar to a census) which describes the people, their houses and their cultivated fields.

The Church of Saint-Pancrace is another listed historical monument. It was dedicated to St Pancrace, one of the patron saints of children, and probably dates from the 11th century. It has a small vaulted chapel and a characteristic bell tower – an onion dome – dating from 1854, replacing the old campanile. It was one of 800 spiers in the area destroyed during the French Revolution, when they were melted down to build cannons for Napoleon’s army. Rebuilt in 1934, the delicate tray is covered with gold leaf from the last workshop in France, in nearby Excenevex. During its renovation, the church was enlarged on the ramparts of the fortified village.

As I dream back down to the port for the return cruise, I stop for a moment and reflect on my exquisite visit. It’s true what they say: time seems to have stood still in Yvoire.

Richly decorated town hall
The richly decorated Town Hall of Évian © Shutterstock

Also worth a visit …

Rovorée-La Châtaignière is a protected natural area of ​​24ha, with a lake edge of 1.2km. It is accessible on foot from Yvoire – just follow the green way (green Way). Its chestnut trees are several hundred years old and the marked trails are ideal for walking and relaxing. The Manoir de la Châtaignière stands in the middle of woods and meadows and houses exhibitions highlighting the cultural and natural heritage of the region.

Rejuvenate in the elegant lakeside city of Évian-les-Bains, 27 km away. Its history as a spa town dates back to 1790, when the benefits of its now world famous mineral water were first revealed. Locate the Town Hall, with its neoclassical facade and its large bronze copy of The Thinker.

Take a 20-minute ferry ride to pretty Nyon, on the Swiss shore of Lake Geneva. Cruise ships can also take you to Montreux and Lausanne in Switzerland. Contact the Yvoire Tourist Office for ferry timetables or the Compagnie Générale de Navigation sur le Lac Léman.

The Essentials of Yvoire

Take the plane to Geneva or take the Eurostar to Paris then the TGV to Geneva. From there it’s a 22 km ride or you can take the train to Yvoire.

Le Vieux Logis This charming 3-star hotel, with vaulted ceilings, is nestled in the heart of the village and dates back to 1896. The restaurant serves traditional French cuisine and fresh fish from the lake. Phone. 0033 (0) 4 50 72 80 24. levieuxlogis.com/fr

Phone. 0033 (0) 4 50 72 80 21

From France Today magazine

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