Every year in early December, Geneva welcomes the Escalade with the firing of canons, a parade of soldiers on horseback, the sound of drums, the opening of secret passageways and, of course, the ever-present and delicious chocolate cauldrons, a tip of the hat to the lady who started it all. Read on to discover more about Geneva’s Fête de l’Escalade – you won’t want to miss it!
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
The Fête de l’Escalade celebrates Geneva’s victory against the Duke of Savoy’s troops in 1602. As the story goes, soldiers attempted to attack Geneva in the dead of night, while the whole city was asleep. But one woman, known as Mère Royaume, happened to be preparing soup for the next day. She heard the soldiers climbing up the city walls, and promptly dumped a cauldron of scalding soup onto the head of an unfortunate Savoyard to stop him. The ensuing racket woke up Geneva’s soldiers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Geneva still celebrates their victory by drinking mulled wine (vin chaud) and eating chocolate caldrons. To enjoy the cauldron the old-fashioned way, the oldest and youngest members of a family use their hands to smash the ‘marmite en chocolat’ cauldron, filled with marzipan vegetables, while reciting: “Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République.” (Thus did perish the enemies of the Republic!).
Just in case you haven’t got the message yet – this is your chance! Smash the biggest “marmite en chocolat” you can afford, and enjoy it with family and friends. There are little sweets with tiny fire crackers inside in the shops too – but personally, we’d go for the chocolate.
WATCH THE PARADE
See the procession of around 800 people in period costumes marching or riding through the Old Town on horseback. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to the 1600s, or at least imagine yourself on a movie set for a historical period film.
Best vantage points: Take a seat at one of the cafés at Place du Bourg-de-Four, or defy gravity and climb to the top of St Peter’s Cathedral for a bird’s eye view.
Needless to say, Escalade happens during Geneva’s winter season – you may wish to either get a bowl of veggie soup at one of the various stands set up throughout city, or bring your own in a thermos. If you’d like to cook your own – check out the recipe below and recruit your kids to help chop the vegetables. And of course, nothing warms you up like a cup of vin chaud. Why not raise a cup and join the crowds in humming the C’e que’ laino (traditional anthem, meaning “Ah la belle Escalade!”) – life’s too short to learn the words, but if you’d like to challenge yourself, click here for the full lyrics. Those looking for a heftier meal will be pleased to find another favourite as part of the festivities – ham on the bone.
Check out the secret Passage de Monetier – not for the faint hearted. The Passage de Monetier, a path that runs through the Old Town’s walls, is only open once a year, during the Escalade. Find the entrance to the passage at rue du Perron 19 – as a bonus you’ll receive a glass of hot vin chaud at the passage’s end (Saturday 8th, from 10h to 22h and Sunday 9th, from 10h to 17h). Be prepared to wait in line!
Don’t miss the demonstrations in the city on Saturday and Sunday. Feel free to dress up – be as creative as you want! More details about the events can be found here (in French only).
The 2018 Escalade Festival will be celebrated from Friday 7th December to Sunday 9th December.
Friday 7th December: Escalade Ball at AMR, to the sounds of Conto Los Hierros. Come out of the cold and enjoy merengue, mambo and bolero from 21h30 at the Sud des Alpes space on rue des Alpes 10. You can find more information on AMR’s website.
Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th December: Activities around the Old Town, including demonstrations to recreate life in Geneva in the 16th century, such as muskets firing, street defense manoeuvres and skirmishes. A parade of lanterns (Cortège aux Flambeaux) will also take place at 19h45 on Saturday. Lanterns will be on sale from 18h30 for those who wish to join, and the parade will begin at Rue de l’Evêché 1.
Sunday 9th December: The moment everyone’s been waiting for: the great historical procession with 800 participants, from 17h to 20h30, leaving from Parc des Bastions.
ESCALADE SOUP RECIPE
4-5 white radishes
A little spinach
Dice the vegetables and bacon, and finely chop the spinach. In a large saucepan, sauté the onions, bacon, rice and lentils together. Add the vegetables. Cover with water, season with salt and pepper, and boil. When cooked, add the spinach. Serve on a large slice of whole meal bread.