I planned my short weekend trip to Geneva in December around a well-known local festival. I enjoy emerging myself into the local culture a bit, even if the country is very close to home. L’Escalade is a festival I had not heard about before planning this trip. To be honest, Switzerland has always been a bit of a black hole for me in terms of its history, so I hadn’t heard about the events which kick-started this celebration either. What better way to learn than to attend the festival itself?
The history of L’Escalade tells us that the tradition began in the night of the 11th of December in 1602. That’s the night that the Duke of Savoy attempted to surprise-attack the state of Geneva with his army. The Duke had the clever idea to let some of his soldiers climb over the fortified walls of the city. This way those soldiers would be able to open the city gate to let the troops in. This is where the word escalade comes from – French “escalade” means “climb” in English.
Unfortunately for them, the chosen soldiers never got that far. There is a legend which tells a story of a woman called Catherine Cheynel. This lady was cooking soup when she saw the attackers scaling the wall from below and she poured a large cauldron of hot soup on them. The noise of terror and torment which resulted from her action woke up the entire city, which is how its militia successfully defended Geneva from the Duke of Savoy’s army.
Celebrations of l’Escalade
L’Escalade festival takes place mainly in and around the old town.
During Saturday & Sunday, more than 800 people of the old families wear historical costumes and march the streets. They play drums, flutes & other instruments, carry around historical rifles, spears & cannons; and all the while people gather around them to see them march.
L’Escalade finishes on Sunday with a huge ceremonial fire at the square in front of the St. Peter’s Cathedral.
All aforementioned people in historical costumes, some riding horses, walk into the square and group together around the big fire.
I visited part of the march and the celebration on the square. My advice is to get to the square as early as possible – be prepared to freeze a little bit but it’s worth it when the fire is lighted. It can get very busy around the tiny square and standing front row has the added benifit of getting nice and toasty.
It’s quite special to see all the people in costumes huddling around the fire singing traditional songs. Ever since I lived in Scotland, events which celebrate the foiled attempts of foreign invaders really touch my heart strings.
I’m happy I planned my trip around this festival. I stayed only three days, but during that time I got quite a good insight into the past lives of the Swiss. The highlight of the region and this trip was Chillon Castle . However, I didn’t see anything of Geneva apart from the costumed people of l’escalade. There’s no doubt in my mind I’ll return to visit my friends again and to give Geneva another shot, but only if the weather is better the next time around!