All you need to know about Geneva's Escalade festival

The Local
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All you need to know about Geneva's Escalade festival
Photo: GeneveTourisme/Olivier Miche

Geneva’s most popular and enduring annual festival, The Escalade, takes place this weekend. The Local takes a look at the history of the event, and what’s on offer this year.


What’s it all about?

The tradition marks event on the night of December 11th, 1602, when the Duke of Savoy’s army attempted a surprise attack on the state of Geneva under cover of darkness. The Duke's idea was to let his best soldiers secretly scale the city's fortification walls to enter the city and open its gate from inside, allowing the troops in. (Escaler in French translates as "scale", or "climb".) Thanks to an alert guard, the invasion plans were thwarted. The bells of the cathedral and city churches rang out to wake the sleeping Genevans who took up arms and fought back, saving their city and driving back the Savoyard troops. The next day the people went to church to thank God for their deliverance. Ever since that time, the people of Geneva have remembered and celebrated their day of victory.

Doesn’t a pot of soup come into it somewhere?

Yes, one famous example of bravery is attributed to Mère Royaume, who is said to have climbed onto the ramparts and poured her pot of hot soup over the head of a Savoyard soldier. Why she had broth on the boil in the middle of the night is anyone’s guess.

When does it all kick off?

The celebration gets going this year on Friday December 8th at 6pm when muskets are fired from the cathedral marking the start of a procession from the old town to Saint-Gervais to pay tribute to the victims of the Escalade. This is followed by various activities in the old town on Saturday and Sunday.

Photo: GeneveTourisme/Oliver Miche

What's the highlight?

The festival culminates with the Great Historical Procession from 5pm to 8.30pm on Sunday 10th. A torchlit procession of people dressed in period costumes proceeds through the streets of the old city along both banks of the Rhône. Historic and legendary figures like Mère Royaume, armed with her pot, are represented. At several points along the traditional route, the procession stops and a herald on horseback reads the proclamation of victory over the invaders. On arrival at St. Peter's Cathedral, the participants sing patriotic songs and a bonfire is lit.

What else is there to see?

Mock skirmishes, musket firing and demonstrations of sword and pike handling are among the things on offer throughout the two days. Stands and markets will sell everything from food and beverages, including Mère Royaume’s famous soup and mulled wine, to swords, shields and halberds. This being Switzerland, you can also buy chocolate pots representing the soup cauldron. These come in all sizes and can be found in chocolate shops around Geneva. A Geneva tradition is that on the Friday evening the eldest and youngest members of the family join in smashing a chocolate pot to commemorate the famous victory.

Photo: GeneveTourisme/Ricardo de La Riva

What about kids?

Various games and activities are on offer in the cathedral courtyard on Saturday from 2pm until 5pm and on Sunday from 11am until 3.30pm and at the Promenade de la Treille from 11am to 3.30 pm on Sunday. There will also be a lantern-lit procession for kids at 7.45pm on the 9th. Lanterns will be on sale beforehand.

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