Muskets and canons firing, soldiers on horseback, boar roasting on an open spit, touring through passages hidden between Geneva’s city walls … No, you haven’t been transported back to 1602, but in and around Geneva’s Vieille Ville (Old Town) during l’Escalade, you may feel like it!
Taking place over three days, l’Escalade showcases what life was like at the end of the 17th century and commemorates the events of one fateful night in December 1602. At midnight that night, the Duke of Savoy and a few thousand of his men launched a surprise attack on Geneva. A group of soldiers set up ladders to scale the city walls, but their efforts were thwarted when a patrol happened upon the invaders and sounded the alarm. In the ensuing battle, the entire population of Geneva took up arms to defend their city. After fierce fighting, the Savoyard army suffered defeat and retreated.
The Compagnie de 1602, a historical society, debuted the first Escalade celebration in 1926. Every year thereafter, the Compagnie has organized the multi-day festival during the second weekend in December.
Over the course of the weekend, you can see parades, muskets firing, demonstrations of pike handling, and public speeches about Geneva’s independence. At various times, you can purchase roasted boar, ham off the bone, vegetable soup, mulled wine, and sweets. There are also public events and exhibitions at area museums, guided tours of City Hall, and intermittent parades through the streets.
One not-to-be-missed part of Escalade is the Passage de Monetier, a path through the Old Town’s walls that is only open during the Escalade. Find the entrance to the passage at rue du Perron 19, and you’ll see a unique side of Geneva. Plus, for those completing the passage on Saturday afternoon, a free glass of hot mulled wine (vin chaud) waits at the end.
Another must-see is the Sunday evening promenade, where more than 800 people in costume circle on foot and on horseback through Old Town in Europe’s largest historical parade. The parade begins at 17:00 and lasts until 20:00. At the conclusion of the parade, the weekend festivities close with an enormous bonfire in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
Last year, members of the American International Women’s Club (AIWC) took a guided walk through key sites of l’Escalade in the Vieille Ville. We saw one of the original Savoyard ladders, as well as armor, cannons, and pikes on display at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Salle des Armures); we explored the alleys and winding streets where fighting took place; we viewed a scale model of the old city fortifications on the Magnin Relief Map at Maison Tavel; and we looked down at Place de Neuve from the Promenade de la Treille and listened as our guide detailed the chronology of the aftermath of l’Escalade. Thank you to Susan, our guide, for a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at this chapter of history in our city!
For anyone in Geneva interested in sites of l’Escalade, the museums, Cathedral, and more will be open today through Sunday. More information about the weekend, including a detailed schedule of events and map of the Sunday evening parade route in English, can be accessed here.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/.