More in travel

Saturday, 22 November 2014 | MYT 12:00 AM

Cézanne’s Lake Annecy painting beckons visitors to the lake in France

A regular reader is drawn to a lake in France because of a famous painting.

Either he picked up the wrong colours or had run out of paint; Paul Cézanne, the most rebellious of the 19th-century French artists, painted his work of art Le Lac d’Annecy with sad undertones.

It was July 1896 at Talloires in France, when Cézanne painted it. In a letter to his friend Joaquim Gasquet, he once wrote: “This is a temperate zone. The surrounding hills are quite lofty. The lake, which at this point narrows to a bottleneck, seems to lend itself to the line-drawing exercises of young ladies. Certainly, it is still a bit of nature, but a little like we’ve been taught to see it in the albums of young lady travellers.”

On a clear day, the quiet bourg of Talloires brims. It’s one of those stunning villages dotting the undulating landscape of Annecy, the local administrative seat that borders Italy and is an hour’s flinty drive (due to tricky road signs) from Geneva.

It is its lake that draws people to come to Talloires. It is the lake that offers an escape, an enigmatic sense of consolation – serene, yet romantically evocative.

One hundred and eighteen years later, I came down to the foothills of the French Alps and descended onto the shores of Lake Annecy in the Haute-Savoie region. I wanted to see for myself what Cézanne painted or, possibly, even step into the scene depicted in his painting. But unlike him and his canvas, I saw a different picture.

Even from a distance, its calm waters and the surrounding foliage were inviting.

A reproduction of Paul Czanne’s Le Lac d’Annecy. — Photo from Wikimedia Commons
A reproduction of Paul Cézanne’s Le Lac d’Annecy. — Photo from Wikimedia Commons

How could Cézanne paint such a sad picture when all you see is the radiating beauty of the lake? Could it be just a mere illusion or Cézanne’s self-delusion?

His room at the 17th century Hotel Abbaye de Talloires, where he stayed during his summer sojourn, stood as a silent witness to the painter’s personal battle. The hotel, which was once a former chapel in the middle-ages and later became a monastery, had been a conclave to monks from Savigny near Lyon, as well as to other pilgrims. Wines dating from the last century inhabit its cellar framed by Romanesque arches made out of volcanic rocks.

Since Cézanne’s time, a few modern touches have been added, like televisions and WiFi, but the atmosphere remains untouched. The portraits in the bedrooms on the second floor, the old piano in the lobby and some wood carvings give a clear image of what it might have been like in centuries past.

The lake, the picturesque craggy rock formation of Dents de Lanfon, the rich history of the hotel and the mystery that lurks behind the doors of the hotel’s Prior room, and even the medieval wines probably didn’t help Cézanne in his depression.

A booklet in the lobby of the 17th century Hotel Abbaye provides a quick peek into the history of the town of Talloires.
A booklet in the lobby of the 17th century Hotel Abbaye provides a quick peek into the history of the town of Talloires.

I have seen the painting many times. I have travelled great distances and resisted vertigo on a journey of perilous peaks and rock-bottom countrysides just to have a glimpse of the lake, even if I only saw it once.

Bruce Willis came too and met his fellow film star, Jean Reno, who by the way is part owner of Hotel Abbaye de Talloires. Mark Twain ached upon leaving the place, as he expressed it in his travel journal: “Lake Annecy is a revelation. It is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body’s eyes, it is so enchanting. It stretches itself out there in the caressing sunlight, and away towards its border of majestic mountains, a crisped and radiant plain of water of the divinest blue that can be imagined.”

Even though the painting portrays a hint of sadness and lacklustre romance as to seeing the lake, it is still a triumph of a painter’s gifted hands and a revolt towards a prosaic painting style.

I am not Cézanne. Nor was he me. We were just two individuals who came to the same place but at different times. But mind you, his Le Lac d’Annecy – I think I’m falling for it.