Historic Holiday: Geneva Escalade

Historic Holiday: Geneva Escalade

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Genevans celebrate Fête de l'Escalade, the historic defence of their city, on 11-13 December.

The night of 11-12 December, 1602 the longest of the year on the old Julian calendar, was one of Geneva's most dangerous.

Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy (an Alpine region south of Lake Geneva in present-day France), and his troops tried to capture it by scaling the massive city walls with ladders.

The Genevans beat them back, however, using -- so the story goes -- soup pots as well as weapons. The duke was forced to retreat with the few Savoyard troops that survived.

On 11-13 December, Genevans will commemorate the successful defence of their city with a festival called the Escalade or scaling. All of Geneva reverts to the 17th century then.

Men, women and children wear period costumes. To the sound of fifes and drums, they move on foot and on horseback through the streets of the city centre and old town, which are decked out in anticipation of Christmas.



For children, the Escalade is a kind of carnival. They dress up and carry lanterns through the city. In the streets, squares and restaurants they sing the Escalade song, Ce qu'e laino, which is the unofficial anthem of the Swiss canton of Geneva. Their reward is hearty applause, and a few Swiss francs.

A woman named Catherine Royaume is said to have played an important role in defending the city. Isabelle Hesse, a tour guide for visitors interested in Geneva's history, explained that Royaume used hot vegetable soup to help repel the invaders.

"She poured the pot over their heads," Hesse said.

The soup pot or marmite remains a symbol of the Escalade. On Saturday evening, women in white bonnets sell small ceramic pots of creamy vegetable soup with bread and grated cheese. Containing leeks, cabbage, Savoy cabbage and carrots, this soupe de legumes is available on one evening only, and only at one place: in the arcades in front of Geneva's magnificent city hall.

Genevans young and old, large and small sit on every corner of the Old Town enjoying the hot soup during the cold winter evening.

Genevans have another Escalade tradition. They buy a chocolate marmite filled with colourful marzipan vegetables. The entire family generally gathers to celebrate the night, and the youngest and oldest members join hands over the marmite and smash it. Then the shards are passed around to munch on.

Photo © Wikimedia Commons
Switzerland: Window of a chocolate shop with a choice of "Marmites de l'Escalade" © Wikimedia Commons

The Escalade's high point comes at the end. "Since 1979, there's been a big torchlight procession through the city, with more than 1,000 men, women and children taking part," Hesse said.

Among the participants are women dressed up as "Mere Royaume", as the formidable pot-wielding defender is known. They carry wicker baskets with vegetables on their arms.

In addition to the festivities, the Escalade is a time of year when normally-closed places are opened to the public. One of them is the Passage de Monetier. A narrow walkway in the old town, it is barely wide enough for a person to pass. Here, it is said, the Genevans cut off the Savoyards' path.

Verena Wolff / DPA / Expatica

For more information on the Escalade, visit http://www.1602.ch/ (in French).

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