La Belle Escalade

The 12th December 1602 is probably a date imprinted on the minds of every genevois. That’s the date of l’Escalade, and it’s probably the closest thing you get to a national holiday in Geneva.

So, let me tell you the story. At the time, Geneva was an independant city and wasn’t linked to any country. However, Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoie (the neighbouring French canton) wanted to invade Geneva and join it back onto Savoie. So, on the night of the 11th December (supposedly the darkest night of the year), to take the city by surprise, the Savoie army invaded Geneva. But the attack failed! The Genevan army fought them off, and the city kept its independance. Although, the reason it’s called “l’Escalade” (literally “the climb”) is because the Savoyard soldiers used ladders to climb (escalader) over the walls of what is now the vielle ville (the old town).

So there you have it – that’s the VERY short, abridged version! But what I find more interesting are the little stories and legends about the battle. Here are a few that I’ve heard of.

  1. Because it was nighttime and the city was taken by surprise, the soldiers fought in their pyjamas!
  2. IMG_1439
    “Here stood the New Gate, where, on the night of the Escalade, Isaac Mercier saved Geneva by dropping the portcullis”

    Isaac Mercier was a guard who saw the Savoyard army approaching, and cut the rope to make the portcullis drop. In the version I heard he was, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the wall, and was killed by the Savoyards. Although I’ve seen other versions that say he survived the battle, so I don’t know. But they’ve named a tram stop after him!

  3. Théodore de Bèze, one of the protestant reformers, was so deaf that he didn’t hear the battle and slept through the whole thing!
  4. One woman was so scared of the invaders that she pushed her wardrobe in front of the door to stop them from getting in. However, once the battle was over, she couldn’t move it back again, so she had to be rescued with the help of a ladder by climbing out of a window!

And finally, probably the most famous legend – the legend of la mère Royaume (Mother Royaume). She was a lady who was cooking vegetable soup in a huge pot, or ‘marmite‘, during the night. When she saw the Savoyards coming, she threw the contents of the pot out of the window, onto the soliders below. Apparently that had an affect on the battle? But that’s where you get the biggest Escalade tradition – breaking chocolate marmites (huge ones and baby ones) filled with marzipan vegetables!

The ESN group (Erasmus Student Network) organised a day to teach us all about the celebrations. So we broke marmites (and ate everything, of course!), we sang Genevan songs about the event and they told us the story.

And then, we set off into the vielle ville where all sorts of things were going on. There were demonstrations, processions, people dressed in traditional clothes. Here are a few photos of what I saw!

So there you have it – l’Escalade! If you want to know more about the history and the traditions (including “Cé qu’è lainô” – the anthem of Geneva), there’s a really cool website called ‘Compagnie de 1602‘ (it’s all in French, so sorry to anyone who’s French is a bit rusty!).

So, until next time!

A bientôt.

Ceri

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