WTF is l’Escalade?: an anthropological study of genevan celebrations

the-romantic-the-winoWhen we chose Geneva as the homebase for our Swiss getaway, we got more than a few stares from those we told. Mrs. O Around the World even dared us to find a restaurant in the city that was open on Sunday. Nervously, we began our research on what we could see and do in Geneva in December and briefly came across something called Fête de l’Escalade. Buuuut then we got distracted by the Montreux Christmas Market and the snow forecast in Verbier and also our last-minute decision to extend our stay in Dublin and promptly stopped worrying about our brief weekend in the city.

Thus, by the time we arrived in Geneva and started our walk through Vieille Ville, we were more than a little startled when men dressed in medieval military costumes came barreling around the corner on horses.


Apologies for the blurriness, but we need you know this is all very true.

Silly Europeans! We continued our ascent up to St. Pierre Cathedral, only to walk into a parade of drummers, dressed yet again in medieval clothing. By the time we got up to the Cathedral, our curiosity was in full force. Weaving through the throngs of people in the town square, we overheard a snippet of English:

” So like, he scaled the ladder, and then like, he won?”

Ah-ha! This was some sort of celebration–a fête, even–and someone won! Luckily for us, the wino minored in anthropology, so we were sure we could figure the rest out on our own. And thus began our investigation of Fête de l’Escalade.

Here is what we deduced on our own merits:


1. l’Escalade is not a human sacrifice. Despite the largest bonfire we’ve ever seen assembled in the middle of the town square, and not one, but four women with gasoline strapped to their backs, no humans were sacrificed at this festival. At least not that we could tell.

2. l’Escalade is not an animal sacrifice. On the contrary–many people led animals through the city streets as if it were a normal occurrence in all metropolitan areas. Donkeys, horses, sheep, roosters, goats. You name it, the Genevans were herding them along, happy as can be.

3. Genevans be cray. Let’s review. It was about negative 15 degrees (or at least, like, in the twenties) (yes, in fahrenheit, thank you), and we waited amongst hundreds of Genevans in a cold, dark, church square for what seemed like an eternity. Many of these people were dressed up in medieval clothing and more than a few carried torches, swords, drums, etc.


In the end, our fingers and toes were so frozen that we skipped out on the culmination of the celebration and took refuge in a restaurant in Vieille Ville, Au Carnivor. We while warmed ourselves with another delicious bottle of Swiss red wine, our waiter filled us in on the true meaning of Fete de l’Escalade.

Here is what we learned:

1. l’Escalade is actually quite patriotic. In 1602, the neighboring French Savoys tried to overtake Geneva in the middle of the night, planning to scale the city walls and surprise the sleeping townspeople. However, the Genevan night guards got wind of the attack and sounded the alarm, and the people of Geneva awoke and fought alongside of the militia to keep the Savoys from capturing the city. Every December since then, the city of Geneva celebrates its victory with the Fete de l’Escalade, which literally translates to the scaling of defensive walls. You go, Geneva!

2. Genevan women are badasses. It is rumored that Catherine Cheynel, a Genevan mother of 14, poured a scalding hot cauldron of soup out her window onto the heads of the attackers below. A huge part of the modern-day l’Escalade festival celebrates Catherine’s scheme– bowls of free soup are handed out around the city for the hundreds of people who attend the festival every year. Many restaurants also pass out mulled wine (much more our style).

3. We should probably spend more time doing advance research. Not that it wasn’t fun learning all of this own our own, but we probably could have planned our time a bit better had we known what we were waiting for that night in the town square.


the romantic & the wino



  1. December 27, 2012 / 05:35

    Amazing how timing is everything! Great post ans great pix. I found Geneva and Montreux so gorgeous, but had no idea they were so theatrical! Very cool. We even went digging for fresh snails for dinner one night, quite a memory, besides the expensive coffee around town.
    Tiana Kai recently posted..Don’t buy ‘stuff’ for ChristmasMy Profile

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