Living in the Haute Savoie connects you to Romance in a big way, and I’m talking ‘Romance’ with a capital R. Passion, raw emotion, and the occasional craggy rockface. We’re not the first, however, to be captured by the distant snow-capped peaks or the golden sunsets, by the wild storms or the soft greens of the alpine meadows.
In the footsteps of the true Romantics
The shores of Lake Geneva have welcomed the English for centuries. From pilgrims heading to Rome for salvation to sensation-seeking young aristocrats on the Grand Tour. From the asylum-seeking Lisle and Ludlow, responsible for the death warrant of Charles I, to writers such as Edward Gibbon and William Beckford.
Two of the greatest 18th century writers and philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau, drew disciples of the Enlightenment from around the world to their homes on the lake. With an emphasis on rational thinking and the advancement of science and technology, this innovative period is also called the Age of Reason. For ordinary people, however, this time of growth and expansion was less about the intellectual. It was more about poverty, and the grind of everyday life in the rapidly industrialising cities of Europe.
The Romantics swept into this era of huge political and social upheaval, of revolution and war, like a breath of fresh air.
While science had sought to identify and catalogue nature in a rational way, the Romantics breathed life into it. They captured the very essence of sublime landscapes on a deeply emotional level.
The French and Swiss Alps – Cradle of the Romantic Movement
The French and Swiss Alps were a magnet for poets, artists, and writers from all corners of Europe at the turn of the 18th century. Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc and the Alps sparked the creative genius of Romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley. Byron wrote prolifically here during the summer of 1816, including some of his most famous works. ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, the ‘Third Canto of Childe Harold’ and the apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’.
“Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains… on a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, With a Diadem of snow” – from Byron’s poem Manfred.
Percy Shelley wrote ‘The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ on the lake. While his wife Mary was inspired by the lightning storms of that summer to begin her supernatural novel ‘Frankenstein’. Coleridge penned the ‘Hymn before sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni’ celebrating the beauty of Mont Blanc, the “companion of the morning-star at dawn”. Countless artists, including the illustrious J.M.W Turner attempted to capture the sublime landscapes and the sheer power of nature in their works.
Their experiences of nature in the raw weren’t filtered through the lens of a camera or a smart phone, as ours often are. Their passion and connection to the natural world still shines through in so many diaries, journals, and paintings centred around the majesty of the Alps and Lake Geneva.
The Romantic Movement was relatively short lived (1790’s – 1840s). It slowly made way for the hard-headed business-minded Victorians. Its emphasis however, on the individual and his place in the world and on the power of the imagination is of lasting importance. The ability of nature to affect our moods and emotions was seen in a new light. It changed the way that people looked at the world around them for ever.
Reinventing the new Romantics
The popularity of programmes about nature, the iconic status of people like David Attenborough, show we’re still passionate about our surroundings. We can still stand in front of a landscape and look in awe at the beauty of the natural world. We can admire its timelessness, its ability to absorb shock and upheaval and yet still bounce back. Nature offers us a sense of stability. Those mountains have been there for millions of years and will still be there whatever the future holds for us.
Who hasn’t dreamed of escaping the rat race and the urban grime? We took the plunge and moved to the Haute Savoie at the start of 2020, leaving big city life behind us. We swapped a view of a busy main road and a nursing home for a view of Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains, squeezing all our household goods into a tiny apartment and a lock-up garage.
For digital nomads it’s easy to be tempted to swap the daily grind of urban life for a simpler life in the countryside. I asked local estate agent, Theo LePennec, if he’d seen a general trend. ‘Definitely’, he said ‘the property market has seen a considerable rise due to the recent pandemic. It’s pushed a lot of city dwellers from Île de France (Paris), and the Grand Est (the Strasbourg region), towards the countryside. For the moment, the market’s very buoyant and there’s a lot of demand for the few properties available’.
Even if you’re not able to move to the mountains, you can still enjoy them and discover the romance. Dig out the hiking boots, take a bike ride, be wowed by the views. Maybe you’ll be inspired to paint, or sketch or write too. if so, you’ll be following a long Romantic tradition.
Lindsay Bunch moved from Glasgow to lives and work in the Haute Savoie, overlooking Lake Geneva. Passionate about travel, skiing, sailing and hiking she’s fulfilling her dream of being a digital nomad. Find out more at talesfromthebalcony.