Sometimes I wonder if I deserve Pere Bise. Sometimes, as I turn through the gates of this remarkable old hotel-restaurant in the Haute Savoie region of France, into the little gravel courtyard ringed with flowers and flowering trees, I ask myself if I’ve really been all that good.
L’Auberge du Pere Bise, to give it its full name, inspires that kind of thinking because it seems so much like paradise. Located on the banks of Lake Annecy, in the village of Talloires, about 350 miles southeast of Paris and 30 miles south of Geneva, Pere Bise is a splendid place, at once elegant and easygoing, charming and sophisticated. It is hardly the most luxurious hotel in France (or even on Lake Annecy), and its restaurant, though very good, can seem old-fashioned. But in its exquisite geography, and in the way it matches its services to its setting, Pere Bise is nonpareil.
I fell in love with Pere Bise for the first time by long distance when I saw a photo of it in some travel magazine or other, circa 1965. The shot showed a small complex of alpine-flavored buildings with tile roofs peaked and overhung like wimples, surrounded by trees and flowers and separated from a pristine lake by nothing more than an expanse of thick green lawn. On a stone terrace facing the lake were tables napped in white and chairs with luminous blue cushions. Rippling reflected sunlight danced around two or three small boats out in the water. Across the lake were a few large chalets couched in green and behind them rocky hills, rising steeply and turning from deep green to greenish blue as they approached the powder-blue sky. It all looked so perfect that I wondered if ordinary tourists would be, or even should be, allowed to visit the place. I also thought that I would surely like to try.
I finally got to Pere Bise in the early ‘80s. By that time, I had traveled reasonably widely elsewhere in France, and in Italy and Scandinavia, and had seen plenty of pretty lakes and (at least from a distance) plenty of exquisitely situated hotels and restaurants. I was looking forward to finally seeing Pere Bise, but at the same time I had become, quite frankly, a bit blase--and, anyway, I half feared that I’d find the fabled beauty of the place somehow diminished with the years, or learn that it had been exaggerated in the first place--a question of clever camera angles, maybe.
I needn’t have worried. I pulled into the aforementioned gravel courtyard and, before even registering, walked out across the lawn to the edge of the lake and just stopped and stared. Then I turned back to look at Pere Bise and stared some more, like a schoolboy transfixed by a beautiful woman, and as much by the implications of her past as by her beauty. Then a young man in a crisp white shirt and black trousers appeared, greeted me, asked if he could fetch my bags and led me into the reception desk. I signed in, and in so doing, though I didn’t realize it at the time, signed a contract promising to myself that I would come back here as frequently as possible.
Since that first visit, I’ve managed to return maybe half a dozen times, which is not as often as I’d like. Besides, though it may be paradise, it’s expensive as hell.
My most recent stop at the place, earlier this summer, was a brief one. I had to catch a plane back to Los Angeles from Geneva, but instead of spending the night in that Swiss city, I decided to sneak in a visit to Pere Bise (it’s not much more than a 45-minute drive from the Geneva airport). I arrived in Talloires around 3 in the afternoon, checked into my attractive but hardly luxurious $200-a-night room, freshened up and then strolled out to drink in the intoxicating surroundings. (The glass of Champagne on the terrace would come later.)
Lake Annecy occupies part of a glacial valley framed by the Bauges mountains to the south and the Alpine foothills that stretch up to Geneva in the north. Its form is eccentric: Its top portion, the so-called Grand Lac, is an irregular oval with an elongated tip, tilting slightly to the northwest; then it constricts, jogs to the east and ends in the droopy Petit Lac, shaped rather like a teardrop about to fall. Talloires overlooks the narrows between the two parts of the lake, and the views from its hills and shoreline are defined and partially limited by small promontories and curves of land up and down the lake. This lends the town’s relationship with the lake an appealing intimacy. It seems manageable, inviting even, especially looking north and west from the auberge--and indeed it is a pleasant place to swim, its water pure and clean, though icy even in summertime.
When I had arrived, in mid-afternoon, the sky had been mostly fleecy gray, and the sun could be felt but not quite seen. Because the lake is ringed with mountains, there are often clouds overhead, usually quite dramatic in shape and color--but, on the other hand, the weather changes swiftly here, and by the time I had emerged from my room and started to stroll along the little web of gravel paths that spin through the hotel’s rose garden, the sky had cleared but for a few smoky wisps, and the sun was shining.
I walked out the front gate and past the Villa des Roses, a faint pink three-story mansion with pale green shutters that contains about half of the auberge’s 34 rooms and suites. (The rest are in or immediately adjacent to the main building, which also houses the restaurant and kitchen.) I took a quick turn around the tiny Talloires port, with its little covered-bridge-like boathouse and its side-by-side population of other hotels and restaurants--some of which are quite nice (one is even a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel association), but none of which, of course, is Pere Bise.
Then, heading back past Pere Bise again, I walked uphill into “downtown” Talloires, a small cluster of shops and more hotels and restaurants (these less grand than the ones by the lake), most built in that gingerbread cut-out Alpine style that inevitably suggests the architecture of fairy tales. Nearby Annecy, a pleasant city of about 50,000 with an attractive 17th-Century old town, dates its origins from prehistoric times and was later the site of an important Gallo-Roman settlement.
Talloires, about eight miles from Annecy, halfway down the eastern flank of the lake, is of more recent vintage. Though there may have been a few fishermen on this bit of shoreline previously, the first significant population arrived after a Benedictine abbey was founded here in the 9th Century. (Later abbey buildings, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, now house the aforementioned Relais & Chateaux, which is called L’Abbaye de Talloires.) Fortunately for its picturesque simplicity, Talloires never grew beyond a village--its present permanent population is little more than 1,000--and since as long ago as the 18th Century, it has been a popular site for vacation villas.
When I returned to Pere Bise, a crew of 10 or 12 was setting up a commercial photographic shoot at the little covered landing. A tall, thin model with long raven-colored hair emerged from a camper, wrapped in a terry-cloth bathrobe and looking rather chilly as twilight approached. One of the crew said something to another and pointed up behind me. I turned and saw four para-gliders, their sails in bright primary colors, hovering high up--seemingly frozen in space, like birds caught in a strong wind--off the dentate outcropping of Mt. Entrevernes, which looms behind Talloires.
I took another stroll through the rose garden and then across the lawn to the edge of the lake, where the branches of one weeping willow almost kissed the water. A goose sailed past, oblivious. I heard the faint echo of a distant splash and turned to see that the model had just dived off the Talloires pier. I decided it was time for an aperitif and so repaired to the restaurant terrace.
Waiters and busboys stood at attention between the tables as I sat down. Unfortunately, they weren’t looking my way. They were staring at the water, from which the model was beginning to emerge. It was obvious that, whatever product she was selling, it wasn’t bathing suits because she wasn’t wearing one. Glancing up at the restaurant terrace, though, and at the audience of formally attired men and boys she had attracted, she shouted something to one of the assistants. A moment later, a bathing suit was tossed to her in the water. She slipped into it gracefully and then splashed up onto the bank and into her bathrobe.
The staff lost interest, and I ordered my Champagne.
By now the lake had turned four different colors, according to its depth, what its surface was reflecting and how the light was hitting it--baby blue, sea-foam green, silvery blue and dark moss green. The hills lost surface definition as the light faded, turning into strong, dark shapes. The weeping willows were becoming lacy silhouettes, while mild spotlights illuminated the linden trees and pollarded elms along the terrace’s edge. Streaks of artificial light began to spill across the lake from street lights along the port, from tiny boats heading home and later from the bateau-mouche -style dinner cruise ship down from Annecy. I ordered dinner of my own.
Pere Bise dates its origins from 1901, when one Francois Bise, who had worked as a maitre d’hotel on the dinner ships that, then as now, cruised Lake Annecy, bought a small restaurant on the site called Le Petit Chalet. Fried fish from the lake was the specialty, and Bise quickly earned a local following as a genial host--though according to “Larousse Gastronomique,” the authoritative encyclopedia of food and cooking, he once turned away Paul Cezanne, who was penniless but had offered to pay for a meal with one of his paintings.
In 1924, Francois’ son Marius, who had by that time apprenticed as maitre d’hotel at several top restaurants in Paris, took over the place from his father, installing his wife, Marguerite, as chef. Rooms were soon added, and the name changed to La Petite Auberge. Before long, it had become known as L’Auberge du Pere Bise, in honor of Marius--which was ironic, because it was Mere Bise, Marguerite, who elevated the establishment to the level of a serious restaurant.The Guide Michelin recognized Marguerite’s skill by awarding the place its coveted three-star rating.
In 1968, the auberge passed into the hands of Marius and Marguerite’s second son, another Francois, with his wife, Charlyne. But Francois had health problems, and became unable to oversee the property properly. In 1983, shortly before his untimely death (and despite Charlyne’s best efforts to uphold the restaurant’s standards), Michelin took back one of its stars. After the Bise’s daughter, Sophie, moved into the kitchen in 1985, alongside longtime Bise sous-chef Gilles Furtin, the restaurant won that star back briefly. Now it has two stars again, though Furtin and Sophie Bise continue to produce food that is difficult to fault, other than for its perhaps excessive respect for tradition.
I love that about the place, though. The cooking is classic; an occasional raspberry sauce for the sauteed foie gras or salmon-trout with ginger mayonnaise aside, nouvelle cuisine might never have penetrated this far down-lake. This is hearty, unapologetically buttery and creamy, intensely flavored food of a kind all too difficult to find in France today--rich (and genuine) lobster bisque beneath a puff-pastry dome; baby sole braised in port wine; an opulent tarte of potatoes, black truffles and foie gras; a formidable pate chaud sauce poivrade (meatloaf gone to heaven--a warm, coarsely ground pate, perfectly seasoned and enclosed in pastry, then moistened with assertive black-pepper sauce); an extraordinary rack of lamb with crisp baby green beans and a textbook gratin dauphinois (which is not so much potatoes baked in cream as potatoes drunk on cream); a whole repertoire of wonderful desserts (including eight or nine kinds of souffle) and more.
Best of all, though, to my taste, are the delicate freshwater fish, straight from Lake Annecy, that are sometimes served--perch, fera (a kind of salmon found only in the Haute Savoie), burbot and most of all the sublime omble chevalier or char. (This is one of those restaurants where the “daily catch” is really that; if it isn’t caught that day, and by local fishermen, it won’t be available.) One of these, simply prepared--a perch in butter sauce, say, with maybe some buttery spinach on the side--and a bottle of faintly sparkling Seyssel, a fresh, lemony local wine, is about as fine a meal as any diner could demand. And that’s exactly what I had.
One of the greatest pleasures of dining at Pere Bise is the warm, hazy realization, which usually occurs sometime between the last sip of wine and the first sip of cognac, that you get to spend the night. The rooms are comfortable and furnished in a slightly corny French-mountain-provincial style (lots of knotty pine), with big fluffy beds, discreet floral patterns on the walls and chairs, and, if you’re lucky, a terrace giving onto the lake. I was lucky, and so, retiring after dinner, I left the TV off and stood outside instead, watching the lake and the mountains and the sky for, well, not long enough.
That’s the trouble with looking at beauty. Built into the very act is a sort of sweet longing because you can’t really do anything with it, except watch it, breath it in, and finally leave it, so that you can come back later and watch it again. And come back to Pere Bise I certainly will.
GUIDEBOOK: Inn on the Bank of the Annecy
Getting there: Swissair flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Geneva, the nearest international airport to Talloires, several times a week; lowest restricted round-trip fare is about $1,130. Numerous connecting flights are available for approximately the same fare, including British Airways via London, Delta via JFK in New York, TWA via JFK, KLM through Amsterdam, etc. From Geneva to the hotel, the best bet is a rental car (all the major companies have offices at the Geneva airport), which will also give you the mobility to explore the stunning countryside around the lake. From Paris, there is train and plane service to the town of Annecy, about eight miles northwest of Talloires. There is no train service to Talloires, but both taxi and boat service from Annecy.
The hotel: L’Auberge du Pere Bise, Route du Port, Talloires; telephone 011-33-50-60-72-01, fax 011-33-50-60-73-05. Closed Tuesday lunch and from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15. Rates: $160-$300 per night for two; suites $260 to $700. Dinner, $225-$325 for two with a modest bottle of wine.