What is the Escalade and where to find the perfect marmite : Geneva’s 12th December tradition

IMG_8114The Escalade is a traditional event that happens only in Geneva on the 12th of December. It commemorates the night of the 11th to the 12th December, during which the protestant republic fought back the « Duc de Savoie » who tried to invade the city.  The Duc de Savoie and his men are called the « Savoyards », a term that is still used as a funny insult in Geneva, when someone tries to climb on you. Indeed, the verb « Escalade(r) » means « to climb » and refers to the savoyard’s strategy: they climbed against the bulwarks of the Porte de Neuve using wooden ladders. The Escalade is part of Switzerland’s living traditions and is actively celebrated in the city. The course de l’Escalade is an annual event that generally happens on the 1st week of December, where up to 7 different races take place in the course of a day, and Geneva’s citizens are glad to sign up. The course has different categories, and for those of us who went to a swiss school here, we all remember our first race into the old city with thousands of people screaming our names (can you tell it scared me to death at the time?!)… The event brings tens of thousands of visitors and those who aren’t running encourage the runners, shouting their names (each runner has a bib with race number and name )  and applauding their endurance. On that day, you can hear that the city is vibrant of history, and all the coffees, bars and Tea-Rooms of the Bourg-de-four place prepare Hot Wine to warm up the supporters outside. This year 44’000 runners finished the race, and for a small city like Geneva, that is BIG numbers. Geneva has a population of 190’000 people, that means 1/4 of Geneva’s citizens ran…!  The last race to happen on that day is the « Marmite », a race that you do with your family and where you can put funny costumes on. I think it’s the best one, specially if you’re not into a competitive mindset but that you want to dress up and be a part of the festive spirit. If you have kids or a big family, it’s also the perfect occasion to do the family costume thing!

Then, on the 12th December, there’s the real celebration. If you live in the center, you’ll hear drums every hour, see people in costumes and maybe have problems driving around the city because of the Escalade Cortège. The victory over the Savoyards is symbolized by the breaking of a « Marmite ». During the night of the attack, in 1602, the Savoyards came into the city by boat: through the Lake and then they discreetly went up the Rhône to the level of the Corraterie ( it is still called la Rue de la Corraterie today, it’s between the Bel-Air and Place de Neuve Stop if you take the 12 tram). Their plan was to silently take the Porte de Neuve ( as it name suggests, this door to the city was located at place de neuve, giving onto the Treille), open it and let in the army of 300 Savoyards that awaited on Plainpalais. 50 Savoyards climbed up the old doors of Place de Neuve, and were so sure that the city was almost taken,that a message promising victory was sent to the Duc de Savoie. Unfortunately, a genevan guard gave the alert, and at 2.50am the « Clemence » bell, the oldest bell of the Cathedral, started ringing and woke up the old town’s inhabitants. History says they fought with courage (and in pyjamas). Even woman fought for the city: La Mère Royaume is still widely remembered today. She was a renowned cook and from her window, spilled onto two savoyards a big pot of boiling soup. This is why the Marmite has historical meaning during the escalade. The savoyards were killed without mercy, and the doors stayed shut. The Savoyards left at Plainpalais marched to the city, thinking the doors had been opened, but were received by cannons. It was a massacre, and the captives were judged and executed by M. Tabazan, a member of the Tabazan family, still famous today for being the last executioner family of Geneva.

This tradition is very observed by the City: schools and families wait for the event, and you’ll find a marmite in many genevan homes. The Cathedral bells will sing the « Cé qué lain’o » tune every hour and soup stands will pop up at every corner. At night, a big fire takes place in front of the Cathedral: if you want to prepare for the event, you can try to learn the popular songs. The two most famous ones are: « A la belle escalade » and « Cé qué laino ».

Cé qu’é lainô is really very long. Trust me. It’s about 68 couplets long… So learning the first three is already good enough! Here are the first three in provincial french ( usually it is sung in this weird dialect ) and in modern french :

1

Cé qu’è lainô, le Maitre dé bataille,
Que se moqué et se ri dé canaille,
A bin fai vi, pè on desande nai,
Qu’il étivé patron dé Genevoi.

1

Celui qui est en haut, le Maître des batailles,
Qui se moque et se rit des canailles
A bien fait voir, par une nuit de samedi,
Qu’il était patron des Genevois.

2

I son vegnu le doze de dessanbro,
Pè onna nai asse naire que d’ancro ;
Y étivé l’an mil si san et dou,
Qu’i veniron parla ou pou troi tou.

2

Ils sont venus le douze de décembre,
Par une nuit aussi noire que d’encre ;
C’était l’an mil six cent et deux,
Qu’ils vinrent parler un peu trop tôt.

3

Pè onna nai qu’étive la pe naire,
I veniron ; y n’étai pas pè bairè:
Y étivé pè pilli nou maison,
Et no tüa sans aucuna raison.

3

Par une nuit qui était la plus noire,
Ils vinrent; ce n’était pas pour boire :
C’était pour piller nos maisons,
Et nous tuer, sans aucune raison.

 

Another song you’ll probably hear kids sing is « A la belle escalade« : it’s also shorter, so it’s faisable to learn it by heart. And it’s more fun to sing ( Kids love the « Gard! Gard! part). Here’s the lyrics:

1

Allons, citoyens, de grand cœur, (bis)
Réveillons ici notre ardeur, (bis)
Pour chanter les exploits
Des vaillants Genevois
Du temps de l’Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Du temps de l’Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

2
Ce fut l’an mil six cent et deux, (bis)
Qu’on vit ces Savoyards furieux, (bis)
Dans l’ombre de la nuit
Violer notre réduit
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

3
Les plus hardis au pied du mur, (bis)
Croyaient déjà que d’un pied sûr, (bis)
Ils pouvaient tout tenter :
Mais en voulant monter,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

4
Le Ciel qui veillait sur l’État, (bis)
Permit que d’un brave soldat (bis)
Un canon ajusté
Les fit tous culbuter.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

5
Le pétardier un peu après, (bis)
Voulant s’avancer de trop près, (bis)
La coulisse, dit-on,
L’envoya chez Caron.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

6
Une vieille au poing vigoureux (bis)
Prit sa marmite sur le feu (bis)
Sans attendre plus tard
Coiffa un Savoyard
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

7
Un jésuite très furieux, (bis)
Exhortait les moins valeureux, (bis)
Avec des passeports
À passer chez les morts.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

8
L’alarme enfin se répandit, (bis)
Chacun d’un saut quitta son lit, (bis)
Et, lorsqu’ils combattaient,
Sans culotte ils étaient.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

9
Pendant un bruit si étonnant, (bis)
Bèze dormait profondément, (bis)
Quand le jour fut venu,
Il les vit tous pendus.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, Savoyard,
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Savoyard, gard, gard.

10
Nous qui chantons d’un cœur joyeux, (bis)
La gloire de nos chers aïeux, (bis)
Cherchons à notre tour,
D’imiter leur amour.
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Genevois, Genevois
Ah ! la belle Escalade,
Genevois, cette fois !

 

The whole event is pretty joyful and if you’re in town, why not try and participate! Even if you’re not swiss, traditions are a great way to get to know a culture from the inside. Any family can recreate the Escalade in their homes: all you need is a Marmite, learn the first couplet of Cé qu’é lainô and say « Ainsi périrent les ennemis de la République » when the youngest and the eldest of the family give hands and break the marmite together. Which brings me to the most exciting part of this post: where do you find the perfect marmite?

I thought I would do a review ( over the years) , of different types of marmites from all the nice bakeries I know that sell quality chocolates. Also, pay attention if the marmite is sold empty or full: if it’s empty, you’ll have to buy the marzipan vegetables that go inside. If the marmite is full of locally made marzipan, the price may be higher but you won’t have to find the tiny marzipan soup vegetables around the city…

First of all we can quote the cheapest marmites: Migros and Coop are of course the go-to for any savvy buyer. The cheapest one at the Migros ( 190g) is 14 chf, and the biggest one of 3kg is 240 chf.

If you’re buying one just for yourself, or maybe yourself and a friend, husband or boyfriend I would suggest to buy a small one. There’s only so much chocolate you can eat in a day! I bought a small marmite at Stettler and Castrischer  for 12 chf, because my boyfriend’s dog was over on thursday and we had to have this small celebration with her! ( Lol is it obvious I’m finding all types of excuses for my compulsive chocolate buying habits?)

I love chocolate, but I usually never eat more than a bar. However, this chocolate was amazing and I almost ate the whole marmite by myself. Plus, it was so gorgeous and cute!

It is sold with the small marzipan vegetables inside (the best part haha!) and they are just too cute!

I’m on the hunt for the family gathering marmite that we will be breaking on tuesday the 12th 2017 with 30 people. This small marmite was so good I’m now hesitating to order the 2kg one for the event ( Isn’t it beautiful?!) They also sell a pack of three small ones: dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate for 30 chf.

I really wanted to go on a marmite hunt to find the best marmite for you guys, but I’m realizing how much time it takes and how much chocolate tasting it requires! I’ll update this post next year and so on, and the list will grow with time. Until then, I wish you all a great Escalade!

And you? Where do you usually buy your marmite? I’d love to know!

 

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  1. Sego dit :

    Hi, great blog! Just to add that there is also the extra small marmite sold at Migros with one vegetable that is the cheapest (I believe) at less than 5.-
    Everyone loves a marmite :p thanks for your recommendations!

    J'aime

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