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Geneva plans massive Escalade celebrations

The Escalade kicks off on June 1 with a massive costumed procession.

Geneva is preparing for a seven month-long party to mark the 400th anniversary of the battle that defined its destiny.

The Escalade is Geneva’s national holiday, its Bastille Day and July 4th. It commemorates the day – December 11, 1602 – when this fiercely independent Protestant state repelled the invasion force of the Catholic Duke of Savoy.

The Escalade, one of the most authentic historical re-enactments in Europe, is normally a sober – if atmospheric – affair, in keeping with the Calvinist traditions of the city. But this year, the celebrations will be a little more spirited than usual.

Independence Day

“For 400 years, there has been an Escalade day in the year. This year, there will be an Escalade year,” says Patrick Mayer, head of public relations of the 1602 Company, the charitable organisation that keeps alive the spirit of Geneva’s greatest day.

“In the hearts of the Geneva people, this is our independence day. It’s a time to celebrate, and this year, the party will be bigger than ever,” Mayer told swissinfo.

The celebrations get under way on June 1 with a massive costumed procession. Members of the 1602 Company will be joined by re-enactment groups from 19 Swiss cantons and four countries. In total some 2,500 people will make their way through city.

Extravagant show

Then, for two weeks in the second half of August, 300 members of the 1602 Company will put on an extravagant light and sound show in the Parc des Bastions, scene of the decisive battle.

The traditional Escalade Race, which happens on the weekend before the Escalade proper, will this year be replaced by the Duke’s Race, which will follow the route taken by the Savoy troops on their way to the fateful battle. The runners are sure to be given a warmer reception in the Parc des Bastions that the Duke was.

“We’ve been working on the programme for the past two years, and it’s going to be incredibly intense between now and the end of the year,” says Didier Aulas, the Company’s head of events.

“We’re excited about putting on this impressive spectacle for the people of Geneva – and that is the chief motivation. It’s their festival,” he adds.

“We have tried to build enthusiasm for the anniversary right through the summer and autumn, and that’s why we’re putting on a wide range of events,” says Yves de Coulon, head of marketing for the 1602 Company.

Alongside the one-off events organised by the 1602 Company, most of the big cultural institutions in the city, including the Art and History Museum and the Grand Théâtre, are putting special Escalade-related exhibitions and shows throughout the year.

Minor battle

In reality, the Escalade was a minor skirmish within a much bigger conflict. But it reaffirmed Geneva’s freedom and independence, and, many argue, made it the open, tolerant city it is today.

“If the Duke of Savoy had won, we would be French or Italian today. It was a minor military battle, but it was of immense importance to the fate of Geneva,” says Patrick Mayer.

Its importance is proven by the special relationship the people of the city have with their national festival. Most schoolchildren know the words to the Escalade anthem, “Cé qu’è lainô”, even though it is written in 16th century dialect.

And most enjoy eating the symbols of the Escalade: chocolate soup pots which are full of marzipan shaped like vegetables.

These are in recognition of Catherine Cheynel, better known as Mère Royaume, who – so the legend goes – spotted the Duke’s soldiers scaling the city walls and poured a pot of scalding vegetable soup over their heads.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR