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The Escalade: of muskets, soup and chocolate

Every year, Geneva remembers its victory over the duke of Savoy Keystone Archive

The Christmas build-up always begins late in Geneva, because the whole city goes Escalade mad, devoting all its attention to a humble soup pot.

This content was published on December 5, 2001 - 18:17

The Escalade is Geneva's national holiday, its Bastille Day and July 4th. It commemorates the day 399 years ago when this fiercely independent Protestant state repelled the invasion force of the Catholic Duke of Savoy.

Geneva may be the humanitarian capital of the world, but during the Escalade, the citizens of this city of peace show a surprising fondness for muskets, canons and swords. They can also indulge in those other favourite Swiss pastimes - dressing up in period costume and playing fifes and drums.

In the greater scheme of things, the events of the night of December 11th 1602 may have been no more than a minor footnote in history. But many argue that they made the city what it is today.

If it hadn't been for Mère Royaume, the city might today be just another provincial French city.

Mère Royaume? Her real name was Catherine Cheynel. It was she who spotted the Duke's soldiers scaling the city walls (escalade means climbing up in French). She quickly poured a pot of scalding vegetable soup over their heads and raised the alarm.

Soup pot and marzipan

The soup pot, or marmite, has become the symbol of the Escalade, but today, it is made of chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables.

There are really two Escalade celebrations. On December 12th, the city's children don fancy dress and cook vegetable soup at school. Tradition dictates that the youngest and oldest people present smash the marmite, while proclaiming: "Thus perish the enemies of the republic".

But the really serious escalade festivities take place on the weekend closest to December 12. Hundreds of members of the 1602 society, dressed in authentic Reformation period costumes, stage a candlelit procession through the old town.

It's an event that is atmospheric, unnervingly authentic and completely devoid of razzamatazz. The most commercial aspect of this special day are the stalls selling vegetable soup (of course), mulled wine and roast chestnuts - all necessary to keep out the December chill.

At intervals along the way, the re-enactors stop, fire their muskets, hand out local food and wine and read out the same proclamation that was made the day after the men of Savoy had been put to flight. They also sing the Geneva anthem Cé qu'è lainô (He who is on High).

Very few people seem to know what the 68 verses of Cé qu'è lainô mean, as they were written in an ancient Geneva patois. But that doesn't stop young and old belting it out with gusto. And nowadays they just stick to four verses.

by Roy Probert

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