Traditional barques back in service on Lake Geneva

The Savoie is one of the boats which have helped bring back memories of Lake Geneva's maritime past. em-BARQUE-ment immédiat

The magnificent sight of large wooden sailing boats silhouetted against the backdrop of the Alps is returning to Lake Geneva. A small but growing number of traditional barques are transporting schoolchildren and tourists back to the glory days of the lake.

This content was published on May 17, 2001 - 10:13

There are currently three renovated or replica barques, which are peculiar to the region, operating on Lake Geneva. They provide a poignant reminder of when these vessels were the principal means of transport in the region.

But they could soon be joined by a fourth: another barque is currently being built in the port of Villeneuve, at the far eastern end of the lake.

This boat is special because it is primarily for children. When "La Barque des Enfants" is completed, it will be used to take schoolchildren on week-long study programmes on the lake. It will also be the first of the Lake Geneva Barques to have wheelchair access and multimedia facilities.

Symbol of region

"The barque is an important symbol of our region, and we want children to use it to discover the lake, and its wildlife," says local schoolteacher Christian Reymond, the driving force behind the Children's Boat.

Lake Geneva, one of the largest stretches of inland water in Europe, is the geographic and cultural meeting point of the north and south of the continent.

By the Renaissance, it had become an important trading artery; the barques plying its waters carrying produce not only from other parts of the continent, but also spices, precious stones and fabrics from the Orient which had been brought to Venice and transported over the Simplon or Great St. Bernard passes.

But by the early 20th century and the advent of the railway, the people of the region were forgetting their maritime heritage. The lake had become a frontier rather than something that brought people together.

Rediscovering heritage

"The Barque is a way of rediscovering our heritage. Our ancestors were sailors, and it's important to remember that," Reymond explains. He says he wants the boat to have the same role as a mountain chalet or a summer camp, where children learn to live and work as a group.

"You develop a kind of solidarity when you are part of a crew. It helps to develop the personality of the children on board," he says.

To achieve his ambitious goal, Reymond set up an association called "em-Barque-ment immediat" which could roughly be translated as "Everyone on Board".

The boat is an exact replica of a barque called La Demoiselle, which was built in 1828, and which sailed on the lake until the end of the 19th century. It was chosen because detailed plans and photographs of it still exist, along with a scale model in the Barque Museum in the nearby town of St Gingolph.

Once completed, the 27 metre-long boat will be used by children only from Monday to Friday, meaning it can be hired by members of the public or tourists at weekends and during the holidays. "It is available to anybody," Reymond adds.

Already the Barque has been used for parties and functions, but once it is finished, it can be hired to sail across the lake.

Dependent on donations

The hull and deck, fashioned from larch timber, are completed, and electricity and engines are being installed. Reymond is hoping that the boat will be ready to set sail in about 18 months, but his association is dependent on donations.

In the meantime people can make use of the other three barques - the Neptune, based in Geneva, La Vaudoise from Lausanne and La Savoie from the French town of Thonon.

Much of the work on the Children's Boat has been done by unemployed people whose right to benefit had run out and for whom the project was their last source of income and retraining.

The barques can trace their ancestry back to the 13th century, when the Dukes of Savoy employed carpenters from Genoa to come to Villeneuve to build them a navy.

"My romantic notion is that these young Italian carpenters met pretty young women here, decided to stay, and carried on building boats. These barques are the daughters of the galleys," Reymond says.

With the peaks of the French Alps standing out behind their billowing sails, it's easy to see why those Genovese artisans might have wanted to stay.

"Everyone has a smile on their face when they see one of these boats," says Louis Haas, another member of the Em-Barque-ment Immédiat association.

"These boats really belong to this country. It's a question of tradition and of values," he adds.

by Roy Probert

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