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Every year on the weekend closest to December 11th, Geneva celebrates the historic Escalade festival (Fête de l'Escalade) commemorating the victory over the Duke of Savoy's invading troops in 1602.
The Duke of Savoy didn't take kindly to the loss of his former possession of Geneva. And he was annoyed by the fact that Geneva had become protestant and a republic during the reformation in 1535. The Savoy dynasty remained Roman Catholic and he wanted to get back the city now regarded the "Protestant Rome".
The Duke hatched a plan! Under the cover of the night, his troop of approx. 2000 mercenaries attacked the city during the night from 11th to 12th December 1602. They sneaked up to the ramparts and scaled the city wall in order to be able to open the main city gate.
As it happened, Madame Royaume - living above the town gate "Passage de Monetier" - was up late, cooking soup for the next day. She heard a noisy disturbance at the wall and saw the sneaky Savoyards climbing over the ramparts. Quick minded Madame didn't hesitate and threw the heavy cauldron full of boiling vegetable soup out the window and onto the head of a Savoyard soldier. It killed him instantly.
That commotion woke up some more Genevans and the message was spread quickly. More windows opened and chairs, tables and what not followed the cauldron of soup to stop the intruders while Geneva's men gathered up their rifles to defend the city.
The Genevans managed to get rid of the Savoyards in a severe battle relatively quickly, killing 54 soldiers and losing 18 of their own men.
The "Night of the Crime" as it was called then - is commemorated each year with the Escalade festival during three days mid-December ("faire l'escalade" meaning "to go climbing" - thus the name Escalade for the festival). And of course, Mère Royaume's cauldraun is omnipresent during that time. Hot vegetable soup is ladled from it everywhere and you won't get hungry meandering through the old town sitting on a hill.
Cauldron's are used to collect money for charities and children collect a few coins after singing in Restaurants and squares or - should you happened to live in Geneva - knocking on your door.
Handmade chocolate cauldron's adorned with the red and yellow coat of Arms and filled with colourful marzipan vegetables are displayed in the shop windows, waiting to be purchased. Tradition has it that they get smashed by the youngest and oldest attendants at the end of the festival, singing the song "Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la République ! ".
Mère Royaume's maiden name was Catherine Cheynel. She was born in Lyon around 1540. She had fled France and moved with her family to Geneva to escape the persecution of the Huguenots. She became a symbolic figure for the successful defense. Paintings and monuments such as a fountain (Fontaine de la Brasserie de la Mère Royaume) in the historic part of the old town as well as a head sculpture on the wall of the "Grand Théâtre de Genève" - and of course a restaurant - are daily reminders of the courageous and defiant mother of 14, Madame Royaume.
Genevans are passionate about their Escalade festival. Geneva's unofficial Hymn, "Cé qu'è lainô", recounts the event. You see people wandering through the old town in period customs during these three days as if they would be on their way to work or daily chores.
The Escalade festival takes place in the historical town center on the hill between Friday and Sunday on the weekend closest to December 11. Events are staged throughout. Please check the detailed program on the organizers website - Compagnie de 1602.
Dates 2016: December 9 - 11
Dates 2017: December 8 - 10
Dates 2018: December 7 - 9
The grand procession "Cortège historique" takes place on Sundays, starting at the "Parc des Bastions" at 5pm. Approx. 800 participants in period costumes - Authorities, People of Justice, Clergymen, Soldiers and Citizens of Geneva on horse and on foot are accompanied by drummers, fifers and tambours. It's said to be Europe's largest historical procession.
Part of city wall where Madame defended her town is still intact at the east end of the "Parc de Bastion" on "Passage de Monetier" and is marked with a sign "Heritage Geneve". Privately owned now, you can visit during the Escalade festival for free. If you go, plan an early visit - the later the day the longer the lineup.
You can participate on the road run through the old town, starting in the "Parc des Bastions", taking place at the beginning of December.
Stying in Geneva during the Escalade festival? Check out hotels here.
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