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Fête de l'Escalade
A yearly celebration in Geneva in memory of the night attack by the Savoyards in 1602
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Article added on December 9, 2003

 
For over 400 years, the citizens of Geneva have been commemorating the defeat of the surprise attack by Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoy's troops with their annual Fête de l'Escalade, the Celebration of the Scaling.

During the night of the 11th to the 12th of December 1602, the longest night of the year according to the Julian calendar, the combined forces of the Duke of Savoy and his brother-in-law, Philip III of Spain, launched a night attack on the proud and independent city-state of Geneva. The vigilant citizens of Geneva managed to prevent the attackers from scaling the city wall (climb = escalade). The Duke's some 2000 mercenaries were severely beaten - several hundred died - and he had to retreat.
 
For generations, the Dukes of Savoy had coveted the neighboring city-state of Geneva for its location and wealth. When Duke Charles Emmanuel mounted on the throne of the House of Savoy in 1580, he longed to make Geneva his capital north of the Alps and crush Protestantism in its stronghold. To achieve his objective, he alternated diplomatic and military offensives, intimidation, threats and promises of peace. In the end, all strategies failed. Worse, the day of the failed Escalade became the symbol of resistance and independence for the citizens of Geneva, who lost only 18 men in the battle. As a result, the Duke of Savoy was obliged to accept a lasting peace, sealed by the Treaty of St. Julien of July 12, 1603.

The night of the attack, the mercenaries silently marched along the River Arve and assembled at Plainpalais at two in the morning. A commando group, using bundles of brush and ladders, tried to climb the city wall. Once inside, their objective was to open the town gates to admit the assaulting army. However, a Genevan sentinel on the alert saw a shadow and just had to time to fire an alarm shot before he died. The citizens of Geneva rushed to successfully defend their independence.

Besides the authentic historic events, there are a lot of anecdotes surrounding the Escalade. The most famous one is about a certain Mother Royaume (Mère Royaume). When she realized the city was being attacked, the mother of fourteen children seized a large cauldron of soup she had on the fire and hurled it onto the head of a Savoyard mercenary.

In reference to Mother Royaume, an Escalade custom consists of selling a hot and tasty vegetable soup in the streets of Geneva during the celebration. Even more popular - also with the author of this article - are the famous chocolate "marmites", a replica of her soup cauldron, filled with marzipan vegetables and decorated with the colors of Geneva. They are sold by confectioners and other shops and end up on dining room tables and office desks. The custom is to smash the chocolate pot, while shouting: "Thus perish the enemies of the Republic [of Geneva]."

Other customs include the offering of mulled wine and children in Halloween-like costumes singing Escalade songs in local bistros and in the streets, for as many much money as you care to give them.

The highlight of the Fête de l'Escalade is the procession on Sunday afternoon, with hundreds of members of the "Compagnie 1602" in full historical costume, horsemen, musketeers, crossbow marksmen, torch-bearers, a hangman and his assistant. The procession is accompanied by gun smoke, firecrackers and gun salutes. The annual procession ends in front of the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre with the proclamation of the Genevese victory.

The "Compagnie 1602" was created in 1926 to perpetuate the memory of the Escalade. It is the successor of the previous association of 1898 called "L'association patriotique genevoise pour la rénovation de l'Escalade". The commemoration of the Escalade was often banned, notably under the Napoleonian occupation of 1798. The procession dates back to the mid-19th century.

The private organization receives no subsidies and relies on its members' annual dues, donations, fund-raising, receipts from the sale of various literature and the famous soup. Most of the revenue is used for the costly maintenance of the historical costumes, arms, flags and the perpetuation of the Escalade celebration.

The "Compagnie 1602" has some 2300 members which also participate in other patriotic commemorations such as the Swiss national holiday on August 1 ("Rütlischwur" of 1291) and the anniversary of the landing of the Swiss troops at Port-Noir on June 1 (in 1814, which led to Geneva's joining the Swiss Confederation in 1815).




Fête de l'Escalade. Foto: © Genève Tourisme.

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Fête de l'Escalade. Foto: © Genève Tourisme.

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