Jennifer Osei-Mensah explores a unique village festival in Switzerland
Évian-les-Bains is an unusual place to be as a Brit, unless you are either lost or a mineral water enthusiast. It’s on the southern bank of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman), about an hour’s drive from the Swiss capital. Although there are barely any public transport links to get there, it’s within driving distance, over stunning mountain passes, to some of the best known ski resorts in the French and Swiss Alps, and the town is overlooked by peaks and glaciers looming over the lake to the east. So while it is a hidden-ish gem, the town itself hides another gem – the fabulous village of the flottins.
What is a flottin? – I hear you cry. As far as I can work out, it’s a made up mythical being derived from the French word flotter – to float (think flotsam) – as flottins are made out of driftwood. The tale goes that since the dawn of time, the flottins wash up on the banks of the Lac Leman, carried by melted snow, avalanches and ravines until they arrive on the beaches of Évian. They build their villages here in the winter and live peacefully. Except, once upon a time, Father Christmas was flying over the lake and had an emergency water landing due to disputing reindeer. The flottins, naturally, saved the reindeer and Father Christmas. Henceforth every year since then Father Christmas flies over Evian to say hello.
However, when they say the dawn of time, they actually mean 2007, when it was first started up by Alain Benzoni. The village of the flottins is essentially an original take on a Christmas market, combined with an annual art installation. Massive driftwood carvings take up the central square of the town, featuring many mythical creatures and a driftwood chairlift, upon which a live violinist is hoisted on the last day of the festival. There is a merry-go-round and street toys such as pinball machines, all fashioned from driftwood, and bits of old bicycles, watering cans, typewriters… it is a truly unique spectacle. Bird calls and flute music are played over loud-speakers, and the entire installation is lit by massive stage lamps with orange gels, so you feel a little bit like you’re in a well lit forest. Actors and actresses wander around in woodland-esque costumes, playing instruments and dancing with children. The flottins are finally taken down around Epiphany, to mark the end of the twelve days of christmas, but some driftwood creatures stick around in the village for the following months.
What’s striking, and charming, is that they’re not selling anything. Unlike traditional christmas markets, or the wonderful hell-hole that is Winter Wonderland in London, they’re not after your money. Mr Benzoni just wants to make people wonder, and have a good time.
It’s also a real feat of creativity. Benzoni and his team, the theatre troupe ‘Toupine’, start collecting wood from the Swiss side of the lake in May, and bring it back to Évian in lorries. The wood washes into the lake from the Rhône, and has been used to make 500 sculptures, with another 50 being added every year. Anyone is welcome to help the team sculpt, and each piece has a small plaque beside it to say who made it. The pieces that make up the main village, in the centre of Évian-Les-Bains, change every year. Mr Benzoni states, in an interview with Rhône-Alpes Matin, that the budget is €200,000 for a 4-week installation, with three additional weeks putting it together and two to take it down. Without the support of the town of Evian, the project wouldn’t be feasible.
Even to the most cynical, the fabulous village of the flottins has a really magical feel to it. You really do feel that the town comes together to share a unique festival, and celebrate its heritage – albeit a very recent heritage. So if you’re ever in the Alps after Christmas and need a bit of magic, head over to Évian-les-Bains for a crepe and a wander among the flottins.
Feature image credit: Pinterest
Image credit: finetravelling.com