Droit de passage


There is a law in France that stipulates that private property owners must guarantee a ‘droit de passage’ – right of way – to the public who wish to access the waterfront bordering their property. ‘La loi littoral’ states that a band of 3.25 meters must be accessible along the shore to allow people to walk along the water’s edge.

The law is not always enforced, but it seems that in our corner of Lake Geneva, there has been a recent movement to ensure access. So it is that we set out on Sunday on one of the sacred rituals of French life – la promenade du dimanche. A walk along the lake to discover if what we had heard was true.

Our village, like most small towns in France, publishes a quarterly newsletter. It always starts with a short editorial from Madame la Maire, usually a lecture on how we all need to be better citizens (less wasteful, more law-abiding). This pontificating annoys me but presumably not the French: it seems they are like school children who expect to be told off by the teacher.

The recent edition contained a short mention that it was now possible to walk along the lake all the way from our village to the scenic town of Nernier. Une belle balade, it said, to be enjoyed by one and all.

As soon as I read this, off I went to look for the path; predictably, I could find no trace of it. This generally happens any time I try to explore new territory in France. Husband is much better at finding his way so this time we went together. We both enjoy the outdoors and had set ourselves the goal of doing more fun things together.


Down we went to the port des pêcheurs on Sunday morning and still found no trace of where to begin our walk. There is a wall with a few metal steps leading up to a concrete dock area but this is part of (presumably) the fisherman’s yard. There is no sign indicating anything. We peered around but seeing no one, did not dare to enter. So we went around the property to a small path that seemed to lead in our direction. This soon ended in a field which led us up and away from the lake. The only way to get back to the waterfront was to cut through a rather muddy farm field, which we did, taking large pieces of the field with us as souvenirs stuck to our shoes. We ended up back by the lake and began walking along the shore. This was so overgrown as to be barely passable in spots. We ducked to avoid branches and stepped over wet stones, trying not to slip. Eventually a path of sorts emerged, with small signs for hikers.

Along the way we observed many old properties that were either abandoned, windows boarded up and no signs of life, or simply shuttered for the season. Some of these were magnificent old houses fallen to ruin; others more recent with high fences and more money than taste put into creating Disney-like landscaping.

The lake was calm and beautiful in the soft light of early spring. Swans and ducks circled peacefully. There were no boats or signs of human activity on the water, although we did pass several other people out walking.

I wondered how this happened? High waters? Natural erosion?


All along the waterfront we observed a strange kind of algae, which had dried to a sort of white vermicelli. It was everywhere.


One couple we spoke to said that the reason you had to start from the fishing port in our village is that the private property around the Château is closed off to the public. Hmm. A rule for the plebs and another for the nobility? I think I’ll suggest that to Madame la Maire as a subject for her next editorial.

Still, it was a beautiful walk and fun to discover so much of the unseen side of the lake.

Do you have a favourite Sunday stroll?


27 thoughts on “Droit de passage

  1. I have such fond memories of Nernier. We punched a random destination into our GPS not long after we arrived in France and Nernier came up. It was just my husband and I as the children were all in school and it was one of the first times that we left dealing with bureaucracy behind for the day and just enjoyed ourselves.

    1. Glad it brought back fond memories. Nernier is such a cool little town with its artsy village atmosphere and far less touristy than neighbouring Yvoire. Funny coincidence though as I’m not sure how many people have heard of it!

  2. What a beautiful part of the world for your local Sunday stroll!
    Glad you took reinforcement with you to find the er, “path.” I always quickly lose my nerve when exploring new territory, so it’s nice to have back up!

    1. Yes, you’re right – we are fortunate to live in such a beautiful area and indeed, it’s a very loosely defined path. I kept thinking there would be lawsuits in North America if a public authority actually encouraged people to walk in such a place!

  3. I went on a class trip to a Visigoth cemetery, which involved taking (borrowing, in French) a dirt road near a château-turned-fancy-hotel. The sight of 50 kids advancing on his property brought out the German owner, but he was told off in no uncertain terms by the local archeologist, who knew exactly where the hotel’s property line went, and the road wasn’t involved. Since then, I see that the road has been completely gated off, so I guess the German hotelier won. I understand that the hotel doesn’t want local boys on quads ripping through, but folks interested in the ruined early medieval church and the graves are not the kind to wake the dead.

    1. You raise an excellent point: not for nothing do we ‘borrow’ (emprunter) a path in France. You can own waterfront property but not the highways and byways that people use to access public property. Sorry to hear the hotelier won – it seems unfair to have a ‘système a deux vitesses’.

    2. Sounds like the kind of thing a fancy chateau hotelier might do – put a gate up, never mind whether he’s allowed to or not. Would be interesting to see on the cadastre as to whether the road really belongs to him. If it doesn’t and the gate is unchallenged for long enough, it’ll become his right to close it off to the public, and that would be a shame…

      1. According to the local historian (and village council member), the road doesn’t belong to the hotel. Which is why he led the kids marching down it. I drove by yesterday, and there is electric wire all over the place now. About a kilometer in each direction, on both sides of the main road.

  4. A lovely walk but boy did that last remark make me laugh! Near to home in Cantal, there is a Chateau whose website, a single typed page not updated in aeons gives a brief history, a nod to the help they get from the Monument Historique brigade and a firm statement that it is a private house and never open to the public …. feudal? France? Surely some mistake …. 😂

    1. Getting a giggle from you is my greatest reward! I could not find a single detail online about our Château, which is certainly magnificent but most decidedly private.

  5. V interesting, and yes income, status and precedent seem to inform these situations; whatever the pertaining law.
    Some folk we know bought a water front property for what they thought was a bargain price thinking they could oblige the fishermen to move or relocate their time honoured path to the water’s edge.
    They have now discovered that they cannot, nor can they plant a hedge to screen the fishermen’s full close-up view of their whole garden, swimming pool and their bedroom windows.
    If they’d run it by us I could have saved them much grief.

    1. I’m surprised they can’t plant a hedge at least to ensure their own privacy, while still allowing access to promeneurs? Now I understand why some newcomers have built their houses so far from the lake! (Well, that and zoning, along with the view, which tends to be better!)

  6. It’s one of my biggest bugbears with France, the fencing off of areas that should be public, including private chateaux. Good for you for trying. Such a lovely corner of there world there (although I did find Yvoire a little de trop). 🙂

    1. You are right about Yvoire, although some of its quieter corners are still quite nice. I guess for people like yourself with a true passion for architecture, the fencing would indeed be frustrating. Do you have similar laws on access in Oz?

  7. super-post, professionnel, comme d’hab’… ❤
    * * *
    @"Do you have a favourite Sunday stroll?" – yes, we usually stroll across the fields of our village or drive to Saint-Ferréol lake, très pittoresque où nous marchons environ 10kms… 🙂

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