Longing for the Lavaux

By: Philip Hall

I first heard about the area along the north-east shore of Lake Geneva from friends with family in Switzerland. “It’s the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine,” one of them raved. “The food and wine is fantastic, it’s easy to get around, everyone speaks English, and it hasn’t been destroyed by tourists…yet!”

So naturally my husband and I were intrigued, and last year we decided to include Lavaux and Montreux, Switzerland in a European road trip that took us from Burgundy, France to Vienna, Austria—and it was totally worth the stop.

The Lavaux Wine Trail
Thank god for those 12th century monks and their green thumbs who chose to drown their celibate sorrows in booze. It’s because of them, there’s nearly 2,000 contiguous acres of picturesque grape vines growing on terraced hillsides overlooking Lake Geneva; a lake so calm, clean and clear it reflects the Evian mountain range on its Southern rim like a high-res photo stretched across the water’s surface.

Those first robe-wearing viticulturalists in the region filled the sunny slopes of the Lavaux wine valley (a protected UNESCO site since 2007) with stone-wall vineyards arranged in a mosaic like perfectly placed roof shingles cascading down the ridge, bleeding into the Lake below.

Spend a day criss-crossing hillside vineyards via marked winemaker roads, and stop in the small towns of Epesses, Rivaz, Chexbres and Saint-Saphorin for wine tastings, cheese and pastries. Enjoy perch, a local lake fish often served fried with a squeeze of fresh lemon, or grilled in a lemon caper and butter sauce, with a glass of chasselas or chardonnay, the two most common varietals growing in the area. Full, dry, fruity whites and rosés are what they’re known for, wines that pair perfectly with traditional Swiss dishes like rich cheese fondue and raclette.

You can stay in the few medieval castles, like Domaine du Burignon, perched on the steep hills surrounded by vineyards that have been totally renovated and are now managed by the local tourism board. Many of them offer an amazing traditional Swiss breakfast comprised of cheeses, breads, yogurts, fresh fruits, sliced meats, eggs made to order and of course coffee; morning fuel to get your engines going. Similar breakfasts are served in any of the B&Bs and pensions in the villages peppering the wine trails between Lausanne and Vevey. Saint-Saphorin is great homebase with its picturesque fountain-lined alleys and characteristic winegrowers’ houses from the 16th-18th centuries that create bridges over the narrow roads through town. Rivaz is home to Auberge de Rivaz, one of the most popular restaurants in the area, serving delicious Italian seafood dishes, homemade pastas and the best local wines. It’s also worth visiting the modern Vinorama in Rivaz, where you can taste more than 200 wines from the surrounding estates.

Most of the towns have train stations and the trains run almost every 30 minutes along the lake’s edge, which is filled during rush hour with commuters who work in Lausanne or at the Nestlé global headquarters in Vevey, and live in the little villages between; surrounded by clean air and some of the most stunning scenery.

Play in Montreux
Heading east along the lake’s shore past Vevey is Montreux, most commonly referred to as the “Swiss Riviera” with a full-time population of about 28,000 people that nearly triples in the spring and summer months.

The main square of the town, Place du Marché, features a statue of Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist for the rock band Queen, facing Lake Geneva. Mercury, Charlie Chaplin and other notable out and closeted actors, writers and artists have long been retiring to Montreux, a beautifully quaint retreat on the water’s edge where nobody seems to give a damn about one’s sexuality. For decades, the city has boasted it’s acceptance of the LGBT community, and it has a robust gay night-life to back that up.

During the day, take a stroll along one of the most well kept and luxurious boardwalks in Europe with the white-capped Alps off in the distance, and make your way up to the enchanted Chillon Castle for some history of the region, which used to be a Roman trade route, and later a prison when the Savoys took over. This is where 18th century playboy Lord Byron spent years of his time in exile from England and wrote some of his most notable poems. It’s also where his lady friend Mary Shelley spent time walking the dungeons and up the narrow spiral staircase of the tower on eerie lightning-filled nights, scenes that later inspired Frankenstein and her many monsters.

Take the boat ferry back to Montreux or Vevey for a different vantage point, and enjoy an evening of discovery along the water’s edge, shopping, eating, enjoying gelato and gambling in the casinos.

As the sun sets on this hot-ass summer, I can’t help but want to keep the good times alive by planning next year’s big spring/summer trip before airfare is too expensive, and the work calendar fills with immovable conflicts. My two criteria: it can’t be unbearably hot or humid (sorry Palm Springs), and it’s got to be jaw-dropping gorgeous. I guess this means we’ll be going back to Switzerland, where it’s the men and women who are scorching hot (not the temperature), the white wine is brisk and refreshing, the chocolate is melt-in-your-mouth heaven, and the scenery is out of control beautiful.