Exploring Swiss Wine by Rail
Ride the rails between Geneva and Interlaken and you get Alpine views, classy cities and historic sights, but also the chance to try Switzerland’s unexpectedly good wines.
I’m biased since I grew up there, but there’s no better place to start discovering Switzerland than Geneva. You can see the best of it on a long walk around its lakefront from Botanic Gardens on one side to Parc des Granges on the other. This leisurely stroll past villas, rose gardens and Geneva’s famous 150-metre fountain is glorious, and something I never miss on my annual visit to my parents.
Exploring the austere old town and trendy inner-city district Carouge with its lively cafés, interesting boutique shops, and weekly street markets never gets old. When raining, the grand collection of European timepieces in Patek Philippe Museum is my go-to place. Objects range from early 1630s pocket watches glinting with gemstones to 19th-century watches, as well as beautiful examples of contemporary Patek Philippe creations.
Swiss Shore Excursions of Lake Geneva
The Swiss shore of Lake Geneva – the southern shore is in France – stretches for just over 100 kilometres, which trains zip along in under an hour. It would be a big mistake to do that, though. This is one of those squeezed-in corners of Europe – dense with history, two cities, agreeable towns and several castles.
I love riding the rails here. Local trains stop frequently, allowing access to by-ways. The French Alps are flamboyant on the horizon, the lake scattered with yachts, and villages providing a kaleidoscope of flowerboxes and fluttering flags. Even better, cellar doors sit among the terraced vineyards that flank the lake: just the place to unwind and sample Swiss wines.
The French Alps are flamboyant on the horizon, the lake scattered with yachts, and villages providing a kaleidoscope of flowerboxes and fluttering flags.
I always recommend taking a rural ramble through the well-signposted chestnut forests and neatly-pegged vineyards into open meadows where alpine panoramas unfold across the lake. For me, autumn is the sweet spot: vines turn orange, yellow leaves rustle in country lanes, and snow-peaks are usually crystal clear.
You’ll get your first taste of the landscapes on the medieval ramparts at Nyon, 20 kilometres out of Geneva, which has an unbeatable view of Mont Blanc directly across the lake. Below the ramparts lie flower-packed parks and a swan-paddled harbour. When the Swiss do prettiness, it’s never in half measure.
Nyon is scattered with Roman knickknacks, and it was likely the Romans who planted Lake Geneva’s first vines, which come into view from the train as you continue eastwards. Alighting again at Morges, the grim-looking lakeshore castle that terrified me as a child looms above.
The agreeable pedestrian shopping street is friendlier, and comes alive with a weekend market. A picnic lunch of cheese, sausage and seasonal fruit to munch on the waterfront, which has flower-filled promenades stretching for miles, is always an agreeable indulgence – especially during tulip season.
This wine-producing town has almost been swallowed up in the suburbs of Lausanne, a city halfway along Lake Geneva. This lively, hilly university city is topped by a fine Gothic cathedral and tumbling old town with stunning Alpine views.
The top reason to come here, though, is the Olympic Museum, adjacent to the headquarters of the IOC down in the lakeshore district of Ouchy. Its sporting memorabilia and historical footage of great Olympic moments always provides something new, even though I’ve visited several times.
I enjoy the gardens too, which erupt with sporting statues and modern sculptures set among clipped hedges. Markers and equipment give you an idea of how long, high and far athletes have to run and jump to claim sporting immortality – you’ll be astonished.
Scaling the footpaths of the Lavaux wine region above Saint-Saphorin in Switzerland (Image credit: Switzerland Tourism).
The cobbled streets of Geneva, Switzerland.
Take Time to Explore Swiss Wine
It’s now that you should set your sights – or your tastebuds – to exploring Swiss wine. Production is small and the Swiss wisely consume most of their own wine, meaning that Swiss wines are seldom recognised internationally.
This doesn’t mean they lack quality or interest, however. A quarter of all Swiss wine, and the best in quality, comes from Lake Geneva. I’d make an exception for Mauler Sparkling wine produced by a Benedictine monastery in Val de Travers further north, however, which is served to heads of state while on visits to Switzerland: don’t miss giving it a go.
The most common grape varieties on Lake Geneva are Gamay and Pinot Noir for red wine, and fruity Chasselas for white. Some of the region’s more unusual varietals, such as Garanoir, Gamaret and Plant Robert, should also entice the adventurous wine aficionado.
Naturally, differences in terroir produce subtle differences in the wines. I find that Lake Geneva’s Pinot Noir is, for example, rich and velvety around Féchy but, thanks to sandier gravel terroir, gains a slight spiciness around Begnins. Meanwhile white wines tend to be less acidic and sweeter than you might expect from a cold climate.
You mightn’t want to get into the complexities of Lake Geneva wines. The tiny region has twenty-six appellations, and grape names can get confusing: Chasselas is called Fendant further up the Rhône Valley, and Perlan around Geneva. No matter, because the vineyards beyond Lausanne are worth visiting even without all the wine. The lakeshore becomes ever steeper and more terraced, and the views are dazzling.
This region, known as the Lavaux, is World Heritage-listed for its wine history and culture; Cistercian monks were making wine here in the Middle Ages. If travelling by train, I’d recommend a first stop at Cully for a meal at the Auberge du Raisin, a six-minute walk from the train station.
This 15th-century building’s interior of wood panelling and antiques has an elegant, almost alpine atmosphere, but the restaurant’s young chef Flavien Jauquier provides upscale, contemporary cuisine that favours local produce, whimsically enlivened with oriental spices. Bresse chicken and pheasant are roasted on coals, but my nostalgic dish is fish straight from the lake.
Switzerland is hands down one of the world's most beautiful countries.
I usually shake off my meal by walking along the lakeshore to the next train station, Saint-Saphorin, which takes an hour and a quarter. Fortified and cobbled, Saint-Saphorin is one of Switzerland’s prettiest villages. Long a wine centre, it now also has an arty reputation thanks to its several resident painters.
On the way, you pass the contemporary Lavaux Vinorama, dug deep into the hillside at Rivaz, where you can conveniently sip your way through wines from numerous cellar doors under one roof, before watching a splendid film about the vineyards through the changing seasons.
A slight disadvantage to the train here is that it hugs the lakeshore so to get the best views and reach cellar doors, you’ll need to pant your way up the hillside. If you’re driving, follow the Route des Vignerons, marked by brown signs. But on foot, well-marked walking paths traverse the Lavaux.
When I’m visiting Geneva I always spend a day here, walking among rustling vine leaves between gnarly villages that cling to the hillside like illustrations in a children’s book.
My parents are in their 80s, but if you’re still feisty you could tackle the Grande Traversée de Lavaux, which runs for nearly 40 kilometres between Lausanne and Chillon. However you get there, aim for the spectacularly-sited tables outside the village of Chexbres: no better secret spot for a picnic. Meanwhile, a dozen unpretentious cellar doors such as Caveau Corto or Bacchus permit you to sample the white wine. Do it the local way, accompanied by a few pickled onions and cubes of cheese.
Almost French in the Swiss Riviera
The vineyards peter out above Vevey as the Pre-Alps shoulder forward with forested crags. Heading down to lake level again, the posh stretch between Vevey and Montreux is known as the Swiss Riviera thanks to its tax exiles and balmy microclimate, which sees Mediterranean pines and palms trees f lourish.
Montreux flourished as a winter retreat for Russian and British aristocracy in the 19th century, and is still grand with yellow palace-hotels and restaurants in which white tablecloths are ironed to perfection. The snow-dusted fangs of France’s borrowed mountain scenery loom across the lake.
Of all the lakeshore promenades, Montreux’s are the best. All through my childhood, visitors from overseas were brought here to see the scenery. In 40 beautiful minutes, promenades lead you through a kitsch flamboyance of marigold and geranium flowerbeds to the Château de Chillon, a castle ringed by mountains and water that features on many a Swiss calendar and chocolate-box lid.
The 13th-century castle was certainly a childhood favourite, and it still appeals to me today thanks to its explore-worthy labyrinth of banqueting halls, medieval hidey-holes and scenic ramparts. And who can resist dungeons?
Of all the lakeshore promenades, Montreux’s are the best...promenades lead you through a kitsch flamboyance of marigold and geranium flowerbeds to the Château de Chillon, a castle ringed by mountains and water that features on many a Swiss calendar and chocolate-box lid.
Montreux is a grand 19th-century resort town where European aristocracy once came to enjoy the balmy microclimate, fresh air and extraordinary lake-and-mountain scenery. Staid visitors still stay in swanky palace-hotels, but Montreux has its raffish side, especially during its July jazz festival.
Though a statue of one-time Montreux resident Freddie Mercury stands prominently on the lakefront, many people overlook the terrific Queen Studio Experience, tucked obscurely into the casino. Queen recorded seven albums here, and this shrine of memorabilia is well displayed and illuminating; you can even try mixing your own track.
For a sugar and caffeine hit, I can never resist 130-year-old café Zurcher, where I dither over lemon tarts, chocolate cakes and layered pastries oozing indecent quantities of cream. Locals favour warm trattoria-style eatery Rouvenaz for woodfired pizzas, pastas and seafood dishes; it has both a wine and gelato bar.
One of the oldest restaurants, Caveau des Vignerons, serves rustic Swiss cheese dishes matched with local wines. Otherwise, I’d recommend sacrificing your arm and leg for a two-star Michelin meal at Le Pont du Brent, which dishes up Swiss and French specialties in a charming country house in the hills above town.
Gazing down upon the promenade at Montreux, Switzerland.
In winter the Chillon Castle at Montreux is magical (Image credit: Château de Chillon).
From Montreux, I head north into the heart of French-speaking Switzerland. This isn’t the stereotypical Switzerland of the high Alps, but the country’s best-kept secret. Expect sun-dappled cornfields and orchards, rolling green hills and blue lakes on whose mirror surfaces yachts float. Every now and then, the train chugs past a medieval village of red-roofed houses and tiny churches.
Alighting at Bulle I take a short connecting postal-bus ride to Gruyères, one of Europe’s best-preserved fortified market towns, crowned with a small castle. Fat cows clank their bells in the lush surrounding fields. Gruyères is home to the famous Swiss cheese of (almost) the same name – my personal favourite of all the Swiss cheeses.
Here you can see Gruyère being made by master cheesemakers in an ultra-modern dairy, touching, smelling and tasting your way around an exhibition of this iconic product before stretching your legs on a walk through the countryside.
I then head on to Fribourg, which I believe is Switzerland’s most delightful ‘unknown’ town. Once the prominent capital of a small medieval republic, defensive walls enclose fine medieval and baroque houses and creepy Gothic churches, but the town also has a lively contemporary vibe thanks to its many university students.
Finish on a high in the Swiss Alps
Fribourg sits on the Sarine River. Cross the bridge and it becomes the Saane River – the language switch in train-carriage announcements still startles me. By the time I arrive in Bern 35 kilometres away, I’m firmly into German-speaking Switzerland. The federal capital is small and sedate, but its old town is World Heritage-listed for its towers and kilometres of medieval arcades, set high above the river and gazing onto the Bernese Alps.
From Bern, there is easy access to the Alps which provide a grand finale to any Swiss holiday. Interlaken is an hour by train and gets you near some of the country’s most stupendous Alpine peaks. Its main street, Höheweg, is lined by parks and promenades overlooked by luxury hotels, many built in grand Belle-Époque style and encrusted with balconies, turrets, gables and fluttering flags. If you hanker after a cow-shaped ornament, Swiss Army knife or cuckoo clock, you won’t have to search far.
I contemplate spending a week hiking the mountains, in which case I’d consider staying higher into the Alps at nearby Wengen or Grindelwald where one is able to hike straight from your hotel door into flowery meadows. Even the indolent, however, can enjoy stunning Alpine scenery simply by riding the famous rack railway up the Jungfrau.
Instead, I take the route via Wengen. Shortly out of Interlaken the train starts chugging through the Lauterbrunnen Valley, where waterfalls tumble off sheer cliffs and cows graze between geranium-draped chalets.
Several dizzying loops later, I arrive at Kleine Scheidegg for a train change on a rocky ridge that gives a first up-close view of three mighty peaks, the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger, all close to 4,000 metres high.
From here the train to the Jungfraujoch runs mostly through tunnels in a feat of engineering achieved in 1912, but still stupendous. Halfway up, I briefly alight to gaze through windows cut from the face of the north face of the Eiger, one of mountain-climbing’s most notorious challenges.
Then I arrive at Europe’s highest train station, wedged at 3,454 metres between the summits of the Mönch and Jungfrau and gazing down at the Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps. In the other direction, on the clearest days, you can see as far as France and Germany. For those willing to be distracted from the grand scenery, the Jungfraujoch also provides several restaurants, shops (the Lindt store has flavours you never see in Australia), and glacial tunnels graced with ice sculptures. All year round you can frolic in the snow outside: surely a glass of Swiss white wine from the outdoor bar is a fitting accompaniment to the icy panoramas.
As I slide back down the mountain in my red train carriage, the afternoon light casts new colours on different parts of the landscape. Sometimes the scenery looks too picture-perfect to be real, even to an almost-Swiss like me, with cows seemingly instructed to clank their bells as you pass by. And yes, I might be biased, but you’ll surely conclude that Switzerland is hands down one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
The fairytale-like federal capital of Bern, Switzerland.
Gruyères Castle, nestled in the spectacular Alpine landscape (Image credit: Switzerland Tourism).
Swiss Travel Must-Haves
A good way to get about is by using a Swiss Travel Pass, which offers unlimited travel on trains, lake steamers, postal coaches, urban public transport and some mountain trains, plus admission to over 500 museums.
I use it frequently to enjoy efficient, stressfree travel on some of the world’s most scenic, comfortable and well-organised railways. Even regular express and local routes offer gorgeous scenery: three of my favourites are the Geneva-Montreux run (sit on the right), Lausanne-Neuchatel (also on the right) for visions of lakes and distant Alpine peaks, and Interlaken-Lucerne (either side) for green valleys and more lakes.
Montreux–Interlaken via posh Alpine resort Gstaad provides two hours of pure panoramas. Local trains, punctual to the second, propel you through terraced vineyards and fertile farmland to village and rural destinations. You can rent a bicycle at many train stations, while yellow signs, marked with distances and time estimates, point out hiking paths. It’s a travellers delight.