Road Trip Around Lake Geneva
What could be better than driving along quiet, smooth country roads through vineyards and lush green farmland, exploring medieval villages and castles, with a constant spectacular view across a glistening lake with a backdrop of snow capped mountains?
Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall
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Taking a drive around Lake Geneva is one of my secret pleasures. I’m amazed more people haven’t discovered this glorious route around one of Europe’s top beauty spots. You don’t have to be a gnarled explorer, it’s one of the easiest adventures you can have. Simply hire a car at Geneva International Airport and start driving. The Swiss roads are among the best in the world. Your destination will be Europe’s biggest lake; a full circuit is roughly 130 miles. You could do it in half a day – or stretch the route out over a two or three-day short break.
My first tip is to stick to small roads as near as possible to the shore and stay off the motorways. That way you won’t even need to buy the expensive Swiss motorway pass – and you’ll get to see the best panoramas. The highlights of the round-the-Lake drive include the Swizz Riviera resorts of Geneva itself, Lausanne and Montreux; and the spa towns along the southern French shores, like Evian-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains. In France this large croissant shape of water is known as Lake Leman.
You’ll start at Geneva, which occupies a finger of Swiss land that extends into neighbouring France. This means the city is almost surrounded by international borders. In fact, if you leave Geneva Airport by the wrong exit you’ll be in France, not Switzerland. Drivers find, however, that the borders are hardly noticeable. You may easily forget which country you’re in.
Before you set off around the lake, have a quick tour of Geneva. It’s a wealthy, elegant city surrounded by the Alps and serving as the base for many international organisations.Geneva stands at the western end of the lake, where the River Rhone leaves to begin its long journey south to the Mediterranean. There are views to the Jura Mountains to the north and the Aravis range to the south. Visitors can spot Western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, from the city centre.
Expect to find glossy designer shops, highly rated restaurants and eye-watering prices. But you can see the best sight simply by driving along the waterfront: the Jet d’Eau is a memorable man-made plume of water squirting 450ft high from the middle of the lake, like the Mont Blanc of fountains.
Head east, keeping the lake on your right. Look out for flower-bedecked cottages in the pretty village of Saint-Prex and the waterfront castle at Morges.
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Next stop is Lausanne, an intriguing city of steep hills, old houses and cobblestones. Explore the medieval centre dominated by a grand gothic cathedral with an impressive south façade and colourfully painted statues. Lausanne is more arty and youthful than Geneva, thanks to its large student population. So prices are lower and the nightlife livelier.
If you’ve time, pop into the Olympic Museum celebrating the organisation’s HQ in the city. Cyclists undertake the annual ‘Tour du Lac’ from here but for most of us driving is a more leisurely option. Incidentally, the Museum houses innovative modern interactive displays – but I confess my favourite bit is sitting in the café with a glorious view of the paddle steamers chugging around the lake.
Keep driving along the northern shore and you’ll head right through the 14 villages of the Lavaux area. These south-facing slopes are home to hundreds of tiny terraces of vines created by 12th-century monks. Call into a vineyard for tour or simply admire the fertile steps rising up from the shoreline. It’s such a grand and historic horticultural enterprise, Lavaux has been declared a World Heritage Site.
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The next major resort is Montreux, home of a famous music festival each July. It’s another charming town with lakeside gardens and, on a small island in the lake, Switzerland’s biggest tourist attraction. Chillon Castle is a 900-year-old fairy-tale chateau with romantic towers, spiral stairs and dungeons. After visiting, Lord Byron was so enchanted he wrote the epic poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’.
Like the subject of the poem you’ll eventually be able to escape Chillon. Then you’ll be able to loop round the eastern end of the Lake and discover French resorts on the southern shore.
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Evian Les Bains is the best-known spot: a genteel spa town still famous for its drinking water. Among the 19th century spa buildings, look out for the art nouveau Cachat Pump Room and glass-domed Palais Lumiere, once a fashionable spa bathhouse, now an art gallery.
Keep heading west, admiring the views of the sun-lit far Swiss shore. You’ll soon pass the Evian Water bottling plant. The ultra-modern factory is open to visitors if you’ve time to stop.
Or continue on to Thonon Les Bains, another leafy old French spa town with impressive spa buildings. Take the funicular railway from the old town high on a cliff down to the waterfront. This was once an old lake fishing village and you’ll find a museum in one of the old fishermen’s houses. There’s a small aquarium too, showing many of the fish that live in Lac Leman.
The fish have a different role these days. You can relax with a live fish pedicure in some of the Thonon day spas. Or perhaps you’d rather meet local fish at one of the waterfront restaurants. Fresh lake perch is particularly popular all round both shores, usually served simply – fried with chips.
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Before heading back into Switzerland and the airport at Geneva, call into the little French village of Yvoire. You’ll have to park outside and walk in – Yvoire is completely pedestrianised.
It’s worth the stroll: you’ll be able to wander through the ancient gates of this walled medieval settlement. This is one of the area’s most popular tourist sights, so the narrow cobbled streets are full of cafes, restaurants and galleries. And it makes a charming diversion before you return to Geneva… and your starting point.
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