Visit: 20th June 2015
The vineyards of Lavaux occupy a portion of the north coast of Lake Geneva, in western Switzerland. The area was inscribed on the World Heritage Site list in 2007 because it showcases the long-term interaction between people and their environment. Although Switzerland isn’t exactly famous for its wine, the Lavaux region has been producing it for at least a thousand years, and possibly as far back as Roman times. The cultivation of vines on the stepped slopes of the shore of Lake Geneva make for a pretty sight, and one that Natalie and I greatly enjoyed walking through on a fine Saturday in June.
We had flown in to Geneva early that morning and taken a 40 minute train ride to Lausanne, where we were to stay the night. The Lavaux region covers the rural area between Lausanne and Montreaux – both synonymous with wealth and with jazz (Montreaux hosts a major international jazz festival each year, and Nina Simone was once a resident of Lausanne).
Whilst it is often quite simple to say when one has ‘visited’ a WHS (eg. the Tower of London or the Old City of Dubrovnik), the rural ones can provide more of a challenge. How much, for instance, of the Wadden Sea do you have to have visited in order to say you have completed the WHS? Fortunately, in this instance, the Swiss Tourist Board has prepared a suggested walking route that happens to start at one end of the inscribed area and end at the other.
The 11km route, which you can see above, took us about four hours and gave us a real feel for the area. The Tourist Board was also helpful enough to suggest caves along the way in which to try the wine produced in the vineyards in which we were walking.
About 80% of the grapes grown in Lavaux are of the Chasselas variety, which is a white grape with a full, dry, fruity character. We stopped off once en route and again at the end of our trail, in Saint-Saphorim, to drink some Chasselas – whilst the proprietor of the latter cave spoke at us in French (undeterred by my protestations of je ne parlais Francais!).
The locals have a saying that there are three suns warming the vines in Lavaux: the well-known Sun in the sky, its reflection from the lake and the heat that is stored up in the dry stone walls by day and radiated out to the vines at night. It is important to remember that the area’s Outstanding Universal Value (in UNESCO-speak) comes from the fact that it is cultivated and has been for such a long time. You are reminded of this when walking past the roller-coaster-type farming contraptions that are used to transport grapes (and farmers) up and down the hills when picking (I presume).
But all this farming doesn’t put off local wildlife – we saw kestrels, starlings and many a lizard, basking in the Solstice sun.
My only complaint about the area would be that it is impossible to try any of the damn wine until evening time! We must have walked past at least a dozen caves, but it was not until 5pm – at the end of our walk – that we were first able to go inside one and order a drink. Since none of the villages seemed to have any newsagents or similar it meant we were also pretty thirsty for plain old water (in the end we did manage to find a hotel that would sell us a midday drink, but it involved sort-of crashing a wedding reception – so wasn’t ideal).
Nevertheless, it really is a very pretty area, and provides good walking for anyone who likes a light hike. I had only ever visited Switzerland before in the winter, so it was good from my perspective to see it in the summertime, when it has that picture postcard look that is so satisfying to see.
With pretty much a whole day spare on Sunday I decided shortly before we set off for Switzerland that there was time for another WHS, and so it was that were soon found ourselves on the train to Bern – Switzerland’s low-key and often overlooked capital city.