Imagine yourself high in the Alps, overlooking the clear blue waters of Lake Geneva. There are acres of terraced vineyards all around you following a wide path that cuts across the vineyards, winding through medieval villages and Swiss country cottages. Welcome to the Lavaux Vineyard Trail in the Riviera of Switzerland, just 30 minutes northeast of Geneva, and directly across the lake from Evian, France. This is some of the most beautiful and austere scenery in the world, a perfect place for some walking, hiking and wine tasting.
The wine trail begins at the waterfront Olympic Museum in French-speaking Lausanne, and meanders across the steep alpine hillside along Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French) to Chateau Chillon 20 miles later. There are some steep climbs and downhill sections, but most of the trek is easy strolling. The entire trail lays out breathtaking panoramic views of the country; this really is the best way to see the Swiss Alps. You can take a boat or a train to a jumping off point like Lutry, Cully or Rivaz. There are several more trains – the Lavaux Express & the Lavaux Panoramic – which allow you to jump on and off. A map from the Tourist Office and a snack for longer hikes, both available at larger train stations, are all you need to be ready to go. Here’s another great guide to the area. All you need to do is pick a section, get there and follow the yellow arrows!
The wine cellars, called les caveaux, don’t open until 4 or 5 p.m., so you want to plan your train ride/walk to end in a larger wine-making town around that time. Other caveaux will open upon request earlier in the day and allow you to sample wines, provided that you can find someone to ask – or you can always book ahead via email or phone. Make sure you have practiced your winning smile and a little French (Bonjour Madame will do nicely) before approaching the Swiss for special requests. It’s best to plan your walk in 3-4 hour sections, with a break at the end of each section to stop for rest and refreshment. You can do two sections in a day making it a full day in the vineyards, or just one section leaving time for taking a boat ride or browsing in the local villages before your walk.
Section 1: Cully, Epesses and Riex
Begin in the lakeside village of Cully, which is a small hamlet on the water’s edge. This is a charming place to begin your walk, and it’s the largest town in this section making it a great place to have breakfast or buy sandwiches for the day. The wine trail begins in the town center, just follow the signs uphill toward Epesses. The trail cuts directly through the vineyards and you will find yourself surrounded by grapes as far as you can see up towards the crest of the Swiss Alps and all the way down to the water. The trail has been made from the old workers’ routes through the vineyards, so you will see plenty of workers in the fields as you walk. Most will be happy to stop and answer any questions you may have. Be sure you take your time as you walk to take in the surrounding beauty. The air in Switzerland is very clean and clear and the idyllic country landscape is simple and magnificent at the same time. From up here it feels like you’re inside an enormous painting.
Once you reach Epesses, you will find many caveaux des vignerons in the narrow cobblestone streets, as well as small hotels and restaurants. You can also fill your water bottle from the water fountain in the center of town, and find many picturesque spots to take photos. Take some time to read the signs and locate the wineries in town, which only spans about a mile. If it is not yet 4 p.m., try knocking on the wineries’ doors and asking politely for information about their wines. On the far side of town is a small park, perched on a high terrace with trees, picnic benches, fountains and flowering plants. Above, you can see a medieval tower; it is the perfect place to end your walk.
To return to Cully, walk back the way you came, or walk along the motorway toward Riex, a small picturesque village with one cellar for tasting. Then, continue down the path to return to Cully, a short distance away.
Section 2: Chexbres, Rivaz and St. Saphorin
To get to Chexbres, take the wine train from Vevey to save yourself the steep climb. Chexbres is a delightful village that has one of the best spots perched high above the lake, and is often called the balcony of Lake Geneva. One of the most ancient buildings in this little town is the Crousaz Castle, creating a stunning backdrop, and the church’s spire can be seen rising above the town’s rooftops. One wine cellar is housed in a building dating from the 18th century, the Maison Wittenbach. Many wine cellars and country cottages line the path you will follow toward Rivaz and St. Saphorin. The wine path leads out of town and down the hillside, a wonderful stroll, until you must choose between Rivaz and St. Saphorin. You can choose one to visit, or if you have time, you can walk another trail between the towns to visit both.
Rivaz is the smallest town in this area of Switzerland, and 75% is covered with grape vines. The wine cellars here are probably the most traditional and typical of the Swiss, making it a great place to end the day and sample the wines. There is only one wine cellar and one café, both have astounding views of the lake and are easy to find.
St. Saphorin looks like a mini medieval village. It is only slightly bigger than Rivaz, and cars are not allowed on most of its cobblestone streets. It has a charming gothic church as its centerpiece, and is the home of Jean Villard Gilles, a celebrated songwriter and poet. The wine cellar here is very traditional, and has been modernized into a large open room. The wines of St. Saphorin are considered some of the best whites Switzerland has to offer. This is also a wonderful place to stop for wine tasting. You can walk back to Cully, or catch the train from either St. Saphorin or Rivaz.
This gives you just a taste of the hiking trails and wines the French speaking part of Switzerland has to offer. There are many other sections to consider in Lavaux such as Lutry, Grandvaux, Villette, Chardonne, and Vevey. There are also other superb wine producing regions in the cantons of Vaud, Genève, and Valais. The natural beauty of the area, the Swiss traditions of grape growing and wine making, and the exhilaration from being high above the world in the alpine air combine to make this amazing trip one that you will never forget.