Every now and then a travel moment just "clicks" and everything seems right. They aren’t all that common but when it happens there is a moment of clarity, a bit of release where you realize that all the other crazy bits were worthwhile. Things make sense. As I stepped off the commuter train in St. Saphorin, Switzerland a few weeks ago I had one of those moments.
It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday afternoon and I, along with 20-30 other tourists, had just walked in to a wee bit of living history. We were about to walk along the trails cutting through the Lavaux Vineyards. They are a designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are incredibly easy to visit, keeping pace with their natural beauty.
There are many miles of trails passing through these vineyards built into the cliffs which rise up from Lake Geneva. Documented history dating back to the 13th Century indicates that monks terraced the slopes to more efficiently cultivate grapes in the area. Prior to that it is believed that the ancient Romans were growing grapes in the area back when it was part of their empire.
The current operations are no longer part of the Church; locals bought out those estates over the years. And other bits have changed in the style and technology of the harvest. The plots are generally a single type of grape now rather than many varietals, mostly to improve yields and avoid some disease issues seen in the relatively recent past. Other parts of the operation are quite similar to how they ran hundreds of years ago.
Because of the steep incline the vineyards are built on and the relatively small chunks of contiguous land much of the work is still done by hand. I watched as a crew walked the rows, picking some of the last grapes of the season. There are some mechanical aspects – many vineyards had motorized "roller coaster" carts with tracks running up and down the hill so the picked grapes could be carried up or down more easily. But still nearly all the work is manual.
The trail stretches a dozen or so miles along the shores of Lake Geneva. There are markers all along the trail, guiding visitors to the next stop. And, depending on just how much you want to walk, a visit can range from brief to a full day or, if extending beyond Lavaux, many days worth of walking along the lake. Each small town along the trail has a train stop making it easy to end the trip, riding back in to Lausanne (the closest real city) and wrapping up the day. The towns also offer up some awesome "old world" architecture, with narrow streets and steep hills matching the surrounding landscape.
The villages also offer the infrastructure for the winemakers to produce and distribute their wares. Every half hour or so along the way was another village, chock full of cellars, bottlers and tasting rooms. Alas, thanks to being so late in the season the tasting rooms (and supposed restaurants) were all closed so I didn’t have much in the way of opportunity to partake of the goods.
I didn’t strike out completely, however. There was a woman running a tasting from a small hut among the vines at an intersection of the trail at one point. Somewhere around 11am I found myself with this view. Hard to beat, really.
I spent about four hours out in the vineyards on this magical day, covering roughly eight miles. Not the fastest walk I’ve ever done, to be certain. But when you have views like this at pretty much every turn it is easy to understand how there are stops reasonably often to take pictures and soak in the experience.
Next time I’ll pack a picnic lunch to hedge against all the shops in the towns being closed for the season. Plus there are places all along the path with tables and views like the one from the wine tasting photo above; incredible scenery for a lunch. Other than that, however, I’m not sure it could have been any better of a day. And I managed to raid my emergency snack stash of Biscoff and Milano cookies from airport lounges to make it through the day.
Putting the experience in to words is challenging. There was something about the natural beauty combined with the lack of crowds – I was often alone enough that I figured I was lost – which made for just an incredible couple hours. Considering that I had no idea this even existed just 26 hours earlier when I landed at the Geneva airport I’m calling it a HUGE win.
I made the trip as a quick hop from Lausanne. It is reasonably easy to do as a day trip from Bern or Geneva, too. Just budget an extra hour each way for the train ride on the ridiculously efficient Swiss rail network. You’ll need to transfer in Lausanne anyways but the local trains along the waterfront which get you to the trails run a couple times each hour so not hard to build a connection.