One would think that living in the same area for 40 years would dull the senses; Make the local beauty and wealth invisible. But the Lake Geneva region, shared by Switzerland and France, is exceptional. Having lived in the region for 40 years, I still find adventure and surprises in the historical, cultural and culinary opportunities.
Lake Geneva is Europe’s largest lake. It is surrounded by some of its tallest mountains, and almost all of the sloping hills that rise straight out of the lake are covered in vineyards. The area has everything – especially for skiers, cyclists and wine lovers – to interest you for a lifetime.
A Tour around the lake by bike is 180 kilometers and is possible in a 1-day tour (organized or not). But what a pity because while the riding is lovely it is mostly flat and so much is missed by not exploring the vineyards, hills and mountains surrounding the lake.
Time is very well spent cycling through the great wine regions surrounding the lake; three in Switzerland and one in France. If you take the less traveled roads, you will find everything you are looking for.
1. Geneva: The city itself
This historic Swiss city is surrounded on all sides by vineyards and hills that rise to the foothills of mountains – and in the distance the tallest of them all, Mont Blanc.
Cycling through the Geneva vineyards is done on narrow roads but with little traffic. It’s best not to mix cycling and sipping, instead allowing the morning’s activity to develop an appetite and appreciation for the terroir that you can capitalize on later in the day.
A circular tour could start in Hermance, which is on the lake shore and on the border with France. Continue to Jussy, past the Crest Castle. Reserve this place for a tasting later in the day. Continue through the vineyard roads to Dardagny and here you pass the Domain de la Roche 1859 – Keep that in mind for later in the day too. Continue through Satigny, Meyrin and Ferney Voltaire, passing several wineries, all worth visiting. Note the position of the Castle Voltaire and make sure you allow some time to visit and catch up on the fascinating story of the writer and the Enlightenment. Climb back to Lake Geneva and cruise along the beautiful lakefront to end your loop in Hermance.
pro tip: If you are in Geneva in the month of May, you should join the multitude of other wine lovers Caves Ouvertesthe festive day when most of Geneva’s wine cellars open their doors and their barrels to visitors.
2. The hill of La Côte
La Côte is a mountain ridge that runs from the edge of Geneva towards the nearest major Swiss city, Lausanne. It has vineyards from end to end, with forests at the top and wonderful bike rides the length of the rib. It offers magnificent views of the lake below and the mountains including Mont Blanc which looms over the other side of the lake.
It is also the gateway to a Cycling paradise in the Swiss canton of Vaud. This is a region to explore along the lake or higher up in the vineyards. In the evening, after getting a feel for the majesty of the place, choose one of the numerous wineries along the way to visit for a tasting.
The art and tradition of winemaking goes back many years, and modern technology and methods are sometimes best balanced with ancestral techniques. A visit to La Colombe (The Dove) is an inspiring example of mastery of ancient (biodynamic) alchemy and the new science of winemaking.
Settle in for dinner in one of the lakeside towns and accompany the wine with perch fillets, chips and salad, a lakeside favorite.
3. The Lavaux wine region
The Lavaux wine region on Lake Geneva is world famous for its beauty and has been designated a natural area UNESCO World Heritage Site. This remarkable area stretches from east of Lausanne to the town of Villeneuve at the eastern end of the lake.
The extremely steep slopes in the west turn into mountain slopes in the east, rising from the lake level at 300 meters to the top of the Rocher de Naye mountain at 2042 meters. The drive can be very steep but just as rewarding, and the wine is a wonderful and well-deserved reward.
After leaving Geneva, the wines are predominantly white wines made from the Chasselas grape variety. This variety finds its peak in Lavaux, and the Dezaley and Epesses regions are often considered as good as this grape. Riding by the lake is mostly flat and the main road (and very busy) has a place for cyclists. The vineyards, small towns, forests and peaks overlooking the lake are all worth a visit – but keep your legs and lungs in shape or your electric bike battery charged.
The writer Nabakov hunted butterflies on these mountainsides, and Hemingway wrote, Bobsled and skied in the mountain town of Les Avants, high up on this mountainside. The streets are steep and narrow; they are not for the faint of heart, but suddenly become pastoral in places. Early May, Narcissus blossoms cover the meadows so dense it looks like snow. The beauty and diversity of the Lavaux region has attracted visitors ranging from royal families to families for centuries Freddy Mercury and Queen.
4. The vineyards of Haute Savoie
The southeastern end of Lake Geneva starts in Switzerland and moves into France at Saint Gingolph. The mountain slopes are steep and forested with little road access and no vineyards. Cycling along the Seestraße also offers cyclists little space and there is heavy traffic. But the geography opens up as you make your way through the sea town of Evian. Cycling above the lake has little traffic and beautiful scenery (but again requires a fit rider or a well-charged battery).
The seaside town of Thonon-Les Bains marks the beginning of the Haute Savoie vineyards. Driving along the lake is beautiful but requires attention to traffic. Riding in the foothills and meadows above the lake to the south is a paradise of undulating meadows with possible circular loops involving a succession of relatively small passes. Mark the Ripaille Castle It is worth visiting for both its history and its wine tasting.
Just south of Thonon-Les-Bain there is incredible skiing in the hilltop villages of Avoriaz and Morzine, both linked to Europe’s largest international ski area. Les Portes du Soleil (“The Doors of the Sun”).
The navigation from Sciez to Geneva is very nice and the traffic is less worrying. This is the Presque Ile d’Yvoire, a peninsula that is not on the direct road to Geneva and much of which has roadside cycle lanes. You come to the edge of the medieval town of Yvoire. Push your bike through the gates and stop for an ice cream or meal.
Yvoire and the nearest town of Nernier are both pedestrian towns and definitely worth a stop and visit. This is my home territory; I explore its beauty several times in a week. One of my favorite stops after riding is this Merignan Castle. The wine is organic and the wine cave is an absolute example of authenticity, with no fuss except in the quality of the wine and the welcome from the winemaker. The château and its terroir have belonged to the same family for several generations. This level of tradition does not need extravagance – it can be felt.
Make it meander
A tour of this great region should be a bit of a stroll. It should take as much time as you are willing to give.
Avoid the shortest distance between two points and avoid much of the flat road around the lake. Rise above the water; it is embellished in perspective by a view from above. The surrounding mountains, especially the one white peak, Mont Blanc, give the tour a wonderful third dimension. A glass of wine from the region on one of the numerous terraces around the lake is the best way to round off every day. So take the road less traveled and it will make all the difference.