The train from Zurich airport is six minutes late, a myth-busting revelation early-in-the-piece on my first ever visit to Switzerland. But I’m willing to believe that delays to the schedule are a very rare occurrence, because over the next week I spend in the country I jump on dozens of trains that depart on the dot.
From Zurich it’s a few hours and two smooth-like-clockwork changes to reach the vineyards of Lavaux, on the northern banks of Lac Leman (better known as Lake Geneva, but this is the French-speaking canton of Vaud we’re in, and they will give you a generous pour if you use their language). We’re staying two nights in the small village of Chexbres, which places us in the middle of wine country, and a ten minute train ride to the city of Lausanne, which is where we head the next morning.
At the station, we meet Lausanne Tourism guide Franziska, who leads us over the road to hop on the city’s underground train, which, as we head steeply up the hill, feels like a cable-car hybrid. Then it’s upwards again, tackling steep steps to reach the city’s Gothic cathedral. Franzenca, spritely charging ahead, tells us that the folk of Lausanne (okay, she said women, but I’m taking an inclusive approach) are famed for their shapely legs, as result of having to climb hills every day. Do pack your comfy shoes.
On the ridge above the lake in the heart of the old city, Lausanne Cathedral, the Notre Dame, was completed in 1235 and is considered one of the most beautiful examples of the Gothic period in Europe–particularly its stained glass windows.. Among the exquisite pieces here is a rose window of than 100 pieces, depicting secular subject matter–seasonal labouring and the natural world–many of which remain intact from the early 12th Century.
To give some contrast to the historic quarter, and see what new development looks like in Lausanne, we descend through the city and wander through Le Flon, a trendy district of converted warehouses boasting eclectic boutiques and plenty of places to eat and drink.
But to quench our thirst we’re getting back on the train to visit the source of the region’s wine. In less than ten minutes, we’re hopping off in Grandvaux, where we’re greeted by a majestic view: rows of terraced vines paint the steep hillside, right down to the sparkling water of the lake. Domaine Croix Duplex, just a few minutes walk from the station, is a third generation vineyard now run by winemaker Simon Vogel and his sister Maud Vogel who, along with marketing, runs the tasting room–which looks right out onto that stunning panorama.
While we happily pick away at platters of local cheese and charcuterie (I readily become enamoured with the Vaud region’s goats cheeses) Maud takes us through the Domaine’s range of wines. She explains that the dominant grape in these parts is the native Chasselas, and we taste several crus made with the grape, as well as Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah. The vineyards of Lavaux–which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2007, benefit from what’s called the “three suns”; the sun itself, the reflection of the sun off the lake, and the warmth of the sun retained in the steep, stone walled terraces. We don’t find Swiss wine in NZ, or elsewhere outside Switzerland, because production is small and the local market here is willing to pay top dollar in order to drink it all up (about 1% does get exported, mainly to Germany).
Later that afternoon, we return by train to Lausanne to take in a workshop at bar-to-bean maker L’Espace Chocolat. As well as learning the correct way to temper chocolate, I get a history lesson. I hadn’t really ever thought about why Switzerland, so far away from the source, became synonymous with the good stuff, but it’s partly thanks to a groundbreaking discovery by Daniel Peter, who, after a decade of experimenting, teamed up with Henri Nestle found that powdered milk was the key to inventing the world’s first shelf-stable milk chocolate, in 1876 (the Nestle factory is just twenty minutes from here, in Vevey).
As the sun sets over the city, and with views stretching over the lake to the mountains, we stroll through the manicured grounds of Casino de Montbenon, built in 1908, to take a seat at the Bistro de Montbenon that now occupies the building. This smart-casual space instantly impresses with it’s jam-packed buzz (surprising for a Monday), its lofty, domed and carved classical ceiling and long chrome bar lively with bartending deftness. Seated up on the mezzanine level, we opt for dishes that speak of the region (fresh fera and smoked trout, from Lac Leman trout), while simultaneously gulping in our last, spectacular, views of where those fish spent their swimming days.
Say it right:
Lausanne – Law-zarn
Chasselas – Shass-la
Lac Leman – Lac-ler-moh
Baron Le Tavernier sits in the quiet village of Chebrex, a five minutes walk from the train station and right on the lake. https://www.barontavernier.ch
*This story was originally published in the Herald on Sunday travel section. I travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.