As so often is the case when you approach somewhere new, we settled on a simple plan. From Lausanne station we would take the train that travelled east above the shore of Lake Geneva as far as our city pass would allow, and then we would walk home. It would be a walk that took us through the vineyards of Lavaux and down to the lake. More than that, we left up to the trail itself and what we would find when we got there.
The sun was already high in the sky when we stepped out from the train at Grandvaux station, the vineyard terraces falling away steeply to the brilliant blue waters of the lake that reflected the mountains that rose up from the opposite shore. We followed the train tracks for a while, a narrow path above the last of the vines, the air thick with the hum and buzz of insects between the sound of the trains passing at punctual intervals.
It is said that they have been growing grapes on the south-facing slopes of the lake since Roman times, but the terraces we were picking our way through were first established in the 11th century. A thousand years of wine then, produced from these slopes and served in the inns and hostelries of the region.
The night before our walk we’d been taken to a restaurant in the heart of Lausanne, tucked away on a street corner, where they served hearty Rösti dishes with the local wines. We drank our fair share, and it seemed only right that we were walking off the effects of the night before in the very landscape that had given us our fuzzy heads.
As we walked, small signs along the path told us when we had moved, otherwise imperceptibly, from one Domaine to the next. Little huts, presumably built originally to offer shade and a resting place for those working the terrace, flew their Swiss flags proudly and offered the terrace walkers a spot to take a breather and enjoy the view. Down on the lake we traced the voyage of the paddle steamers making their international journeys between France and Switzerland, and tried to make out the high peaks of the western Alps, snow-capped and hazy on the horizon.
Slowly but surely we were descending through the vineyards towards the lake. We passed through small villages and hamlets where you sensed the importance of the health of the vines for those who lived there. These settlements were seemingly timeless places and yet we were only a short walk from the villas and the apartment blocks that were home to those who make their living in the many international companies and organisations based in Lausanne and the surrounding area.
The contrast was striking. A thousand-year-old cultural landscape celebrated and protected by its UNESCO World Heritage listing, alongside all the trappings of modern Switzerland just a few steps away.
The UNESCO inscription reflects the challenges of this place, listed not only for its history and traditions, but the local efforts to maintain it: “The Lavaux vineyard landscape is an outstanding example that displays centuries of interaction between people and their environment in a very specific and productive way, optimising the local resources to produce a highly valued wine that was a significant part of the local economy. Its vulnerability in the face of fast-growing urban settlements has prompted protection measures strongly supported by local communities.”
At Lutry we passed beneath the railway tracks to reach the promenade and beach, with its neighbouring marina. The vineyards, where we had been strolling only minutes before, suddenly felt like a world away.
Still we walked, moving ever closer to Lausanne. From Lutry to Pully. Passing by more bathing beaches and more marinas. It was even hotter now, the air heavier than you would normally expect for an early summer afternoon down by the lake. At the small promontory that marked the border between Pully and Lausanne proper we stopped on a small stony beach to strip down and cool off in the lake, the wake and wash of the passing boats rolling in to break against the legs of those paddling in the shallows.
Floating out, a few metres offshore, it was possible to see above the villas and apartment blocks that lined the lake to the neat green rows of the vineyard terraces. Lots can change down by the lake, as years become decades become centuries. But some things, it seemed, managed to stay the same.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton