You could think that 40 years of living in the same area would dull the senses; make the local beauty and bounty invisible. But the Lake Geneva region, shared between Switzerland and France, is exceptional. I have lived in the region for 40 years, and I still find adventure and surprise in the historical, cultural, and culinary possibilities.
Lake Geneva is Europe’s biggest lake. It is surrounded by some of her biggest mountains, and nearly all of the sloping hills that rise directly from the lake are covered in vineyards. The area has everything — especially for a skier, cyclist, and wine lover — to keep you interested a whole life long.
A tour of the lake by bicycle is 180 kilometers and is possible to do in a 1-day tour (organized or not). But what a pity, because the riding, although extremely beautiful, is mostly flat, and so much is missed by not exploring the vineyards, hills, and mountains surrounding the lake.
Time is very well spent biking each of the major wine regions around the lake; three in Switzerland, and one in France. If you take the roads less traveled by, you will find all you’re looking for.
1. Geneva: The City Itself
This historic Swiss city is surrounded on all sides by vineyards, and by hills that rise to foothills of mountains — and in the distance, the highest mountain of them all, Mont Blanc.
Cycling through Geneva’s vineyards is on narrow roads but with little traffic. It is best not to mix the cycling and sipping, but rather to allow the morning activity to develop an appetite and appreciation for the terroir that you can exploit later in the day.
A circular tour could start in Hermance, which is on the lakeside and the border with France. Continue on to Jussy, passing in front of the Château du Crest. Reserve that location for some tasting later in the day. Continue on through the vineyard roads to Dardagny, and here, you pass in front of the Domaine de la Roche 1859 — note that for later in the day, too. Continue on through Satigny, Meyrin, and Ferney Voltaire, passing multiple winemakers that are all worth a visit. Note the location of the Château de Voltaire and be sure to return with some time to visit and catch up on the fascinating history of the writer and of the enlightenment. Drop back down to Lake Geneva and continue along the beautiful lakeside to finish 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 for the Caves Ouvertes, the festival day when most of the wine caves of Geneva open their doors, and their barrels, to visitors.
2. The La Côte Hillside
La Côte is a rib of hillside running from the edge of Geneva towards the next major Swiss city of Lausanne. It has vineyards from one end to the other, with forests on the top and wonderful cycling for the full length of the rib. It offers magnificent views of the lake below and of the mountains, including Mont Blanc, rising above the other side of the lake.
It is also the gateway to a paradise of cycling in the Swiss county of Vaud. This is a region to explore along the lake or further up in the vineyards. In the evening, after getting a feeling for the majesty of the place, choose any one of the multiple wineries along the way to visit for a tasting.
The art and tradition of wine growing go back many years, and modern technologies and methods are sometimes best balanced with more ancestral techniques. A visit to La Colombe (The Dove) is an inspiring example of the mastery of old (biodynamic) alchemies and the new science of winemaking.
For dinner, settle into one of the lakeside towns and accompany the wine with perch fillets, french fries, and salad, the lakeside favorite.
3. The Lavaux Wine Region
The Lavaux wine region of Lake Geneva is world-famous for its beauty and has been designated a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. This remarkable area extends from just east of Lausanne to the town of Villeneuve on the eastern end of the lake.
The extremely steep hillsides on the west turn to mountainsides in the east, rising from the lake level at 300 meters to the top of the mountain of Rocher de Naye at 2042 meters. The riding can be very steep but just as rewarding, and the wine is a wonderful and well-earned recompense.
After leaving Geneva the wines are predominantly white wines from the Chasselas grape. This variety finds an apogee in Lavaux, and the regions of Dezaley and Epesses are often thought to be as good as this grape gets. The lakeside riding is mostly flat, and the main (and very busy) road has a space designated for cyclists. The vineyards, small towns, forests, and peaks above the lake are all worth exploring — but have your legs and lungs in shape or your electric bicycle battery well charged.
The writer Nabakov would chase butterflies on these mountainsides, and Hemingway would write, bobsled, and ski in the mountain town of Les Avants, high up on this mountainside. The roads are steep and narrow; they are not for the faint-hearted, but in places suddenly become pastoral. At the beginning of May, narcissus flowers cover the meadows so thickly that it looks like snow. The beauty and variety of the Lavaux region has attracted visitors for centuries, from royal families to Freddy Mercury and Queen.
4. The Haute Savoie Vineyards
The southeastern end of Lake Geneva starts in Switzerland and moves into France at Saint Gingolph. The mountainsides are steep and wooded with little road access and no vineyards. The cycling along the lake road has little space for the cyclist, either, and there is significant traffic. But the geography opens up as you move through the lakeside 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 lakeside city of Thonon-Les Bains marks the beginning of the vineyards of Haute Savoie. Riding along the lake is beautiful, though it requires attention to traffic. Riding in the foothills and meadows above the lake to the south is a paradise of rolling meadows with possible circle loops involving a sequence of relatively small passes. Mark the Château de Ripaille as worth a visit for both its history and its wine tasting.
Just south of Thonon-Les-Bain is some incredible skiing in the mountain villages of Avoriaz and Morzine, both connected to Europe’s biggest international ski area, Les Portes du Soleil (“The Doors of the Sun”).
The lakeside riding from Sciez to Geneva is very beautiful, and traffic is less of a concern. This is the Presque Ile d’Yvoire, a peninsula that is not on the direct road to Geneva, and much of it has cycle paths on the side of the road. You will pass to the edge of the medieval city of Yvoire. Walk your bike through the gates and stop for an ice cream or a meal.
Yvoire and the next town of Nernier are both pedestrian towns, and very much worth a stop and a visit. This is home territory for me; I explore its beauty multiple times in a week. One of my favorite stops, after the riding, is the Château de Merignan. The wine is organic and the wine cave is an absolute example of authenticity, with no fancy fuss except in the quality of the wine and the welcome of the winemaker. The château and its terroir have been in the same family for several generations. This level of tradition does not need fanciness — it can be felt.
Make It A Meander
A tour of this grand region should be a bit of a meander. 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 mountains around, especially that one white peak, Mont Blanc, give a wonderful third dimension to the tour. A glass of local wine on one of the multiple terraces around the lake will be the best way to complete each day. So take the road less traveled, and that will make all the difference.