There is much more to Lausanne than just the waterfront. The Cité, or Old Town, district offers up a rather compact and accessible walking area worth spending an hour or two in. It has the requisite Cathedral (I poked my head in but it was Sunday morning and there was a service being held which I didn’t want to interrupt) which dominates the skyline. It also has a pretty cool old castle adjacent to the church.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the sundial on the corner of the castle-ish building was still accurate, though it doesn’t take into account Daylight Saving Time.
And how often is it that you get to wander up or down a covered stair path from the medieval era? These connect the merchant and residential areas below with the cathedral above and have carried pedestrians and goods since the 13th century or so. Definitely some new treads in there and at least one relatively modern mural painted on a wall so it isn’t completely an old world experience but it still has quite a bit of that charm.
The shops along the stairs are useful for window shopping. And I couldn’t help but grab a photo of this resident hanging their arms out the window under the word Armes.
There is a metro line which runs from the central train station down to the waterfront, making that transit quick and easy. As an added bonus, nearly every hotel in Lausanne (at least the ones I spoke with) participates in a program where guests get free day-passes to the train at check-in meaning that it is also free to get between the different parts of town. Of course, that only works after check-in and I was staying along the waterfront so I walked there first but after that it was free rides the rest of my stay. That made getting up to the Old City in the morning rather easy.
And the views down to the Ouchy waterfront area, Lake Geneva and Alps in the background definitely made it worth the trek up the hill.
After spending most of the day hiking through vineyards along the shores of Lake Geneva it was time for a bit of a break. Of course, my idea of taking a break is, at times, not particularly relaxing. In this case it was more walking but in town and along the waterfront of Lausanne rather than out in the countryside. And with the added bonus of sunset approaching, softening the light and making for some great views.
The waterfront has a working harbor, chock full of yachts. There are many miles of parks and paths along the water to keep visitors entertained during a stay. And there is also a ferry terminal with ships carrying locals and the occasional tourist between Lausanne and the French town of Evian across the lake. I considered doing the ferry just for the sake of stepping in to France for a few minutes but the timing of my evening was a bit tight with the schedule and I was getting tired. I chose to take in the sunset from the Swiss side instead.
And, if you’re into that sort of thing, there are a bunch of swans and other water fowl in the park at the harbor. They are more than willing to accept donations of food scraps from visitors.
The big "C" shaped statue in the photo below is actually perched out on the breakwater outside the harbor and it isn’t only a statue. It is actually a wind vane. There are four "viewing posts" on the edge of the waterfront, each with a curve cut out facing a different angle. Depending on which way the winds are blowing the C will line up with one of the curves and that’s how the locals call the winds. A bit different from the typical compass directional approach, to be certain. And a nice art piece as well.
The waterfront was quite lively on this particular evening. I attribute some of that to it being a Saturday and some to the weather being unseasonably warm. And then there is the part where it is quite beautiful. Hard to complain too much about that, really.
I missed the Olympic museum in town (closed for renovations). And I heard after my visit about L’Art Brut, an art museum which features works by criminals and other atypical artists. I’ll definitely put those on the list for next time.
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.
More photos here.
Sitting on the roof-top deck of my hotel, listening to the church bells ring as the sun set over Bern, I decided that perhaps my trip to Switzerland was a rousing success. Sure, I’d only been in country less than 12 hours and a few of the things I wanted to see were closed, but the weather was beautiful, I’d managed to enjoy a couple local beers through the afternoon and I had 360 degree views of the area as evening set in on the Swiss capital. What was not to enjoy?
It actually got even better as another hotel guest discovered the patio. His English was far, far better than my Japanese and we chatted for a few minutes about his travels and mine and our impressions of the city. I love meeting other travelers like that, even if the conversations are less than fully coherent.
The sun finally set on my day but that wasn’t the end of the exploring. I still needed dinner and the city had in incredible glow about it at night. The Capitol was particularly well lit:
The other buildings in the old city were also lit up reasonably well.
Also, in a display which was incredibly kitsch but also reasonably entertaining there was a group of men playing Alphorns at the end of the block outside my hotel. I only caught the end of the performance but it was fun enough. And the guys were quite friendly after the show. I was also impressed by how the instruments separated into smaller sections to be packed away for transit.
My meal that night was rather unmemorable and probably overpriced for what it was. I don’t have many dining recommendations at all from the trip really. But walking the old city at night definitely evoked some of the historical aspects of the area, making me think it might be a bit more worthy as a UNESCO world heritage site than my initial impressions gave me.
The afternoon came quickly on my day in Bern. Part of that is because I didn’t get into town until after noon and part of that is because I spent my first few hours wandering the streets of the old city, taking in the architecture and watching the bears frolic. The long shadows settling in on the town, combined with jetlag starting to catch up with me, had my body convinced that it was time to wind down the afternoon. Fortunately I came across this set of stairs, leading up from the riverfront back towards the heart of the city.
Yeah, a lot of steps (there is a small elevator adjacent available for 1CHF/person) but the gardens on the sides were pretty. And the park at the top was awesome.
It turns out that I had found the Münsterplattform, a recreational area high above the river and adjacent to the Cathedral of Berne. The terrace dates back to the 14th century and served over the years as a churchyard, dumping ground during the reformation and a cemetery. In the 20th century it was converted to a public park; the paths were laid out and the trees planted leaving it in the condition I found it. There was a small kiosk in one corner selling refreshments. I purchased a beer (soda, wine and snacks were also available) and then walked around the small park for a bit, watching all the locals relaxing in their own way on a beautiful Friday afternoon.
The people watching really was wonderful; much better than in the other areas of the town I saw. Another kiosk had games available. These guys were playing bocce and there was a pretty active table tennis game going on as well.
Others chose to take in the views …
…or just take a nap.
Oh, and after finishing my beer I spent a few minutes touring the Cathedral (Münster), a building dating to the 1400s. It is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland though, while I was in town the bell tower was closed for repairs. Still, both the interior and exterior are quite impressive.
Some of the stained glass windows date back to the 1400s and as a whole they are considered the most valuable in Switzerland.
The cathedral itself is worth stopping by for a few minutes. It isn’t the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen but I’m also not particularly a connoisseur. And as a way to wrap up my happy hour it was definitely a worthwhile stop in a quick tour of town, even with the tower climb closed. That actually gave me a good excuse to save the ~350 steps to the top without feeling too guilty.
And then the afternoon was over. Time to retreat to the hotel and get ready for an early evening, catching up on some sleep and getting ready for the rest of the trip.
I chose Bern (a/k/a Berne) as my first stop on a whirl through Switzerland based on the description provided by UNESCO regarding its old city. I was looking forward to seeing the shopping arcades and fountains from prior centuries. I had no idea just how obsessed they were with bears. Turns out that the coat of arms prominently features a bear. The local cathedral has bears carved on the façade. Oh, and they keep a park on the eastern end of town where there are bears roaming about for the tourists to ogle. Just one of many surprises I’d discover as I wandered about the relatively compact Capital city.
The city lived up to its billing as well organized, with old shopping arcades and fountains. Alas, I found the “historical” aspect of the arcades to be rather lost; something to do with how the shops were pretty much all modern chains and such. Plus I don’t really like shopping. But there were some architectural aesthetics to the shopping promenades which I found appealing.
On the plus side, the fountains were very cool and well worth checking out. Each represented a different aspect of life and all the ones I saw were quite impressive:
The scenery around town is quite impressive, especially when viewed from afar. Taking a step back and checking out the skyline offers up some incredible vistas.
I had a great afternoon and evening in town. Much of that came from relaxing in the park and then a low-key evening out with more pretty views. More on that to come soon. I loved walking the streets and checking out some of the smaller shops, window shopping in art galleries or just enjoying the sunny afternoon and the relatively chill vibe of the town. The Einstein Home museum was closed for construction so that was a bit of a disappointment.
I don’t think I’d put it on my list of places to visit again and I’m especially suspect of the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A couple more quick posts to come with more pictures as there is plenty of beauty to be found, but not all that great as a city, even with the capital in town.
What happens when you show up in Europe on a three night trip and you have no idea what you want to do? This is probably a question few ever consider, much less actually face in real life. At the end of October, however, I found myself dealing with precisely that scenario. I was sitting in the arrivals lobby of Geneva’s airport having just stepped off the plane in from Washington Dulles and I had absolutely nothing planned other than a flight home three days hence. What could possibly go wrong??
I needed a plan and that meant I needed somewhere to sit and figure out a plan. Also, having just arrived on a redeye from the east coast I needed a shower and somewhere I could change into clean clothes before setting out on my adventures. Fortunately the United Airlines reps at the Geneva airport were well informed of the arrivals room service that the company offers (though the SwissPort contract agents were not). I quickly found myself on a shuttle bus headed to the Movenpick hotel where I was given a room for a few hours; plenty of time to freshen up and put together my itinerary.
I had considered heading south, across the border into France. I could visit Chamonix and see Mont Blanc. Maybe even visit the spas at Evian. That was slightly tempting, mostly because I knew it would be a bit easier on the budget to be in France spending Euros than in Switzerland on the Swiss Franc. But I’m also intrigued by UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it occurred to me that I had not yet checked to see if there were any in the area. A quick visit to my UNESCO visits tracker and I discovered that there were several in Switzerland, including two quite easily accessible on the train from Geneva. My plan was starting to form up.
Before I could commit to visiting Berne and Lausanne I had to make sure that the other logistics would work. I would need somewhere to sleep and to be able to get between the cities reasonably quickly and affordably.
First I checked hotel prices. Hotels.com was showing rooms in Berne and Lausanne to be 15-20% cheaper than staying in Geneva and not all that much more expensive than heading into France. Add in the 15% return between the Welcome Rewards program and my online booking portal and it was clear getting out of Geneva was a good idea. Plus, the two cities I chose weren’t bad places to stay, at least from the perspective of the hotel prices. So one of the factors was settled.
Transit between the cities was incredibly easy. The Swiss rail system is terribly efficient and their website easy to navigate. It supports English, German and French without too much trouble; I mostly chose English but the French was fun every now and then. The bad news on the Swiss rail system is that, like most things in Switzerland, it isn’t particularly cheap. That said, after I stopped to think about the situation I wasn’t all that upset by the prices. At first blush it seemed a bit crazy to pay $50+ to ride the 160 kilometers from Geneva to Berne. But Amtrak charges a similar rate for a walk-up ticket on the New York – Philadelphia route which is about the same distance. And the Swiss version of train travel is quite a bit more pleasant and reliable than the Amtrak version. The sticker shock wore off and things started to come together. Looks like I’ve got a plan:
- Day 1: Train from Geneva to Berne. Explore.
- Day 2: Train from Berne to Lausanne. Explore.
- Day 3: Train from Lausanne to Geneva. Explore.
It might not seem like much of a plan but by my standards it was pretty detailed. Having settled that I headed back to the airport on the hotel shuttle and directly to the train station part of the building. I managed to get a ticket on the next departure to Berne and even had time to stop at the grocery in the terminal to pick up a few snacks to make a picnic for the ride.
Let the fun begin!
Got a five hour layover in Zurich?? That’s plenty of time to get out of the airport and in to downtown. When I made that trek a couple weeks ago it was a stunningly beautiful day, with blue skies and warm enough temperatures that seemingly the entire city was out celebrating the arrival of Spring. I left the airport, hopped on the train and alighted at the central station. With a couple hours to play around and no particular itinerary in mind the afternoon became an opportunity to wander, something I like to think I’m pretty good at.
As is often the case when I find myself in such situations, I tend to focus on food and outdoor spaces, parks and such. Zurich offered no shortage of opportunities on this front. Within minutes of leaving the train station I was in the heart of the old city, walking the narrow pedestrian paths towards the lakefront.
Along the way I picked up the first of a couple meals, a pretzel to snack on. Part of me wonders if the Swiss and Germans dream of NYC pretzels from street vendors the same way I do of their pretzels. I hope not, because theirs are WAY better. With pretzel in hand I made my way with the rest of the crowds to the edge of the lake. It was packed, everyone out to celebrate the arrival of Spring.
The swans were out celebrating as well, enjoying the warmer weather and all the folks out at the lake offering them snacks.
With my pretzel consumed it was time to find a more nourishing snack. Again to the mobile merchants, this time for a brat and a tall boy. Back to the lake again with my purchases in hand and I enjoyed lunch with a phenomenal view.
All too quickly my time in Zurich was running out. I had to head back to the train station and then to the airport to catch my flight. I was in the city for about 3 hours, barely enough to scratch the surface. Still, it was a great little side-trip for the layover I had and definitely worth the few dollars spent on the train ticket.