Many people come to Switzerland with quaint preconceptions: cows, cheese, chocolate, wine, and probably more cheese (and chocolate). While there’s absolutely no way that this can be disputed, take it from a 12-year resident: the Swiss Riviera is a beautiful maelstrom of so much more.
Where is the Swiss Riviera? It more or less encompasses the shores of Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman, if you want to get French. They’re stubborn about the name over there. From Geneva to Villeneuve, and the mountains behind, this is a brief, four-seasons guide to the lesser known sights.
Boat rides on Lake Geneva
Perhaps this goes without saying, but the boat rides are spectacular. Take a 45-minute hop from Vevey to Montreux, during the Montreux Jazz festival; travel the other way, to Lausanne, for an hour’s scenic peace; cross the lake from Lausanne to Evian, and be surrounded by nothing but rippling blue, for half an hour or more. There are endless options, and some even include food – which for me, and any other delectable-food lover, is always the best kind of bonus.
Wildlife at Rochers-de-Naye
Part of this experience is the train ride. Winding up from Montreux in a panoramic train, you go through small mountain villages, treacherous-looking tunnels, and carve a track in the mountainside to reach the stunning sheer-rock summit. Once there, you can walk up a short hill to the highest point, to look over Lake Geneva and the lower mountains surrounding it; you can hike in the other direction, to find Alpine plants and birds; or you can visit the Marmot Paradise, to see and hear the cutest of creatures making a squeaking ruckus. You’ll feel like you’re on top of the world, and in an energising way, you are.
Wine festival in Vevey
Every Saturday morning throughout July and August, la Fête des Vignerons offers, on top of a market, as much wine as you can drink. Buy a glass for 12 francs, and top it up as many times as you like, with the best of Swiss wine. The weather is beautiful, the atmosphere is jolly (and never over-the-top), and set in the market square on the edge of Lake Geneva, it’s a delicious, gorgeous treat.
Concerts sur les Quais, Lutry
Literally, concerts in a harbour. Local acts of every genre play free, every Thursday and Friday night throughout July and August. Watch the sun set over the lake; enjoy beer from the stalls; watch the adults dance, and the kids run loose, and feel truly a part of something.
Désalpe in Blonay
This takes place in many mountain communities, but every time I’ve seen it in Blonay, usually around the third week of September, it has been fun, eccentric, and unique. It marks the descent of the cows for the winter, from farms higher up the mountain, and in short, looks like this:
The cows wear flora and fauna displays. Locals dress traditionally, leading them through the village. There are cowbell-ringing shows, and once it’s over, the cows relax in a field, raclette and pâtes au chalet are prepared, and spectators drink beer on the grass nearby. It’s happy; it’s the community.
Evenings at Buvette des Mossettes, Les Plèiades
This is definitely off the beaten track, and long may it stay that way. A rustic buvette tucked away in Les Plèiades, which you drive up and down very twisty roads to get to, it’s where the locals eat, and the locals drink, and in autumn, before it shuts for the winter (when it becomes inaccessible due to snow and cross-country ski tracks), there are often a variety of evening events. Traditional food, including vin cuit, croûtes aux champignons, and meringues with local cream, accompany the accordion and the saw, traditional dress, and a roaring fire. If you want to immerse yourself in tourist-less Swiss culture, this is the place to go.
Yes, there are many Christmas markets, but what about beyond that? Beyond skiing, and crowds?
If you go into the mountains, up above Vevey or Montreux, there are many raquetting trails. While some are popular, all are signposted, some take you far off the beaten path. Up into the wilds you go, through forests and fields and up snowy summits; if you’re lucky, you’ll see not a soul.
Night raquetting at Les Plèiades
As long as it’s not blizzarding (which we’ve had considerable experience of this year), this is beautiful. Raquetting along a lantern-lit trail, every Saturday from January to March, with a fondue or rösti waiting at the end – it’s hard to get more Swiss.
International Hot Air Balloon Festival, Chateau d’Oex
This is a little out of the Riviera way, but every January, the picturesque municipality of Chateau d’Oex hosts a hot air balloon festival. Somewhat incongruous? Perhaps. But imagine bright blue winter skies, glittering snow, and the sight of tens of colourful balloons, all in the air at once. There are night shows, too, and aerial displays, as well as entertainment for kids; it’s a perfect family day out, and if you’ve always wanted a flight in a balloon… well, now’s your chance.
Grangettes Nature Reserve, Villeneuve
Technically, you can visit at any time of the year (I myself went last week), but I recommend it in the spring. There’s a hide on the edge of Lake Geneva, where you can see birds of all kinds, and the elusive beaver, and from there, you can take a number of trails, depending on how much you’d like to walk. One trail stretches to the Rhône; one reaches the Grand Canal, with any number of water birds skimming along towards the lake. There are ponds and forest tracks, hidden habitats and marshes, home to 250 different species of bird. It is the only reserve like it in Europe, and if you want to experience it with a guide, there are regular boat tours available.
Seeing the narcisses
In the mountains all along the Riviera, the narcisses are absolutely stunning. There are mapped trails you can follow, in Les Avants, Glion, Haut-de-Caux (above Montreux), and Mont-Pèlerin and Les Plèiades (above Vevey); they vary in length, from 3.7km to 8km long, and bring you to the best spots to view the narcisses, for their short flowering period in May. They also tend to pass the best buvettes, for a refreshing beer and cheese along the way.
Alternatively, you can explore on your own, in most of these locations; but be careful, as at least once a year, those of us lucky enough to have narcisses in our gardens come face to face with tourists who think gates are invitations, and gardens themselves are a flower free-for-all. Last year, I had to direct someone out of one neighbour’s garden, and the year before, I found two elderly walkers having a picnic in another’s.
And there you have it: the very brief seasonal guide to the Riviera. I could talk about the beauty of Switzerland for eons, and probably will; it’s my home, it’s my adopted country, and I love it.