Lake Geneva and La Côte
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Facts and figures

Lake Geneva is the largest freshwater lake in Western Europe, holding some 89 trillion litres. It’s really just a big bulge in the course of the River Rhône, which rises at the Furkapass and flows westwards between the mountains of Canton Valais to enter the lake near Villeneuve. Its water takes an estimated seventeen years to cover the 73km to Geneva before flowing on through France to an outlet into the Mediterranean near Marseille. Although the lake is only 14km wide at its broadest point, it plunges to 310m maximum depth and is subject to heavy winds which rip across the surface, causing stormy conditions not unlike an inland sea.

The croissant-shaped LAKE GENEVA, bluest of the Swiss lakes, is ringed with villages, castles and gorgeous walks that demand attention. This is wine country, with vineyards spread around the full sweep of the lakeshore and carpeting the first slopes of the hills which rise behind. Genteel, calming small towns such as Nyon and Vevey, either side of Lausanne, have made a living recharging the batteries of frazzled urbanites for generations. Over the decades, the lake has also attracted the world’s wealthiest people, and the shores around the jetset playground of Montreux in particular are lined with opulent villas – although a lakeside stroll can still let you taste the unspoilt beauty which drew Byron and the Romantic poets in a former age. Relaxing on one of the boats which crisscross the lake beneath the looming presence of the Savoy Alps and the Dents-du-Midi mountains on the French side helps bring home the full grandeur of the setting.

The lake has had various names over the centuries. The Romans called it Lacus Lemanus. In the Middle Ages it was known as the Lac de Lausanne, reflecting that city’s importance. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Geneva rose to world fame, its title changed to the Lac de Genève, although a few maps stubbornly named it the Lac d’Ouchy. These days it’s reverted to its Roman name of Lac Léman, despite still being called Lake Geneva in English, and Genfersee, a direct translation, in German.

Aside from the people working on the lake’s ferries, some 150 French and Swiss families currently earn their living on the water by fishing for perch, pike, trout and more, selling the majority of their catch directly to restaurants and supermarkets in the shoreside towns. A new trend for whitefish smoked over beechwood has given them a much-needed shot in the arm of late.

From Geneva to Lausanne
The gently curving northwestern shore of the lake from Geneva to Lausanne (some 65km) is known as La Côte, and is characterized by a succession of hamlets and small villages, almost without exception gorgeously pretty, well kept and pristinely picturesque. Those along the minor shoreline road, the Route Suisse, are less numerous and more visited than those placed back behind the main autoroute on the first slopes of the Jura foothills, amongst vineyards tilted towards the sun which produce some of the highest-prized wine in Vaud. Things are much less developed here for wine-tasting tours than in the Lavaux region east of Lausanne. However, if you rent a bike from larger train stations for a day’s gentle exploration along the narrow Route des Vignerons, which winds from vineyard to vineyard along the gentle slope, you’ll find plenty of caveaux (wine cellars) offering dégustations (tastings) of local products. You have to pay for the tasting – generally two, three or four choices of wine, in 1dl glasses – but can then turn up a bargain if you choose to buy a bottle or two. Countless auberges and pintes (country taverns) along the way offer local home-cooked specialities.

Whether down by the lake or up among the vines, you’ll be passing dozens of châteaux, evidence both of the region’s key strategic significance in medieval times, and its attraction to Europe’s nobility in more recent centuries. Some are now museums, but most remain in private hands. Major stopoffs include the historic Château de Coppet, close to Geneva, the attractive little harbour-town of Nyon with its own château and Roman museum, and the nearby Château de Prangins, housing an excellent museum devoted to Swiss history.

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