Walking along with my guide, Gundela, through what was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular wine trails I have ever experienced, I had to wonder how, nearly a thousand years ago, the Lavaux terraced vineyards were planted on these dizzyingly steep slopes along Switzerland's Lake Geneva.
"We are pretty certain the Romans planted the first grapes in this area, but our documentation only goes back to the 12th century, when monks settled here and began to cultivate the vineyards," Gundela said as we trekked along the three-mile path through this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And it was no easy task for those enterprising monks. Because of the steep slopes, fortifying walls had to be laboriously constructed of stone, and they are still in existence — and doing their job — to this day. This was the first of many a magical moment during a week's visit to the region.
Getting there was a breeze, thanks to the efficient Swiss rail connections and a Swiss Travel Pass (available online for prepurchase), which allows the bearer unlimited use of the country's trains, buses, and excursion boats, as well as entry to select museums. Thirty minutes after my plane landed in Zurich, I was comfortably seated on an express train headed to my first destination, the town of Vevey, a trip of just under two hours. Despite my jet lag, I couldn't resist staring out the train window to savor endless views of verdant, cow-studded countryside and medieval villages and castles situated high above pristine lakes. However, the view that will always remain in my mind is when the train made its final pass through a long tunnel — and Lake Geneva emerged in all its glory.
In what was definitely a "jaw-dropping" moment, I marveled at the vista that spread out in front of me as the train began to circumnavigate the lake. The azure blue water of the crescent-shaped lake, surrounded by craggy Alpine peaks, sparkled in the afternoon sun. The train rolled past colorful villages, medieval towers, grand chalets, and wooden farmhouses. Miles of terraced vineyards cascaded down steep slopes to the lakeshore. Some of the world's greatest artists, Hollywood stars, musicians, and royalty chose to make this glorious region their home, and it was now very easy to understand why.
I arrived in the charming city of Vevey, situated directly on the lakeshore, just in time for dinner in one of the many open-air restaurants lining the town promenade. I dined on delicate fresh perch, one of 30-plus fish varieties that thrive in the pristine lake, paired with an outstanding local white wine. The lakeside promenade, resplendent with flowering gardens, statues, and picturesque squares, was bustling with activity as strollers took advantage of the summer sky that stayed bright well past 10 p.m.
The next morning, a visit to Chaplin's World, one of the town's most famous attractions, was on the itinerary. High in the hills above Vevey, the museum is housed in the mansion Charlie Chaplin inhabited with his large family for 25 years.
Scattered throughout the museum, visitors can marvel at the humanlike wax figures created by the Grevin wax museum in Paris, which bring Chaplin, his family and friends, such as Sophia Loren and Albert Einstein, to life. Interactive displays document his many contributions to the arts.
That afternoon, I stepped aboard a passenger ferry for a delightfully scenic cruise past famous towns, such as the fashionable city of Montreux, home of the renowned international jazz festival. My destination was the castle of Chillon, a formidable edifice built in the 12th century on a rocky island in the lake that is the most-visited historic monument in Switzerland.
A detailed brochure (as well as an audio guide) is available to lead visitors through the castle's many chambers, bringing to life the history within its walls. Costumed knaves and wenches stroll through the castle, adding to the historical ambience, and they are always happy to pose with visitors for a souvenir photo.
Because my heart was set on visiting the Alpine regions of Switzerland (owing in no small part to watching countless reruns of The Sound of Music in my youth), I planned to spend the next two days in the mountains of the Pays-d'Enhaut region, just an hour away by train. Half the fun was getting there. Holders of the Swiss Rail Pass also have access to "Golden Pass" narrow-gauge scenic trains that run from Montreux into this region, many of which offer large panoramic windows to best enjoy the spectacular scenery.
The train stopped right in front of my hotel in the picturesque, historic town of Rougemont, an unspoiled village famous for its centuries-old chalets. Highlights of this Alpine adventure included a visit to the charming village of Chateau-d'Oex, where I had the opportunity to take a decoupage class with a local artist. Not everyone is a candidate for this highly skilled art form, which demands precision cutting that is beyond imaginable, but I did come home with one of the artist's intricate creations to frame on my wall.
Visitors to this region can also enjoy a variety of ecotour options. Because cheese is a Swiss institution, tours of artisanal cheese farms are popular. One can opt for a tour that takes visitors to the top of a mountain, where a young couple and their children carry on the centuries-old family tradition of making the prized L'Etivaz cheese of this region. Their contented cows feast on fresh grass throughout summer, giving their milk (and resulting cheese) a distinctive and sublime flavor.
The next day included another trek to the top of a mountain, a tour of the Jardin des Monts gardens that produce all the organic herbs for the company's exclusive line of beauty products. While strolling through the flowering terraced beds, I was thrilled to come across an edelweiss flower nestled near a rock at the edge of a cliff. It's the national flower of Switzerland and grows only in the highest altitudes of the Alps. Needless to say, I took this as a very good omen and captured its rare beauty in many a souvenir photo.
It was time to leave this bucolic countryside early the next day, and I headed off to the cosmopolitan city of Lausanne. I made haste to discover as much of that historic city as possible in a 12-hour window of time.
First and foremost, the 12th-century Notre Dame Cathedral in Lausanne is a must-see, as it is one of Europe's finest Gothic buildings. The painted sculptures in the southern portal, created in the 13th century, are a magnificent example of medieval art.
Lausanne's town center is a delightful combination of the ancient and the trendy, and I spent the afternoon discovering its charms. Bohemian cafes and original boutiques can be found in the Quartier du Rotillon, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. The 19th-century Palais de Rumine, which houses a host of art and science displays, is an architectural wonder in its own right. Lausanne's Olympic Museum and Park is also one of the city's main attractions, featuring three levels of interactive displays and an impressive lakeside park.
A paradise for window shopping, the Rue de Bourg is lined with luxury-brand stores and a variety of boutiques. The Flon district, formerly home to industrial warehouses, has become Lausanne's trendy new hot spot, with restaurants, bars, clubs, exhibition spaces, and even a sandy beach during summer.
As the sun set over Lake Geneva, I took the opportunity to ride Lausanne's fully automated metro rail system for quick and comfortable transport from the city center to the end station on the lake at Ouchy. As I strolled down the promenade, past children playing in the fountain pools, families feeding the ever-attentive swans, and diners enjoying a late dinner and drinks, I said my goodbyes to Lake Geneva, with the promise I would return soon to this unforgettable Swiss paradise.
DiBona is a travel writer and photographer in San Diego. See more of her photos and articles at www.getthepicturetravel.com.