French-speaking Switzerland, or Suisse Romande, occupies the western third of the country, comprising the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) and the hills and lakes to the north. Geneva, at the southwestern tip of the lake, was once a haven for freethinkers from cross Europe; now it’s a city of diplomats and big business, but you’ll see its more relaxed side by the lake on a warm day. Halfway around the lake, Lausanne is full of young people; it’s a cultured, energetic town acclaimed as the skateboarding capital of Europe. Further east is the stunning medieval Château de Chillon, which drew Byron and the Romantic poets. Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain (4807m), is visible from Geneva, while Lausanne has breathtaking views across the water to the French Alps. On a sunny day, the train ride around the beautiful northern shore is memorably scenic, but the excellent boat service brings home the full grandeur of the setting.
Top image: Chillon Castle, Geneva lake © FenlioQ/Shutterstock
The highlight of a journey around Lake Geneva, or en route to Zermatt, is the spectacular thirteenth-century Château de Chillon, one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe. Take the hourly train to Veytaux-Chillon, or it’s a 45-minute walk or a short ride on bus #1 east from Montreux station (every 10min). Your first glimpse of the castle, jutting into the water and framed by craggy mountains, is simply unforgettable. A pamphlet directs you to gloomy dungeons where François Bonivard, a Genevan priest, was imprisoned from 1530 to 1536; the story captured the imagination of Lord Byron, who wrote his poem The Prisoner of Chillon after sailing here with Shelley in 1816. Upstairs you’ll find grand halls, lavish bedchambers and dreamy lake views.
The sleepy lakeside town of Montreux livens up during its star-studded Montreux Jazz Festival (montreuxjazz.com), held in the first half of July. Over 45 years it’s pulled in the likes of Miles Davis and Ray Charles, but “jazz” is now something of a misnomer; these days the festival features big-name acts from all types of popular music. Check online for tickets or just join the street parties and free entertainment around the lake.