If you like hiking, and you like wine, you’d be hard pressed not to like to spend a little time trekking through Lavaux in Switzerland.

I can’t quite recall how I heard about this area but considering I was going to be in Geneva over a couple weekends, I put it on my agenda once I read about it. It’s a beautiful area of terraced vineyards above Lake Geneva.

First of all I had no idea that Switzerland even did wines (though I should have probably figured that it did) and second of all that they would do something else besides white wines in this region. Live and learn. As to whites, they do a lot of Chasselas but they also do a fair bit of Gamay and Pinot Noir.

I chose to stay in the little town of Grandvaux and it turned out to be a fine base. Directly from my stay I could connect up with a walking route that took me through the vineyards. While it may look like it’s just a walk in the park it’s not quite as trivial to go up and down some of the slopes as it might look from the photo here. For the most part you can easily follow routes that are paved like a city hiking trail but there are some places you go up and down where the grade (according to the signs) is upwards of 25%. Trust me, you will use all the muscles in your legs as you go up and down. But the views are spectacular, you can stop in little towns along the way and just do as much as you want.

I’d been given a tip to make my way to Vevey. As you can see in the map below that I got from the B&B owner, Grandvaux is on the far left of the map and Vevey is on the far right. A pretty good hike. As it turns out, Saturdays are market days in Vevey and they have a wine tasting done at the market during the summer at least. I was told that it showcased a different producer each week. So, that’s where I headed.

Now turns out that last section to Vevey is not quite as nicely hikable, and because the wine tasting ends on the dot at 1pm I dropped down the hill to take a local train over to Vevey. I got to Vevey with time to spare and really enjoyed the tasting of a couple of wine from nearby Yvorne. They had both a Chasselas and a Pinot Noir. Both were good.

With the market going on at the same time, I was able to find some tasty pizza to have with my little bit of white and red wine. Hit the spot after the walk over.

Later in the afternoon, I started backtracking and ended up at the “Vinorama”. See the other red highlighted box in the map. More on the Vinorama in another post.

So you’ve come to Geneva and need to get around. Maybe these few tips will help some similarly lost soul when they first arrive here from the US and aren’t used to taking public transport.

Arrival

Before you leave the arrival area where you get your baggage, pick up a pass good for 80 minutes. It’s free, but not once you leave the arrival area. Once you get out into the regular part of the airport, a ticket will cost you something like CHF 3.50 to get a one-way 2nd class ticket that’s good for an hour – which is all you need to get to the main train station in the city.

Once you hit your hotel – if you’re staying at one – ask them for the go-anywhere pass that is given to visitors. If you’re staying like I am – in a rental, it’s not quite so nice. You have to go buy one. In that case, go read this and decide which kind of pass you need.

Routine Use

While you’ll find the passes are rarely checked (so far in a week nobody has asked to see my pass) you can be fined. From what I’ve read, it’s CHF 80 if you pay immediately, or CHF 120 if you are only able to pay later. Sounds like a real hassle you don’t want to deal with. Get the pass from your hotel or buy one.

I found the info desk at the main train station very useful for pointing me in the right direction – and giving me a local transit map. That was enough to get me pointed to the right stops for the routes I was after. Even if you just happen by a tram/bus stop, they’ll always tell you what routes will stop there. And timing. Some have electronic displays that show how many more minutes before your bus/tram arrives.

The thing that I’ve found pretty amazing is how often the tram or bus I need comes by. I may have waited 15 minutes once but more often than not it’s a few minutes. And many times I’ve been lucky and just walked up to find the tram/bus arriving. Also in many cases you can take one of several different buses to get you to the same place. For example, in the morning for me to go to the office, from the location in the photo here I can take the 6, the 10 or the 19. They all go by the office.

Leaving

Well I haven’t left yet but I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard. From the main train station you can take the Geneve Aeroport train. There’s one going all the time – and it’s still in zone 10.

When I went to Grandvaux it was similarly easy though I did need to buy a ticket because my pass was only good for zone 10 of Geneva. You can arrange to get a train to any of the little towns along the lake – at least the north side of the lake all the way over to Montreux.

I’ve now been in Geneva for a week. I came here for a two week stint following my trip to Italy. This visit is less about vacationing and more about kinda being back into the work routine – albeit from a distant location.

As the crow flies, this is actually not all that far from my Piedmont, Italy stays. As Lufthansa flies, you have to first go to Munich and then fly back. Strange, but that’s what I was able to arrange.

We have an office here in Geneva and I am simply working out of this office for a couple weeks. The primary motivation aside from the interest in seeing one of our European offices was to see some of the area nearby on the weekends. The 7 hour time difference makes the weekdays a bit of a challenge, particularly if meetings back home are in the afternoon there. That means they are at night here.

I’m doing a short term rental rather than a hotel. I have a private room with bathroom in an apartment a couple of stops from the main Geneva train station. The picture below was taken from the patio just off the shared dining room. Nice.

The Geneva water spout gives some sense of where the center of everything is. It’s not too far away. But then, with public transit being what it is here in Geneva, you can get anywhere pretty easily.

As cities go, Geneva isn’t all that big. I think someone told me it was just over 200K people. As you can see from the photo, there aren’t many big tall buildings in the city either. I was told that is by design (and probably ordinance though I’m not 100% sure of that one).

Despite being as small as it is, the city is extraordinarily expensive. In fact, by what I understand, it’s among the most expensive cities in the world. Even the most basic of lunches with something to drink are over CHF 20 which would put it over $22. Generally I’ve found food to be on the order of double what it would cost in the US. Have dinner in a decent place and it’ll be over CHF 50.

I’ve had a mix of weather since getting here. The weekend I arrived it was cool and on again off again rain. Today, a week later it’s pretty similar. In the mean time during the week it was very nice. Sunny and drier. I’ve been surprised at how humid it’s been here. And with little if any air conditioning, it can sometimes be stifling inside buildings. Woe is you if you end up stuck inside a restaurant instead of out on their terrace. By comparison I guess we’re used to frigid indoor temps in the summer.

You can see in the photo below how nice the weather was during the week. This photo too was taken from the patio at my apt rental. If you look close, that’s not a white cloud but is instead the snow capped peak of Mont Blanc. At least that’s what I’m told by the owner of this place.

I’ve mentioned many of the high points of my visit to Piedmont here already (though I may yet backdate another post or two for some specific things I never got around to commenting on) but at this point the visit there is done and I’m just trying to gather a few last notes.

For me, this was not a look at old historical things and museums and things like that. My visit to Turin was short and mainly transitional from one thing to the next in the area. I made the visit to Piedmont primarily because I wanted to bicycle there and I wanted to learn about and taste more of the wines of the region. In both cases, I found what I came for.

Whether they were places I found and arranged or places that were arranged by as part of the bike tour, I had fantastic hotels and B&Bs to stay. Similarly I managed to eat at some great restaurants. But I wanted to note two places in particular that were standout favorites for me in the event someone just happens by these notes and takes these as tips.

The first was my stay at Hotel Castello di Sinio. On top of being a beautiful place the service and food were perhaps some of the best I can recall. Driving in you have to buzz in at the intercom down below the castle. So they knew I was coming up. As I rounded the corner to the entrance I was met by a small team of people that greeted me and helped me with my bags, took my car to park it and helped check me in. Immediately someone handed me a glass of sparkling wine. And then Denise Pardini (who runs the place and is exec chef) walked me through some really helpful notes on the area. I really just can’t recall ever getting this kind of helpful and personal welcome anywhere.

I found this place via TripAdvisor. I otherwise didn’t know anything more about it. But if I have a good enough reason or chance, I’ll go back. Check out the rooms at this place. I had the “Superior Room No. 3″. Dinner there was by arrangement and appeared to be only for guests of the hotel. Similarly excellent. If the weather was good and the timing was right then breakfast was out in a patio area to the left in the photo. While you can’t see it, between those two buildings in the photo is a nice little pool.

And one final note on the hotel: when I got ready to leave they went and got the car for me, backed it up to the entrance and the guy cleaned the windows and mirrors before sending me on my way. Meanwhile Denise was there to say ‘so long’ and hand me some of the seasoned salt and honey she uses at the hotel. Seriously, I don’t think a hotel can do much better than this.

Ok now switching gears. I wanted to mention a restaurant. Now I’m not going to say it was better food than every other restaurant and certainly not that of the Hotel Castello di Sinio but it was great food and the service was also excellent. The place was the Da Felicin in Monforte D’Alba.

It was a bike tour group I was with that night and there were lots of choices and we weren’t really sure what to order. So here comes what I can only assume was Nino (see web site) to help us. Basically he said ‘just leave it to me’ and we did. He then essentially arranged a prix fixe menu of a set of appetizers and a main course + a nice (but not crazy expensive) Barolo to go along. All were good. Among the choices was a veal tartare. I’m not big on raw food of any kind other than vegetables but this was pretty darn tasty. I didn’t take photos of all the food served but I did of this one so I’m including it below. Sorry it’s half eaten. ;-) Taking food pics gets a bad rap these days but a picture is worth a thousand words so you’ll keep seeing them from me from time to time.

Ultimately I’d like to visit Piedmont again some time. I really enjoyed the small hill towns and the great little hotels and restaurants – not to mention some really great wines. I never ventured too far from home base in the heart of the Langhe so if I were to go again I might consider venturing to other places too. I might check out Asti. I might take a drive down to the coast. I purposely avoided that this time because past experience has suggested to me that trying to take in too much always has you on a timetable with no time to just relax and enjoy a place. The other interest I now have based on seeing just how close the alps are would be to explore the mountains near Turin.

As with most bike tours, you don’t really get a completely full week. It’s typically 6 days/5 nights and both the first and last days are somewhat abbreviated to account for transfers. This final 6th day of riding was one such day.

There were at least 7 of us that decided to ride the last morning – plus Alessandro, one of the tour leads. The rest were just enjoying the last bit of down time. Unlike previous mornings the ride was to get started at 7:45 instead of the usual 9am so that probably had something to do with it too. We needed to be packed to hit the road by 10:45 and the bus was going to leave at 11am so we didn’t have a lot of time to ride plus get some breakfast, shower up and pay any last minute bills from the night before. So, it was a quick out and back of just over 10 miles.

We were treated again to spectacular weather that morning and it was just cool enough that it felt great to be on the bike. Our turn-around was in a sleepy little town named Mango. We all stopped in a little coffee place there before heading back. Total elapsed time of the ride, even with the coffee stop, was just over an hour. And if you check out the elevation data for the ride you can see it was a lot easier heading back to the hotel than going to Mango, so it was a fast return trip.

After the ride, only time for a quick breakfast, a shower, and last minute packing before we were all loaded up for the bus ride back to Turin.

Everybody on this trip seemed to get along pretty well and mix together well. That’s not always true on these kinds of tours. And even though 6 of the people all came together they didn’t just hang together, and that was cool. In Turin it was handshakes and a few hugs and then like that, we all scattered to the four winds. Below is a good photo of the group right before one of the dinners. You can see everyone is having a good time.

And one last photo below of the vineyard hillsides as seen from the Relais San Maurizio. Couldn’t get enough of the vistas in Piedmont.

This would be the last day there’d be anything like a long option for riding. Typically Backroads gives people a few options and today was no exception and you could opt for a pretty short ride to a wine tour/tasting and picnic lunch (and then shuttle back in a van) or you could bolt on an extra loop in the morning to make it close to 30 miles before hitting the tour/tasting and lunch, and then if you felt like more riding, you could bike back to the hotel too. I took all the options and got in a pretty good ride with plenty of time left to just hang out at the pool for a while before a fantastic last dinner with everyone.

We lucked out again with the weather. At the end of the 4th day, we once again got just a little bit of rain. But by morning it was beautiful again and maybe even just a little chilly. The ride out to the winery/lunch + bolted on loop was a roller. If you look at the Garmin details by clicking thru the map, you can see we had plenty of ups and downs. After those first ~30 miles, I was ready for that picnic lunch despite having the usual bountiful breakfast options (which almost always included mounds of some local cheeses and meats). I shouldn’t have been hungry but the hills were a workout.

The wine tour and tastings at Marchesi Alfieri were pretty good. We did some other tastings during the bike tour but this was the only winery visit we made. After the winery tour they had us tasting three of their wines. 1st was a Barbara D’Asti (La Tota), the 2nd was their Barbara D’Asti Superiore (AlfierA) and the 3rd was a Nebbiolo from the Monferrato region (the Costa Quaglia).

The 1st Barbara was an easy drinking and fruity wine. Lots of dark fruit but not much structure to it. The Barbara Superiore really stepped it up a notch and according to the woman that helped us with the tour and tasting, it was their best wine. Lots more going on. Dark fruit but also notes of oak and spice and some tannins to give it a nice structure though not overly so. My fav of the three. The Nebbiolo was just so so. Too thin and light for my taste.

By the time we finished the tour/tasting and a picnic lunch we were well into the afternoon. These kind of plush events are nice but they do make it a little hard to get back on the bike.

The afternoon option for riding back to the hotel included a long, steep 5K+ climb. It had warmed up at that point and so it was long and winding enough to having me wondering “ok, when’s this uphill going to end?”. But, I was back by 4′ish and out to lounge by the pool for a bit. We had plenty of time till dinner (meeting at 7:30′ish).

The restaurant at the hotel was said to be a Michelin rated though I couldn’t find evidence of that online nor in evidence at the restaurant. But in any case, it was really quite good and I liked the old wine cellar setting. The wine list was a thick as the phone book of a sizable town. They started us with some snacks and then moved to (at least for me) a big green salad. I then moved on to the primi course of risotto and finished with a main of some beef that I’d characterize more like really tender roast beef. I should have taken a snap of the menu to be more exact than that but that’s the quick and dirty.

At the end of day 3 we were treated to a big thunderstorm. It even hailed pretty hard nearby based on the iPhone video of it we saw from one of the women on the bike tour. Thankfully we had finished riding hours earlier and had even managed to squeeze in some hunting for truffles with one of the locals and his dog Jolly. I’ll post some photos of that separately. But the good news was it left a stunningly clear morning sky that let us get a good view of the alps in the distance from our vantage at the top of the hillsides.

The alps are a little hard to make out in the photo here so it doesn’t quite do the view that morning justice. Suffice to say it was hard to take our eyes off the horizon while we headed toward our next stay at the Relais San Maurizio later in the afternoon.

Once again I took the long option that day. (In fact I took them every day.) It took me down to Dogliani and then north to Neive for lunch. It included a sizable climb! I could have optioned to ride into Barbaresco first but I’d gone there the previous week and by the time I got there I was ready for lunch so I just headed directly to Neive. While I’d stopped in Neive the previous week, this time I got a chance to try a great little lunch spot right in the center of town. We were on our own for lunch on this day and it turned out most of us stopped in La Contea. I got a pasta dish with tomatoes and basil. Not chunks of tomatoes, but instead a light tomato sauce. Really good! Lunches here and especially at this restaurant tend to be lengthy. We settled in for a while. I joined Catherine and Jim that day and they were very nice to share some of their fresh fried mushrooms (which were fantastic!) and not only that, they picked up the check. Thanks again Jim and Catherine.

Following a long lunch with a big helping of pasta plus bread plus mushrooms plus a nice glass of Arneis it was a little tough to mount the bike and keep riding but it wasn’t too far at all before we landed at the Relais San Maurizio.

Suffice to say the Relais San Maurizio is a very nice place to stay. All of the places were nice but of the 3 stays we had during the tour this one just nudged the 1st stay at Palazzo Righini out by a nose. Both places were top notch. The 2nd stay at Boscareto Resort & Spa was nice too but by comparison the food and service at the other places were head and shoulders above it.

The end of the 4th day of cycling came with plenty of time to just settle in and enjoy the place. The weather was nice and they had both an indoor and an outdoor pool and it seemed pretty clear most of us decided to opt to head for the outdoor pool to catch some rays, cool off in the water and just enjoy the pretty hillside views. You can see what I mean in the photo below.

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