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French Switzerland, by Melanie Votaw,
French Switzerland, by Melanie Votaw,
Yverdon-les-Bains, Lavaux, and Lausanne. The southwestern region of Switzerland, which is the French-speaking area of the country, offers stunning vineyards, majestic lakes, and medieval architecture. (

September was the perfect time for our visit because the weather was still temperate, but there were no crowds. Our first stop was the idyllic town of Yverdon-les-Bains, a spa city for more than 15 centuries with ruins of Roman baths. The small town has a 6,000-year history and its very own 13th-century castle. There is a beautiful theatre building that was modeled after the casino in Monte Carlo, and the town is home to Europe’s first science fiction museum, Maison d’Ailleurs.

The narrow streets and small shops are just what you want in a small town in Europe, and you can stroll to your heart’s content. One of the shops we visited sells nothing but local products from fresh produce and meats to freshly packaged condiments.

Yverdon-les-Bains is built on Lake Neuchâtel, so one of the first things we did was take a solar boat operated by Sol-á-Flots. It runs on primarily solar energy, and we were treated to wine and scrumptious crispy cheese twists during our slow and relaxing ride on the lake.

We also visited the small Vignoble Cousin winery in the nearby village of Concise to sample some of Guy Cousin’s wines. One of my favorite meals during the trip was a lunch at Café-Restaurant La Grenette at Rue du Four 1 in Yverdon-les-Bains. I had a simple dish of gnocchi and chicken, but it was memorable and nicely presented. We stayed at a nearly palatial 4-star hotel called the Grand Hotel des Bains, which has a spa and thermal baths on the premises that are rich with sulphur and magnesium. When the hotel wanted to expand the spa below the property, they had to first have archaeologists check for Roman ruins before they could continue. The hotel has two buildings, one of which is a historical villa that houses the meeting rooms. We had a gourmet dinner in the hotel’s restaurant starting with a poached quail egg in ice potato soup and summer truffles followed by a meat entrée and a poached pear with chocolate and lavender foam for dessert.

Grand Hotel des Bains has 120 rooms, including suites and junior suites. My room contained a desk, leather chairs, a coffee table, an LCD television with a radio, a safe, minibar, bathrobe, and cushiony slippers.

From Yverdon-les-Bains, we took a short train ride to Chexbres in the Lavaux region. We walked down the hilly streets that wind down along the vineyards toward Lake Geneva (also sometimes called Lake Léman.) The vineyards rise up diagonally on the hills in terraces, creating one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen, which is saying a lot considering that I have traveled extensively. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and even the Romans maintained vineyards here.

We stopped at the Lavaux Vinorama for a wine tasting and a short film about the life of a Lavaux winegrowing family. Chasselas is the most common grape there, but you’ll find it next to impossible to buy Swiss wines in the United States, as they are not generally imported here.

In Chexbres, we stayed at the 4-star Hotel Préalpina, a small property with 50 rooms. My room was a bit Spartan with bare white walls, no carpet, no bathtub (only a shower), no bathrobe, and modern, simple Scandinavian-style furniture. But as soon as I opened the door to my private balcony, I didn’t care anymore. The view from this hotel of the terraced vineyards slanting down toward the lake with the Alps in the distance and the orange-brown roofed buildings dotting the deep green landscape simply took my breath away.

Hotel Préalpina’s restaurant does not disappoint with exceptionally fine cuisine and a panoramic view of the area. There is also a sauna and whirlpool on the premises.

It took us just a few minutes by train to arrive in Lausanne from Chexbres. Lausanne is a beautiful hilly city on Lake Geneva with a mixture of modern and medieval architecture. We walked through the streets and visited the Gothic cathedral dating back to 1175, stopping next at the chocolaterie, Le Barbare, which is #27 on the l’Escaliers Marché at the picturesque Market Steps. This was a special treat because the establishment, which has been around since the 1950s, serves hot chocolate as thick as pudding.

This was not the only chocolate we sampled, however. We were in Switzerland, after all. A visit to Dan Durig’s Durig Chocolatier shop at Avenue d’Ouchy 15 was an education. Mr. Durig, who grew up in Britain, learned the trade from his father and gave us a tour of his little factory so that we could watch the chocolates being made.

He even allowed us to try our hands at decorating a chocolate Olympic medal with a small pastry bag. Using primarily organic and fair trade chocolate from Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, Durig’s chocolates are made with unpasteurized milk and contain interesting ingredients/flavors like edible rose petals, pink peppercorns, mango, and molé. He even sells chocolate vinegar.

Because of the many hills in Lausanne, getting around on foot requires that you’re in good shape. Luckily, there is quite a lot of available public transportation. We took the metro at one point, and I was very impressed that each stop has its own sound like a cowbell or yodeling. The poles for holding on also have three curved extensions, which allow many more people to stand. (New York City has finally begun to adopt this idea in its subways.)

Lausanne is 45 minutes from the mountains for skiing and 30 minutes from mountain biking areas. You can also, of course, enjoy boating and swimming in Lake Geneva. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne (Le Musée Olympique) is across the street from the lake and is surrounded by lush gardens adorned with sculptures. Even if you aren’t interested in the Olympic memorabilia in the hotel, I recommend having lunch in the restaurant. I had a delicious perch entrée cooked to perfection.

A pre-dinner visit one evening to Café du Grütli at Rue de la Mercerie 4 allowed us to sample the owner’s 25-year-old recipe for fondue. Afterwards, we had a lovely Mediterranean buffet dinner at Le Côté Jardin restaurant on the premises of the lavish Lausanne Palace Hotel & Spa.

In Lausanne, our accommodations were a little more modest than the Lausanne Palace. We stayed at the Hotel Mirabeau, a 4-star Best Western property that doesn’t look like much from the front, but I was pleasantly surprised by my spacious room. Designed in an art deco style, it had a minibar, bathrobe, and free WiFi.

To get around Lausanne, you must have a Lausanne Transport Card, which also offers discounts to various venues.Using the very efficient Swiss Rail system, you could easily visit all of these towns while in the French region of Switzerland, giving you a variety of landscapes, traditions, architecture, cuisine, and wines. I can’t recommend it enough for all ages. You can have a leisurely vacation or take part in all sorts of physical activities, if you prefer. This part of Switzerland truly has something for everyone, and every town we visited was special in its own way.

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