Efficient as Switzerland’s train system may be, visitors looking to plot their own course will now find it easier to hit the road, thanks to a new program of self-drive itineraries called the Grand Tour.
“The moonlight on the lake is noble,” wrote Charles Dickens in the summer of 1846 during a five-month sojourn in Lausanne. “Prodigious mountains rise up on its opposite shore … and all the Alpine wonders are piled there, in prodigious grandeur.” Dickens, en route from Italy to France, was in Switzerland on a Victorian version of the Grand Tour, the Continental ramblings undertaken by young English gentlemen in the 17th and 18th centuries to round out their classical educations. Dickens was admittedly late to the game; the heyday of Grand Touring ended with the Napoleonic Wars, and the tradition would soon become a historical footnote with the advent of train travel and mass tourism. I, needless to say, missed the boat entirely.
And yet here I am in Lausanne, above the glittering expanse of Lake Geneva, on a Grand Tour of my own. At least, that’s the name Swiss tourism authorities have given to a series of driving itineraries that together comprise a 1,600-kilometer circuit around the country, mostly bypassing highways and main roads. Supported with maps, route markers, brochures, and a host of online tools and apps, the program is designed to make it easier for visitors to get off the beaten track and into parts of the countryside that you wouldn’t necessarily see from a train seat. Not that there aren’t some headline attractions along the way: the full route incorporates five Alpine passes, a dozen World Heritage sites, and any number of medieval villages and picturesque cities—plenty to keep you occupied for a couple of weeks or more. If, like me, you can only spare four nights, pick a section of the route that fits. My itinerary of choice is Lausanne to Zürich, a wildly meandering course that will take me through the heart of the country.
Setting out from Lausanne, I plan to navigate a big northerly loop around Lake Neuchâtel to Fribourg, where I’ll be spending the night. Alas, neither my rented VW Golf’s GPS unit (which is determined to send me down a more efficient path) nor my small-scale Grand Tour road map (which identifies the route with a thick red line, but without enough detail to get me onto it) are of much help, and I soon find myself zooming along the A1 motorway rather than a quiet country road. So much for the beguiling sounding Vallée de Joux or the glacier-sculpted canyon of Creux du Van. Still, what’s a road trip without some unexpected turns? I finally manage to get myself somewhat back on track at the southern end of Lake Neuchâtel, and follow the shoreline to Avenches. This proves a worthy detour. Built around the ancient Roman settlement of Aventicum, the town is home to a well-preserved Roman amphitheater that’s still in use today: when I stop by, it’s being set up for an opera festival.
Farther on, in the winemaking village of Môtier on Lake Murten, I break for lunch at the Restaurant du Port, where fresh-caught perch in lemon sauce is served on an arbored terrace that looks across the water to the medieval town of Murten. It’s a clear August day and the setting is “incroyable,” to quote second-generation winemaker Fabrice Simonet. I meet Fabrice a short walk away at his family’s boutique winery, Le Petit Château, whose roadside cellar is open for tours. “This lake is the most beautiful place in summer,” he tells me in his barrel room. “It also is an important part of our terroir, protecting the vines from frost in the colder months.”
After sampling a delicate chasselas—one of the dozen or so grape varietals that the Simonets grow on their hillside vineyards—I drive around the lake past tidy fields of beetroot and rhubarb, corn and cabbage to Murten (called Morat in French). Here, you can walk along the massive ramparts of the Old Town, founded 800 years ago by a German duke, overlooking tiled rooftops and cobbled lanes and people’s backyards on one side, and on the other, the fields where, in 1476, as many as 10,000 Burgundian soldiers led by Charles the Bold were slaughtered by a much smaller army of Swiss defenders. Lord Byron, who passed through on his way from Basel to Lake Geneva in 1816, would eulogize the Battle of Murten as one of “true Glory’s stainless victories, won by the unambitious heart and hand of a proud, brotherly, and civic band.” For a souvenir, he left town with a parcel of 340-year-old Burgundian bones.