The first thing that comes to everyone’s minds when they think of Switzerland is mountains. The second thing that comes to mind are the lakes — wide expanses of clear blue water, crisscrossed by ferries and sailboats, fringed by charming cities and villages, and breathtakingly beautiful at any time of the day.
The facts of Lake Geneva
There are many lakes, rivers and streams in Switzerland, forming ribbons of blue and white across the landscape, but the most famous lake of them all is undoubtedly Lake Geneva (pictured above).
This vast expanse technically straddles the borders of two countries — Switzerland in the north and France in the south. It is impressive for many reasons, not least because of its sheer physical size. Lake Geneva is the largest lake in Central Europe. It has a surface area of 582,4 square km, is 72.3 km long, nearly 13.8 km wide and over 310 m deep. Its volume of 89’000 million litres of water takes 15 years to replenish — which means that when water from the River Rhone enters the lake near Villeneuve, it is 15 years before the same water can find its way out of the lake to continue its journey to Marseilles and the Mediterranean.
The geographical surroundings of the lake are also remarkable for their diversity and beauty. The entire shoreline seems to consist of one breathtaking panorama after another: thick forests stretching down to the waterfront, snow-capped mountains rising majestically across the lakes, rivers and streams flowing endlessly into the waters…
In addition to its impressive statistics, the shores of Lake Geneva is also home to most of the social, political and economic centres in the country. Geneva, Lausanne, Villeneuve and Veneve are all situated on the gently sloping banks of the lake, making up the powerful Lake Geneva Region. In many ways, the area is Switzerland in miniature, holding as it does a kaleidoscope of peoples, languages, cultures and institutions along its shores.
In addition to the cosmopolitan delights of the lakeshore communities, there are scores of beautiful residences dotting the slopes of the lakeside. These homes range from rustic chalets clustered into little hamlets on the lower banks of the lake to forbidding stone castles brooding over the land from high promontories. Little wonder than that the area is also one of the most heavily visited parts of the country, boasting millions of tourists each year.
Despite the large numbers of visitors however, there are still areas of the lake where serenity and quiet charm are still prevalent. Huge as it is, Lake Geneva boasts 65 beaches, providing ample space for a picnicking family to enjoy themselves away from the crowd, or a solitary walker to think his own thoughts without being disturbed by the raucous noise of a teenage beach party. The lake offers a plethora of activities for every fitness level, from casual strolls in lakeside meadows to strenuous trails overlooking the blue waters and even scuba diving and swimming in the deeper reaches of the lake.
Lake Lucerne & Lago di Lugano
For those more interested in the scenery, a boat ride would be the perfect way to take in the beauties of the lakes. In Switzerland, all of the larger lakes and many of the smaller ones are crisscrossed by ferries. These boat trips are primarily tourist oriented scenic rides and are often included on railway passes on offer from the Swiss railway authorities. There are also Swiss Boat Passes available, which significantly reduces the fares for boats on most of the lakes. Though the boat trip is hardly efficient in terms of getting its passengers to their destination in the quickest time possible, the fantastic scenery available from the decks of the ferry more than makes up for the lack of speediness.
Next to Lake Geneva, Lake Lucerne is the second most popular destination for sightseeing visitors. This charming breadth of water offers the dramatic vistas so characteristic of Switzerland, and is also culturally important for being the setting of the William Tell legend. Here, there is less cosmopolitan sprawl and more country villages situated on the shores of the lake, of the kind most commonly seen on picture postcards.
Many of theses villages depend on water transport, for during the harsh winters, snows cut off the road or rail transports and creates isolated little communities. For this reason, though most ferries in Switzerland run only in the summer season, the Lucerne and Geneva ferry services both maintain at least a skeleton service in the winter months.
For a slightly different Swiss lake experience, there is the Lago di Lugano, which sits on the Italian border. The lake is charming for its warmer clime and the fascinating views it provides of Switzerland’s more rural areas. Here are the quaint villages perched on the high baksIt also offers the unusual village of Campione d’Italia, the only village on the lake that chose to remain a part of Italy in 1798 while all its surrounds became Swiss. Here, the mix of Swiss and Italian cultures and symbols — Italian spoken on the streets, Swiss plates on the cars, the lire and the mark everywhere — create a charmingly eclectic social landscape, and the lakeside casino draws many of the areas wannabes and wealthy personalities to try their luck at the tables.
Switzerland is also blessed with beautiful rivers. Most of these are wild, frothing surges of whitewater, perfect for more adventurous spirits but there are a few more sedate stretches where a riverboat cruise can be taken. Along the Rhone river just west of Genevem, there is a short wooded stretch just perfect for a romantic cruise while a stretch of the Aare river northeast of Biel runs past an island stork colony and offers a refreshing change of pace for the more hectic itineraries. Of all the river cruises on offer however, perhaps the most enchanting is a trip along the peaceful waters of the Rhine from Konstanz to the falls at Schaffhausen, the only stretch of that river left free from the marks of human industry. It is along this panoramic stretch, where the sky is reflected in the waters and green meadows climb up to meet towering crags, that the full beauty of Switzerland becomes dazzlingly clear.