Switzerland is Flat! (…sort of): Exploring the Plateau region

November 9, 2012

Around Lausanne, Cycling, Travel

When North Americans imagine the Swiss countryside we tend to conjure up images of jagged, snowy peaks and high alpine meadows dotted with cows and traditional wooden chalets. Parts of Switzerland are like that, for sure, but did you know that a large part of the country is FLAT? (OK … sort of).

Lausanne, where we live, lies at the southern end of a large physiographic region of Switzerland known as the Plateau, which makes up about 30% of the country’s land mass. The Plateau extends in a northeasterly direction for about 300 kms, from the shores of Lake Geneva in the south to Lake Constance in the north. Sandwiched between the Jura mountains to the west and the Swiss Alps to the east, the Plateau ranges from 30kms to 70kms in width. Compared to these two great mountain ranges, the topography of the Plateau is relatively flat, consisting of a broad plain of rolling hills interspersed with lakes and rivers.

Looking east across the Plateau towards the Swiss Alps, from the foothills of the Jura.

Owing to its gentle topography, the Plateau is also the most populous (5 million inhabitants) and economically important part of the country, with major cities like Geneva, Lausanne, Berne and Zurich located here. The Plateau is also blessed with fertile soil, making it the most productive agricultural area in the country, with tens of thousands of acres devoted to the production wheat, barley, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and potatoes.

Now, since the purpose of this blog post is not to give a geography lesson but, rather, to share my appreciation for this beautiful and under-appreciated part of the country, let me get on with it!

As regular readers of this blog will know, I do a lot of cycling, and it is as a result of looking for good riding routes near our home in Jouxtens-Mézery that I have become familiar with the southern end of the Plateau and its charms. I also traverse the Plateau frequently on my way to the Vallée de Joux, up in the Jura mountains, where I go for longer and more challenging rides (subject of a future blog post).

Ever since traveling by bicycle across Germany and France at the end of high school, I have always found cycling to be one of the best ways to get to know a place. There is something about being on a bicycle that makes me feel part of the landscape that I’m passing through. It must have something to do with the full sensory immersion cyclists experience; not only the sights, but the sounds and smells we take in, the effect of terrain on our bodies and level of exersion, and our exposure to the elements (all for better or worse). In any event, below are a few observations I’ve made after riding hundreds of kilometres through the Plateau, along with a handful of photos.

First of all, when I say that the Plateau is “flat”, I mean that in a relative sense! While much more benign than the Alps, there are still some pretty big hills around here, especially when one travels across the grain of the land. This is best appreciated (if that’s the right word) on a bicycle, where one can easily rack up 2000 to 3000ft of elevation gain in an hour or two of riding.

Another thing that has really struck me during these rides is the degree to which Switzerland appears to be a nation of villages. Riding through the countryside of the Plateau, one passes through a village every few kilometres, no matter which direction you go. Almost every village is an independent “commune” (municipality) and comes equipped with a post office, a church (with bells that ring on the hour), a bus stop, a boulangerie (bakery), and a communal administration office (this is Switzerland after all!). There are over 2500 communes in the country, many of which have a population of just a few hundred (the smallest has 17 residents). Only 10 communes in all of Switzerland have a population of over 50,000. While there are some major urban centres like Zurich, Geneva and Basel, these are small by North American and other European standards (Zurich, for example, the largest city in Switzerland, has a population of 390,000). I’m not sure what supports the viability of small communities here, as compared to North America where so many small towns are dying out, but I suspect it has something to do with support for the agricultural sector and the proximity of these small towns and villages to urban centres where residents can find work.

Riding through the farmland of the Plateau over the last couple of months has also allowed me to observe the different stages of cultivation and the effect of the change in seasons. Agriculture is practiced intensively here, with seemingly every available square foot of arable land under cultivation. One hears the hum of tractors everywhere in the fields and encounters them frequently on the roads. Week by week the cycle of plowing, planting, growth and harvest unfolds, with the landscape taking on the form of a constantly shifting patchwork quilt. As soon as one crop is taken in, the land is quickly plowed under and a new crop seeded, with sprigs of new growth appearing in a week or two. Corn, sunflowers and sugar beets are the most common crops that I’ve recognized, with the latter gathered into large piles in the fields at harvest time (see photo). Manure is used liberally as fertilizer and the farmers have some impressive equipment for flinging it across their fields! The unmistakeable odour is pervasive at times.

Finally, the shape and orientation of the Plateau leads to some distinctive and sometimes challenging weather conditions for riding. The wind blows almost constantly and I have come close to being blown right off my bike. The Plateau is funnel-shaped, narrowing to just 30kms across near Geneva, which really intensifies the wind when it comes out of the north. I always factor in the wind direction when planning my rides so that I avoid riding into a headwind near the end. On a good day, mind you, I have also been blessed with such strong tailwinds that I have clocked nearly 60kms per hour on the flats!

The other weather phenomenon that has become more common with the approach of winter is a dense layer of fog that often lies over the Plateau, the product of an inversion layer of cold air that can sit there for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Viewed from the Jura or Alps above the Plateau, it has the appearance of an ocean of fog, and is in fact called the “Nebelmeer” in Swiss German, which means Sea of Fog (see photo). Beautiful to observe from above, the Sea of Fog makes for a damp, chilly ride when passing through on a bicycle. So dense is the fog, at times, that I have resorted to using LED lights to ensure that I’m visible to cars, and I have begun to avoid riding altogether on really foggy days. Residents of the Plateau have to cope with this phenomenon on a regular basis in winter and are known to head up into the Jura or the Alps on the weekends to find sunshine and some respite from the gloom.

With the onset of winter the snowline is starting to creep down the mountainsides of the nearby Jura. Between the wind, cold, and fog on the Plateau, my cycling season is starting to wind down and I’m starting to cast my eyes up into the Jura, where I’m told there is great cross country skiing and snowshoeing. In any event, as my new backyard, the Plateau has been one of the more delightful surprises of our move here and I’m looking forward to getting to know it better next spring … once the fog lifts 😉


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One Comment on “Switzerland is Flat! (…sort of): Exploring the Plateau region”

  1. Bev Longford Says:

    I really want to see those sun flowers in person, glad you didn’t make us ride bikes on our visit. Mom


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