The Lake of Geneva

Issue: Autumn 2011
Julius Caesar, while conquering the Helvetians, was the first to put Lacus Lemanus into the history books.

The lake has had many names, but now its formal titles are in three languages: Le Léman, Genfersee and Lake of Geneva. The Alpine lake is an international body of water, 60% in Switzerland and 40% in France. Seen from the air as a crescent shape, the lake is the largest freshwater mass in central Europe This curve determines the orientation of the lake's principle affluent, the Rhone River, which leaves the lake in Geneva and descends towards the Mediterranean Sea. Nine other rivers, as well as many streams, flow into the lake and there are five principal islands.

Over a period of several million years, the lake was slowly formed by tectonic movements and by glaciers advancing and receding. When the first human beings settled on its shores, the lake was not only a food source, but also a means of transportation as forests and swamps covered much of the land. The lacustrine people used dugout canoes, the first of many different types of boats that make up the lake's exceptional naval heritage.

Barges, bricks, yachts, steamships, sailboards, and even the world's first tourist submarine, built for the Lausanne National Exposition in 1964 by Jacques Piccard, followed the primitive log boats. Three bricks: Neptune, Savoie and Vaudoise – classic lake boats with Latin sails –  may still be seen when a gentle breeze calls out the land-locked sailors.

The most famous sailboat race, the Bol d'Or, draws hundreds of participants each year and last June the world-class skipper Ernesto Bertarelli won a highly tactical race with Alinghi. Variable winds and deep currents often make sailing a challenging sport because the lake has a microclimate, the result of a large mass of water surrounded by mountains. 

As well as the bricks, paddleboats also transported passengers and freight until railroads became more effective. In 1823, Edward Church, the US consul in France, launched the Guillaume Tell, the first steamship to navigate on a Swiss lake. Four boats that are still steam powered have been preserved and continue their service for the CGN, the Compagnie Générale de Navigation.

In 1883, the boats Rhone and Cygne, traveling between Evian and Ouchy, collided during a storm. The resulting shipwreck inspired the foundation of the International Lifeguard Society for the Lake of Geneva.

Another type of boat still in use is the fishing boat. There are 150 professional fishermen who continue to ply their ancient trade. Whitefish are the most common catch, but perch and char are also at the base of well-known local recipes.

The Lake of Geneva has always been home to a considerable variety of fish, birds, plants and other forms of living creatures. Over the last one hundred years many have disappeared; others have taken their place, such as the sturgeon, which was clandestinely introduced in 1994.

In 1894 Dr. Forel, the father of Alpine lake science, informed the canton of Vaud that the lakeside town sewers were infecting the lake. Two years later the water was no longer considered as clean as spring water. By 1937 the balance between the surface water and that in the depths was unstable: the water was not absorbing enough oxygen for auto-purification. Phosphates from fertilizers and new cleaning products were encouraging the surface vegetation to prosper, using up oxygen that should have been distributed to lower levels. In 1953 ammonia and nitrates were found in the water. The lake was intoxicated. Death seemed inevitable.

Fifty years later Lake Geneva came out of intensive care, but it will probably never be naturally healthy again. An international bulletin is published monthly informing the public about the lake's health. Its beaches are checked regularly and wild areas, such as Les Grangettes, have been officially preserved. Strict laws protect birds, plants, animals, and fish. Purifying stations filter society's waste. Ecological functions are being restored: "re-naturing" is the name of the treatment. Lacus Lemanus may no longer be the lake's name, but hopefully the lake, whatever its name, will be passed on still beautiful and inspiring to future generations.

International travel on the lake requires an identity card for travelers from European countries that signed the Schengen agreement and a passport for the others.


Musée du Léman, quai Louis Bonnard 8, 1260 Nyon

Tel. 022 361 09 49


La Lettre du Léman, Case Postale 89, 1000 Lausanne 12

Tel. 021 653 14 14

Photo:Jo Ann Hansen Rasch

Author: Jo Ann Hansen Rasch

Jo Ann Hansen Rasch is a writer without much great interest in nationalism, probably because she holds two great passports: New Zealand and Swiss. She tries to think globally but often retreats to the joys of regionalism.

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