St Prex near Morges on the shores of Lac Léman has a lovely historical old town with romantic cobble-stone streets, a medieval town gate, a Roman church, and a beautiful lakefront with promenades and play areas for children.
St Prex has a beautiful medieval old town center located on a peninsula jetting into Lake Geneva near Morges in Switzerland. The still partly wall-enclosed old town has narrow streets with historic buildings sporting many interesting architectural features and decorations recalling yesteryear. Although popular with artists, St Prex is without museums or major galleries making the town easy to enjoy without cultural overload. Many cafés and tea rooms invite visitors to linger while picnic spots and free beaches are appealing in sunny weather. St Prex can be reached by car, train, or boat and is a popular stop on hiking trails and cycling routes. It is a popular day-trip destination from Genève, Lausanne, and travelers in the La Côte Region in Canton Vaud.
The History of St Prex on Lake Geneva
St Prex is a joy to visit. The small old town has narrow, romantic alleys with old buildings – occasionally going back to the Middle Ages – while the well-maintained waterfront promenades go on for miles. Although the area has been settled since the Neolithic period, the only buildings of real importance are the medieval town gate, the castle tower, and the Romanic church.
The triangular old town of St Prex is located on a small peninsula jetting into Lake Geneva. In 1234, the Chapter of Lausanne decided to dig a moat and turn St Prex into a fortified island to protect the church lands from threats by the Count of Savoy, who then owned most of the Lac Léman region. Access to the fortified town was via a drawbridge through the surviving town gate tower. A strong castle was built but all that remain of the chateau is the tower.
St Prex, like most of the present-day Canton Vaud (Waadt in German) was occupied by the Bernese from 1536 to the Napoleonic era. St Prex completely lost its strategic importance – the moat was eventually filled in and the castle long used as salt store.
Visiting the Historic Old Town of St Prex
A good place to start a stroll through the old town of St Prex is from the old clock tower (La Tour de l’Horloge). The clock tower is roughly in the middle of the only side of the old town bordered by land and houses the local tourist information office (usually closed on Sunday).
The Clock Tower of St Prex is one of around 70 medieval town gates that survived in Switzerland. It is one of three in Canton Vaud – the other two are in Moudon and La Tour-de-Peilz. The gate tower in St Prex is the only that still has its original machicolation – in French mâchicoulis – i.e. the holes through which stones and other object could be thrown on attackers. The main entrance to medieval St Prex was over a drawbridge across the moat – the hinge marks of the drawbridge can be seen on the walls of the clock tower.
The two clock faces have different mottos: for visitors to the town “Laissons dire et faisons bien” (Let us speak and do good!) and when leaving St Prex “Celui quie veille voit venir l’heure de son départ” (who waits will see the time of his departure, i.e. death).
A special walking route – the Sentier du Patrimoine rouge et blanc – has been set up with 12 information plaques explaining (in French) the history and other interesting facts about the development and nature of the St Prex region. The walking route is through the old town but also go up into the surrounding hills and countryside. The board at the Place de l’Horloge in front of the town gate explains the medieval history of St Prex. The Romanic church can be seen from here – it is worth the short trek uphill for the views alone.
Grand Rue is the main street leading from the clock tower gate through the old town to the lake. En route are many old buildings – mostly not medieval – with many interesting decorations and wrought iron sign boards. At the lakefront near the CGN Geneva lake pleasure boat landing is the Forel Manor. It dates partly to the thirteenth century and belonged to the Forels, a prominent family in the region (vide the Forel Museum in Morges).
It is a pleasant stroll along Quai du Suchet to the chateau. Only the tower of the original medieval castle survived. The castle has been in private hands since the Bernese era and is not open to visitors.
Beaches and Lake Promenades in St Prex
St Prex has several free beaches and lovely lakeside promenades. From the castle, cross through the old town on Rue de la Tour to the Bain des Dames – Ladies’ Bath. During the nineteenth century, this small beach was reserved for women so they need not see the exposed upper bodies of the men, who used the beach at Chauchy School for washing at the end of the working day.
Go around the buildings to the Chauchy School where the Plage de Chaucy – previously Bain des Hommes / Men’s Bath – has the best facilities including changing rooms, showers, and toilets during summer. Picnic facilities and play areas are also available for free.
From here, it is possible to walk around a kilometer on well-maintained paths next to the lake. This Sentier du Lac passes by many exclusive properties where privacy is usually jealously guarded. The path is suitable for most strollers but bicycles, rollers, inline skates, and similar items are banned. En route are several picnic and play areas, as well as beaches, but stay off the boat landings and private properties.
On the other side of the town – towards Morges – is the Place des Armes with a park and beach access with toilets and showers.
The Roman St Prothais Protestant Church in St Prex
Outside the medieval town walls of St Prex up a slope is the historic Église St-Prothais. The church predates the medieval foundation of St Prex as a fortified island and has thus remained outside the town walls. Excavations here showed evidence of a third century Gallo-Roman mausoleum. The first church was erected here around the fifth century – 274 Merovingian tombs from this period were discovered – while the earliest written reference to a church is from 652.
Parts of the present church dates from the ninth century but most of the current building is Gothic. The choir is from the twelfth century and the nave from thirteenth century. The church is on the pilgrims route to Santiago (Way of St James / Chemin de St Jacques / Jakobsweg).
The church of St Prothais has been protestant since the Bernese period. The inside is dark and fairly bare but note the late-nineteenth century stained glass window with an illustration of the medieval island fortress of St Prex.
The views from the church over the roofs of the old town of St Prex, Lake Geneva, and the Alpine peaks are magnificent on a clear day. A panorama map at the church points out the different Alpine peaks ranging from Mont Forchat near Geneva to Schopfenspitz far beyond Lausanne. Mt Blanc, which can easily be seen from lake level in Morges and Nyon, cannot be viewed from here.