Cycling in Switzerland is pure bliss. Not only is the scenery stunning, but there is a network of bike routes that cover the entire country, enabling cyclists to get just about anywhere so while we're gawking at the landscapes around us we don't have to worry about being clobbered by a speeding vehicle. We have spent nearly all of our time in Switzerland following various bike routes. It's a bit of a hodge-podge system of interconnected bike paths, back roads and gravel trails that zig-zag through quiet country farmland, forests, parking lots, construction zones, along levees and even across an occasional runway. There is usually very little traffic but when the route spits you out onto a major road, there are always bike lanes. What an excellent way to get people to use bikes as a primary source of travel. Although it's never the most direct route to where we're going, it's effective, highly used and even though we're mostly on paths that don't exist on our map, it's impossible to get lost. There are infinite routes, each of them numbered and at nearly every intersection there's a little red bicycle sign pointing us in the right direction. It's quite nice not having to pull out our computer map every time we get to a big city to figure out how to navigate our way through or around; in Switzerland all we do is search for the signs and easily pass on through. Even our dreaded trip into the capital city of Bern to get more pages put into Mike's passport at the Embassy turned out to be painless and the bike routes made the city seem tiny.
Switzerland has always been a place I've wanted to visit. The pictures always make it look so magical and pristine. And it is. When the air is not hazy the lower mountains are a magnificent emerald green and the higher mountains are blinding white as they tower above. Down in the narrow valleys there are swift, wide rivers and clear, deep lakes with vineyards and pastureland beginning at the banks and extending high up onto the steep mountainsides, nearly to the top. The pastures are filled with vibrant yellow flowers surrounding the occasional little wood cabins with red roofs and grazing cows with loud, enormous bells dangling from their necks. The mountains in Switzerland are alive with the music of ringing cow bells and even though we can't always see the cows, we can always hear them. The sound of cow bells will forever remind me of this place.
Vineyards in the Rhone River valley
The landscapes here are always beautiful but the most spectacular views we've had came after two grueling climbs. The first was a 22-mile ascent on a dead-end road to the town of Zermatt to see the famous Matterhorn. The night we arrived was overcast and offered pathetic views of the mountain. We found a place to camp on a rocky hill high above the city and hoped for good weather the next day. We awoke early the next morning to clear, blue skies and the Matterhorn glowing bright orange in the early light against the not yet sun-touched mountains that surrounded it. Suddenly the climb that whipped us the day before was amply justified.
The Matterhorn at sunrise.
The second was on a 10-mile climb to 71,000 foot Grimselpass. Half way through the ascent we rounded a corner and passed through a tunnel and had to stop in disbelief at what we saw. The mountain towered above us with switchback after switchback creeping to the top letting us see every inch of the test that lay ahead. Though challenging, we spent the entire climb looking around in awe of the views, forgetting about our tired muscles and agreeing that this climb equaled, or maybe even surpassed, the long-favored Going-to-the-Sun road in Glacier National Park in pure breathtaking beauty. Once at the top we were able to look down at the road we had just climbed with a sense of accomplishment, out at the amazing 360-degree view around us and once again all of our hard work seemed worth the efforts.
Mike heading towards the switchbacks up to Grimselpass.
Looking back at the road up to Grimselpass.
At the top.
The one major downside to Switzerland is that it's extremely expensive. Everything costs about double what it would be back home. For instance, we stopped at a McDonald's to fill up water bottles and found that a Big Mac costs $11, and that's for the sandwich only. Meat in general is outrageously expensive with a pound of ground beef costing $9 minimum. We have reached the point where we're both in desperate need of some new essentials, like helmets which are being held together with duct tape and zip ties, bike shoes that have gaping holes leaving toes completely exposed, cycling shorts that are embarrassingly see through and sunglasses that are being held together with crazy glue. Just for giggles we sometimes stop in a bike shop to check out the prices and have yet to find any one of those items costing less than $150. It's a good thing Switzerland is such a small country. Although we've meandered our way through quite a bit of it, we also know that we could be in a different country within two days from any point; if we had to spend several months cycling here we'd certainly break our bank.
We have continued to meet absolutely wonderful people, both strangers who want to know what we're doing as well as those who invite us into their homes. Thanks to Sandra and Andreas for letting us stay with you for a couple of days, sharing South America bike touring stories, pampering us with your hospitality and spoiling us with delicious home cooked meals where Mike enjoyed his chance to taste horse meat for the first time. Thanks to Emil and Eve for being so enthusiastic about our journey, sharing cycling adventure stories, helping plan our next routes and sending us on our way with a pound of Swiss chocolate. “Just as the French carry baguettes under their arms, we Swiss carry chocolate,” is what we were told. It's a lot of extra weight to carry but if there's one thing I'm more than willing to lug over these mountains, it's chocolate.
We got pretty excited this week when we came upon another bike tourist heading in our same direction. We had met a few in South America but it never worked out to really ride together, so this was the first time in nearly a year that we cycled with anyone else. We picked up Laurent, a 24-year old, chain smoking French guy who was on his 3rd week of a 3-month holiday. Unfortunately he spoke mostly French and only a little bit of English and Spanish so communication was sometimes difficult, but we make Spanglish our official language and got along just fine.
Our styles of bike touring were a little different; Mike and I making it up as we go, never knowing where we'll be sleeping at night, never paying for camping and being content without showering for days at a time. Laurent on the other hand, had a predetermined route, a plan knowing which campground he would sleep at every night and wanted a shower after every day of cycling. We informed him of our plan to have no plan and he opted to join us. I think he was having second thoughts less than an hour after we diverted him from his original route. Aside from one good descent, the entire day was uphill. We were slowly but surely cruising along as we've become accustomed to these long climbs, but poor Laurent was running out of steam.
Noticing his fatigue we stopped early to fill our water supply and buy dinner supplies and promised that we'd find camp shortly thereafter. It typically takes us less than a half hour to find camp once we start looking but of course this had to be the one time when things don't go as smoothly as usual. We climbed and climbed, but the road we were on was abundant with towns and farm houses, with one hopeful-looking lead after another ending up to being impossible places to camp without being seen. An hour after buying groceries we were still climbing and searching and Laurent had a look of pure hate and exhaustion on his face. We knew exactly how he was feeling; we felt the same way when we went hiking with Charles and George in Spain. We felt bad but there wasn't a whole lot we could do.
As we looked ahead, the prospects for camping didn't look promising for as far as we could see so I stopped at a farm house and inquired about camping. They offered no intentions of letting us pitch our tents in their back yard and told us there was a hotel in town or a campground 10 miles up the road. I could see Laurent's heart sink as we looked at yet another segment of climbing. I tried again with the next farmers we passed and bingo, we had a place to stay in the back corner of their field next to a pile of wood and junk.
Laurent collapsed on the ground, lit a cigarette, cracked open a beer and for the first time in several hours, smiled. He was forgetting how much he hated us, or perhaps hated himself for following these two fools from America. We showed him that for us a shower is a dunk in the river, cooked up a hearty pasta dinner and then he showed us the pictures he's taken of his trip. He made sure I noticed that there were zero pictures from that day and pointing a finger at me with a smile said, “and it's all because of you! You made me work so hard an ride so far that I had no time or energy to take pictures.” I think he was actually impressed at how far he'd gone over difficult terrain; much further than had he been alone. Mike then took a look at his bike which he had told us wasn't working well. It was an easy fix but was no wonder why climbing those hills were so difficult; he couldn't get into his small chain ring and was therefore having to work twice as hard to turn his crank, not to mention that he was cycling in skateboarding shoes.
Laurent and Mike at camp.
Laurent rode with us for part of the second day into the tiny country of Liechtenstein which is 7 by 15 miles at its widest points. We had no reason to go there other than it would be fun to say we've been and there was not much interesting things to do or see, so we stopped for lunch and continued through and back into Switzerland. It was here that we intersected Laurent's originally planned route and he opted to get back on his track rather than ride on with us. I'm sure that in our day together we taught him a thing or two about long-term budget bike touring but I'm afraid that we may have scared him away from ever joining us in the future should our paths cross again.
Cari and Mike in Liechtenstein.