Cycling in Switzerland

Photo gallery

Scenic_variety

The travel report lies on:

Aare Route route-08
Aare Route
Oberwald (Gletsch)–Koblenz
To route
Scenic variety, cultural riches and sheer enjoyment – The Aare Route

Scenic variety, cultural riches and sheer enjoyment – The Aare Route

Selecting Route 8 for our cycle tour this year was based on three factors: we wanted the challenge of an Alpine Pass, we were keen to revisit Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, and this tour ends in a spa resort, Bad Zurzach – a good place to relax our weary muscles after the week’s exertions.
Introduction

Selecting Route 8 for our cycle tour this year was based on three factors: we wanted the challenge of an Alpine Pass, we were keen to revisit Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, and this tour ends in a spa resort, Bad Zurzach – a good place to relax our weary muscles after the week’s exertions.

In the event, the trip offered vastly more than we had anticipated in terms of scenic variety, cultural riches and sheer enjoyment, and since the sun shone almost throughout we consider ourselves very fortunate to have cycled the length of the Aare in such favourable circumstances.
27 June, 2011 - Arrival

A crowded afternoon flight transports us from the hectic discord of Luton, UK, to the calm efficiency of Zurich’s transport hub where a gleaming international airport interacts seamlessly with the railway network. Such streamlined perfection for all travellers in Switzerland is a beacon of encouragement and a source of envy. We acknowledge both emotions as we wait expectantly for our southbound connection to Brig In the cool cathedral-like interior of the Hauptbahnhof.

And with typical Swiss punctuality, an impressive double-decker train of immense proportions arrives to whisk us on the first leg of our journey into the Alps. We pass through Interlaken, whose twin lakes, the Thunersee and Brienzwesee beckon in the early evening sunshine, while we smile to each other, happy in the knowledge that we will be pedalling our way there in just a very few days. The reality is rather different, since it was our one wet afternoon, but our ignorance of this fact was indeed blissful at that moment. The train stops briefly in Bern – and again we reflect happily that the tour will bring us to the capital city and all the delightful things it holds in store for the visitor.

At Brig we disembark to take the local train to Fiesch. The sun has already set when we step outside the station, breathing in the rarified air while admiring the backdrop of stately peaks

In the gathering darkness the little local train is almost empty as we rattle uphill through hillside hamlets. At Fiesch we board the post bus – just three passengers – ourselves and an upright elderly lady with a firm expression and a head of neatly coiffed grey hair. The bus winds its way through villages where lights twinkle in the homesteads and stars – many, many stars, twinkle in the inky blue firmament above. Our excitement mounts with every curve in the road – our Swiss adventure is about to begin!

Oberwald station is deserted – but Oma kindly gives us directions to Hotel Ahorni and indeed it is but a short walk down the village street and over the little stone bridge. She has grown up here and would doubtless have had many interesting tales to recount of her childhood in the remote valleys of the Goms, had we asked for them.

The staff at the hotel are not abed yet and greet us politely. We are shown to a plainly decorated but spotlessly clean room on the second floor. An enormous puffy white duvet – one on each neatly made side-by-side bed, whose pillows are miniature versions of the eiderdowns’ snowy white perfection are waiting to receive us.

Morning brings a sky of wondrous blue, Alpine views and meadows full of flowers, the sound of cowbells. And duvets spread out on the windowsills of the adjacent chalets, already laid out for their daily airing.

We have to pinch ourselves to assure us that yes, it’s real, and we are here in Switzerland again.

Breakfast is served in the family dining-room – all starched white tablecloths, an ample buffet of the fare we like best; muesli, and proper Bircher muesli, too with fruity yogurt. And ample fragrant coffee served in individual pots. We gaze out on the lush meadows where cows dreamily chew the grass that makes the milk that produces the butter and cheese that we plan to feast on in the coming days. And we let out a deep sign of contentment, just as the cows probably do.
Highlights

Several discussions on what to include in our highlights for this tour have whittled the list down to five.
1. The descent from Grimsel Pass to Innertkirchen and Meiringen.

Naturally, the ascent required some effort on a hot day, but our exertions are rewarded with views and a thrilling ride down. A broken-down bus and road repairs enabled us to bypass the hold-up and the queues of motorists, and as cyclists we were able to press on regardless arriving ed at the half-way point at the Hotel du Rhone Glacier in Gletsch ahead of motorcyclists, cars, motorhomes and excursion buses.

The glacier at Gletsch has retreated some 300 metres since the hotel was built here in the 1850s to welcome tourists avid to see the Rhone glacier. We marked our visit with a snapshot of Stephen at the crossroads where three Alpine passes intersect – the Grimsel, the Furka and the Sustern, and pressed on. The main ascent lay ahead of us, a steady two-hour climb in temperatures of 30C. Taking enough water with you on your cycle is essential, as are frequent stops to admire the view. We also decided there is absolutely no shame in walking up and arrived at the summit with a real sense of achievement.

After admiring the views and taking the time to explore the 5 km side excursion to the head of the Oberaar, and the source of the Aare river, we were ready to tackle the long downhill stretch.

The descent was just wonderful. Blessed with hot sun and clear views, we travelled for mile upon mile on smooth, safe roads, with only a courteous motorcyclist to distract us – very few cars today. Passing through the several tunnels on the descent added to the thrill. Normally nervous of steep gradients, I thoroughly enjoyed the funfair ride which was exhilarating without causing me to hang onto my brakes. Several huge dams & heir reservoirs constructed by the Kraftwerke Oberasli AG increased our sense of awe and majesty in the grandeur of this alpine landscape.
2. Solothurn – youthful pranks, a sneak preview, and all’s well that ends well

Perfect weather to explore the mysteries of an historic town centred around the number eleven, whose admittance to the confederation in 1841 was ranked 11th. In consequence, it now boasts eleven of each of the following: churches, chapels, historic wells and towers. The impressive fortifications elegant bridges spanning the breadth of the Aare and the backdrop of the Jura mountains adds to Solothurn’s gracious elegance.

Our Saturday night wanderings brought two surprises – local high school graduates were initiating new members into their Guild, which involved a dip in the local fountain, some horseplay and a certain amount of drinking. Lat year’s initiates took part in a race – sitting astride chairs to complete the 300 metres from the neo-classical Cathedral of St Ursen (closed for renovations) to the place where we stood.

Meanwhile, the adults were rehearsing an open-air production of a period drama by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890). No expense had been spared – the cast of 50 or so were all in period costume and there was even a horse-drawn carriage waiting in the wings to transport the principal actors across the stage – in effect the town square. The story seemed to revolve around the disputatious ownership of hand-cart used for fire service, the elopement of a well-bred young woman with the local ne’er-do well and several loud arguments among the townsfolk and all the cast appeared to be thoroughly enjoying their thespian undertaking.

You may be lucky enough to stumble on such impromptu entertainment during the summer months in towns such as these.

And the happy ending? The kindly townsfolk of Solothurn earned our gratitude for the clever and discreet way they let us know that we had left valuables behind in their church, which could be reclaimed at the Lost and Found Bureau at the police station.
3. Arrau – city of the fabled gables

This was our second visit to Aarau, at last year’s tour (No. 3)passed through the town. Heavy overnight rain did not entice us out of doors for an evening ramble on our first visit, so the glories of Arrau’s merchant houses were a fresh discovery this year.

The gables and the stories they tell are indeed noteworthy and in a state of marvellous preservation. However, it was the charms of the old town that really captured our romantic sensibilities – terraces of old artisan cottages, of much humbler origins than the merchant’s fine dwellings, have been lovingly preserved and are now the homes of today’s townsfolk – the gabled marvels may contain offices and certainly many of the houses are now shop frontages at street level.

We were even lucky enough to spot an old sign for a cycle repair shop –using the old-fashioned “Zweirad” which translates as two-wheels.
4. Bern

Our stay in Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, cannot be omitted from this report. An intimate city, (population 121 thousand) , spectacularly situated on a rocky outcrop above the River Aare is now a World Heritage site, distinguished by wide, cobbled streets, huge clocks and elegant arcades for strolling and window-shopping. In a little more than 24 hours we had time to visit the Kunstmuseum, with its international collection of art, as well as works by Swiss artists, notably Hodler and Anker. The splendid Gothic Munster of St. Vincent with its well-preserved sculptural group of the Last Judgement over the medieval entrance (Tympanum) graphically illustrates the punishments awaiting the damned, designed to terrify the medieval faithful into better behaviour.

The imaginative architecture of the Paul Klee Zentrum, designed by architect Renzo Piano, houses a substantial collection of the artist’s works, was just a short cycle ride away.
5. Wildlife in abundance

Normally shy creatures, the Marmots at in their enclosure at Grimsel Pass were easy to spot and photograph. It was my first sighting of these charming animals, although Stephen had witnessed them in the wild during his descent of the Gotthard Pass in June the previous year.

In Bern, the sparrows who frequent the café tables on the Munster Promenade are so tame they will take crumbs from your hand – a charming reminder of Switzerland’s peaceful status, ever since the Prussians were repelled in 1857. Along with the daily sight of so many wildfowl along the river banks, our visit to the nature reserve at Witi gave us a particular insight into how the local community is working to preserve a habitat for these graceful creatures. We were fascinated to see numerous storks’ nests on many local houses at Grenchen, living testimony to the care taken to increase their numbers in recent years.

And lastly, the Klingnau Reservoir, just outside Bad Zursach, is a newly created nesting ground for migratory birds from all over northern Europe, with over 270 species recorded. As this was our last day, we were keen to press on to our final destination, but were nonetheless appreciative of the care that local people have taken to make their backwater attractive to migrating birds.
Language

We were both surprised at the number of older people who can speak good high German, so if you speak any German at all, do try it out on the locals. They will do their best to help you and in exchange many young Swiss are eager to practise their English with you.

Eating out in Switzerland is expensive, but don’t let that mar your enjoyment on holiday. We found that a hearty breakfast stood us in good stead for most of the day, and we took pleasure in choosing other meals to reflect our location. For example, a resort such as Meiringen has ice-creams which are exceptionally good. Why not dine off a sumptuous ice with perhaps a coffee to follow?

And if you enjoy wine, Swiss wines are a delightful discovery, and rarely exported, so make the most of the opportunity to enjoy them here. If your taste is for light fragrant wines, you will enjoy the Fendant grape also known as Chasselas in French-speaking regions. Red wines from the east and south of the country are also well made and complement the many cheese dishes on restaurant menus.
Food shopping

Staff in small local supermarkets are generally helpful and are happy to let you purchase small quantities. Enterprising local farmers offer cheese made on the premises, and freshly pressed juices were on tap at a roadside stall. Dairies welcome visitors to watch their cheese-making and visitor sampling is encouraged.
Gifts and Souvenirs

Do buy postcards to complement your own photographs. Often the panoramas will be better than those you can achieve yourself and aerial shots give you an overall perspective of your journey through the mountains. Biel/Bienne has an interesting old quarter with a number of vintage shops. There is a small fleamarket on Saturday mornings. I bought an attractively painted tile, a huge illustrated book of the Alps and a pretty handbag – all for less than 15 francs.

There is also a Dolls’ Hospital stuffed with toys from a bygone era – the owner speaks French and some English.

The choice of travel passes in bewildering, so discuss the options beforehand with your Travel Agent, a member of SwissTrails staff based in Switzerland, or with staff at the UK Swiss Tourist Office before your departure.
Swiss Rail pass – an example

Although a week’s holiday may not warrant the initial outlay of CHF99, this pass will cover the train journey from the borders of Switzerland to your destination, with 50% discount on the Swiss Travel System for the rest of your stay (limited to one month).

Taking your cycle on the train or the Post Bus. In Switzerland you will need to book and buy a ticket to transport your bicycle by train or have it carried on the rear of the Post Bus, so do bear this in mind. Having a rail pass, whichever one you choose, will then give you a discount on the cost of transporting your cycle when you travel.
Reading matter

As well as copies of The Rough Guide and/or Lonely Planet, we both enjoyed dipping into “Swiss Watching” by Diccon Bewes (2010) for a very personal account of living in this hugely varied, quirky and delightful country. First-time visitors will find it especially beneficial as Diccon struggles to get to grips with German grammar, and the national clichés of Chocs, cheese, banks, clocks, skis, francs.

Jonathan Steinberg’s book “ Why Switzerland”? is a more in-depth appraisal of the land and its achievements over the centuries and remains the best introduction to Switzerland for anyone who wants a primarily historical perspective.
Selecting Route 8 for our cycle tour this year was based on three factors: we wanted the challenge of an Alpine Pass, we were keen to revisit Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, and this tour ends in a spa resort, Bad Zurzach – a good place to relax our weary muscles after the week’s exertions.
Introduction

Selecting Route 8 for our cycle tour this year was based on three factors: we wanted the challenge of an Alpine Pass, we were keen to revisit Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, and this tour ends in a spa resort, Bad Zurzach – a good place to relax our weary muscles after the week’s exertions.

In the event, the trip offered vastly more than we had anticipated in terms of scenic variety, cultural riches and sheer enjoyment, and since the sun shone almost throughout we consider ourselves very fortunate to have cycled the length of the Aare in such favourable circumstances.
27 June, 2011 - Arrival

A crowded afternoon flight transports us from the hectic discord of Luton, UK, to the calm efficiency of Zurich’s transport hub where a gleaming international airport interacts seamlessly with the railway network. Such streamlined perfection for all travellers in Switzerland is a beacon of encouragement and a source of envy. We acknowledge both emotions as we wait expectantly for our southbound connection to Brig In the cool cathedral-like interior of the Hauptbahnhof.

And with typical Swiss punctuality, an impressive double-decker train of immense proportions arrives to whisk us on the first leg of our journey into the Alps. We pass through Interlaken, whose twin lakes, the Thunersee and Brienzwesee beckon in the early evening sunshine, while we smile to each other, happy in the knowledge that we will be pedalling our way there in just a very few days. The reality is rather different, since it was our one wet afternoon, but our ignorance of this fact was indeed blissful at that moment. The train stops briefly in Bern – and again we reflect happily that the tour will bring us to the capital city and all the delightful things it holds in store for the visitor.

At Brig we disembark to take the local train to Fiesch. The sun has already set when we step outside the station, breathing in the rarified air while admiring the backdrop of stately peaks

In the gathering darkness the little local train is almost empty as we rattle uphill through hillside hamlets. At Fiesch we board the post bus – just three passengers – ourselves and an upright elderly lady with a firm expression and a head of neatly coiffed grey hair. The bus winds its way through villages where lights twinkle in the homesteads and stars – many, many stars, twinkle in the inky blue firmament above. Our excitement mounts with every curve in the road – our Swiss adventure is about to begin!

Oberwald station is deserted – but Oma kindly gives us directions to Hotel Ahorni and indeed it is but a short walk down the village street and over the little stone bridge. She has grown up here and would doubtless have had many interesting tales to recount of her childhood in the remote valleys of the Goms, had we asked for them.

The staff at the hotel are not abed yet and greet us politely. We are shown to a plainly decorated but spotlessly clean room on the second floor. An enormous puffy white duvet – one on each neatly made side-by-side bed, whose pillows are miniature versions of the eiderdowns’ snowy white perfection are waiting to receive us.

Morning brings a sky of wondrous blue, Alpine views and meadows full of flowers, the sound of cowbells. And duvets spread out on the windowsills of the adjacent chalets, already laid out for their daily airing.

We have to pinch ourselves to assure us that yes, it’s real, and we are here in Switzerland again.

Breakfast is served in the family dining-room – all starched white tablecloths, an ample buffet of the fare we like best; muesli, and proper Bircher muesli, too with fruity yogurt. And ample fragrant coffee served in individual pots. We gaze out on the lush meadows where cows dreamily chew the grass that makes the milk that produces the butter and cheese that we plan to feast on in the coming days. And we let out a deep sign of contentment, just as the cows probably do.
Highlights

Several discussions on what to include in our highlights for this tour have whittled the list down to five.
1. The descent from Grimsel Pass to Innertkirchen and Meiringen.

Naturally, the ascent required some effort on a hot day, but our exertions are rewarded with views and a thrilling ride down. A broken-down bus and road repairs enabled us to bypass the hold-up and the queues of motorists, and as cyclists we were able to press on regardless arriving ed at the half-way point at the Hotel du Rhone Glacier in Gletsch ahead of motorcyclists, cars, motorhomes and excursion buses.

The glacier at Gletsch has retreated some 300 metres since the hotel was built here in the 1850s to welcome tourists avid to see the Rhone glacier. We marked our visit with a snapshot of Stephen at the crossroads where three Alpine passes intersect – the Grimsel, the Furka and the Sustern, and pressed on. The main ascent lay ahead of us, a steady two-hour climb in temperatures of 30C. Taking enough water with you on your cycle is essential, as are frequent stops to admire the view. We also decided there is absolutely no shame in walking up and arrived at the summit with a real sense of achievement.

After admiring the views and taking the time to explore the 5 km side excursion to the head of the Oberaar, and the source of the Aare river, we were ready to tackle the long downhill stretch.

The descent was just wonderful. Blessed with hot sun and clear views, we travelled for mile upon mile on smooth, safe roads, with only a courteous motorcyclist to distract us – very few cars today. Passing through the several tunnels on the descent added to the thrill. Normally nervous of steep gradients, I thoroughly enjoyed the funfair ride which was exhilarating without causing me to hang onto my brakes. Several huge dams & heir reservoirs constructed by the Kraftwerke Oberasli AG increased our sense of awe and majesty in the grandeur of this alpine landscape.
2. Solothurn – youthful pranks, a sneak preview, and all’s well that ends well

Perfect weather to explore the mysteries of an historic town centred around the number eleven, whose admittance to the confederation in 1841 was ranked 11th. In consequence, it now boasts eleven of each of the following: churches, chapels, historic wells and towers. The impressive fortifications elegant bridges spanning the breadth of the Aare and the backdrop of the Jura mountains adds to Solothurn’s gracious elegance.

Our Saturday night wanderings brought two surprises – local high school graduates were initiating new members into their Guild, which involved a dip in the local fountain, some horseplay and a certain amount of drinking. Lat year’s initiates took part in a race – sitting astride chairs to complete the 300 metres from the neo-classical Cathedral of St Ursen (closed for renovations) to the place where we stood.

Meanwhile, the adults were rehearsing an open-air production of a period drama by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890). No expense had been spared – the cast of 50 or so were all in period costume and there was even a horse-drawn carriage waiting in the wings to transport the principal actors across the stage – in effect the town square. The story seemed to revolve around the disputatious ownership of hand-cart used for fire service, the elopement of a well-bred young woman with the local ne’er-do well and several loud arguments among the townsfolk and all the cast appeared to be thoroughly enjoying their thespian undertaking.

You may be lucky enough to stumble on such impromptu entertainment during the summer months in towns such as these.

And the happy ending? The kindly townsfolk of Solothurn earned our gratitude for the clever and discreet way they let us know that we had left valuables behind in their church, which could be reclaimed at the Lost and Found Bureau at the police station.
3. Arrau – city of the fabled gables

This was our second visit to Aarau, at last year’s tour (No. 3)passed through the town. Heavy overnight rain did not entice us out of doors for an evening ramble on our first visit, so the glories of Arrau’s merchant houses were a fresh discovery this year.

The gables and the stories they tell are indeed noteworthy and in a state of marvellous preservation. However, it was the charms of the old town that really captured our romantic sensibilities – terraces of old artisan cottages, of much humbler origins than the merchant’s fine dwellings, have been lovingly preserved and are now the homes of today’s townsfolk – the gabled marvels may contain offices and certainly many of the houses are now shop frontages at street level.

We were even lucky enough to spot an old sign for a cycle repair shop –using the old-fashioned “Zweirad” which translates as two-wheels.
4. Bern

Our stay in Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, cannot be omitted from this report. An intimate city, (population 121 thousand) , spectacularly situated on a rocky outcrop above the River Aare is now a World Heritage site, distinguished by wide, cobbled streets, huge clocks and elegant arcades for strolling and window-shopping. In a little more than 24 hours we had time to visit the Kunstmuseum, with its international collection of art, as well as works by Swiss artists, notably Hodler and Anker. The splendid Gothic Munster of St. Vincent with its well-preserved sculptural group of the Last Judgement over the medieval entrance (Tympanum) graphically illustrates the punishments awaiting the damned, designed to terrify the medieval faithful into better behaviour.

The imaginative architecture of the Paul Klee Zentrum, designed by architect Renzo Piano, houses a substantial collection of the artist’s works, was just a short cycle ride away.
5. Wildlife in abundance

Normally shy creatures, the Marmots at in their enclosure at Grimsel Pass were easy to spot and photograph. It was my first sighting of these charming animals, although Stephen had witnessed them in the wild during his descent of the Gotthard Pass in June the previous year.

In Bern, the sparrows who frequent the café tables on the Munster Promenade are so tame they will take crumbs from your hand – a charming reminder of Switzerland’s peaceful status, ever since the Prussians were repelled in 1857. Along with the daily sight of so many wildfowl along the river banks, our visit to the nature reserve at Witi gave us a particular insight into how the local community is working to preserve a habitat for these graceful creatures. We were fascinated to see numerous storks’ nests on many local houses at Grenchen, living testimony to the care taken to increase their numbers in recent years.

And lastly, the Klingnau Reservoir, just outside Bad Zursach, is a newly created nesting ground for migratory birds from all over northern Europe, with over 270 species recorded. As this was our last day, we were keen to press on to our final destination, but were nonetheless appreciative of the care that local people have taken to make their backwater attractive to migrating birds.
Language

We were both surprised at the number of older people who can speak good high German, so if you speak any German at all, do try it out on the locals. They will do their best to help you and in exchange many young Swiss are eager to practise their English with you.

Eating out in Switzerland is expensive, but don’t let that mar your enjoyment on holiday. We found that a hearty breakfast stood us in good stead for most of the day, and we took pleasure in choosing other meals to reflect our location. For example, a resort such as Meiringen has ice-creams which are exceptionally good. Why not dine off a sumptuous ice with perhaps a coffee to follow?

And if you enjoy wine, Swiss wines are a delightful discovery, and rarely exported, so make the most of the opportunity to enjoy them here. If your taste is for light fragrant wines, you will enjoy the Fendant grape also known as Chasselas in French-speaking regions. Red wines from the east and south of the country are also well made and complement the many cheese dishes on restaurant menus.
Food shopping

Staff in small local supermarkets are generally helpful and are happy to let you purchase small quantities. Enterprising local farmers offer cheese made on the premises, and freshly pressed juices were on tap at a roadside stall. Dairies welcome visitors to watch their cheese-making and visitor sampling is encouraged.
Gifts and Souvenirs

Do buy postcards to complement your own photographs. Often the panoramas will be better than those you can achieve yourself and aerial shots give you an overall perspective of your journey through the mountains. Biel/Bienne has an interesting old quarter with a number of vintage shops. There is a small fleamarket on Saturday mornings. I bought an attractively painted tile, a huge illustrated book of the Alps and a pretty handbag – all for less than 15 francs.

There is also a Dolls’ Hospital stuffed with toys from a bygone era – the owner speaks French and some English.

The choice of travel passes in bewildering, so discuss the options beforehand with your Travel Agent, a member of SwissTrails staff based in Switzerland, or with staff at the UK Swiss Tourist Office before your departure.
Swiss Rail pass – an example

Although a week’s holiday may not warrant the initial outlay of CHF99, this pass will cover the train journey from the borders of Switzerland to your destination, with 50% discount on the Swiss Travel System for the rest of your stay (limited to one month).

Taking your cycle on the train or the Post Bus. In Switzerland you will need to book and buy a ticket to transport your bicycle by train or have it carried on the rear of the Post Bus, so do bear this in mind. Having a rail pass, whichever one you choose, will then give you a discount on the cost of transporting your cycle when you travel.
Reading matter

As well as copies of The Rough Guide and/or Lonely Planet, we both enjoyed dipping into “Swiss Watching” by Diccon Bewes (2010) for a very personal account of living in this hugely varied, quirky and delightful country. First-time visitors will find it especially beneficial as Diccon struggles to get to grips with German grammar, and the national clichés of Chocs, cheese, banks, clocks, skis, francs.

Jonathan Steinberg’s book “ Why Switzerland”? is a more in-depth appraisal of the land and its achievements over the centuries and remains the best introduction to Switzerland for anyone who wants a primarily historical perspective.

The travel report lies on:

Aare Route route-08
Aare Route
Oberwald (Gletsch)–Koblenz
To route