Looking Back on Switzerland
(Ruth) I felt welcome in Oli’s family from the moment I first met them. Even though I had missed my train out of London and arrived incredibly late for our first meal together, they were so warm and happy to meet me that I felt at home right away. Fast-forward a year and a half, a month into our trip and we were heading towards Oli’s Aunt’s house in South West Switzerland.
I could tell how excited Oli was, and I was too. Not just for some time off the bike in a cosy house, but to spend time with Oli’s family: Yvonne, Gilbert, Sophie, Clive and Luke. Luke was the one person I was yet to meet because he had been living in Korea for seven years, but I’d heard lots about him and was looking forward to meeting him. When we arrived in Lausanne, Yvonne and Gilbert were ready with open arms and an open car door to chuck our luggage into. We headed out of the town into the snowy countryside, talking excitedly over each other about the trip so far, the rest of the family and the prospect of some good rest.
Yvonne and Gilbert’s home is beautiful, nestled on a hill in a small village, surrounded by trees with the faint outline of mountains peeking through the fog. Their dog Ruby was waiting for us. She’s a chocolate coloured fluffy bundle of a Lagatto who has brilliant comic timing. I'd met last year in France and I was as excited to see her as the rest of the family. Yvonne showed us around the house and offered to lend me some clothes whilst we were staying. It was so nice to take off my cycling gear and not get into the one other outfit I carry with me. I wore jeans for the first time in a month and it felt great. Oli seemed a little confused at the sight of me dressed head to toe in his Aunt’s clothing but quickly got used to it.
The long weekend we spent together passed really quickly. We visited the Art Brut museum in Lausanne, which I would highly recommend, as well as Sophie’s restaurant ‘Le Pointu’. Sophie, Oli’s cousin, was one of the first people that gave us feedback on our website for the trip. She runs her own lifestyle blog and managed the fine art of being incredibly supportive whilst giving honest and useful criticism. Le Pointu is beautiful and you can see Sophie’s artistic influence on everything from the food to the upcycled tables. Aside from taking in the highlights of Lausanne, we spent a lot of time eating at home. I tried Raclette for the first time and Luke cooked some incredible Korean food. We played Bananagrams and I loved how competitive everyone was. We all wanted to win, unashamedly and loudly. I think Yvonne won the most games, but we all put a good fight.
There were some maintenance jobs to do, as there always is. Piles of laundry, route planning, website updates, bike cleaning etc but they all seemed much more enjoyable from the comfort of Yvonne and Gilbert’s house. Gilbert is the king of practical solutions and helped us fine-tune our bike touring setup. We’re still sleeping on the silver mats he brought us from the local garage. When it finally came to leave we were totally refreshed and looking forward to the road ahead. As you might expect, Swiss roads are as smooth as a formula 1 track and we cruised and climbed with ease towards Fribourg.
(Oli). I remember feeling great when we left Chapelle but it was tinged with a hesitation. Cycling away from my family I realised that this now felt like the beginning of the trip. Up until now, we’d been riding in the knowledge that before long we’d reach Switzerland and a host of familiar faces. I’d greatly enjoyed meeting and staying with all our cyclist-hosts up until that point; Warm Showers far exceeded our expectations and the hospitality we’ve received really was overwhelming, but there is nothing quite so relaxing as flopping backwards onto a much-loved aunt’s sofa. But now we’d left. From this point onwards nothing was certain.
Our legs also felt uncertain after our first proper weekend off; rested and fresh but in need of easing back in. It was as if my thighs were saying; ‘Really?! Are we really doing this again?’ The bikes felt good though and the day we left Chapelle was sunny and brisk. We cruised down smooth asphalt roads that wound between striped snow poles, standing tall amidst the now green slopes to the east of Chapelle.
Swiss dairy barns are often decorated with paintings of their herds and old cow brasses; farming ephemera from bygone times. The variations between dairies amused me and my slight nervousness was soon forgotten. After temperatures in Holland and Germany that generally ranged from minus seven to minus ten, we were actually excited about local forecasts that predicted minus twos and zeros. It’s funny how quickly our perspective had changed.
We took the Alpine Panorama Route east. We were still undecided as to whether we would turn south at some point and try to go up and over the mountains into Italy. Or continue due east towards Austria where we would rejoin our planned route along the Danube. I was excited by the variation in the landscape that mountain cycling inevitably offers and was glad we’d had good weather for our first major climbs. The bikes were heavy despite the few kilos we’d managed to shed; two parcels of surplus kit posted home already. Ruth appeared to be enjoying herself too though and I felt relieved. In light of her frequent pre-departure declaration; "I’ll always hate hills”, one running joke was that we'd be the first cyclists to find ’the flat way around the world’. Although the Alps aren't exactly flat, it seemed there was a chance we would both enjoy the next few days of riding. It was all so picturesque. It felt like we were riding out of winter and into spring with a backdrop of snow-capped peaks and fresh blue skies.
Locals and authorities alike are apparently not keen on wild-camping and back in March the campsites were still closed for winter so Switzerland threatened to send shockwaves through our proposed daily budget of 22 Euros (all-in). Needless to say the scenery is amazing, the drivers are courteous, the people are friendly, and the food, when you can afford it, is very tasty indeed. We were very lucky to be put up by a series of wonderful Warm Showers hosts; all equally inspiring but for very different reasons.
In Fribourg we stayed with Raphael, Chantelle and their daughter Melanie. Built across a valley, a tall elegant bridge extends out to connect the two halves of the city of Fribourg. We paused to take a few pictures & wheel the bikes over some cobbled sections before continuing in search of our hosts’ address. As has proven to be the case every time with Warm Showers we had a wonderful experience. Chantelle is a ceramist, teacher, and brilliant cook. She’d prepared a local style loaf; part-baked for us to witness (and Ruth to take part in) the final stages of baking. Raphael is a professor of engineering who speaks several languages and was about to fast for a week. He’d persuaded Chantelle to join him having undertaken a similar experiment the year before. Raphael explained to us that they were in the process of cutting out certain food groups, day by day, before beginning the fast a week later. A form of detox with beneficial and interesting effects for the health of the body and focus of the mind. Melanie rolled her eyes and smiled fondly as her father described the dietary experiment to us, shaking her head when we asked if she’d be taking part too. We had a really lovely evening; my resounding memory is of three fascinating people who had a true curiosity for life in all its forms, not least culturally and scientifically.
After a beautiful ride east via Gantrisch Naturpark we arrived into Thun where we’d arranged to stay with another Warm Showers host, Lucy. We cycled slowly down a wide street, unable to remember the house number but resisting the urge to remove gloves in order to check. On the downstairs window of a large old house on the left-hand side of the street was written the slogan; ‘My favourite season is the FALL of the patriarchy’; the word ‘fall' embellished boldly in bright red lipstick that gleamed luridly in the light of a nearby street lamp. We had a hunch we wouldn't need to check the address. Lucy identifies as non-binary in gender, plays the harp, collects dragon ephemera & is one of seven in an eclectic and left-leaning communal house. They are all in their early twenties, speak a multitude of different languages around the dinner table, and appear to have a lot of fun. They are part of an informal cooperative of local households who care about waste and discuss various issues including the sharing and sourcing of food. One of her housemates is a nursery school teacher, another a musician, another a local councillor. We spoke about outdated systems and laws in Switzerland and England alike, gender inequality, and the joys of getting lost on cycle tours. They debated hard and yet clearly had a lot of respect and time for one another. In many ways it reminded us of our old warehouse unit on Fountayne Rd, and we were immediately fond of them all. One of the downstairs rooms of the house is dedicated to music and the evening ended with Ruth taking to the drums and jamming with Lucy on harp and her brother on bass whilst I failed to work out which button on the camera meant ‘record’. . .
Leaving Thun we had a long day planned, trying to reach a third host, Simone and Sam, who we were particularly keen to meet due to their previous tours in China and Asia. Sam had forwarded us a PDF guide of how to find their house. It had clear directions and photos daubed with colourful arrows detailing how to reach their home, which was perched up on the side of a mountain with a view of Lake Lucerne. Not necessarily available on apps or GPS they forewarned. Before all of this though, we needed to pedal our way round Thunnersee and Brienzersee via Interlakken, up and over the Brünig Pass with all it’s wiggly switchbacks, and round Sarnersee to their village near Alpnachstad. Perhaps it was ambitious. It totalled over a 100kms, which was a lot for us, especially when factoring in headwinds and hills. Several hours later we found ourselves in the dark on the Brunig Pass. The scene of our first major soaking I believe. Thankfully we had rain capes.
A little side-note here about the weather. We are English after all. Prior to leaving we had to-ed and fro-ed about rain capes; which ones to order, whether to get them or whether to just find good waterproof coats. The result was we forgot about them totally and left without any. Back on the 16th of Feb, two days before leaving, I realised we still hadn’t crossed off ‘rain cape or hard-shell’ from our to-buy list. Sheepishly I asked Brooks, who’d generously supplied our saddles, if they could send a couple of their rain capes ahead to Switzerland where we would collect them at my aunt’s house. Very kindly they agreed so we crossed it off our list and then screwed up the list, ignoring all other as yet unpurchased items. The joke was that of course we’d never make it through England, Holland, Germany, and France in winter without getting wet. Unbelievably though, we did. Somehow we dodged the rain. Don’t get me wrong; the cold winds whipped up by Storm Emma; the ’beast from the east’ that raged across Europe, polar vortexes and all, were far from fun. But it was still Day 25 before we actually got wet.
Back to the Brünig Pass and us flapping around in our rain capes. We’d never unrolled them before, let alone worn them. They were simple enough but in the darkness and the swirling wind, putting on anything remotely sail-like in size proved tricky. We were dry but unused to functioning with the extra material. I could hear Ruth, a few metres away from me, groaning as we battled our way up switchback after switchback. This was probably the toughest hill we done so far. Mountain. I think we can call it a mountain. We paused to catch our breath and look at the distance still to cover. We were only three-quarters of the way to Alpnachstad, and knowing that they lived at the top of several kilometres worth of single lane switchbacks we decided enough was enough. Getting the tent out and stealthily wild camping didn’t really appeal given how hard it had been to unroll the rain capes in the wind. So we took a deep breath and consulted Google and AirBNB. What accommodation would be even remotely affordable on the Brünig Pass?!
Turns out the Brünig Gasthaus was. At sixty euros it was by no means cheap but it’s all relative isn’t it; and this is Switzerland. Besides, they had a room available and were within two kilometres. Google Maps told us there was a long-way round; a road route, or there was a the more direct cycling route. We felt lucky to say the least and set to the latter. Unfortunately this was one of those occasions when Google Maps shouldn’t be trusted. Yes the information was technically correct but it was the kind of path that was so steep it had now become something of a river. A river in the dark that flowed down a crazily steep slope made up of loose scree and metal irrigation channels which ran at a diagonal to the path itself, perfect for skidding sideways on in the dark. I’m not sure we could have cycled down this path, let along up it, but with a warmly-lit chalet shape apparent on the slope above us, we decided belligerently to keep going. We could see it, surely it couldn't take that long to reach?! Wrong again. We had to take every pannier and bag off. It was too steep and slippery to push the loaded bikes. At one point it took both of us, either side of a single unloaded bike, and all our combined remaining energy, to get it up and round a particular section. A trail of panniers and bags and the second bike lying behind us on the side of the track. In the end it took us an hour and a half to heave our stuff, item by item, up this crazy rocky path. Looking at it the next morning in daylight I decided it fitted perfectly the definition of ‘ravine'; a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides. This one at a ridiculous gradient and certainly not a cycle route or path anybody should tread in the dark. How we laughed.
The next day we arrived at Simone and Sam’s place in twilight. Or rather, we thought we arrived at Simone and Sam’s place. I forgot to consult the carefully drafted PDF of directions and so we arrived at the final house in a similar looking village, high up the valley side, but several kilometres away from our hosts’ house. An amused looking Swiss man approached us just as Sam rang to see if we were lost. Rather than try and work out where we were I gave up and passed the phone to the amusing looking Swiss man. Who, as it turned out, happened to know our host family. We were directed all the way back down the single lane full of switchbacks to meet Sam and Simone who turned up in a car. We chucked our bags in the back and locked the bikes up behind an old barn before being gratefully driven up the correct series of switchbacks, a few miles back, to their home.
Sam and Simone, along with their kids, Noah and Aaron, were to be our third and final Warm Showers hosts in Switzerland. And as with our previous hosts in Fribourg and Thun they made a great impression upon me. Prior to having kids Simone and Sam had toured extensively across middle Asia, South America, and China. The wooden beams of their Swiss house were adorned with stunning shots from their past travels, whilst the floor was a landscape of exciting looking children’s toys. They are a busy family who do a great deal of outward bound pursuits and are in the process of dreaming up and planning toddler-friendly bike tours. One feature that made us smile was a hand drawn chart on the kitchen wall; detailing what each member of the family had on throughout the week. Aaron, the six month old, quite rightly had his own column which, quite rightly, was totally empty. They’re a really lovely young family who embrace the outdoors, beaming bouncing infants in tow, and I really liked them.
17th March: Saturday morning - we had a lovely breakfast with Sam and Simone (I think Noah served us eggs) before wheeling en masse, kids in a trailer on the back of Simone’s bike, down the hill where we said goodbye. They were headed south for a local farm festival and we headed a few kilometres north to Lucerne. Having checked the weather it seemed we were in for rain. We’d been on the bikes for several days in a row now and Lucerne looked like as good a place as anywhere to take a rest day. We decided to be wet-weather tourists rather than all-weather cyclists. Back in January our friend, Jazz, who we’d lived with in the warehouse at Fountayne Rd, had told us she wanted to get us a nice room for a night somewhere, when we needed it. Part-gift and part-thank you for a couple of (sadly unsuccessful) evening passport hunting sessions shortly before she moved to the US for work. She’s an incredible cook and had accepted a position as head chef on a yacht. It was really generous. A month into our trip, in a pretty city, we decided to take her up on the offer and make a night at the Hotel Beau Sejour in Lucerne our gift from Jazz.
It was great. We stomped around the drizzly city in matching rain capes, stopped on every corner to try various Swiss pastries, drunk too much coffee, and ended up sat, looking fantastically out of place but feeling very much at home, in a swanky jazz bar sharing an Aperol Spritz. The hotel itself was great. Recently opened by its young manager, Manuel, who seemed to be ever-present, ever-courteous, and ever-impeccable in his suit, it is a Belle Epoch era building refurbished with minimalist contemporary features to compliment the grander original decor. Breakfast on Sunday morning was expansive and delicious with everything locally made, baked or sourced. A particular highlight being the pumpkin jam on a fresh croissant. Great weekend. We celebrated being on the road for a month with a slice of Swiss-style luxury. Merci beaucoup, Jazz!
Budget-impact aside, Switzerland proved to be a special and memorable place for us. The Gottard Pass over the Alps was still closed for winter. Under several metres of snow. So, as suggested by Sam, we got a short train through the top of the mountain. This ran between Erstfeld and Airolo, reemerging on the Italian side of the Swiss Alps where we would coast downhill for a couple of days in pure sunshine. Our last day in Switzerland was amazing weather yet again and we passed round the eastern side of Lake Lugano before heading west toward Como. I think we had our first ice creams of the trip, in short sleeves, on a bench overlooking sunset on the water. It was all a bit Dolce Vita and felt like we were on holiday.