Statement number one:
“The route is flat.”
Translation: “It’s hilly, in fact it’s mostly uphill, prepare to sweat profusely.”
Statement number two:
“It’s a bit hilly.”
Translation: “Bring your A game pal because you’re going to tackle some serious inclines that will not just bring you to your knees but probably force you to get off and push for a big chunk of it.”
Statement number three:
“It’s pretty steep.”
Translation: “Don’t even bother, just don’t. Catch a train.”
Switzerland, the tiny country of eight million people, eight million mountains (just kidding) and some seriously epic cheese and chocolate has sparked some contradicting feelings for us over the past five months. As we’ve cycled slowly towards the neutral nation via the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany we’ve chomped at the bit to experience its gastronomic sensations, postcard-perfect scenery and famous mountains. But on the other hand, we’ve been equally terrified to experience its budget blowing gastronomic sensations, cycle its freezing autumn/winter scenery and crawl our way up its back (hell its spirit) breaking mountains.
As the peddle through Germany stretched out to almost a month the good seemed to out weigh the bad (in our ignorant little heads) and suddenly the urge to exit Deutschland and experience a new country (one that albeit, still largely speaks German) overwhelmed us. The south of Germany threw some of the most spectacular scenery we’d experienced yet in our weary faces and even though we lapped up the culturally classy Swabian city of Stuttgart, our hearts were already in Switzerland. And just two days before we hit the border it seemed our legs were too.
Switzerland’s notorious slopes didn’t sneak up on us, oh no. They started just 20km south of Stuttgart as the sexy Black Forest scenery tested our tame thigh muscles to the max with nasty rolling hills (that seemed to rise more than fall). To top it off the icy air pierced effortlessly through my three upper body layers (one Event, windproof rain jacket and two merino thermals) and two pairs of winter socks, making it bloody difficult to stay comfortable. When peddling uphill that numb icy feeling would disappear in lieu of cold sweat dribbling down your back and the minute that downhill run came the cold sweat all but froze leaving your teeth chattering and face stinging.
There was just one consolation and that was the knowledge we yet again had a warm bed and hot dinner awaiting. Ehsan (our lovely Warmshowers host from Stuttgart) had volunteered his girlfriend Kirsten to look after us in the university town of Tubingen, which lay just 60km south. With hands all but frozen to the handlebars we wheeled in to the town at about 7pm and instantly felt a thousand years old as stylish 18 year olds whizzed by on retro hipster bikes.
Tubingen, we were told, boasted one of the country’s oldest universities and to this day had a population that was predominantly under the age of 35.
Kirsten and her flatmate Johanna immediately whizzed us up into their wonderfully old apartment and plied us with potato bake, cheese, chocolate and tea before letting us crash into a deep, dreamless sleep.
They were wonderful hosts and the following morning Kirsten even laid out an epic breakfast (and boiled us up five eggs for the road) before sending us on our way.
We hit the Neckar River just after 9am with rain clouds following us all the way past a smattering of gorgeous hamlets full to the brim with classic German houses. Rain struck at 4pm, the temperature plummeted and the hills rose until it felt like I was permanently stuck in my lowest gear while pushing my fat bike up endless climbs.
The aim was to reach Trossingen, some 80km south, but we were cold, wet, cranky and exhausted when night fell 30km short. The closest hamlet was yet another fairy tale town called Balingen and with no campsite in view we struck straight for the youth hostel and forked out 60 euros for a room. I honestly wouldn’t have cared if they’d charged 100 and even though we’d landed bunk beds in what was essentially a dorm the fact that we had it to ourselves, it boasted three heaters and our hostel was a large half timbered mansion decked out in magnificent 17th century style, made it heaven on earth.
We ate like starved pigs at the free buffet breakfast the next morning (Scott went back for fifths) and forced our aching legs back on the beasts just after 10am in the hopes of reaching the Swiss border town of Schaffhausen. We’d organised a Warmshowers host for the night but our previous short day meant we’d have to peddle 100km up hill to reach it. Just 30km (and some nasty climbs) later we knew it would be impossible veering on absurd. I’d steadily whinged the whole morning (sparking Scott to have his own dummy spit in retaliation) and by time we reached the picture perfect town of Rottweil we knew the battle was lost. The town’s train station sat just on the outskirts and we shamelessly peddled straight for it and booked a one way to Schaffhausen.
Ninety minutes of warm, fast moving, bliss later we arrived in the old Swiss town and mere minutes after that discovered our hosts, Antti and Selma, lived just 200 metres away. We met them in their chic inner city apartment and then headed straight for the supermarket to experience first hand just how painful Swiss grocery prices were.
The result? Torture chamber level.
Basic items that had cost us a couple of euros in Germany were easily three times more and it honestly hurt to fork out almost two franks for a litre carton of crap milk (which would equal about $2.20 au and maybe 1.80 euro). A basic shop totalled almost our daily budget and we quickly realised our Swiss cycle would have to be a bloody fast one.
The following morning Antti showed us around the ancient city, including its imposing Munot Fortress that was originally built in the 16 century, before leading us to Rheinfall, Europe’s biggest waterfall. It might not come close to Niagra’s scale but the dramatic background and sheer noise of the place was awe inspiring.
The falls sit just a few kilometres from the town centre and two castles are perched almost directly above them while angry, white frothing water, cascades over sharp rocks with a Swiss flag flying wildly in the background.
It was well after lunch before we jumped back on the bikes to beeline for Zurich and while it was a mere 45km cycle we knew we’d be hard pressed to make it before nightfall.
Antti had warned there were a couple of hills on the way out of Schaffhausen and within minutes we were sweating our way up what felt like a never-ending Everest, descending to the sound of cow bells in lush green fields, before climbing back up again.
A back country route meant we swung into Germany before again crossing the border 15km later and at 6pm the huge orange glow of Zurich came into view.
Once again we’d struck gold with Warmshowers, managing to secure hosts for five nights in a move that would save us hundreds of dollars (a dorm bed in Zurich starts at about 35 franks per person).
Several climbs later the city centre crawled closer and I was simply too shattered to make it to the apartment before a fuel stop at a cheap looking kebab stand.
Ivan and Nadine, an Ecuadorian and German couple, soon made up for a tough ride, regaling us with stories of their own epic cycle – from Switzerland to Singapore – before plying us with chocolate and offering us a bed in their funky apartment.
We slept like babies and the following morning we had just a few kilometres to ride to our next hosts’ house. This time we were staying with Pius and Andrea – a globe-trotting Swiss couple who lived in a cool apartment close to the city centre.
They were fun, kind and hospitable boasting the world’s cutest cat (Ferdinand) as well as a myriad of travel stories and awesome travel advice.
For the next two days we explored chic and sophisticated Zurich and its impressive countryside, catching a train down to Rapperswil (an almost medieval looking town) before taking a boat back up the gorgeous winding river to Zurich.
From there we could see great looming snow capped mountains which seemed to lay directly in our path and while I’d had enough rest to relish the challenge I wondered just how tough the combination of cold and climbing would be.
It’s now 9pm, the evening before we leave Zurich, and Ferdinand’s curled up on my lap as I attempt to type with paw-restrained arms.
Our bellies are full of warm gooey cheese thanks to some traditional fondue courtesy of Pius (our dinner was literally an enormous basket of bread dipped in cheese) and our minds are already on tomorrow.
We plan to strike south for the town of Brunnen in the morning and take a tour of the famous Victorinox Swiss Knife Valley visitors centre before heading west the following day to the gorgeous lakeside town of Lucerne. From there the going will get tough as we peddle almost exclusively uphill towards the 19th century resort town of Grindelwald, which lies just near three of Switzerland’s most famous peaks: Eiger, Monch and Jungrau.
From there we plan to strike back to the Alpine Panorama Route (a “challenging” long distance cycle) before dropping off at Bern (the capital), Fribourg, Broc (and its chocolate factory), Montreaux and then Geneva.