A sweet slice of Swiss hospitality on the slow road west

DSC_3401*TWANG*! It’s the sound every cyclist dreads. But when your peddling through Switzerland on a back breaking budget it’s not just the sound you dread, but the one that makes you clench you fist, shout at the clouds and ask “why the bloody hell did it have to be here?”

DSC_3715We were pushing our way through rolling hills from Interlaken to Thun when the loud twang of a snapping spoke forced Scott to weave off the road and inspect the damage.

The good news was the nearest town (and bike shop) was four kilometres away but as for the bad news? Well post card perfect Switzerland costs at least three times more than its surrounding countries making it the worst place in the world for anything to go wrong.

Eventually a nice looking bike shop came into view and the owner strolled out to inspect the damage.

“How much?” Scott asked.

“Well it’s just labour so about 60 Franks,” he said.

We agreed to the price but cringed inside. It equalled about 70 Australian dollars and was roughly five times more than what we’d paid for the same problem in Berlin just four weeks earlier.

Half an hour later the owner came out with the fixed wheel and started chatting to us about our trip.

We explained our amateur attempt to cycle around the world and told him about the countries we’d visited so far.

Ten minutes later I pulled out my wallet to pay but he said: “no no it’s on the house.”

DSC_3708We tried arguing but the man, Michael Luthi – of Vision Bike in Hunibach – insisted, explaining that he had a son who was also travelling the world.

We peddled out of the tiny Swiss hamlet with huge grins on our faces but truth be told we shouldn’t have been surprised. This wealthy nation was filled with people just as rich of heart and for the last two weeks we’d been bowled over at everything from small to larger acts of kindness.

Warmshowers hosts had taken us in at a moment’s notice (providing a comfortable bed and warm meal) and we’d had local after local approach us in a moment of wild map waving to see if we needed help.

Add that to the impossibly beautiful mountain panoramas or lakes so clear you could see the pebbles at the bottom and you’ve got yourself a country we’d be downright devastated to leave.

DSC_3435The real Switzerland rose up in great mountainous glory when we peddled out of Zurich a week earlier, striking south for Schwyz to visit the Victorinox factory (home to the Swiss Army Knife).

The bike route system (veloland.ch) almost puts Holland to shame in its efficiency and we followed the little red sign posts through a fairly flat valley, passing tiny towns and sweeping farmlands.

DSC_3448At 3pm we’d peddled into Zug and had our considerably short breaths taken away.

The town was perched on a huge blue lake and nestled between snowcapped mountains and for an hour we just stared at the vista until the sun slowly set and a kaleidoscope of colours turned a striking vista into a jaw dropping water colour.

The only problem was it was still 30 kilometres to Schywz and with the sun all but gone we’d face it in the dark.

At 6.30pm we rolled into the town sweating worse than two frozen pigs and beelined straight for a backpackers. It was a little pricey (as to be expected) but we were cold and shagged while desperately craving food, a shower and bed.

“Geez you look all rugged up,” the owner said.

“Yes well we’re cycling – and have you been outside lately?” I asked in maybe a slightly hysterical voice.

DSC_3478The Victorinox factory was a five kilometre roll downhill from the backpackers and the following morning we set off with Scott looking like a kid at Christmas.

We were off to buy his belated 30th birthday present and he all but flew down the hill and in the store door, shoving rich Asian tourists out of the way to attack their glorious knife wall (just kidding).

We emerged an hour later, 150 Franks poorer, but with a Swiss knife that looked more like a Leatherman and one seriously happy Scott.

It was just after lunch and we realised the 50km we’d hoped to peddle uphill to Luzern would be a stretch and with warmshowers hosts Roger and Julia waiting we thought the situation called for some creativity.

So we accidentally found ourselves lining up for a lake boat about 45 minutes later which would drop us on Luzern’s doorstep.

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Casper from Denmark

While we were waiting a loaded up tourer rolled into the port, introducing himself as Casper from Denmark. The bright-eyed traveller had peddled south from his home country(with his goal to make it to Australia) and within minutes it felt like we’d made a friend. He was happy go lucky and full of life, giving us a big parting hug before peddling off to tackle some hectic passes on the route south to Italy.

Roger and Julia lived just a few hundred metres from the ferry and mere minutes after disembarking we were welcomed into the home of this prolific cycling couple.

Two weeks earlier the pair had peddled home from a 22 month adventure through South America, south east Asia, China and Central Asia and a year before that they’d cycled Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Within seconds we felt at home and to top it off they cooked us a traditional Swiss dinner (creamy macaroni and potatoes – with lots of cheese of course).

We’d planned to stay just a night but we decided to extend it, giving us a chance to explore Luzern and get to know Julia and Roger a little better.

We hooked into Raclette (another cheese dish) that night before planning the following few days of cycling.

The Luzern couple had not just dished up heaps of hospitality but given us an insight into what it means to be Swiss and we quickly realised that this small country packed a punch in tradition, culinary feats and even fashion.

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The awesome Roger and Julia

They rivalled the French when it came to style (poorly groomed natives are a minority) and even Australians when it came to wealth.

Minimum wages here are well above average compared to neighbouring countries and the cherry on the Swiss cake is the cheese and Chocolate. These guys consume cheese like its going out of fashion (I still can’t work out how they haven’t topped America in the obesity stakes) heaping great chunks onto almost every dish. You can’t blame them though, with the country boasting the likes of Emmental (that delicious holey variety we all love) and even the fancy Gruyeres. They’re also responsible for Lindt chocolate (the world says thank you) and other varieties such as Cailler.

Artery clogging meals aside the end of our Luzern stay meant the start of our biggest cycling challenge yet and the following morning we peddled slowly out of the city to face our first slice of the Swiss Alps.

DSC_3604The Brunigpass lay between us and Interlaken (about 75km away) meaning we’d be forced to climb just over 1000 metres to get there.

Rolling hills tested our mettle for the first 20km but any hopes of having flat terrain until the pass itself were quickly shattered there after.

The road just seemed to go up and up into the snowy mountains and before Brunig had even reared its ugly head we were puffing up climb after climb.

Then Brunig hit.

The pass itself served up 20km of uphill cycling with grades of sometimes eight percent and within minutes my chest and legs were burning.

We were forced to stop almost every kilometre to give our poor shattered legs a break and even though the snow was getting closer I was almost tempted to strip off layers as I used every ounce of my being to force bloated Hercules up the bloody mountain.

The worst part? Brunigpass isn’t even high in Swiss standards (it’s considered the baby of all passes) but on a loaded touring bike it might as well be Everest.

DSC_3671Two hours later we reached the top and we spent all of two minutes savouring the experience before we layered up for the chilly descent.

Cold beyond anything I’d imagined pierced my skin as we hurtled down the mountain and just 20 minutes later we rolled into a lakeside town with numb – well – everything.

I found a public loo and sprinted inside (they’re all heated in Switzerland) and savoured the warmth for a good 10 minutes while encouraging my extremities to come back to life.

DSC_3684At 7pm we rolled wearily into the glitzy adventure town of Interlaken and dredged up the cheapest accommodation we could find courtesy of McDonald’s free wifi. There were campsites close by but we both felt seriously fragile and cold and so peddled to the hobbit-sized room promising ourselves we’d camp the following night before sinking into a deep sleep.

Interlaken is Switzerland’s answer to Queenstown and as the name suggests, it’s nestled between two crystal clear lakes and encased by jagged snow-topped mountains.

We’d arrived on Saturday which meant the streets were filled with hordes of tourists the following morning (but very few locals) because Sunday means shut down in Europe and you’re hard pressed to find anything but a few cafes open.

DSC_3691After some exploring we waddled over to a campsite which charged us 30 Franks (even though it was mostly empty and we were the only ones stupid enough to be in a tent). The plan was to hit the mountains the following day (with unloaded bikes) and peddle to the highest point before forking out for a cable car to a viewing platform at 3,000 metres.

DSC_3694It was expensive but we figured cycling to that point would cut down bus and train fares meaning a rare cable car treat would almost be feasible.

The sun was out in a rare fit of warmth when we begin the 20km uphill cycle and we all but flew on light bikes through stunning resort style hamlets.

A couple of hours later we were a stone’s throw from the cable car station and decided to rustle around for some information (just about everything was closed) and find out exactly where to go.

A train worker listened patiently to our request and then dropped the bomb shell on us.

“The cable car isn’t running – not until mid December,” he said.

We’d peddled 20km uphill for nothing and even the nearby waterfall attraction was closed off to the public.

Later that night tiny snow flakes whizzed through the air as we sat on a cold bench cooking up two minute noodles.

DSC_3711The following morning we set off for the town of Thun, which was an extremely lazy 20km away along a picturesque lake. We’d again arranged to stay with a warmshowers host – Nathalie and her awesome family – and so planned to site see as we lazily peddled the pathetically short distance to their house. We were 15km away when Scott’s spoke snapped (it was the second time in just a month) and so historic and impressive Thun didn’t come into view until 3.30pm. There’s an enormous castle that overlooks the town and we wandered around the cobble stoned streets up to the top before taking in the sparkling Christmas decorations.

Nathalie lived in a gorgeous old Swiss home and we were immediately welcomed in to the family, which included her husband Sebastion and their two girls Lucy and Pauline.

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Pauline and Nathalie at their gorgeous Thun home

They were funny, kind and inspiring as they shared stories from their own lives (growing up in the French part of Switzerland) and living for a year in Japan amidst a myriad of other travels.

We peddled out of Thun at 11am and onto the farmland trails to the country’s capital Bern, just 40km away.

Again we’d struck gold with Warmshowers but this time it was with the extremely awesome couple Cynthia and Coco. Cynthia was a brass band playing vet who worked in Zurich and Coco was a Peruvian raft guide who’d met his wife back in his South American homeland some 10 years earlier.

They were the kind of couple who you feel as though you’ve known for years and suddenly two nights with them just didn’t seem enough.

We had a day to explore Bern and so set off early (at 10.30am…whoops) to stroll along the river and check out the laid back capital.

A couple of crazy locals were doing laps in the pristine river (which was a mere nine degrees) and we goggled at that before marvelling at the enormous government house building set into a cliff.

It wasn’t until we were mere steps from the city centre that a tram trundled past to reveal Bern in all its glory.

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The Bern light show

A South American busker played traditional tunes beneath an Italian restaurant that sat next to a French brasserie, underneath a colourful motley of ancient and new buildings. Golden Christmas markets stretched out to the “old town” where an enormous Swiss clock goes cuckoo every hour and just beyond that a townhouse played homage to Albert Einsteen, who developed his theory of relativity within its very walls.

Students walked next to Octogenarians, next to free spirited hippies, next to glamorous socialites and somehow it created the perfect blend for a vibrant capital.

Later that day Cynthia led us up a million stairs (well at least it felt like it) to the top of the city’s “munster” (cathedral) before buying us a cup of hot wine (Gluwein). At 8.30pm we dragged ourselves out of their warm apartment to head back into the city for the annual light show, a seriously epic spectacular that takes place on the government house building.

It wasn’t until midday that we managed to roll out of the capital the following day to cycle just 40km to Fribourg (where the French territory starts). It was there we would catch up with fellow bike tourers Cindy and Nicholas (who we met four months ago in Ireland) for a little reunion before peddling onto Geneva.

Tops of three degrees meant it was nothing short of bloody miserable cycling as we battled steadily uphill in four layers of clothing and some pitiful gloves with a brief stop in a kebab shop allowing us to thaw out before we battled on.

DSC_3786Nicholas and his charming father greeted us at the doorstep of their soaring home in the old French part of the city and ushered us up to our very own apartment (with an ensuite and a kitchenette) before plying us with tea, wine, bread and meats.

I was even given prime seating position on the old heater and within minutes my backside had moved from numbness to tingling.

We were staying just two nights but could have easily stayed a month with this seriously awesome couple who had as laughing and marvelling at their own series of epic adventures.

DSC_3792Some mountain site seeing, a huge vat of fondue and some meringues and double cream later we’re now preparing to push our wobbly bellies on for the last Swiss leg, erm, via a chocolate factory.

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