Switzerland

Switzerland

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Bonjour! No, Bonjourno! No wait… I mean… Gutten tag!

Switzerland, I’ve decided, is the most confused country in all of Europe. It has four official languages and many more dialects, it has never directly been involved in any armed conflict but its countrymen are required to perform military service until the age of 50, and, upon making any minute decision, the country’s politicians call for a referendum. In fact it may be this mindset of never quite knowing themselves that also makes them the cleanest and most well-mannered people on the continent.

It was our first border crossing since we came to the Netherlands but the boxes that were supposed to house squat security guards were empty and the gates open so we just rolled right on through. Switzerland is not part of the EU or the Schengen region for which we have a visa of three months. Would the countdown of days left on our visa stop while we visited this strange mountainous country or would we have to pedal furiously to avoid being fined? Everyone we talked to had a different opinion on the subject.

Geneva was cold and wet when we arrived, knocking on the door of Claude Marthaler’s  apartment. Claude is a legend in the world of cycle touring. He has completed several trips over a span of 15 years and written books about his experiences, most notably a seven-year world stint with his bike who he fondly refers to “Yak.” Unfortunately his books have not been translated into English yet. We asked Claude question after question while we drank tea and ate crepes until almost two o’clock in the morning. He confirmed that no, we would not be able to visit Armenia if we wanted to see Turkey and that yes, a Turkmenistan visa was probably more trouble than it was worth. His small apartment was full of bicycle memorabilia including wire sculptures and a bicycle toilet roll holder, books (his own and others) and maps, and we slept in the kitchen with the smell of the crepes still in the air.

Luckily, the next day’s ride was flat because so were we. Upon inspecting our bike as we prepared to leave Claude pointed out that our rear bearings were broken, both sets of brake pads needed replacing, our front cog set was on the way out and our chains were stretched. He helped us fix the brake pads before we could damage our rims as well and waved us goodbye.My head felt foggy with all the information Claude had imparted. It suddenly occurred to me the magnitude of the task we were undertaking: how many countries we were crossing, how many visas we had to organise and how many nights I would have no idea where I was going to sleep.  The last concern stuck out in my mind as we circled Lusanne that afternoon looking for place to put up our tent. We inquired at a camp ground near the lake to find the going rate was 35 francs. 35 FRANCS! They couldn’t be serious… just to put up a two person tent on a wet patch of grass and then we had to buy shower and internet tokens as well??!!?? We started looking around for somewhere quiet to set up at dusk (never an easy feat in a city the size of Lusanne) when a young curly haired man asked us in French “Vous-allez ou comme ca?”

The question of “where are you going like that” (I assume they mean on a ridiculous looking tandem bike) never gets a straight forward answer from us. Do they mean today or in general over the course of say, two years? I tend to pick the latter for dramatic effect.
“Australie” I said in reply.
The young man stopped walking and gave me an incredulous look before he began speaking in the quickest French I’ve ever encountered. It was rapid fire question time. He and his two friends wanted to know everything, so I told them, including that we would be putting our tent up somewhere illegally in about an hour’s time. His friend piped up at this point and told us that he had an apartment just around the corner, would we like to sleep there and eat dinner with them? Ash,  who had been preoccupied by wiggling my pedals around to inspect the broken bearings and had missed this entire exchange as it had been in French and, was very surprised when I told him to get up, we were going to follow these people. We were, and still are taken aback by this sort of kindness that seems to happen to us if we stand still for too long in one spot with our bicycle.

We left Lusanne the next morning with the intention of finding a bicycle shop in Vevey about 30 km down the road that could fix Will’s bearings. Unfortunately it was Easter so everything was shut. I had no reason to know the days of the week anymore let alone if it was the anniversary of Christ rising from the dead, but still, it meant that we would stay in Vevey, illegally camped besides the lake for another day while we waited for the shops to open and work to recommence. The issue of the bearings we had decided was so crucial that it could not wait until we were over the mountains into a cheaper country.  The rest of our sizable list of repairs would have to wait.

Considerably poorer than when we came to Vevey, we climbed up a range of mountains to leave the lake and headed towards Gruyere. The Swiss have developed a range of national cycle routes which are incredibly scenic and well signed. We had decided to follow route nine for a time until we either developed a better plan or simply arrived in Austria. I had likened these national cycle routes to the Eurovelo routes in my head. The Eurovelo routes never include any roads with gradients of more than six per cent and the roads are wide enough to accommodate two cyclists riding side by side. Basically I thought the Swiss national routes would be mainly flat, or at have gentle slopes to allow retiree type cycle tourers to pedal along with ease. Boy was I wrong. That first hill out of Vevey had us off the bike and pushing at its last few hairpin turns before the hill crested.

Gruyere was a town that didn’t really seem to exist. It sat on a hill entirely on its own and had only one cobblestoned street running though the middle. All the buildings had adorable windowsills filled with blooming flowers and wooden planks with cursive inscriptions swung from the lampposts and doors of shops. The region is famous for a very hard cheese and a museum devoted entirely to the 80s science fiction horror film, “Alien”.

We stayed with a family night in Albeuve and ate fondue before heading off in the rain for Interlaken. I was beginning to wonder what happened to all that beautiful hot sunny weather we had had along the French west coast. The temperatures were back down below five degrees and the rain was relentless. With dampened spirits we found a campsite at Interlaken and grudgingly paid the patron the 25 Franc per night fee just for the pleasure of breathing life back into our frozen extremities with a hot shower.

As the name suggests, Interlaken is a town sandwiched between two lakes surrounded by the Swiss Alps. When the rain stopped suddenly the next morning, Ashley hitchhiked up a nearby mountain with his paraglider and had scarcely landed back down near the lake before the downpour started again. It wasn’t much but it was going to have to do, because the forecast said the rain wasn’t stopping any time soon.

We continued to trace the route nine through Luzern and Rapperswil. We made a point of using the Warm Showers website to line up accommodation in advance so that we wouldn’t have to keep sleeping in our very wet tent (it was impossible to get the thing dry!). However, the most depressing thing about the rain was that it hid Switzerland’s beauty. We climbed the Brünigpass pass and at 1008 metres were rewarded with nothing but a depressing grey mist and a chilly wind. I don’t know about you, but the only reason I climb a mountain is to see the view from the top. I could only hope the weather would improve before we crossed into Austria and tackled some even bigger mountains.

Switzerland

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