To the section for Switzerland of the Trento Bike Pages.

Look, Ma! No Brakes!

A Tour of the Berner Oberland

By L. T. Reissner, 14 May 1998 08:44:29 -0500
See also How to make sure everything works: A practical guide for North Americans by the same Author
It is a general rule of cycling that all hills basically just go up. Once you have gone to all the trouble of climbing a b-I-g hill on your bicycle, however, you should enjoy the luxury of the wind blasting past and a downhill run unimpeded by the need for brakes. But in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland, on some downhill rides it is hard to determine whether the source of all that screaming is the brakes or you.

Located a very short distance from Bern, Switzerland's capital, the Bernese Oberland boasts beautiful lakes, picturesque villages and, of course, the magnificent Swiss Alps. Here are the Big Three, all stunning jagged granite peaks--the Eiger, the Jungfrau and the Mönch. This being Switzerland, you can ride a comfortable train to the top of the Jungfrau and enjoy kaffee und kuchen without using ropes and pitons.

One of the great undiscovered pleasures of European travel is bicycle touring in Switzerland. The scenery is glorious, the roads perfectly-kept and superbly marked. The country is small enough to cover a lot of ground in a short time and there are excellent maps available. The trip can be a strenuous climb through bare mountains or a relaxing roll through alpine meadows. And everything is so well-organized that you do not really need to go to the expense of a group tour to enjoy a bike trip.

Acting on the advice of a railway brochure "Rent a Bike," we elected to go for big hills and great scenery. A short train ride from Bern took us through Thun and alongside the Thunersee, a beautiful lake ringed with snow-capped mountains. At Spiez, the train turned south and uphill, towards Brig. We got off at the attractive town of Frutigen with our bicycles and looked around for a while before grabbing a Postbus.

Frutigen had been around for a while since the church was originally built in 1421. One of the most charming aspects of the town, along with the flowers so characteristic of Switzerland, was the use of beautiful wrought-iron signs over the shops. There was a wonderful pair of glasses for an optician, some scissors at the hairstylist's, a hammer and pliers for the hardware store. We had never seen such elaborate metalworks, clearly the design of one person, in a small town before.

Frutigen also had an airport, or, more accurately, a substantial runway. There was no sign of a terminal building or other related services. It did not appear to be one of those secret mountain Swiss Air Force bases, particularly since it was within the town boundaries. Perhaps it was a case of "Well, we have enough money for a runway or a terminal, but not both."

The Postbus awaited at the railway station. Smaller Swiss towns in the mountains are served by these buses, which are an extension of the train service using the same tickets, on a regular basis. At the back of our modern bus was a rack with hooks for bicycles. It was just a matter of hanging the bikes by the front wheel and then sitting back in comfort as we made the definitely uphill drive to Adelboden, about 30 kms away from Frutigen.

As we continued climbing past little towns on a narrow and busily- travelled road, we became apprehensive about cycling back downhill. The traffic would be enough of a problem, but then came several long and extremely dark tunnels. Non-cyclists do not realize how unattractive it is to bicycle with insufficient light through a black, narrow tunnel with water dripping everywhere and cars rapidly approaching from behind. However, the Swiss, in their efficient way, have made provision for bicycles by routing them along a different, and safer, path.

The bus continued to grind its way up, up and up. The scenery changed from rolling hills to the narrow Engstligen valley, with lush green pine forests leading to grey mountains capped with snow all year. One final turn and we reached our cycling jump-off point, Adelboden.

Adelboden was everything you expect a Swiss resort town to be. It was filled with gorgeous wooden chalets and restaurants with terraces and umbrellas and more flowers. At nearly 1400 meters above sea level, the air was sparkling clean and the views down the valley looked like they were from a chocolate box. Behind the village loomed the mountains, with their great grey ridges and ancient glaciers.

Everyone in Adelboden was in a holiday mood and the whole place was buzzing. It turned out that we were there on the day of a half-marathon race, and Adelboden marked the finish. Hundreds of runners had made the trip from Frutigen uphill on narrow mountain paths, the same paths we were about to ride downhill. No question as to who would have the easier time!

In spite of its freshly-scrubbed, resort appearance, Adelboden did boast some cultural treasures. The church was 550 years old and contained a modern stained-glass window by Augusto Giacometti.

We rode around Adelboden, taking in the sights. There was a huge public swimming pool, with a panoramic view, and cable cars to take you even higher up, to Silleren or Hahnenmoos, about 9 kms away and 600 meters higher. It is possible to take bicycles on some cable cars and ride back downhill, but it would probably be best to use mountain bikes for this.

With the last runners staggering in to the town square, we began our downhill run to Frutigen. Signposts included the familiar red arrows known to every cyclist in Switzerland. Our route was "the Vogellisi Panorama" and they weren't joking about the panorama part. Our progress was continually impeded by the need to stop and take another photograph of the breathtaking scenery. Soon we discovered a breathtaking upward climb. Trudging uphills is normally a dismal experience for cyclists, but with scenery like this, it was a pleasure to linger a little longer.

The road was about the width of one-and-a-half cars and was not just a bikepath. It was actually used by cars in both directions, necessitating some reversing into driveways. Cyclists should take care because there are many, many curves in the road.

Once past the big hill and having drunk our fill of mineral water and views of Adelboden, we discovered something else. Painted on the road was a picture of a bicycle with the words "Ride Carefully" in German. We quickly learned that every time one of these signs appeared, we were about to be treated to a roller-coast downhill ride, with plenty of hard curves. The road sent us screaming down over little bridges and cold, glacier-fed streams, around tight bends and through cool, pine-scented forests.

Every time we caught our breath, the road dropped out from under us again. Our exhilaration was tempered somewhat by the smell of our scorching brakepads and the knowledge that there could be a car coming uphill just around that sharp corner. The wheel rims became almost too hot to touch from the friction of the brakes and our wrists became numb with the exertion of holding down the brake calipers.

Down, and down and down we went, with the valley falling away straight down from the left edge of the road, no barrier obstructing the view. On the right were more forests and ski chalets and little farms offering homemade cheese. Finally, the road became so steep we could not hold back the bicycles anymore and for the first time ever we had to walk downhill while trying to keep the bicycles away from their determined tryst with the force of gravity.

The path continued for nearly 30 kms, almost all downhill. We met almost no others, just a few hikers, several motorists and a determined mountain biker going uphill past us. How the marathoners could run to Adelboden on this route was a complete mystery. Or too awful to contemplate...

Riding our bikes once again, we quickly reached Frutigen. While filling up our water bottles at a flower-encircled public fountain, we learned from another cyclist that rather than riding alongside the main route into Spiez, a busy highway, we would have a more enjoyable trip by going around the airport and going through the towns of Reichenbach and Wimmis. He said that there would be one short uphill climb and that while we would have a headwind, it would be bearable. Other cyclists, especially locals, are always a valuable source of information when bicycle touring since the best roads for biking are not heavily-travelled.

Sure enough, our first stretch past the airport was uphill, but compared to the mountains around Adelboden, it was very easy. Then downhill we went again, through gentle green meadows. Reichenbach quickly appeared, with its ancient church tower and long row of 18th century wooden houses. There was a small but elegant hotel, the Gasthof Bären, which dated back to 1542 but looked as if it had always been impeccably maintained.

The road went downhill faster now. We crossed under the highway, passing one of Switzerland's famous funicular railways and then a slight uphill gave us another superb view of the countryside. The terrain became quite flat and we sped past summer cottages and more small farms until the road forked, left to Wimmis and right to Spiez.

Spiez and its railroad station was our destination. The station was easily found and had its own panoramic view. It overlooked a steep hill leading down to the ancient town, the harbour and the Thunersee beyond. Sailboats were everywhere on the sparkling blue lake and the grey mountains once again provided a dramatic backdrop.

Leaving the bikes in the rack in front of the station, we walked downhill, past the municipal swimming pool and the marina, and strolled past the shops and outdoor restaurants along the lake promenade. Looking down on us was the Schloss, the brooding medieval castle whose keep dated back to the 10th Century and which looked a bit incongruous in the cheerful sunlit lakeside setting. The church was endowed by King Rudolf II of Burgundy at the turn of the millennium. More to our liking was the lakeside restaurant, where the successful conclusion of our great downhill excursion was celebrated in fruity, clean (and well-deserved) Swiss wine.