To most people, Switzerland mean mountains, watches, cheese and banks. We seldom speak of the nation that produced pro riders Toni Rominger and Alex Zülle as a prime cycling destination, but it is a well-kept secret that Switzerland offers a great alternative to those other two-wheeler Nirvanas, France and Italy. If your time is limited, the legendary efficiency of the Swiss will make organizing your trip painless and rewarding. And with French-, German-, Italian- and Romansch-speaking sections, it's like getting four countries for the price of one.
First the drawbacks. The mighty Swiss franc, a Schwarzenegger among currencies, means that Switzerland is not cheap. However, it is possible to stay at modest but clean hotels or in private homes (look for "Zimmerfrei" signs) for less than you would pay in most places in Canada. Check out some budget travel guides beforehand and just remember that the Swiss value quality too and expect something for their money. Bad hotels and bad restaurants are probably against the law.
Secondly, Switzerland has a lot of geography in a very small area. Most of this geography goes uphill. However, a little planning will let you arrange routes that are mainly downhill, but if you like climbing, Switzerland will thrill you. Triple chainrings are useful but you can get by without them. All this crumpled-up landscape also results in varied and unpredictable micro- climates and a seemingly-regular wind out of the northwest.
These minor challenges are more than offset by breathtaking scenery, picturesque and peaceful towns and villages, excellent food combining regional specialities with the exotic of foreign lands, polite and helpful inhabitants who are also courteous drivers, superb roads and what is certainly the absolutely, totally, most best railway system in the world. This iron horse without parallel will play a key role in your visit.
A good way to approach Switzerland is through a serious of day trips, utilizing the train to get to a good jump-off point and your own steam for the rest of the trip. For example, we recently had a free afternoon while in Geneva, at the extreme southwest of Switzerland. A brochure at the railway station, "Rent A Bike," suggested many fascinating itineraries. As lovers of good cheese, we elected to visit the Gruyères region, just northeast of Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Léman).
After a scenic trainride along the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland's largest lake, we arrived at our transfer point, the resort town of Montreux, world-famous for its annual jazz festival. As the train quietly pulled into station--all Swiss trains are electric--we saw the enormous Montreux-Palace, a grand hotel built in 1904 and typical of the great 19th and early 20th Century luxury piles found throughout the country. In Montreux, we transferred to the narrow-gauge M.O.B. (Montreux-Oberland Bahn) line for the very steep climb up from the lake. Even Marco Pantani would think twice about biking up this hill. After half an hour of switchbacks, we finally saw Montreux disappear and we then proceeded past small lakes, orderly villages and uniformly green fields and forests to our jump-off point, Château-d'&Oelig;x.
Although it was the height of summer, it was cool when we stepped off the train at the flower-bedecked station. Château-d'&Oelig;x is nearly 1000 metres above sea level and there was snow on the nearby peaks. This was already a new sensation for flatland cyclists but the clean air invigorates and, taking our bicycles from the baggage car, we began our adventure in earnest.
Riding out of the station, we headed downhill, stopping to photograph the stone church with its 15th Century tower on the hill to the right. Just before reaching the main route, we passed "Le Chalet," a combination store-restaurant where you can see the famous Gruyère cheese being made every afternoon, Tuesday to Sunday. No visit to Switzerland is complete without sampling a cheese fondue, whose authentic recipe calls for a combination of half Gruyère and half Emmenthal (the one with the holes in it) cheeses.
A short ride on the main road past Les Moulins led us to a sign showing a bicycle and pointing left. These red signs are common in Switzerland and will direct you to scenic roads less-travelled by cars. We spun down a well-kept rural road, heading rapidly downhill, past manicured farms, where the barns and farmhouses are built as a single unit, and the only sound was the wind and the gentle clanking of cowbells in the air. We said "Bonjour" to the walkers we passed, because it is that kind of civilized place. They all responded in kind and we approached Lessoc, the next town.
Lessoc had beautiful houses, with painted facades picturing Alpine life. In the center of the village was a fountain with an onion dome, dating to 1796. We followed the signs from Lessoc to Grandvillard and then Estavannes. These were just typical villages of the Gruyères region, with nothing out of the ordinary but their charm.
The road continued downhill, faster now, as we passed through gently descending valley with high ridges on either side. It was pouring rain on one side of the valley, while the other basked in cloudless sunshine. To our left, a fortress was gradually revealed on a hilltop. It was made of the sober gray stone and red tile roofs typical in common in the area, but with a round tower and dormer windows high above our road. The chateau was impressive, and monumental in this valley of little farms. The fortress marked the edge of Gruyères itself, the same place that gives its name to the region. A left turn and a steep ride and we were in the narrow streets of the town.
A market town, Gruyères developed in the 13th Century and has maintained its medieval appearance and most of its town wall. It has a fine group of houses dating from the 15th-17th Centuries, and even one dating to the 14th Century that belonged to a court jester of the Counts of Gruyère. The Counts once owned the whole area but should have concentrated more on their cheese-making, since Count Michael had to sell out in 1554 to cover bad debts.
Having travelled a mere but delightful 30 kilometres from Château- d'&Oelig;x, we arrived in Bulle, the capital of Gruyères and where settlement dated back to the Romans. Those failed Big Cheeses, the Counts, lost this one too in the 1500s.
We found that an afternoon in the clear Alpine air builds an appetite. There were plenty of small cafes where cyclists can enjoy an early dinner before heading to the train station and the excellent connections that will take you on to Geneva through Palézieux and Lausanne. Just before Lausanne, the train came out of a tunnel and spread before us in a great panorama were the vineyards leading down the steep hills to the shores of Lake Geneva, with the snow-covered mountains beyond glinting in the sun.
The trip from Geneva to Château-d'&Oelig;x and back took seven hours and cost us less than $70 each for food, bikes and railfare. If you go, you will enjoy fresh alpine air, pleasant riding and Heidi-country scenery you will never forget. While many ride the wine routes of France, you will be able to brag about your visit to Cheeseland. And there are still those routes in Emmenthal and Appenzell...
It is not otherwise easy to rent bikes. We did obtain some ancient but honorable 12-speed French bikes (cottered cranks and all) at Véloloc on rue Montbillard directly behind the station in Geneva for the princely sum of $6 per day, with a small refundable deposit. Véloloc is open seven days a week, although we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the hours.
Even if you are not using your own bike, bring equipment. Pumps, repair kits, gloves, helmets and maps are available, but cost double what you pay in North America for them. Don't even think about buying a bicycle in Switzerland--double again, with a limited selection of road bikes. Don't forget warmer clothes for those higher altitudes.
The Swiss love maps and will sell you the most detailed cycling maps ever made. Unfolded, they are the size of a tablecloth. Michelin regional maps of Switzerland (1:200,000) are really good enough and available widely in the U.S. and Canada. We used Map 217 for the Gruyères trip, along with the state railway brochure "Rent a Bike," which has excellent trip suggestions. The Michelin Green Guide to Switzerland is worthwhile looking through before you go.
The Swiss National Tourist Office is a goldmine and there is one in Toronto and New York. Along with best travel literature in the world, they have an excellent series of five booklets in the "Cycling Holidays" series, including itineraries for the Pre-Alps, the Jura Region, and along the Rhone. Each trip is broken into detailed daily segments, complete with altitude profiles. If you get discouraged along the way, it is a simple matter to just hop on a train. A ticket for a bicycle will cost you about $6, no matter where you go in the country.