OUR SWISS BICYCLING MISSION.
TOURING SWITZERLAND BY BIKE, TRAIN, BUS and BOAT.
We flew from Thessaloniki to Zurich in early April. Our destination was a small village north west of Zurich where our bike-riding friends, Rolf and Erika, live. Rolf offered to fit us out with a couple of bikes, however we opted to buy two foldup bikes and get into what is called ‘bike-hitching’ which involves pedalling the interesting sections of a journey and when the scenery gets boring, such as through industrial areas or the going gets too tough, take public transport or hitch.
The decision to ride bikes and camp around Switzerland was not an overnight whim. It had been in the planning for at least nine months. Originally we thought we would buy bikes in Greece, tour the islands and then move north to Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and on to Zurich. Where the cycling was beyond our capabilities we would travel with our bikes on trains and buses but when it came to getting information as to whether some bus companies would actually carry our bikes it became evident that it was not as easy as first thought. Replies to emails, such as ‘the bike will be taken at the drivers discretion’, ‘they can be taken if there is room’, ’the bikes must be in a cardboard box’, ‘there may or may not be a carriage on the train for bikes’, made the prospect of doing the journey the way we wanted to an almost impossibility. Of course if we were twenty years younger we would have ridden all the way and not needed to use public transport, but we are not so young so we opted to fly from Greece to Switzerland, buy bikes there and head off touring Switzerland and neighbouring countries, getting on and off trains, buses and boats as the whim grabbed us.
We purchased our bikes from Gubi’s Bikeshop, a small operator, not far from where we were staying. Alessandro was rather chuffed that we decided to buy from him and told us we were the first Australians he had sold bikes to. Go to gubis-bikeshop.ch if you decide to hit the road and go ‘bike-hitching’ from Switzerland.
Foldup bikes have many advantages. When folded they are compact and the ones we have bought come with a soft carry bag, which means they go free on trains, buses and boats in Europe if they are in their bags.
The bikes we bought are Tern Link D7i models and we have fitted them with small panniers quite capable of carrying all our needs. The bike specifications are: weight 14.5kg, 20” diameter wheels, 7 speed hub gears. I guess we are carrying about 12kg of gear each, which totals 26.5kg, very manageable indeed.
Foldup bikes have been around for around seventy years but now because of improved manufacturing methods they have made a comeback. People who tour on ‘big’ bikes were critical of the new foldups when they re-emerged saying they were no good for serious touring. However their criticisms have proved unfounded as there are people on long distance journeys on these types of bikes. One couple is riding from Beijing to London and another couple from Cairo to South Africa and there are probably many more, cycling and hitching to many other exotic destinations. Just in case the reader decides to get into ‘bike-hitching” I have prepared a list of the gear that we have so you know what to get together if you decide to conquer the world on a foldup bike.
Bedding: Two sleeping bags (orange) with a silk liner both stuffed into dry-bags which are placed in a pannier; thermarest (self inflating mattress); our faithful Macpac tent (weight 4kg); lightweight fly.
Kitchen: Small gas canister stove (with one spare canister); two cooking pots; plastic bowls, mugs, combination plastic fork/spoon each, thin plastic chopping board; two 600ml water bottles.
Personal stuff: for me, two lightweight shirts, two pairs of lightweight pants, rain jacket, waterproof pants, three sets of undies, one polar fleece, one set of thermal underwear, two pairs of socks. Bev has a similar amount of clothing. An essential item when biking: a small plastic trowel for digging holes if you have to go to the loo in between towns and villages.
Writing/communication/photography and navigation technology: Macbook Air; iPad; mobile phone; three cameras; diary; map of Swiss cycle ways.
Drawing stuff for blog maps: two watercolour brushes, six pens, watercolour paint set and a small watercolour sketch pad.
Bike tools and spares: Two spare inner tubes, universal bike tool, small adjustable spanner, assortment of nuts and bolts; Wave Leatherman (a most essential tool); insulation tape, cable ties, chain oil, small can of WD40; short lengths of cord; tube of super glue (running repairs on glasses).
Our heartfelt thanks go to Rolf and Erika who helped us get set up for the forthcoming trip. While preparing for the Mission Rolf would arrive home from work every day with another little present for us, e.g. a small can of WD40, bottle of chain oil, locks, water bottle, a set of panniers, a packet of cable ties… the list goes on.
There was, however, a slight hiccup to our plans. The morning we left Thessaloniki we bought two bread rolls, one turkey and the other feta cheese. I ate the turkey one and Bev ate half the feta cheese one. We stashed Bev’s uneaten half thinking we could finish it later in the day. This we did at Dusseldorf airport whilst doing a plane change.
When on the road Bev and I rarely eat the same meal at a sitting, the reason being if one of the meals happens to be contaminated with some nasty bug we would both not be afflicted at the same time. Sharing the roll meant we broke one of our travelling golden rules. Two days after eating the leftover roll we succumbed and spent a week suffering. I was affected more so than Bev, she spent only one day in bed. Even though I was recuperating slowly our friend Erika thought it was not quickly enough so she insisted I see a doctor. A blood sample was taken and tested which confirmed Salmonella.
Salmonella is a bacterium that causes a common intestinal infection. It has long been advocated that in 1885, pioneering American veterinary scientist D.E.Salmon discovered the first strain but it was Theobald Smith, research assistant to Salmon, who found it but Salmon received the credit. The Salmonella bug can actually kill the elderly or those with a compromised immune system. Nasty. A short course of antibiotics fixed me so then we could proceed getting ready for the Swiss Mission biking/camping tour.
Rolf thought it a good idea to go for a test ride so we headed off into the countryside, much enthused. Our halfway destination was a farmhouse restaurant where we took refreshments. Our test run covered about 25km. Outbound it was sunny but homeward bound we ran into rain showers. Bev and I have never been in Europe in the spring or summer before. All our visits have been during winter so rain or no rain we wallowed in the relative warmth and green of the region.
SUNDAY 18TH MAY 2014
THE MISSION BEGINS.
DAY 1: Ride to Zurich. Boat to Rapperswil. Ride to Strandbad Stampf, Jona-Rapperswil.
25/30km in the saddle.
Departure day came around quickly enough. The preceding week had been one of rain squalls and storms (and salmonella) but finally the clouds ceased to hug the sun and we set off with blue sky overhead. Days like this are the sort of days the Swiss dream about when hemmed in by mist, fog and clouds.
Rolf and Erika escorted us to Zurich from where we caught a boat to the town of Rapperswil.
The first two thirds of the ride was through farmland and the last third through the busy streets of Zurich. We were glad we had Rolf as an escort as the traffic was rather formidable. For novices like us a lot of forward planning would have been needed to ride through Zurich on our own. Swiss car drivers are very courteous and there is no danger to the cyclist providing the traffic lights and rules are obeyed. It is a bit disconcerting though when the bike lane is jammed between two traffic lanes and the cars and trucks are zooming by on both sides.
The boat trip to Rapperswil took a leisurely two hours. Many houses lined the foreshore and I speculated about the estimated value of such properties. Average price per square metre to buy an apartment in Zurich is 15 000 CHF (A$18 000). The average size apartment would cost almost two million Australian dollars. In the CBD office space can cost up to $100 000 per square metre. I was unable to find out lakeside values but I reckon it would be a pretty penny.
A curious point to note is that in the boat we were travelling there were no inside seats other than in the restaurants. There were a few forward outside seats but they were occupied so Bev and I spent most of the trip standing inside to avoid the cold wind.
Arriving at Rapperswil, the waterfront and foreshore areas were jam-packed with daytrippers. Every man/woman and their dog were out promenading the boulevards, picnicking or swanning in the outdoor cafes. The mega mass meant initially we couldn’t ride but once away from the lakeside area we headed east in search of the Strandbad Stampf camping area at Jona.
The camping area was located on the lake edge and was deprived of any character whatsoever. It was Swiss perfect, not a thing out of place. The best word to describe it is sterile. The place was so clean and tidy that I imagined when the workers cut the grass they would give it a final trim using a pair of scissors. There was not a stone or a piece of wood anywhere that could be used to drive in a tent peg. I’m thinking I might have to buy a plastic hammer specifically for tent peg driving.
Approaching reception upon arrival we were told to have a look about and choose a campsite. We thought where a creek running along the camping area boundary would have been a good spot but we were told ‘not allowed’, the best place for us would be behind the ablution block (the white building on the right in the above photo).
Basically, the camping area was row on row of large tents which are rented for the season. If the weather is fine and it’s weekend or holiday time the campers come and stay. No cars were allowed in the campground, campers brought their gear in by trolley. This was not necessarily a negative, in fact it was rather refreshing not to see vehicles in the area. There was even a parking area for bicycles outside the fence. Ours were the only bikes within the camp.
Camping Stampf was not what we expected, however I accept that such places are important for those who might live in apartments and just need to get out into the environment, although an artificial one. Strandbad Stampf was a great place for kids. There were shallow waters along the lake foreshore, a huge slippery dip, no burrs, ants or other nasty crawlies. With kids entertained parents happily played ping-pong, ballgames or lay on the luxurious soft grass, socialising and picknicking. The locals seem to enjoy the sunny days so much I decided that every sunny day in Switzerland should be declared a public holiday!
Ride from Strandbad Stampf camp to Weesen camp. 35km
The beauty of travelling by bike for us is we never know where we are going to end up. This morning was an example. All we knew after leaving the camping area was we needed to buy food. It is not possible to carry a lot of food so we are buying on a daily basis. The closest supermarket and bakery was back in Jona. After stocking up we found a nook in the sun and indulged. It was one of those rare moments, not too hot nor cold, it was sheer bliss.
Everywhere across Switzerland there are watering points so at most times one needs to carry only one litre of water.
After Jona we headed east and rode the Velo 6 bike path. On our right was Lake Zurich and on the left a railway line. At one point we passed by an extensive wetland. Most of the water birds were ducks, divers and coots and although we didn’t get a sighting it sounded like there were reed warblers in the reeds.
Water flows from Lake Zurich into the Walensee via the Linth canal. We decided to ride the levee path, which turned out to be a strenuous exercise as the wind was coming in at almost head on. When the wind reached gale force proportions we walked, it was impossible to ride.
Finally we left the levee and passed through farming areas and villages along the narrow valley. It was certainly picturesque but hard to appreciate with the hot head wind holding us back.
Bev had an idea as to where the Gasi camping area near Weesen was located so using instinct as our guide we followed a track which turned into a cow pad track through a meadow of wildflowers. Eventually we hit a well-formed track and found the camping area administration. There were many walkers and cyclists supporting the brewery industry at the reception/café. The camping spot we were allocated was acceptable enough although it was not more than 150m from the railway line and motorway and thus a tad noisy. I estimated there was a train every four to five minutes zooming by. Train movements are quick but traffic on the motorway droned constantly.
The Gasi camp, like the Stampf camping area, did not cater for campers like us. There were no picnic tables, camp kitchen (the closest tap was 200m away) and the toilet block, although very clean, was 400m down a lakeside track. If it had rained we would have had to erect a fly between the trees. The reason I’m detailing these negatives is I hope the owners read this post and improve the facilities for the lightweight travellers such as us.
REST and RECREATION DAY AT GASI CAMP
Being novice bike tourers we needed a day off because we were suffering from tender bottoms and yesterday due to the strong head winds we felt a little weary. Also Bev had a bout of hayfever.
The day was put to good use. I drew the watercolour maps for this leg of the blog and wrote the previous day’s entry. It was intended to talk to the web but, unlike Greece, in Switzerland there are few cafes with wifi connection, particularly in small towns. The only way we can access the web is to cough up around $10 per day using the phone network.
With time on our hands we decided to do a ‘brew up’ (cook a serious feed). We rode to the village of Weesen and bought the makings for a stew. The ride along the lake edge was superb and the village quaint, however I’m not sure how long villages such as this one are going to remain cute as there is a house, apartment and factory building frenzy there like all over Switzerland. The ten vertical poles in the following photograph indicate the outline of a proposed building, the angled pieces at the top of the poles indicate the proposed roof angles. It is required by law that building outlines using poles be put in place so residents living nearby are fully aware of the proposed building’s magnitude.
Discussions with locals with regards the building frenzy in Switzerland reveals that they are concerned. All the people we spoke with do not think more houses, and factories especially, should be built. However I think there is very little hope of that happening as Switzerland is a highly industrialised country and its survival relies on constant progress.
Progress means power generation and distribution and I’m of the opinion that maybe the power generation and distribution authority is a mighty powerful body. I have come to this conclusion as power lines mar many of the beautiful landscape vistas.
Riding along the lake edge to Weesen to get supplies I came upon a curiosity, a WW2 bunker. During WW2 Switzerland remained a neutral country but being neutral meant nothing if the Nazi war machine had not been defeated. Hitler commented about Switzerland, ‘After we have won the war we will get that little porcupine’.
GASI CAMP TO TRIESEN CAMP
Awesome but strenuous day. Set off from Gasi Camp around 8.00am and followed Velo 9 along the southern shore of Lake Walensee. I think the bike path followed the first road through the gap as there were historical information markers, unfortunately all written in German, relating to when the route was first traversed back in the early 1800s. The old road is now reserved for cyclists and it passed through a series of tunnels, an amazing experience for us. Emerging from one tunnel we were confronted with a 25% uphill grade that was impossible to ride with or without a load. We had to dismount and push our steeds.
The remainder of the day was diverse, some road travelling, some narrow paths winding through the villages. Crossing the plains between Walenstadt and Sargans was the hardest going of all. Hard going because we were pushing into a 30 to 40kph head wind. I now realise that not only does one need a weather forecast relating to possible precipitation before setting off but wind strength and direction as well. The winds that was blowing is called the ‘foehn’ in Europe and it emanates from Africa. A couple of locals said ‘Sahara desert’ when pointing at the hazy sky. When the foehn winds arrive there is a rapid temperature rise. Whilst munching on lunch today we compared the day to that often experienced at home prior to rain in summer.
Of interest is that Swiss courts accept the blowing of the ‘foehn’ during the commission of a crime as mitigating evidence.
Authorities on the ‘foehn’, Jim Karnstedt and Don Strachan’s wrote: ‘These “notorious” desert and sea winds are linked to minor illnesses and malaise epidemics. Victims’ claims range from sleeplessness, irritability, tension, migraines, nausea, palpitations and hot flushes with sweating or shills to tremor, vertigo, swelling, breathing difficulty, and frequent intestinal movement. In addition, elderly persons are affected with depression, apathy, and fatigue.’
Finally we reached the outskirts of the town of Mels and when topping up our water bottles at a farm tap a local who could speak a few words of English suggest we go 400m further on and fill up with the ‘beste wasser’. He drove ahead of us slowly and took us to the beste wasser fountain. It was without doubt the best water we have had on the trip so far.
At this point Bev and I were feeling a bit worn out so we asked our ‘beste wasser’ friend where the closest bahnhof (railway station) was. He gave us detailed instructions, which of course we didn’t totally comprehend. Our newfound friend must have read the non-comprehension on our faces so he again drove ahead and lead us to the bahnhof road junction. At one point he got out of his car and extracted a retractable tape measure from a pouch around his waist and extended it to point at the bike symbol on a signpost.
Finally we arrived at Sargans railway station. Here we contemplated boarding a train and heading for our ultimate destination, Rebstein, about 35 km down the Rhine River. However we decided against the train journey as it would have put us at our friend Thomas’ parents house a day early.
The only alternative was to pedal another 6 km to a Triesen camping area just across the Swiss border into Liechtenstein. At Sargans we did a 90 degree turn to the east and thankfully had the wind at our backs. It was such a relief to be blown along by the strong wind instead of fighting it.
Camping Mittagsspitze near Triesen was another of those Swiss camping areas totally devoid of character. There were no tables, chairs or benches, the only place to sit was on the wet grass or, if wanting to get out of the weather, in the washtubs. The showers, toilets and camp kitchen, designed primarily for washing the dishes only, were impeccable.
We set up our tent under the gaze of awesome Liechenstein mountains and because the weather forecast was for increasing and stronger winds we added additional tiedown ropes to our tent.
TRIESEN TO REBSTEIN
The wind howled all night in gusts, the roar was like the sound of a revving jet engine, however we were dog tired and once asleep the wind did not disturb us unduly.
This morning it was still very windy but with the wind at our backs we were pushed along the Rhine River levee at speed. At times we had to be careful with the strong gusts that we weren’t blown off the levee into the river. In some ways levee cycling, particularly across flat land, can become monotonously boring, but not so today because we were in fact Encountering the Past so there was much to reminisce about. In 1972 Bev and I slept in our Beetle in a car park in the shadow of the Liechtenstein castle in Vaduz. Today we could hardly see it due to the Sahara Desert dust and not wanting you to miss out on what the castle looks like I have borrowed an image from Wikipedia.
Liechtenstein has a long and complex history. The territory now occupied by the Principality of Liechtenstein came into being in 814 and its borders have remained unchanged since 1434.
By mid-afternoon we reached Rebstein, feeling very hot from the heat and the day’s exertion.
BIKE MISSION NO.2
RIDE TO THE RHINE RIVER WETLANDS
After a few days R&R with our friends in Rebstein we decided to ride and camp again. This time we chose to continue riding down the Rhine River to where it discharges into the Bodensee (Lake Constance).
Lake Constance sits at 395m (1,296 ft) above sea level and is Central Europe’s third largest, after Lake Balaton in Hungary and Lake Geneva. Lake Constance is 63 km long, and at its widest point, nearly 14 km. The greatest depth is 252 metres in the middle of the eastern section. The lake was formed by the Rhine Glacier during the last ice age.
Our ride to the Rhine wetlands was without any drama even though we crossed the Swiss/Austrian border on a number of occasions. The only way we knew what country we were in was every now and then painted on the bike path was CH (Switzerland) or A (Austria).
The Rhine River starts near Andermatt in southern Switzerland and flows and into the Bodensee from where it flows basically north to discharge into the North Sea near Rotterdam. In 1972 Bev and I drove up the Rhine to find its starting point, we were only partially successful because we were stopped near its start by frozen roads.
The above photograph was taken late afternoon from Switzerland a few days prior to setting off on the ride, it was raining heavily. The town in the foreground is Lustenau in Austria. The Swiss Austrian border is near the bottom of the photograph.
The Bodensee has partially frozen sixteen times, the most recent being in1963. The lake is the focal point for many leisure activities and it also supports a commercial fishing industry. Approximately,1000 tonnes of fish were caught by 150 professional fishermen in 2001 (I couldn’t find out about latter years). The Lake Constance trout was almost driven to extinction in the 1980s due to pollution but, thanks to protective measures, it has made a significant return.
Most of the ride today was along sealed cycle ways. At points along the way there were bird hides and even though we checked a couple out there were no birds to be seen.
During the ride today we were overtaken by groups of school students, all on bikes. One group stopped at Rohrspitz where we were able to observe their antics while we had lunch. From our observations, going on a bike excursion for the day is actually an official day out as the teacher riding at the lead was issuing riding instructions to his charges as they went. At the lake edge a couple of girls got down to bikinis at one stage but I think they were acting prematurely as it was only about fifteen degrees, summer is not quite here yet.
Many older cyclists came for refreshments then carried on their way. It’s obvious that older people make riding to the local and having a beer each day part of their early morning constitution. Near the restaurant there was a weary looking camping area. We looked around for a suitable tent site but could see only one spot between two caravans. There were the hundreds of unoccupied caravans waiting for their owners to arrive for summer.
In light of there being no suitable camp sites we backtracked and headed east, being prepared to go as far as Lindau in Germany if we had to, however not far from Bregenz in Austria, on the northern shore of the lake we found a most suitable camping area…Camp Mexico.
Following is a photograph taken along the eastern edge of the Bodensee.
Camping MEXICO am Bodensee www.camping-mexico.at catered for small tent campers. There was a covered eating and cooking area, tables and seats, great kitchen area, showers and toilets. A small café served good coffee and there was internet access. The only thing missing was an undercover clothes line. On the Fred and Bev camp scale we gave it 9 out of 10. We were so pleased to find a camping area suitable for camping cyclists we stayed two days. Below is a detailed map showing where Camping Mexico is.
We were lucky we decided to stay two nights. Rain set in late in the afternoon on the day we arrived. Fortunately there were no leeches as there would have been under similar circumstances in our home country but there were slugs and snails. They created slime trails all over out tent and some even made it inside. If that was the only inconvenience at Camping Mexico it was nothing. Fortunately the morning we left it stopped raining but unfortunately we left our ground sheet behind.
At Camping Mexico we met with a couple of French bike riders who had ridden from the west coast of France. They averaged seventy-five kilometres a day double what we do. Oh, for the stamina of youth!
The boys were pulling a trailer each, they had about 60% more weight than Bev and I had. They said they were happy with the trailer configuration and were heading for Zurich. Note that the trailer shown has only one wheel. We suggested they follow the route we took from Zurich to Rebstein.
The return trip to Rebstein was basically along the same outward bound route. We managed to get slightly lost in suburbia at one stage but an old gentleman came to our rescue and set us right. Earlier in the day Bev sought directions from a couple of young lads who I would describe as ‘cool dudes’.
One of the boys was a baker and he was on his way home after a night of baking. After much hand pumping and ‘danke, danke’ he fished out of his bag two bread sticks and gave them to us. They waved and we continued on our way munching the gifts. The bread was the best we have had for a long time. I’m not sure if it was simply good or it was the circumstances under which we acquired it that made it so enjoyable.
Back on track we crossed the Bregenzer Ach river. The bridge was a remarkable construction built from stainless steel, aluminium and concrete, and it was for cyclists and pedestrians only. For those who understand the difficulties of working with stainless steel they will appreciate the cost and engineering skills required to build such a bridge.
The fascinating thing about the guard wire above is how that stainless net is made. I would love to see the machine that makes this remarkable wire.
The Swiss love enclosing their historic bridges. I was told it is done to protect the wooden carriageway. Bridges of this type are mostly held together with wooden pins and pegs. It is a good place for cyclists to shelter when it rains or snows.
The next posting will take you into the Alps of Switzerland and Italy and to a remarkable butterfly farm near Bern where I will introduce you to a toucan and some beautiful butterflies. Bev and I hope you enjoyed our Mission on bikes in Switzerland. Thanks to all our Swiss friends and people we have met over the past few weeks who have guided us on our way.
The foldup bikes have proved an absolute success and we will be taking them back to Australia at the end of this odyssey. Foldups open up a whole new way to travel. Get one and get on the road!
Both the above photographs taken with a Canon G12 digital camera.