I am sitting writing this in exactly what you would imagine a Swiss chalet to look like if I asked you to draw one. Turning around in the chair and looking out of the window, there is snow topped and sharp edged mountains that off to the right includes the Eiger.
Low clouds hang just above the lake and yet there are patches of blue sky and enough sun to bring out the contrast and throw in a few shafts of bright light for drama.
You would pay a million dollars for such a view. This being Switzerland, that is probably an underestimate. One consequence of this insane cost of living, is that it has taken a week to find a free internet connection. So, make yourself comfortable and perhaps take a break at half way on this blog as it starts way back in France.
Dry bread and a small bowl of porridge and as Elton John may have said “It’s a little bit funny this feeling inside”. Elton would have counseled taking it easy I am sure. So a 20k leg stretcher of a day on the D35, with the Alps off to our right and warm sun on our backs just to see how things went.
Four days of being ill punches quite a hole in your energy reserves, so I am even more grateful than usual for a flat day that is now starting to smell like summer riding after a string of hot days. We treat ourselves to a cheap room in La Cout St Andre and some good food and have enough time to take in the town which is the birthplace of Berlioz.
I am not sure if any of the pigs chose to use pebbles as a building material. Faced with what is available around here, it may have been the only choice in wolf proof building materials. The resulting houses are beautiful, but it must feel like an infinite task ahead at the end of day one.
As usual, the little town benefits from its position on the Compostella route and most of the rooms are taken by the usual pilgrim demographic. By morning, three good meals have stayed where nature intended them. I feel strong, surprisingly so. I think I must have rested and been ill, as I feel good.
We return to the D73, which this morning is a bit angry on account of the stupid amount of street furniture. These things have sprung up all over Europe in the last 10 years and turn the cyclist into a slow moving blockage. We have them back home and they are called ‘traffic calming’. Forced to sit behind slow moving touring cyclists, the effect is quite the reverse.
We pass through a series of villages of light brown palate. Esther has been struggling to sketch them, “They all look the same”. Well, one deals with the problem with a big mural. La Frette, St Hilaire pass by as we move closer to Switzerland. Grenoble 40k says a sign and the supermarket shelf has exotic bars of chocolate already.
Silage is being cut already here and the corn is high. The winters are hard here though as the roof pitch is steep to shed rain and snow. At St Genix, we pick up a path next to the Rhone and bike through picture perfect flower meadows with Cuckoos calling. There are stands of Lime trees providing shelter and fire wood. As ever I am drawn to the wood piles. Many look as if they are heirlooms. An important resource to pass from generations.
73K is a good enough day, and we end the ride at the campground in Yenne. There are massive mountains holding on to storm clouds in every direction. However, it is 25’c by the tent, with a patch of blue sky over the little town.
We ride out in the morning along the river valley, following the D921. It is cold after a cold night and we are dressed for winter again. The river has that green jade stone colour of truly high mountain rivers that are fed from high corries of snow melt and glacier.
Every kilometer we draw closer to Switzerland, the coffee rises in price and the house prices even here in France are stratospheric. We stand by the bridge in Seyssel to admire the river. It should be a tourist ‘hot spot’, but todays 15’c is keeping them elsewhere, and there are few shops open.
We have been using rivers to keep the climbing down to a minimum. But the D14 ends that with proper ‘small ring’ climbing. It is a changable sort of a day, with sharp showers of large and very cold drops. It is very localised though. In a strung out peloton of 50 riders, the front ten and the last would have coats on and be riding in rain.
We are on the D1206, but so are a lot of unhappy drivers. I must say that in the ten years since we last rode across France the road manners have deteriorated. No longer do you get a warning ‘toot’, and a car that would be happy to wait 30 minutes for the perfect passing opportunity. We have had enough of the D1206 and use the gps to find a parallel road. It starts with a hard climb and there are ups and downs, but we have gone back half a century. It takes 2 hours of careful navigation to cover not much distance to the campground at Neydens.
The place is posher than we are used to and even has heating in the wash rooms. It hardly feels like any time since we were pleased to see a toilet with a seat and paper. By 9.30 it is just 6’c and drops to freezing overnight.
So it was clear and Alpine frost tinged morning that we found ourselves in Switzerland after less than an hours riding. Geneva is very bike friendly indeed and we pedaled into the very heart of it along bike lanes. It is still early when I am sitting in Starbucks with my shoes off and replacing worn cleats as Esther gets the coffees.
€9 for two small cups of coffee! Welcome to Switzerland dear travelers. It looks like summer outside as we sit doing WWW. stuff, but it is arm warmer and gilet weather at the very least.
We head for the lake along with every other tourist. It is clean and clear to a bottom 20 meters down. This being Geneva, it is fringed by designer shops and 5* hotels. We set out along the lake, but the view was taken 200 years ago or more by the great grandparents of the staggeringly wealthy. We pass a polo school and Ferrari dealership.
Geneva has wealth in obscene quantities. Wealth that no amount of trying hard at school, your job or anything short of dropping out of Harvard 30 years ago to tinker with electronics in your folks garage, is going to get you anywhere near. I have no idea how Switzerland works and neither does the WWW. as I have just had a look. It is a country with the costs of the year 2,000 existing alongside and trading with the world of 1973.
It makes me quite angry. But not as angry as a bad campground. Which is what we get. The last time I was forced to pitch in such close proximity was Glastonbury Festival. Here it is tight, but then a idiot and his girlfriend show up at 9.30. They have a family tent and a set of instructions and a crate of beer.
There is just enough space off to the side. But she wants ‘a view’. So they start to pitch 50cm from us. So, I make a big mistake and rip the pegs up and pull our tent away. They continue to giggle and some how the tent gets put up over the next hour. But not where they started. No, they have followed us. I should have stayed calm and let them pitch first before moving, idiot.
So it is 1.30 in the morning when them and kids and everyone becomes quiet enough for sleep. I am in a poor mood as we cycle along Lake Geneva the next morning. How poor can be judged by the fact that I am cheered up by a Lidl supermarket being open.
Just outside Lausanne when we come across an open cafe. It is more than a cafe, it is a patissiers and chocolatiers and has to be experienced, if only this once. It has a glass fronted kitchen, though kitchen would be too common a word for this chocolate technology centre. There is a girl in a lab coat who is applying delicate chocolate embellishments with every bit as much care as the eyeliner and makeup that she had put on that morning. This is a clean room, final assembly building worthy of NASA or F1.
We let out a small noise when we get the bill. It is a scream held in but it is primal none the less. It is a sound of distress, of hurting and unhappiness. It is a sound you can associate with being told that you need a new boiler or major dentistry. It hurts and that pain goes deep.
It is time to ride away from the Lake. Switzerland loves to sign things. It is what it is known for in the mountains, and here, bike paths are equally allocated signage. We are pointed towards woodland tracks, through broadleaf woods that smell for the first time of northern Europe and wild garlic.
We follow the Route 5 bike path to Neuchatel Lake and go up the east bank to a campground. It is the 18th of May and I have scored a hat trick of countries without being stung or bitten. Here that run of good fortune ends with two Mosquitos bites.
It is a good and quiet night and again we are riding on tracks through woodlands the next morning. This is a very popular thing to be doing. There are many family groups with all ages on bikes or in buggies towed by bikes. It is great to see.
We stop for some food in a bar. Nothing fancy, just a stew and some salad. I guess you know what happens. Well the stew turns up after half an hour. It is 3 bites big and will cost €18. “Is that €18 for the two as they appear to be half portion”, Esther asks. We are getting into an argument so I push my ‘plate’ away. “We are not going to eat that and we are not going to pay!” I walk out and Esther negotiates a price for what we have had. It is still far too much.
We end the day at a very nice campground but in not too nice a mood. We conclude that our route to avoid the mountains is taking us through a landscape like Germany but at four times the price. We have to see what is really Switzerland and go to the mountains.
We go back 5k the next morning and turn to the East. We are now on route 8 to Bern, capital of Switzerland and in a recent survey it is ranked in the top ten quality of life places in the world. It is of course ‘A World Heritage Site’. It speaks German, so Esther can now complain about the prices.
Route 8 is idyllic. But with that comes the nagging ‘too idyllic’ doubt, but I will let it go just this once. It is interesting, in amongst all this talk of idyllic, to remember that women only got the vote in 1973 here. In the final few k’s before Bern, the smudges on the horizon become more defined and turn into massive mountains with angular peaks. Bern is stunning of course. We get a bit lost now that we are expecting signs every few meters. We ride a compass bearing out of town to end the day.
The campground is quiet. ” It was not last month when a load of Irish Gypsies came and destroyed the place”. Informed the owner. There was a noise though, and it would get on your nerves if you lived in the flat below. Tick, tick, tick , tick as polls hit the floor in rhythm. This is the very beating heart of Nordic Walking country. This is Skiing without the skis, and without the snow, and thankfully without the nearest emergency room on speed dial. Unquestionably, they look stupid.
We are in Thun, the next day. It is, as ever, stunning. It is well signed as ever, and we take one of the paths out and along the lake. It becomes a road and we follow it as it goes through a series of short tunnels towards Interlaken. The mountains are getting bigger and more snow covered. Off to the left, if we knew which one to look at, is the Eiger.
Interlaken itself is strangely full of Japanese tourists. So much so that many of the prices are bilingual. We catch the cheapest possible coffee in McDonald’s and I have a look at the bill, tax 8%. Only 8%, so where does the rest of the bill come from? I have no idea how Switzerland works and it is getting less clear by the day.