Cycling Switzerland

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In planning 17 years of summer vacations on two wheels, Switzerland had never made it to the top of our list. Yes, it was scenically top-notch. But in our view it was lacking in other must-have attractions, such as the world-class cuisine we'd found in our repeated visits to Italy and France and other European, Canadian, and U.S. destinations. There was also, of course, the hill factor.

But since summer is the only time we can vacation and we needed some respite from the sweltering heat we had encountered in the last couple of years, the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland beckoned. Our expectations were low (except for the scenery); the reality was quite the opposite. And the cost was budget traveler's heaven, between $100 and $125 per day, including hotels, meals, and bicycle rental. If humbler accommodations are acceptable, you can do it for even less.

The pluses

Cycling in Switzerland exceeded our expectations. Our only regret was that we didn't spend more time there. For example, we should have planned some extra time in the Interlaken area. One or two days of hiking would have enriched our experience.

In addition, we were surprised by the quality of the bicycle paths. The trail markers were excellent and ever-present-bright-red road signs with a pale-blue square that displayed the route number in white. Rarely were we on a road with automobiles. It was extremely difficult to get lost, although we did manage to do so once or twice. The maps in our guidebook included locations of bike repair shops and "i" locations (information centers), so help was never far away.

A major decision is whether or not to bring your bicycles. This was easy for us because the Swiss Federal Railways rent excellent bicycles for about $20 a day. They are 24-speed hybrids, and the entire fleet is sold and replaced each year so they are in near-mint condition. And they can be picked up at your train station of choice, then dropped off at any other station.

Our rental bikes were trouble-free, but if we had had problems, we could have exchanged them for different bikes at the next railroad station.

Picking a route

First we had to solve the "problem" that we are not mountain bikers, and we were going to the Alps. Our solution: to follow a river downstream, which, of course, means predominantly downhill.

We turned to the Internet for help and found cycling-in-switzerland.ch, an invaluable resource. We were astonished to find that there are nine Swiss bike-path routes, covering 3,300 kilometers. We chose route number 8, the Aare River in the Bernese Alps. The Aare flows from its glacier lake source on the Grimsel Pass to its confluence with the Rhine at Koblenz, and we planned to start at the high end. This did not eliminate some serious climbs, but the overall direction was down. We also liked the idea of taking the train from ZYrich and letting it do the climbing to our starting point, Meiringen.

A day in ZYrich at either end with six 40-mile days on bikes seemed about right for our eight days in Europe.

Finding accommodations The Cycling in Switzerland Web site suggests some places to stay. Click on "Eating/Sleeping" and then "Partner List." Select your route number and choose a category ranging from "Hotels" or "Bed-and-Breakfasts" to "Sleeping in Straw." You also may select a price range. (The current exchange is US72> to 1 Swiss franc.)

We looked at Swiss Budget Hotels and Minotel and decided to try the latter. Minotel (minotel.ch) is a nonprofit association of approximately 700 privately owned hotels in Europe, 95 percent of which are managed by proprietor families. Most of their hotels are three stars; all have private baths and a restaurant in the building. What sold us was that we could bike without carrying our belongings because Minotel hotels (at least in Switzerland) will deliver your luggage to the next hotel. Drop it off at the front desk by 9:30 a.m. and Minotel guarantees that it will be at your next destination by 5:30 p.m. (And for us, in every case, it was there by 5:30, often earlier.)

Our accommodations varied in charm, but all were acceptable and had friendly and helpful owners.

If you don't want to make reservations in advance, you can always choose establishments en route that have the "Cycling in Switzerland" seal of quality prominently displayed at the entrance. There you can count on "cycling friendly" service, including a safe, locked location f or your bicycle, some bicycle tools, laundry facilities or at least a place to hang your hand-washed items, and good cycling advice.

Finally, we ordered the Veloland Schweiz guidebook for route number 8 (25 Swiss francs-about $18). Currently the books are available in German and French, but the only thing you really need is their maps, and you can read maps no matter what your language. To order the guidebook, log on to cycling-in-switzerland.ch.

More pluses

It is no surprise to see beautiful flowers in Europe. But the Swiss chalets in their mountain settings with window boxes of cascading geraniums and their gardens with dinner plate-size roses got high marks from us.

The food was tastier than we expected, and the Coop or Primo grocery stores offered delicious cheese and fruit with quite decent bread for our on-the-road budget picnics. I always use ice cream as an indicator of civilization, and the Swiss didn't let me down. In the heat we encountered, there was never a day without the reward of a kugel (ball) or two of sorbet. The lemon with candied lime was our favorite.

The breakfasts, which were always included, were varied and large enough that, if you weren't burning all those calories on a bicycle, you could easily skip lunch.

Our tripWe picked up our bicycles in Meiringen, a two-hour-plus train ride from ZYrich. Meiringen boasts a famous 4,593-foot-long, 656-foot-deep gorge, cut through the rocks by the Aare. The town's other claim to fame is that Sherlock Holmes was "killed" at nearby Reichenbach Falls. The next day, we cycled to Interlaken, mostly along turquoise lakes in the shadow of rugged mountains. We changed the route a bit to avoid the highest pass of the trip, a good decision in the unprecedented heat. Despite the accommodating Swiss habit of having ice-cold water in a decorative fountain in the center of each town, we were feeling dehydrated by the time we arrived at Interlaken for a late lunch. Our hotel was two-an d-a-half miles outside of Interlaken in the skiing/hiking town of Wilderswil, where we were impressed by the number of robust older folks returning to the village after a day of hiking. Our first glimpse of the snow-capped Jungfrau with paragliders forming a colorful corps de ballet just in front was breathtaking, especially as we sweated profusely down in the snowless valley.

Before we left Wilderswil the next day, we spent the morning taking a one-hour, 6,400-foot cog railway up to the Schynige Platte overlook for a walk in an alpine meadow with a spectacular view up of the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains and down to the two lakes that Interlaken lies between. (If you have a Swiss Rail Pass, you can use it on this trip and save the $40 train fare.)

In addition to Wilderswil, our stops included:

  • Thun, where we dined in an outdoor garden overlooking the Aare.
  • Worbenbad (after a halfway stop in Bern, Switzerland's capital, for a few hours), where we enjoyed our first-but not last-rssti, the typically Swiss dish of fried potatoes plus cheese, bacon, or peppers.
  • Solothurn, with its especially charming old town filled with Renaissance and baroque buildings and delicately carved wrought-iron signs.
  • Altreu, where I saw about a dozen rooftop stork nests, including many chicks.
  • Wildegg, a town we'd skip next time, which offered little more than a cement plant and a castle.
  • Zurzach, known for its curative baths. It was in Zurzach that we reluctantly returned our bicycles to the train station as we were heading back to ZYrich the next day.
  • As we look back on our seventeenth vacation on wheels, we'd give biking in Switzerland our highest rating, namely, "We'd go back in a second." And given its low cost, we can afford to do so.

    Some sample accommodations Minotel Alpenblick, 3812 Interlaken-Wilderswil, 011-41/33-828-35-50. Double occupancy: $96. Minotel Elite, Bernstrasse 1-3600, Thun, 011-41/33-223-28-23. Double occupancy: $139. Minotel zur Waag , Hauptstrasse 25-5330, Zurzach, 011-41/56-249-33-30, or visit minotel.ch for other choices. Double occupancy: $121.

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