Three years ago I cycled from Helsinki to Berlin, with the idea of meeting some interesting people and exploring new lands. Arriving in Berlin, I was keen to celebrate the end of expansive pine forests and having successfully fended off a wild boar the previous night. Luckily for me, there were two people who were happy to drink to that. Fabienne and Lucien. We got on like a house on fire, and for three hilarious nights, Berlin was ours. Finding myself now heading for Fabi’s birthday meal, which, consisting entirely of close family and friends, I was beginning to realise how tenuous this link really was. Worry I shouldn’t have, because this Swiss farm had open doors, complete with animals and great Lebanese food, the ‘crazy British cyclist’ was made to feel very welcome. Stuffed full of food I struggled to stay awake; as soon as we arrived back in the city I was out for the count.
The rest of the weekend in Bern was a bit of a blur. A good blur. Just what I needed after a tough week on the bike, and after sampling my first cheese fondue, I was starting to like Switzerland. I was given a complete walking tour of the city by day, with the night was spent on a pub crawl. Is that not the best way to see a city? Staying out until the last song, I found out that Switzerland has a great nightlife. Who’d have thought? With my perceptions being quickly changed, I decided to consult my Switzerland stereotypes some more: chocolate, punctuality and snow all sprang quickly to mind. The first two could be immediately ticked off, and little did I know, mother nature would kindly introduce me to the third this week.
Reluctantly monday morning swung round, and I began to cycle out of Berns pristine streets in the direction of the alps. The snow capped peaks were visible right from the off, beautiful yet daunting. These were to be unavoidable as I slowly made my way to Lucerne. Deciding to take the scenic route, which inevitably seems to mean larger hills, the roads took me right into the alpine foothills of the Biosphare Entlebuch Unesco heritage park. Greeted by stunning rocks faces outlined in a crisp white frost, I was glad to have taken the difficult path.
Switchbacks came thick and fast, half an hour of working my way up an 11% incline meant I was soon above the snow-line and 1100 m. Having worked so hard to pull Tina up the pass, I’d neglected to think how cold it might have been whilst eagerly snapping photos of every passing snowflake. With all my water now solid ice, and passing cyclists wearing neoprene face masks; a few minutes descending complete with a burning face quickly brought this to the forefront of my mind. But what a descent it was. Seemingly endless snow lined Swiss tarmac brought me back down to into the land of green fields and quaint farmhouses. Then, road closed. Whenever I see a road closed sign I carry on, maybe this is bad habit, but usually on a bike you can manoeuvre your way around whatever obstacle it is and be on your way. Being screamed at by a highway maintenance worker as I blissfully careered past him, I reckoned whatever it was, I wouldn’t just be able to squeeze by… A team of men resurfacing a bridge was a good enough reason to stop, but having to re-climb a few miles, I was slightly miffed at having my descent cut short.
If the Swiss alps wasn’t enough to win my heart, well the view from Lucerne definitely was. Greeted by a scenic holy trinity of stunning peaks, beautiful buildings and still lake water, this put every other city in its place. Slowly rolling through the town centre, gauping at pretty much every view in site, Fabi’s brother Felix easily spotted the tourist in the crowds. After completing my city tour, we sunk a few beers and watched ‘Drug Lords’. Beautiful scenery, a new city and some great company. In my eyes, that’s as good as a day of cycling day gets.
Leaving early the next morning, I rode beside lake Zug and then lake Zurich before opting for a fun gravel path into the city. Clean streets, nice cars and designer shops, there was definitely some money here alright. I doubt they were carting around a day old sandwich wrapped in paper inside one of those leather briefcases somehow. I chose a quaint little square to unwrap that beast, happily munching away whilst reading a newspaper in the sun. Despite all the obvious wealth, a healthy dose of fixed gears and bike cafes provided some refreshing city ‘buzz’. Discussing this with my host for the evening, Axel, it turns out the city is teeming with cool ideas and good food. Did I mention I was starting to like Switzerland? Since he was feeling a bit under the weather, we decided to grab a Lebanese and hang out for the evening.
Having talked over my route for the next day, I was excited to see some more of what Switzerland had to offer. On todays menu: An appetiser consisting of lake Zurich was to be followed by a main course of the famous lake Walensee and it’s stunning lakeside cliff faces. Dessert would come in the form of riding through the Flum valley, flanked by towering alpine mountains. It was safe to say, this shouldn’t be a boring day!
Leaving Zurich, me and Tina rode casually past Tina Turners house. In my heart I knew which one was ‘simply the best…’ My trusty steed powered through the appetiser in no time and soon I was staring at a thick cloud, in the place where the huge Walensee cliff face was meant to be… Brilliant. It soon started to get really cold, with me having to ride in my down jacket for the first time of the trip. Large rock faces of Walensee occasionally broke through the clouds, each time I eagerly stopped to snap a photo of genuinely awesome cliff. Although she never revealed her full beauty, what I did see was incredible. Vast grey rock faces cutting right out of the lake and extending for the sky as far as the eye could see. I’ll be back to see it one day. They have this amazing thing called summer, where you don’t have to vigorously pace up and down whilst eating lunch to stay warm. I might come then and wait all day until I see it.
I rode onwards, now parallel to Leichtenstein, separated by only a river. I decided to cycle over a bridge and eat a biscuit in Leichtenstein just because, why not? Biscuit eaten, I retreated back to my beloved Switzerland for the last time; soon pulling into my host Erwins house in Buchs. Erwin had recently retired and even more recently cycled from Buchs to Iran. It was interesting to hear his account of his trip and that he was planning on cycling in India this summer – I’ll see you there Erwin!
The past few days the temperature has really dropped. I was three for three in terms for days being snowed on, and the forecast was showing yet colder climbs for the following days. With this in mind, I was hesitant about camping for the next two nights.
Throughout this trip, something that has really stuck with me is the generosity of the cycling community. Already only a few weeks into this trip I have been taken in by cyclists of all walks of life, happy to help me out and take me into their home. Once again the cycling gods had taken pity on me, and as I woke up the next morning I’d received a new message saying I had a place to stay that night. Happily deleting by last resort route into the forest to camp, I made a new one to Kempten. By this time it was snowing now, really snowing. Large flakes were being whipped against my face, settling on my eyebrows and sorry looking beard. Feeling yet not looking like a macho polar explorer, I ploughed on into the drift which steadily thickened as the day went on.
Unknowingly entering Austria and then Germany, I climbed out of the valleys and began to see a lot more of the white stuff. Now three inches snow had settled next to the bike path and I was having to make fresh tracks through that which had settled.The further I climbed into the Bavarian hills, the more snow came my way. Eventually I had to abandon the path altogether when faced with a couple skiing towards me! I had a good laugh with one of the skiers who directed me along a better route, after saying the path was usually usable, but just not this winter. The winter I decided to try cross Europe.
Laughing at how ridiculous this was all getting, I cycled into Kempten and consoled myself with a selection of pastries. Eva, my saint-like host for the evening, then whisked me out of the cold street and into her funky apartment. My water was able to return to its liquid form and I had a great evening of laidback story telling and listening. Nights like these, meeting new people, really stands out and makes you forget about some of the hardships of the road. When I say hardships, despite the cold, I’ve got off pretty lightly so far, even finding places to shower most days. I’m sure I’ll soon look back at this time with fond memories of cleanliness and European amenities.
In search of the next warm shower, I decided I would put in a shift on the bike to reach Munich a day earlier than planned. Temperatures of minus 5 and 85 miles of Bavarian hills were on the cards, but with plenty of snow-covered forests to draw my attention, I wasn’t to be bored. Tina had grown her first icicle of the trip, and my water had again completely frozen into two solid blocks. I was ready to ride. If anything, the cold this made me ride a bit faster in a bid to reach the city before dark.
I’m starting to develop a technique to deal with the cold as I ride: two pairs of gloves and socks are a must, and every time I stop, I constantly pace around to get the blood back into my toes. Feet get cold easily on a bike but hurt less than cold hands, so I have begun to prioritise my blood flow routine! Despite my whinging (which I’m sure will be put in perspective riding through eastern Europe in a couple of weeks!) the snow made everything look beautiful and I’ve had to restrain myself from photographing absolutely everything, learning to just take somethings in as I ride. I have never seen scenery like that which I have ridden through this week, it has been something else. I really have enjoyed riding through Switzerland and Bavaria, and with it being a carnival weekend in Munich this weekend, the next few days are looking good too.