Category Archives: Switzerland

The Jura

Familiar Terrain
In the 10 months we’ve been travelling from SE Asia, we’ve seen a huge variety of spectacular landscapes. The Jura, the rounded mountain range in northern Switzerland, might be considered mundane by some, but we found ourselves awestruck by its early winter beauty. In the early 1990s we lived at the foot of the French Jura, walking and skiing there frequently. Perhaps it’s this experience that led us to appreciate it’s subtleties.

2009/11/10: St. Imier 36 km – Three 1,100 m passes.
We made a late start on a gloomy day. Perhaps we should have stayed another day with our hosts, but we felt ourselves getting restless and ready to wrap up our journey in Paris. We’re planning a flight home from there, and will purchase tickets soon, when Air Canada’s web site is working and we have internet access. The access is less straightforward than you might think, because wireless networks since Austria use some new encryption that our Asus doesn’t understand.

The climbs from Neuchâtel at 400 m were steep; the rain drizzled and then snow flurried, but the road remained clear of snow and ice. The snow clung to tree branches making a Christmas card scene. In Le Pâquier, we saw banners everywhere proclaiming “Didier notre champion,” with images of Didier Cuche in action, the world champion for downhill and super GS skiing disciplines. At the top of Col du Mt. Croisin, we were invited for tea by Germain, a keen mountain biker, who rents a farmhouse from Didier’s cousin. We descended to St. Imier, and considered going further, but the fog was rolling in so we found lodgings in St. Imier. We went out for a cheese fondue dinner in honour of my birthday. Yes, we’re now the same age, and we’re both 57!

2009/11/11: Delémont 63 km – 1,200 m pass
I’d slept very badly, and the breakfast was not up to a cyclist’s standards by any stretch of the imagination. We climbed from St. Imier at 700 m to 1,200 m, emerging from the mist into sun sparkling in snow. We stopped often to appreciate our surroundings and take pictures.

After shopping at Migros, we turned onto a section of bike route that was unpaved and very muddy, so the going was slow. Each bike route is indicated by one of two types of sign, either for mountain bikes or “ordinary” bikes, and we were following “ordinary” routes. In summer, we’d probably have barely noticed that a section of the route was unpaved, but on a wet November day it felt more like a mountain bike route. We moved back onto paved road for the descent into the valley, as we sometimes do. We like fast downhills. It was pretty chilly weather for a picnic, so we had a restaurant lunch, and continued to Delemont. We could have gone on, but we settled into a hotel and I was happy to catch up on missed sleep. The picnic supplies became a quick supper in our room.

2009/11/12: Basel 48 km
We dressed to battle the elements, and stopped a little further along to dress some more. We’re becoming expert at dressing for wet weather just above freezing. From Delémont, we’d sent an email to Mitchell, a Canadian we’d met in Sechi, Azerbaijan, who lives in Basel.

We telephoned him when we arrived in the city, and met him for a delicious lunch he’d prepared for us. We were joined by two friends of his who are keen touring cyclists, and also by his 10 month-old almost-walking trilingual grandson. His cyclist friends offered us useful route advice for the next leg of our journey. Later, we walked to the local VeloPlus store to browse and to buy the Michelin map for Alsace-Lorraine.


La Suisse Romande: More Friends

2009/11/08: Neuchâtel 99 km
Otto laid out a breakfast which included jam he’d made himself with berries from his garden. After correcting a navigation error we made leaving Langnau, we were off towards Bern and the plain between the northern edge of the Alps and the lake at Neuchâtel. The area is agricultural, and as we rode on bike paths and small back roads we passed fields of frosted cabbages and radicchio, as well as piles of harvested celeriac. The weather was cold. We had our midday picnic in a shelter provided beside the bike path, and used the stove to make soup.

We lived just north of Geneva for three years in the early 1990s, and Chris commuted to Geneva until we began this journey, so the French-speaking part of Switzerland feels familiar to us. By pedalling from a German to a French language area, however, you realize how abrupt the change in language is. Suddenly the signs changed, and we were greeted with a singsong “Bonjour!” I found it ironic to realize that the second language of many younger French or German-speaking Swiss is English, so compatriots use a language that is neither of theirs to communicate.

We arrived in Neuchâtel just before our friends returned home, and went around the corner for some Ovaltine to warm up. The cafe-bar was an establishment where serious gamblers placed their bets on horse races, and the noise of the machine used to heat our milk must have disturbed a fellow who was taking his selection of horses very seriously. He yelled “Quelle bordelle de bruit! Quelle bordelle the machine! Mais voyons …c’est affreux!!” to express his annoyance. It was novel to me to be able to understand what was being said at the next table, and “Monsieur Bordelle” gave us a good chuckle.

We received a wonderful welcome from Alexandra and her family. We’d met this Russian-Swiss family at an orienteering event in Canada in 2002, and Alexandra spent a winter with us in Vancouver in 2005 working on her English and her snowboarding.

2009/11/09: in Neuchâtel
We had a quiet morning, and sociable lunch when everyone came home for a big midday meal. Alexandra took us on a quick tour of Neuchâtel which included a trip to a bike shop to buy warm shoe covers to make the last leg of our journey more comfortable. Vera and Alexandra cooked a delicious dinner of game: chevreuil and cerf, which is sold in shops here at this time of year. The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was being commemorated at the Brandenburg Gate, and after watching this on television, Chris and Anton compared notes on their versions of WW2 history until late.


Switzerland: Friends and Rest

2009/11/02: Frauenfeld, Switzerland 56 km
Looking at the wet weather, we dressed for  battle and pedalled off. After crossing Bodensee to Konstanz, we crossed to Switzerland. The rain got heavier as the wind picked up, till Chris was ready to get on a train. The thing is that when one of us starts to flag, the other often pushes forward. This time I pushed on, though it’s usually the reverse dynamic. We also usually manage to keep each other from doing anything foolhardy, so it’s become a set of checks and balances.

Completely soggy by early afternoon, we found a hotel in Frauenfeld. Chris’s rain pants had badly failed the test they were put to, because – when he undressed – he poured about half a cup of water out of each of his Goretex socks. We languished in hot showers and caught up with email for the first time in ages.

2009/11/03: Meierskappel 98 km
The weather was much better. We made a leisurely departure for Meierskappel, having estimated the distance as an “easy day.” The day started badly; we exchanged a few words with a driver in response to his aggressive honking as he passed us, driving poorly with his cell phone to his ear, and feeling the need to chastise me for riding 20 cm further out than I should have been on a minor road with next to no traffic. Continuing into Zürich, our map showed that the bicycle paths would lead us efficiently through the centre, but there was so much road construction that they became difficult to follow.

Like my hair-do?

We were keeping eyes open for a bike shop, to try and address a few bike issues. “That looks like a REAL bike shop,” said Chris as we passed Velogarage, so we stopped. Not only did the excellent mechanic correctly diagnose Chris’s supposed pedal problem as a loose crank and tighten it, but he also did a sturdy mend to one of the mounts for Chris’s front rack, which had broken a few days earlier. There was no charge for these repairs.

We took some time to find our way out of Zurich. Realizing we had further to go than we’d thought, we knew that dark would be upon us before reaching Meierskappel. We pedalled the final hour with lights on, and on the last hill Heinz was waiting for us beside the road. It was a relief to see him!  When we arrived at the house, it was wonderful to see Margareta again, to catch up with both of them, and to really relax.

2009/11/04-06: Meierskappel
We had three easy sociable days with Margareta and Heinz. Since leaving the Greek Islands about six weeks ago, we haven’t had more than single days off, so the old bodies really appreciated not having to pedal. I don’t think we’d had enough of what the exercise experts call “recovery time,” so cumulative fatigue had crept up. We washed our rain jackets so they were bright yellow once more, rather than dark grey. (I have only a distant memory of washing them once in the early stages of our journey.) We Skyped our kids; Heinz and Margareta Skyped theirs. We pored over maps. We walked into Luzern with Margareta on a postcard-perfect day with blue skies, but we’d forgotten the camera. We went to the Veloplus shop to buy Chris new rain pants, and to the swimming pool with Margareta so as to gently use a few different muscles. We slept late, and we didn’t need to pack in the mornings. 

2009/11/07: Langnau 80 km
Margareta had kindly suggested that we break the intended ride to Neuchatel by spending the night at her father’s house in Langnau. Otto is an active and independent 92 year-old, and we felt privileged to meet him. Margareta had gone to Langnau by train to see her father and help prepare supper. We had a relaxed evening chatting in several languages. Otto speaks French as a second language, as do most older Swiss Germans. After Margareta departed for home, Otto  showed us photo albums which gave us a glimpse into his life from his childhood as one of 10 children to his active senior years. He had a  set of photos which had been prepared for his 90th birthday celebration, and these included recent images of him hiking and cross-country skiing, both activities he still  does.

Margareta and Heinz have an annual pass that gives them access to public transportation: train, tram, and post bus – in the whole country. There are various options for passes, and the system has done wonders to reduce the use of cars. We are in a very well-organized country.


CERN and the Pays de Gex

We’ve arrived at CERN and are staying at the CERN hostel, in a small room with a plastic one-piece bathroom. Today I cycled 70 km, including two trips to the airport train station to organize tomorrow’s departure on an evening train. It helps to bring all necessary documents with you, hence the second trip.

Between these two errands, I pedalled to Ferney-Voltaire where we lived from 1990-93, and on toward Gex at the base of the Jura. Gex is in France, while CERN is in Switzerland, so my scenic route took me across the border three times. As I rode through Collex-Bossy on the Swiss side, I remembered taking Louise, John, and friends of theirs to the apple fram to watch juice being made with a huge traditional cider press.

After a bite in Gex, I rode along the base of the Jura, through Echenevex where Louise rode ponies, and past the Source de L’Allondon where a major Rhone tributary emerges from the porous limestone Jura. Many marked scenic bike routes and paved commuter-friendly bike paths seem to have appeared since we lived here. I did this wander in idyllic autumn weather, with newly fallen acorns snapping under my tires. Poor Chris was working.

Back at CERN, we have reconfigured all our belongings in preparation for boarding the train. The bikes are only minimally disassembled (in contrast to the major work of boxing for the plane journey) and placed in the Swiss Railway regulation VeloPlus bags which allow us to take the bikes even onto fast trains.

Yesterday, arriving after 24 hours of plane travel, we were met at the airport by a gallant Russian colleague of Chris’s, who presented me with a rose and who wouldn’t let me carry my own bags. Tomorrow, we’ll be taken to the train station for our departure to Vienna by another kind Russian, who has convenient use of a CERN van. This help with logistics is a real bonus. We should arrive in Vienna at 8:00 a.m. reasonably well rested, after a night in a couchette.

Who knows, the next post may be from Hungary or beyond.