Switzerland -- August 1 - 14, 2005
Arrival Geneva - August 1, 2005
August 8 from Biel: As our luck would have it we arrived in Switzerland on August 1st which is National Day. On that date in 1291 independence was sought by local leaders. On the Rütli Meadow in Schwyz canton, the forest communities of Uri, Schwyz, and Nidwalden signed an alliance vowing not to recognize any external judge or law. This agreement is viewed as the foundation of the Swiss Confederation. The latin name is Confoederatio Helvetica and survives in the "CH" abbreviation for Switzerland that is used on internet addresses and car license plates. Presently there are 26 cantons (three of them are considered half cantons) with the most recent, Jura having achieved independence from Bern in 1979. Interestingly, women only won the right to vote in federal elections in 1971.
Switzerland's only direct involvement in WWI was in organizing Red Cross units. Apart from accidental bombings in WWII in 1940, 1944, and 1945, Switzerland was left largely unscathed by the war. Switzerland has been very careful as to the organizations it has joined, lest it's neutral stance be perceived as compromised.
Our own experience on National Day was a wonderful way to begin our journey in this small and magnificent country. We were picked up by our warm showers hosts Fred and Brigette and taken back to their home in Versoix which is about 8 kilometers north of Geneva along Lac de Genéve. We then walked into town where we participated in a large celebration of food, wine, music, the reading of the constitution, and singing of the national song. All of this was done in French. While Fred is very proficient in English, Brigette understands some English but does not speak much English. This posed a positive new challenge for us as other than our difficulties understanding some of the Irish and Scottish English, this was our first time on this trip that we have been immersed in a country were English is not the primary language. Fortunately, Europeans seem to have a zeal for wanting to communicate and work hard at overcoming communication barriers. Our three days with Fred and Brigette were wonderful. They are fantastic hosts who treated us to good meals and a great bike ride up to Nyon and back to Versoix. In addition, we were able to build up our bike in the confines of a nice garage as it rained heavily outside for much of our first full day here. While we have no desire for the next two months to go quickly, we already look forward to spending a few days with Fred and Brigette at the end of our time in central Europe.
The first day of bike touring here brought us from Versoix to Lac de Joux, a beautiful lake in the Jura Mountains. Switzerland is a very bike friendly country and the infrastructure they have in place for cycling is quite remarkable. Wide bike and pedestrian lanes are on many streets or are separate and adjacent to streets in towns and villages alike. There are 9 national bike routes that are exceptionally well sign posted and keep cyclists off the major routes and on quiet back roads and bike paths. Our first major climb into the Jura Mountains was 17 kilometers long with a nice reprieve midway through of a couple of km. The gradient was probably not more than 10% at any time and mostly it was 7 or 8%. We were very happy to have our drum brake on the long descent to Lac de Joux. The views seemed classically Swiss on a day that had nary a cloud.
The next day we continued to have more descending into the valley that incorporates Lac de Neuchatel. From here it has been essentially flat as we've followed the #5 National bike route along the east side of the lake. Still, there have been a few short climbs of 13 and 14% along the way just to keep us honest I guess.
We are presently staying with friends in Biel. Our arrival was celebrated by having a party. Actually it wasn't due to our presence, but rather, it was the birthday of Fabian, our female host. It just so happened that this was also our 5th wedding anniversary and it was a wonderful way to spend it with new friends. Earlier in the day we had crossed over into more German speaking Switzerland. The sign postings changed from French to German over the course of kilometers. Most of the people at the party, spoke fair to excellent English as well as being fluent in Swiss-German and French. No doubt several spoke other languages as well. The value for communication and languages consistently impresses us. Greg, our other host, is a friend of Peter Babeu's. They met 13 years ago by sharing a campsite at Grand Canyon National Park. Janet met Greg when he visited Colorado Springs after that. Thanks to Peter for hooking us up. The value of the internet and email is unsurpassed on a trip like this. As has consistently been the case throughout our travels, Greg and Fabian have been most accommodating. They too are cyclists, and cyclists know what cyclists need: floor space (preferably a bed), internet access, laundry if possible, and good food!!!
Greg has Monday off work so we will do something fun with him then. He has a sailboat so we may go sailing on Lake Biel if the weather cooperates. While after only 3 days of cycling we weren't in need of days off the bike, our time here is a welcome opportunity to explore this area. From here we continue north to Schaffhausen, where we plan to spend another 3 nights with friends. Aaron first met Pierina in graduate school at Gallaudet University in 1983. He then visited her in Schaffhausen in 1985 during a European bike tour. It has been about 18 years since she and her husband Viktor visited briefly in the states, so we are very much looking forward to being with them.
We have also made several more contacts through warm showers and at a campsite and hope to stay with some of them. Our people connections continue to be immensely powerful. One of the warm showers contacts is in Hard Austria, right on the Swiss\Austrian border. We hadn't planned to get into Austria but given what our hosts have written about this region we know that our planned 2 days there won't be enough. That seems to be the feeling almost everywhere we go. Rather than feeling saturated by travel, we are energized by traveling more and the prospects for returning to see some of the people we have met and places we have seen.
August 14 from Hard, Austria: I am typing this on yet another keyboard that has differences from what we are used to in America . Every time we change countries there are variations. The Y and Z are reversed and the @ sign always seems to be in a different place. The comma on this keyboard either doesn't work consistently or I'm doing something wrong so that may explain some of the style of this letter. I wish I had other excuses for my typos but most of them I have to own up to myself! When I see them on the website I cringe but hopefully they will provide some laughs for those of you anal-retentive enough to care!!
Since our last writing near Biel in the center of Switzerland (which accounts for it being the only official Swiss bi-lingual city despite Switzerland having four official languages) we have not slept in our tent. We are starting to wonder why we are carrying it and our sleeping bags and pads! That reality will return to us quickly enough. It is pouring down rain outside on this Sunday afternoon and instead of cycling through it Janet is taking a nap and I'm catching up on emails. We are in Hard Austria. Both Austria and Germany were not on our agenda but we have managed to cross the borders into both countries for brief stays. Our decision to arrive in Hard was made when we were searching for other possible Warm Showers contacts for our time in Switzerland Italy and France. The way our current hosts Marcus and Sonya described it on the WS listing was so intriguing that we chose to write them. Fortunately for us they agreed to host us and here we are in a beautifully dry home with new friends eating well getting our laundry done sleeping on a nice bed and using a computer. Pretty sweet eh?
That is the way it has been the past week. It was hard to leave Biel (Alfermee to be accurate) as Greg and his girlfriend Fabiene were so wonderful to us and we hit it off so well. We even had the opportunity to sail on Lake Biel with Greg. While the wind could have been better our time with him and on the boat could not have been.
From Biel we rode on to Pratteln (a word I still have difficulty saying as we don't use an “ln” combination much in English). This was not the most direct route to Schaffhausen, but we had met a wonderful woman who was on a small bike tour of her own at a campsite several days before who invited us to her home. We enjoyed our time with her so much at the campsite that it made sense to alter the straighter route and climb over a relatively small pass to see her. Annamarie lives in a home built in 1649. Wow. What a great place. She met us at the train station and we rode back to her place 5 minutes away. That's the way things seem here. The Swiss railways are so efficient (right Viktor) that not only does every town seem to have a station but it also seems that everyone lives within minutes of the station. Consequently we have now had 3 opportunities where we have arrived at the bahnhoff, called our contact and they bike down to pick us up and bring us back to their place.
Our time with Annamarie was magical. It was so affirming that we had made the right decision to go see her. As always we shared stories of travel but her positive energy and stories about her life forged a wonderful connection. As has consistently been the case great food was a part of the mix. I doubt Janet and I have lost a pound so far as everyone feeds us as if we are averaging 200km/day! In addition the Swiss consume more chocolate per capita than any other country (ll.3kg/year). It seems that we are on track to match this per annum rate in the couple of weeks that we will be travelling here. Yes life is indeed tough.
From Pratteln we rode on to Schaffhausen. I (Aaron) first met Pierina when she came to Gallaudet University for a visit while I was doing my graduate work there. I visited her in Schaffhausen in 1985 when I was on bike tour and she and her husband Viktor came for a one evening visit in Colorado Springs in 1989. We haven't been in contact much over recent years but our recently finished 3 nights and days with them reconnected us in a most wonderful way. Pierina and her oldest son Gian took us on a boat up the Rhine to Stein am Rhein, a magnificent looking medieval feeling village with picture perfect building facades in the Ruthauplatz. Detailed murals depict the animal or object after which the building is named. We biked back to Schaffhausen paralleling the Rhine as we had brought our bikes on the boat. The next day we visited the Rheinfall which is Europe 's largest waterfall at 23 meters. We viewed it from afar as well as up close as we took a small boat across the river to the Schloss Laufen viewing station just above the falls. Magnificent. The next morning Pierina and Viktor sent us off with a wonderful breakfast and dried fruits (apples, pears, plums and apricots…great cycling food) not to mention wonderfully positive feelings. Once again, we can't wait till they and the children come back to Colorado to visit us.
Our ride yesterday of 120km from Schaffhausen to Hard took us along the eastern (Swiss) side of the Bodensee ( Lake Constance ). What we have found since we started our bike tour in Switzerland is that there is a 400km or so banana shaped band from Geneva on the east end of the country at 375 meters to Bregenz Austria (just over the eastern Swiss border) at the southeastern tip of the Bodensee at 398 meters that is essentially flat. Therefore to date we have not had to do a lot of climbing (with the exception of our journey into the Jura mountains ) since we left Geneva . That is about to change as we head south crossing the Swiss Alps and heading into the Italian Alps.
We have found Switzerland to be the most bike friendly country we've ever seen. They have 9 national cycle routes. So far we have been on parts of seven of them. The infrastructure that is in place is incredible. They are exceptionally well sign posted. If you are in a town then there is typically either a designated bike lane or bicycle path. If you are in more rural areas then they often keep you on farming roads. The times we have been on gravel it has been very smooth (with one exception). There have been specific traffic lights for bikes as well as signage to bring cyclists to the bahnhoff. We have seen more cyclists on these paths than you can imagine including families with small children doing loaded touring. Our friends Pierina and Viktor showed us a picture they had from a few years ago with Victor towing a trailer weighing 100kg!! While that may be more of an exception than the norm, we have seen untold families with loaded Burley type trailers that look like they weigh at least half that. Suffice to say that the culture for cycling is incredible. And to be fair, our brief times in the adjacent German and Austrian terrain is comparable.
Our next scheduled stay with a contact is in Torino Italy . With luck we will be able to update you at that point.