GERMANY – FRANCE – GERMANY – SWITZERLAND, 7th – 11th April 2017
We paused in the middle of the pedestrian bridge, not quite sure what country we were in. Behind us on the east side of the Rhine river was Germany, the country we had been riding in for a week, ahead of us on the west side was the French city of Strasbourg. There were benches in the middle of the bridge, and someone had graffitied the words ‘No Borders’ on the ground. It was a slightly confusing protest, for this was a pedestrian bridge that people could walk freely back and forth across. In fact there was almost nothing to mark the border at all, other than that graffiti, and a clearly French sign that indicated that cycling was not permitted down the west half of the bridge (the German half had been a shared-use path). I also noted that next to the tables on the French side there were strewn several empty beer cans. “There’s more litter in France,” I noted.
“They are German cans. Look. The Germans come over to France and leave their trash.” It was Alex, our warmshowers host. He’d come out by bike to meet us and we’d been cycling back with him on the German side of the Rhine for the last couple of hours. He seemed like a really nice guy, and we had plenty in common, with him not long back from a long bicycle trip that took him from France to New Zealand. He was also very, very French. He moved to continue cycling across the bridge.
“We’re not supposed to cycle on this side,” I said, pointing at the sign.
“Ah,” he sighed, “f*ck the law,” and off we rode. We had arrived in France.
Dea and I followed along behind Alex, doing our best to keep up with him through the streets of Strasbourg. There were plenty of bicycle lanes, this being the most bike-friendly of French cities, and yet there were still moments when Dea and I wondered what we should do when Alex suddenly veered across the road to make a turn, or skipped ahead of us through a red light. So quickly gone was the order of Germany.
But it wasn’t long before we arrived at the home Alex shared with his Iranian wife Sanaz. In what I thought a pretty unoriginal life story, Alex had met Sanaz during his long bike trip. She had been his couchsurfing host in Tehran, then later joined him in Vietnam and cycled with him in Southeast Asia and Australia. I thought back on my own time in Iran, the strict Islamic laws and the warnings I’d received about getting involved with girls. I asked Alex if this wasn’t a problem.
“Yes,” he told me, “we could have got in trouble. Could have been executed, actually.”
I was pleased that they hadn’t. We wouldn’t have had anywhere to stay, for one thing. Sanaz cooked a delicious dinner and some friends of theirs visited, and I was reminded of the amazing hospitality I’d enjoyed throughout Iran. It even extended here to my not being allowed to do the washing up. But I was also pleased that love had conquered. That they had not given in to the restrictions Iranian society had placed upon them and that they had found this happy life together. And then, as Sanaz told us of how difficult it was for her to get visas to visit Australia and other places, I was reminded again how lucky I was to come from where I do, allowing me to travel so freely.
The next day Alex took us on a walking tour of Strasbourg, a vibrant old city with a cathedral that was missing one of its twin towers. He did his best to be a good tour guide, reading to us from a guide book as we went and taking us to a modern art gallery, but it was in little moments that Alex and Strasbourg showed us their character. For example, when he told us about a pillar that we may not have noticed.
“It’s a way to measure if you are in good health,” he told us. “If you can make it through the gap between the pillar and the wall without touching, you are healthy.”
He then squeezed through. Dea and I followed. I’m pleased to report that we all made it.
It was a shame that we could not stay longer, but it was soon time for us to press on, as Dea had friends to visit in Lucerne, Switzerland. So we said our goodbyes to our lovely hosts, and the warm sun of France beat down on the two of us as we followed a canal south out of the city. For just a little while we were away from the Rhine, taking in a little of the French countryside, but early the next day it was time to head back over and rejoin the great river. We crossed a bridge and turned right on the far bank, and began to follow a trail south.
“I thought there would be a border sign,” Dea said.
“Don’t worry,” I replied, “we are back on the German side. This path will take us to Switzerland now.”
The path was mysteriously quiet, and six kilometres later we found out why when it came to an end. We had accidentally only crossed half of the Rhine and had been cycling on a big island, still, funnily enough, in France. Now we had no choice but to backtrack the six kilometres.
“Oops,” I said, before, thinking on my feet, I quickly added, “But remember, Dea, there are no wrong turns, just different parts of everywhere.” There is probably a limit to how many times I will be able to get away with leading us the wrong way with this excuse, but in the present circumstance it worked, especially as my error had led us to a nice secluded spot, perfect for a swim in the river with the swans.
We retreated and crossed the rest of the Rhine. A big sign welcomed us back to Germany and now we really were able to follow a path south beside it all the way to Switzerland. For me it was a trip down memory lane. Some eight years earlier I’d walked along this path, accidentally stumbling upon the Rhine during a hitch-hiking adventure. I’d been unsuccessful at thumbing a lift from a motorway service station and had walked out the back of it, where I’d found this path and had decided to just walk the 25 kilometres to Basel. Now I made us stop at the same point and walk from the path to the service station. The noise of the traffic, the motorway, the hustle and the bustle, it was horrible. Back to the riverbank we retreated, to the singing birds and the greenery and the peace. Bicycle touring is the best.
Before leaving Germany and entering Switzerland we made what for me was a customary stop at Aldi to do some shopping. Lots of shopping, actually. We loaded up the trolley with what we hoped would be enough food to see us through to Italy. It would be my third successive trip to Switzerland without spending a franc. This is partly because they have their own currency outside of the euro, which is a pain, but mostly because everything is so damn expensive. Oh Aldi, oh Lidl, how I would miss thee.
So our bikes were heavy as we entered Swiss territory, but we enjoyed sitting beside the river in Basel, where we saw lots of people riding bicycles, men playing boules, and everyone generally seeming to relax and enjoy life. We also saw a most extraordinary thing – a woman walking a cat on a lead. Now this cat really didn’t want to go for a walk on a lead, let me tell you, and it was a somewhat farcical episode, to see this woman stand there waiting for the cat to move, while the cat just wanted to lie down in the sun.
In the centre of Basel we found a water fountain where we had a nice chat with a woman named Regula, and for a moment it seemed like everything was going to be quite alright in Switzerland. But then we tried to follow the cycle routes out of Basel, and they took us on some quite busy and not very nice city roads, which was stressful enough. They weren’t clearly marked like they had been in Germany, and somehow we got on the wrong one, and in the end it took us around in a complete full circle, and we ended up practically back where we’d started. Sweaty and frustrated I turned to Dea. “Don’t worry, there are no wrong turns…” I said, through gritted teeth.
Eventually we escaped the city and followed the cycle route slowly up a valley, through grassy meadows and forested hills that calmed us and told us that Switzerland was going to be alright after all. The houses were so big, with brightly-coloured shutters on every window and piles of firewood outside. In every village there were fountains of drinkable water that flowed constantly. This was a land of abundance. We camped that first night at an outdoor recreation area, where we made our own fire in a firepit and sang songs as Dea played her ukulele and a full moon rose above us.
The next morning our idyllic experience of being in the great Swiss outdoors was rudely interrupted as we found ourselves climbing uphill for the first time since leaving the UK. We had several kilometres of very steep climbing until we arrived at a village and I said I thought it was probably the top of the pass. But, as so often is the case, I was wrong, and we had to climb some more. Another village arrived, but this was not the top either, and there was more steep climbing to do. We both found it very difficult, wondering if carrying five days worth of food was so smart after all, and also considering if taking the flattest route through Europe was perhaps not the best training for the Alps. But this was not yet even the Alps, not really, this was just a little 400 metre climb, and with the 2,100 metre Gotthard Pass soon ahead of us, we both worried about our physical condition. Were we really up for the task that lay ahead?
Although that hill was surprisingly steep and the effort it took to conquer it was a little worrying, I was also quite excited about finally getting involved with the more mountainous landscape and challenges of Switzerland, knowing that there would be much more of this waiting ahead of us on our journey east. Although I had built up some confidence in my abilities as a touring cyclist before this trip began, I still felt I didn’t know for sure if I was really capable of cycling over mountains (and through deserts and of crossing big rivers and into massive headwinds) until I had tried it. Of course, Chris told me I could easily do that, I knew other people had done it and I believed I could, but I could not know for sure until I had done it myself. I had no idea what it was like in every detail to cycle over a mountain although I’d read many blogposts about other people doing it. What would the road be like, the traffic, the weather, the temperatures, the gradient, how would my legs feel and how would my mind react? Getting my own experience would change me from someone who read about people cycling over mountains to someone who had cycled over mountains. It would make me know, not just believe, I could do it. As I cycled into Lucerne I saw the first snowy peaks and it filled me with excitement. The light blue giants vaguely outlined almost like a mirage in a misty haze of heat on the horizon were a milestone for me, and they seemed like quite a big one.
But before getting into the serious business of climbing a two thousand metre milestone it was time for a reunion with my old travelling friends Andi and Regi. They had done an overland trip from Europe to Asia and we had met in Mongolia back in 2014 where we had stayed three days with a Mongolian family and ridden horses before travelling together for a couple of weeks in China. Although we had not seen each other for almost two years the friendship between us felt unchanged, and not even baby Janis, their son of seven months with the biggest eyes and biggest smile I had ever seen, seemed to have affected their interest in and understanding for the travelling bug that had brought us together. It was good to meet them in their home and feel what their life was like there, and it was indeed a really nice home, a flat up in the hills south of Lucerne with the most amazing view of Mount Pilatus tickling my mountain fever. Andi and Regi introduced some Swiss cultural experiences that I appreciated a lot, such as a very cheesy cuisine of Raclette and Alp Pasta and a tour through Lucerne, an old city located on the banks of huge a lake with water clear as glass and with snowy peaks rising behind it. They also let me go to a real Swiss chocolate factory to buy us some dessert while they went to work. Here I could choose singular pieces of chocolates from an overwhelming variety of flavours and looks. This also let me use a Swiss franc note with musical notes printed on it that I liked a lot, an experience me and Chris’s monster shopping in Basel otherwise had kept me from.
Visiting them not only gave me an injection of that feeling of real friendship that I valued so much, but also an insight into life in Switzerland that in many ways seemed to be pretty good, and a rest day before the climb over the Gotthardt pass would begin.
Full of anticipation I cycled with Chris along the mirror-like still Lake Lucerne on yet another sunny morning that we had enjoyed so many of since we had left England. The water was clear and bright blue and over the fields that were full of yellow flowers and the nearest hills rose both Mount Pilatus and more snowy mountain ranges in the distance. The idyllic peace by the lake that we stopped to swim in felt like the calm before the storm, knowing that a big challenge was about to begin. It felt great. Our plan was to get to where the climbing began and do a bit of it that day and then go over the pass the next day where the weather should still be fine before more wet and cold weather was expected north of the Alps. It seemed like we had timed it perfectly, and we expected a stunning ride over the snowy pass in the sun. I felt it was almost impossible to be so lucky as we were.
We got to a small ferry that would take us across Lake Lucerne and here we studied an illustrated map of the mountain range we were about to encounter. “We will go here and here and here” we said to each other and drew lines from the lake via green valleys and up and over the mountain peaks. Chris went to sit upstairs while I was stopped by another passenger who had noticed our adventurous-looking bicycles:
“Where are you going?” sounded the question once again. He was a Swiss man from St. Gallen in the north-eastern corner of Switzerland on a week’s holidays in the area around Lucerne with his wife. I explained about our trip and that we were now about to cycle over the Gotthardt pass with excitement in my voice.
He looked at me with concern. “I don’t think you can cycle over the Gotthardt pass” he said.
“Yes, I think we can. We have very low gears and we will just take our time, many people do it every year. It is my first time cycling over a mountain pass, but I’m almost certain I can do it.”
“But the pass is closed. Usually they don’t open the passes before the middle of May”.
I didn’t know what to say. We had not given this a single thought planning our route, and that was pretty silly of us. Merrily we had ridden along the Rhine in the sunshine indulging in a happy forgetfulness of the merciless reality of the mountains. I partly excused myself with my little experience with mountains being both a Dane and still quite new to travelling the world on a bicycle, but what about Chris, my mentor into cycle touring with all his experience, how could he have missed out on this? It was certainly not deliberate, but maybe due to his identity as an author and story teller, instinctively knowing that this could add a new dramatic turn in the story about our travels that otherwise was turning into a glossy picture of sunshine and dandelions.
I was flying home to Denmark for short visit from Bologna in only ten days and I was determined to cycle all the way, but now there seemed to be a several thousand metre high wall of snowy mountains (with no passes open) blocking the way. What were we going to do?
Strasbourg – Basel – Lucerne
302 kilometres cycled
Click below for more photos in the Flickr album #11: There are no wrong turns…