The air was soft and muggy as I left the hostel in Fribourg, heading through the light rain and crossing through the hills of the national park, Gantrisch, and onward to the popular tourist destination of Interlaken. I’d heard of Interlaken before somehow, but had no real intention of going there, except that it was the easiest way for me to get to the Alps from my current location. This once small village has turned into a bit of a tourist trap, but I can see why people like it here. The surroundings, dominated by two massive lakes and enclosed by mountains, even with the clouds and rain, were completely stunning.
After a reasonably pleasurable cycle along the valley of the river Aare, where Interlaken and the massive lakes are, I worked my way over many smaller hills to the foot of a high pass road. By this time it was extremely cloudy, and getting late. I could sense the massive mountains looming above me, some 3,000m high, but couldn’t see more than 100m above; the cloud level was too low. Only the darker areas of the clouds gave any indication. A sign read that I still had to climb a further 1650m to reach the top of the road. It was time to sleep.
By now there were few houses. I passed a barn and contemplated camping on the grass next to it whilst I made some pasta on my stove. Some cars whittled by. Perhaps it was too obvious to camp there? After some time it became apparent the barn was unoccupied and for some reason curiosity invited me to look inside. Maybe I could sleep in there? I peered in one room, which stank of shit… it was a stable. Not sleeping in this one. I forcefully slid open the door of another section, which contained some sort of weird grass-cutting machine dominating the empty space. I could sleep in here, I thought. Then I noticed the amount of bugs, woodlice and spiders crawling around. On second thought, maybe it would be better to sleep outside. But then I realised…there was another room; it was upstairs, or would be if there were any stairs. I clambered up the panels on the front of the barn, and shone my torch into the void. There was a pile of hay and an unused piece of floor. Quite warm too, and importantly, didn’t smell like shit.
It was dark and I was tired. I hid my bike beside the grass cutting contraption and threw my sleeping bag up to my new bed. I climbed up and kicked away some of the hay to make room for a place to lie down. I didn’t realise though that this was actually making quite a lot of dust in the air. Then, to my astonishment, a bunch of bats began whirling frantically around my face, flying within inches of it, all completely silent. I was pretty startled by this, and as I stood there tense and motionless, I began shouting “GO AWAY!” to them, as if they would somehow understand and then politely just fly off somewhere else. Indeed they were probably saying the same thing to me, just in bat language. Eventually it became apparent that this was their home. But as I lay down they began to slowly disappear, finding a resting place somewhere on the other side of the hay. I couldn’t hear them anyway, so if I turned off my torch and closed my eyes, they basically weren’t there. I thought about Batman, and fell asleep.
I woke at 3.30am. I never get up this early but for some reason I wanted to make the most of this day. I shone my torch out of the barn to reveal nothing. The clouds were now looming only metres above, and a thick fog lay below. I was a little nervous – all these mountains, massive rocks towering above me, and I couldn’t see them. I stretched a little, loaded my bike and after one sole car went past (the only one for the next 2 hours) I pushed off.
All I could hear was the sound of my breath and the roar of a river somewhere nearby. As I slowly climbed, within minutes I was inside the clouds. Now I could barely see anything, and I had a long way to go: I was at 600m, and the top was over 2,000. Beyond about 30m in front was invisible; the clouds now hiding even the tops of the trees, which themselves wear black, camouflaged against a black background. The few tunnels were the only things to give me temporary relief from the massive darkness outside, and even inside them, I couldn’t see the end for the clouds. There were no cars, no people, no houses and no light.
I slowly struggled higher and higher, but even as the temperature dropped, my bike at over 40kg, would insure I stayed warm simply by dragging it up beneath me. At around 5.30 it began to get lighter, but this was of no real benefit, simply confirming there was nothing to see and turning everything from black to a dark grey. I stopped only for 10 minutes on the way up, apart from the out of breath stops. It seemed to go on forever.
Finally, I had made it to the top at 7.30am, three and a half hours later. Now, the only sound was the strong wind rattling off the sign at the top. There wasn’t much point in staying there so I pushed off, flying down the other side of the mountain. Suddenly, I slammed on the brakes. After the first few corners of descent, and after being inside the clouds for the last 3 hours, I could finally see a glimpse of how high I was.
Across the valley I could see the Rhône Glacier sticking out of snow topped mountains. This was it, I thought, it was downhill for the next 150km, following the river Rhône down it’s valley all the way to Lake Geneva. I sped down the steep section of the mountain, stopping only to refill my bottles with icy cold, refreshing glacier stuff, and continued on the still-quiet road.
But it wasn’t so easy, after a few kilometres I was climbing again. It turns out the river is the only thing that truly goes down in this valley; the road is up and down for the first 50km. Eventually, I left the clouds engulfing the mountains for good and the sun came out to make an exceptionally warm day and I was cooled by the headwind I was fighting all the way. I passed a beautiful blue lake in Sierre and went for a swim, and camped shortly after.
The following day I found out the hard way that it was Swiss Independence Day when I went to buy some food: all the shops were closed (by law, apparently) which meant I had to do my shopping in a local train station kiosk – so it was even more expensive than Switzerland is already. I spent the rest of the day fighting the wind as there was no alternative; the mountains were blocking me in on either side, unless I wanted to climb another 1,500m, and even then I was likely to just end up in another windy valley. I made it to lake Geneva in time to watch the firework celebrations. But I had to leave as there was more pressing issues at hand, like where the hell I was going to sleep.
I was in Montreux, a pretty densely populated and rich town, on the banks of the Lake. Most of this side of the lake was either rocks or houses, so finding somewhere to sleep was difficult, and it was dark. I found a spot by eventually following signs for a sports centre, which often have small patches of grass around the back. I never made it though as I passed a small hidden piece of grass in between some houses. I slept to the booms of fireworks, which echoed for miles across the lake and against the encompassing mountains, followed later in the night by a thunderstorm.
I followed my way around the north side of the lake through Lausanne and Geneva, choosing to admire the scenery rather than spending too much time in the cities. I stopped for lunch in the botanical gardens in Geneva, spoke with a few other touring cyclists I had bumped into and then it was back to following the river Rhône into France.
Though I had just come from a seemingly populated place, indeed a city, there was nothing in France. It was lacking in towns, and what’s more, I thought it would be flat, which it most certainly wasn’t. I spent the evening climbing massive hills, before finally reaching a small town that contained the holy grail of cheap food, Lidl. I went mental in there, and came out with a mountain of food and change in my pocket. It was a bit of a relief.
It’s like Switzerland on sale here: all the really good stuff is sold out – there are no nice mountains or super cool lakes, but everything is half price. Before long I was cycling through the lazy Sunday traffic on my way to Lyon with no idea where I was really going – just following the road signs because I had no map.
The Route 1 cycle route in Switzerland stretches from Andermatt in the Swiss Alps all the way to Geneva. It’s mainly paved and most of it is either on quiet roads or cycle paths, taking you through numerous small villages and tourist sights on the way. More info on the Swiss cycle network here. For a map of the route I took click here.