Yes, that is a Swiss Army knife made entirely of different coloured pumpkins…

Pumpkin love knows no bounds in Switzerland. Most of the pictures below are from a shopping centre in Zug. There were more pumpkins than could ever fit in a camera view, including hundreds labelled with varyingly inappropriate names. The other awesome thing about this shopping centre was that in the supermarket a man was giving out free doughnuts. It’s like Zug knew we we were coming and needed food and entertainment.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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Italy part 1: Sunshine and staring

imageNorth of the Alps we were rarely given more then a cursory glance; travelling by bike in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland is nothing to write home about. We blended in. But, welcome to Italy, the country where two girls on heavily loaded bikes with GB flags on are not the norm. When car drivers overtake us, most slow down and follow us with their stare as they pull back in (which involves them looking out of the side window behind them rather than at the road), often with open mouths. Old Italian men seem fascinated by the bikes and the luggage, often chatting away to us in Italian whilst counting the number of bags we have, unperturbed by the fact that we just smile and nod. Mouths drop open when we say we have ridden 2000 kilometres, a phrase even we can manage in Italian.

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Varenna, Lake Como

Crossing the Alps was not just a physical boundary between the ‘warm up’ ride to get there and the ‘real adventure’. Life on the road is different in many ways this side of the mountains. Italy is the first county we haven’t cycled in before, so everything is new. Bike routes are limited so we spend a long time finding routes on quiet roads, only to scrap them later in the day and stick to a bigger straight road in order to get anywhere. The language is almost unknown to us; we are learning the basics but it is hard not to be able to converse with those wide mouthed Italians who greet us in every town and fire questions at us. Road cyclists in full gear fly past all day. Campsites are closed. Also the clocks changing has made our riding day even shorter. But the sun is out (mostly). Also, we are slowing down. Our mission to get over the mountains in search of warmer climates and new places to cycle meant that we pushed on most days, whereas now we are meandering more, joining up places we want to visit, taking a day off here and there.

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Camping by Lake Maggiore

The descent from the mountains took us through Italian Swiss territory, where everyone spoke Italian and the driving became a little more crazy. Italy in everything but the name (and the prices). Our first lake stop was by Lake Maggiore, where we didn’t see George Clooney but with did meet Benardo, a cafe owner (and interestingly the designer of the first electric car) who invited us to camp on his ‘balcony of the lake’. Our tent could not have been closer to the lake shore, a perfect spot to wake up. Dennis from the Netherlands was also camping there and helping Bernardo with his work; Dennis had cycled over the Gotthard Pass too but on a Dutch shopping-style bike in bad weather. Made our ride over look easy. From Lake Maggiore we road east mostly in Switzerland, spending our last francs before staying in Como back in Italy. A sunny day was spent riding up and down the ‘inverted y’ base of Lake Como, ending up in Lecco where we actually found an open campsite on the lake. The following day we wound our way through small villages to get to Bergamo. Our route crossed a charity run/walk/bike ride several times – at one point we came across a fundraising stall selling fruit who did the usual open-mouthed gasping at our bikes and journey and then plied us with coffee and cake and filled our panniers (well actually Debs has the food pannier much to my relief) with oranges and mandarins.

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Being fed by the roadside

Bergamo has an old town, ‘citta alta’ on the top of a hill, and riding towards this we were reminded of how great it is to arrive by bike – views emerge slowly and you can appreciate the shift in terrain to get there (although maybe not during the ride up steep cobbled streets, but definitely after). The narrow streets and busy Sunday crowds were a bit of a nightmare to navigate walking the heavy bikes but it gave good opportunity for more staring. After a good look/walk/ride around we rode to the youth hostel up on another hill that had a great view of the old town. We checked in, sneaked our bikes into the room (becoming standard practice for us in hostels) to find that we had our own balcony and amazing view. Drinking €2 a bottle (this is not the cheapest) red wine from plastic beakers and watching the sky turn red over the old town, life in Italy was not bad at all.

Thanks to Bernardo and Dennis, the Italian road cyclists who encouraged us up the hills and the volunteers for ‘friends of Africa’ who fed us…

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‘Are you crazy?’ Up and over the Swiss Alps

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There’s mountains behind the fog…

Spurred on by temperatures of 20 degrees plus in Northern Italy it was time to head directly south through Switzerland, a country we have cycled across before so had not planned to include this time. But it is a beautiful country, and well set up for the cyclist (even if they do take you up and over hills instead of on flat roads around them) so we were not too upset at this change. Other than the fact we had left our comprehensive Switzerland cycling guide, map and plug adapter at home. Lucky the routes are well signed.

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Just a small bit of the Zug display

The first day in Switzerland was spent riding through the north of the country towards Zug, supposedly the most expensive city in one of the most expensive countries in the world. Our favourite thing about it was the obsession with pumpkins – we have seen a lot in the run up to Halloween but Zug took this to another level. From Zug we rode south mostly along lake shores, though the fog meant that they were a dull grey and the snowy mountains we knew lay ahead were obscured from view. Probably for the best. We made it as far as Wassen at 900m above sea level, negotiated a deal for a hotel room and fuelled up ready to climb to 2100m the following day. (For context, the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, is around 1300m high).

imageWe woke to a beautifully clear but frosty morning, finally able to view the mountains that lay in our path and the amount of snow up there. A 4km section of the road is being upgraded and we had been told that there is a bus service to take cyclists through the roadworks. After seeing no bus and no ‘road closed to cyclists’ signs we set off through the first tunnel with temporary traffic lights. The workmen laughed and encouraged us to keep going – must be fine we thought. However at the second tunnel we were faced with a Swiss man controlling the traffic rather than lights, who (we think) explained that we can’t cycle on and we should be on a bus. After arguing that there was no bus and no sign (in English obviously) we were finally waved on, and had to pedal madly uphill to try and get out of the tunnel before the traffic coming down was let through. With only gummie bears to fuel us this was difficult and after holding up a large truck we finally made it out.

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We made it!!

Eventually we reached Andermatt at 1400m, and asked in the tourist office about the weather at the top and if it was wise to cycle over. ‘Snow, -2 degrees, are you crazy?’ was the gist of the answer. The road closes at 6pm because of the ice, our biggest worry was slipping on the way down. But it was so clear, there was no risk of snowfall, and we really wanted to ride over if possible so we continued uphill with the plan that if it started getting icy we would turn back and get a train. And we were so pleased we did. The road up was not too steep, the views were incredible with the blue sky and there was hardly any traffic. Cars that did pass beeped and waved. Apparently in the summer the road is full of motorcyclists whizzing past – not at this time of year. We saw no other cyclists either. The
road flattens out towards the summit and before we knew it we had made it!

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Debs is on the Scalectrix corner…

The snow was thigh deep at the side of the road and it was freezing cold, after a few celebratory pictures we put on several extra layers and set off on the descent, usually the reward for a tough climb but for us we had been dreading this due to the frost on the road. By the time we dropped to Airolo at 1100m through some steep switchbacks our hands and arms were more sore from being on the brakes than our legs were from the ride up. Again not wanting to camp we got a hotel room, extending our Swiss Alpine Holiday for one more night, and found we had a panoramic view of the Alps from the bedroom. Awesome! Looking up at the snow, where the road came from and how it twisted and turned we could not believe we had just cycled over the pass. All that was left was to have a celebratory dinner of pasta and tomato sauce (there are limits to our ‘holiday’) and collapse into bed very pleased with ourselves.

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The panoramic reward from the hotel window

Thanks to Ralf and Franzie and the staff at Hotel Gerig (Wassen) and Hotel Motto (Airolo) for making our Swiss Alpine Holiday just about affordable!

Is it winter already?

imageAfter a rest (eating, washing, reminding our legs how to walk, shopping for warmer coats, gloves and socks) day in Wissembourg we decided to stay longer in France, enjoying understanding a little more of what people were saying than over the border in Germany. So we turned our bikes south towards Strasbourg. Unfortunately the cold snap (or what some people call Autumn) that started with frost on the inside of the tent a couple of days previously continued, and we were in for a few days of daytime temperatures of 6-9 degrees. This was not what we were riding away from a British winter for. Food stops became shorter, unless they were inside in the warm where they became much longer.

imageThe small French town of Uberach, our short outside lunch stop for the day, was notable for two reasons. Neither of which were the brewery where we planned to have a beer but were perhaps rightly turned away for wanting to eat our sandwiches inside at the same time. For the first time in two weeks riding on the continent we rode for a period of time on the left side of the road. Debs went first and I followed, not thinking anything of it, until about 20 meters later she stopped abruptly and started shouting sorry to an oncoming driver. The elderly lady seemed a little surprised but hopefully the British flags on the bikes explained a thing or two. Back on the right side of the road we stopped, put several layers of clothing on and ate our sandwiches in a small square outside the town hall. At some point a French guy came and chatted to us, in French, about our trip. Satisfied with the answers from two cold English girls he returned to work in the town hall, only to reappear with a colleague and a camera a short while later. Much hilarity ensued as he tried (and failed) to pick my bike up and then rode it around the small square almost toppling over. I hope we made the Uberach news.

imageWe reached Strasbourg the following day, an impressive city centre encircled by water which we liked very much given our love of islands. From there we had the choice of riding down the Rhine south and then east – flat – or taking a ‘short cut’ across the Black Forest in Germany – hilly. Stubborn as we are, we chose the latter due to already having ridden a good section of the Rhine in 2012. And liking a challenge. However the challenge on a cold day with a long ride mostly steep uphill to our hosts was too much for us, and after the fog closed in and the rain made everything very unpleasant we gratefully accepted a lift the last 20km. Cold, wet and a bit miserable, we were warmed up by tea, chocolate, wine and a huge dinner. Conversations about our route and the tough weather, and the discovery that it was 25 degrees in Lake Como, led us to change plans slightly and head straight south through Switzerland – with a 2100m pass in the way – to northern Italy. Sunshine here we come?!image

Thanks in this post to Claud and colleagues at the Uberach Mairie; Martine, Dominique and Stefan (great guitar playing); Tobi; Dirk and Karo.

Willkommen/Bienvenue

imageFrom Luxembourg we rode East into Germany – country number five – following the Moselle River to Trier. On Sunday morning we expected the city to be quiet but the area around the Porta Nigra, a big old Roman building/gateway was busy with American tourists from river cruises who were very excited by our British flags. After a picnic at the Amphitheatre grounds we turned back along the Moselle but this time branched South beside the Saar.

imageThe river wound past several picturesque towns and the sun even stayed out long enough for us to relax with some apple cake. Good job we had fuelled up on cake as a late hostel arrival (and a logic puzzle to fit the bikes in the room) meant that dinner was a little light for the day’s ride. Boiling water in a tea cup from the coffee machine with some cous cous added does not fill a hungry cyclist.

Squeezed bikes into YH room at Driesbach. Ate cous cous in cups.
Squeezed bikes in, ate cous cous.

The Saar did not remain so pretty, the next day we mainly rode past towns, roads and factories of varying sizes. The most interesting was very old and had kind of been reclaimed by the plants. Maybe this is to provide inspiration for future bake off contestants (Tamal, The Final, which we watched in the tent in Luxembourg). We entered France (6) in the early evening and camped in a French man’s garden. For garden read large field backing onto bike path.

We slept well but it was very cold trying to get packed up in the morning – there was frost on the inside and outside of the tent. We learned that late breakfasts are a bad idea in the cold – sunshine and food needed to warm up. We wondered if frost in the tent put us in some kind of elite explorer crew, but eventually decided that at best we were bronze members. For silver, your water bottles have to freeze, and for gold at least one of you has to have frost in their beard.

Germany France Germany France
Germany France Germany France

Although our next destination was in France, we spent almost the whole day riding in Germany through hilly forests and farm land. It was over 100km from Sarreguemines to Wissembourg, mainly on quiet routes and excellent cycle paths. Wissembourg is a pretty city with many old buildings and city walls.  Historically the inhabitants had an unfortunate local nickname. Based on their outside-the-ramparts toilet habits they were referred to as ‘City wall shitters.’  Guess it makes sense not to go inside your lovely city.

Thanks for this part of the trip to: Dominique, Eric, Coralie, enthusiastic Amercian cruisers, the man with the large garden near Sarreguimines, people who stopped us going the wrong way in German.