From Geneva to Interlaken on the Alpine Lake Route (June 14 – 17 2012)
A 3-day, 250-km ride from Geneva to Interlaken, following the Alpine Lake Route through Lausanne, Gruyères, Château-d'Oex, Gstaad and Spitz.
What I had in mind was renting a bicycle for a two- or tree-day loop trip around Lake Léman (or Geneva Lake). The Geneva tourist information office directed me to the Bike Switzerland shop near the Cornavin station. Displaying an array of maps and guides, John, the owner, convinced me that there were more exciting things to do in the same three-day span, like following the Lakes Route (see the Cycling in Switzerland web site), from Geneva to Interlaken, using the Train + Bike service for the return trip. To go from Lake Léman to the upland Swiss Plateau, you don't have to climb a high pass, unless this is what you want. There is an easier way, the Old Cheese Road. Travelled by ox-carts from Gruyères to the lake in times past, it is a relatively easy climb. For that trip, I choose a lightweight, fully-equipped BMC hybrid (40 CHF/day) and I had three perfect fresh and sunny days, a small miracle considering the rotten weather the week before. Checking prices on Internet, I soon realized that most hotels were too pricey for my modest budget and settled for chambres d'hôtes (bed and breakfasts) instead.
· My GPS tracks (in Garmin.gdb format), available upon request.
· Cycling in Switzerland, vol. 9, The Lakes Route : Crossing Switzerland from Montreux (on Lake Léman) to St. Gallen (on Lake Constance); Web Site : http://www.veloland.ch/en/buecher_karten.cfm,
· Mobile Tagging - Bee Tag, if you travel with your cell phone.
Thursday, June 14
From Geneva to Cully (80 km in 7½ h, av. 15.8 km/h)
Cornavin Station at 10:30 a.m. on the bicycle path running along the Chemin de
Lausanne, I felt very safe in the middle of the dense morning traffic. The cool
and sunny weather was perfect for riding. Using the maps of Cycling in Switzerland, I tried to stay
on light traffic secondary roads between the lake and Highway 1 up the hills. I
had lunch on the crowded terrace of a small restaurant on Crans Road, just
before Nyon. From Geneva to Morges, a relatively flat area, most roads have a
shoulder, except in rural areas where they wind through fields of wheat,
potatoes and corn, with an occasional view on the lake or the Mont Blanc. Many
local cyclists, young or old, saluted me with a friendly "Bonjour!"
as we passed each other.
Just before Morges, a local man showed me a trail going through the thick wood close to the lake, connecting with a vast lakeside park and marina. Facing Mont Blanc and other majestic snow-capped summits reflecting on the lake, the place was simply awesome. As if I was under a magic spell, I rode on the shared-use pedestrians and cyclists paved footway following the shore. In one place, a fine two-masted high-sterned boat from another era, obviously a replica, was anchored in the bay.
Going through Lausanne, a city full of steep hills, can be a daunting challenge except if you stay on the lake side. I found another pleasant shared footpath there, bypassing the seedy industrial and railroad district. However, I had to decide where I would be spending the night. Before leaving, I had located several suitable B & B in Lausanne, but my first choice was the farthest one in Cully, between Lausanne and Chexbres. Phoning from a public booth in the Vidy Campground, I booked a room there. At some point past Lausanne, leaving the lake shore, I took narrow Villette Road over the railroad, for a fun ride in the middle of the Lavaux hills. Covered with golden green chasselas and offering a gorgeous view on the lake, these hills are part of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites and grace the 200 franc banknote as a watermark (Collect them all!). Just before 6 p.m., I passed through quaint Cully and after a mild one-kilometer climb, I reached Le Vigny Bed and Breakfast, an old house in the middle of the vines (60 FS with WiFi). Thanks to a 1941 law forbidding any new construction there, the distinctive character of that unique site was preserved from condomisation. There, I met an old New Zealander couple needing an interpreter. Once I had settled in, I rode back to Cully and had dinner in the chic Major Davel Hotel restaurant, a good place to watch a gorgeous sunset in the mountains on the other side of the lake.
Friday, June 15
From Cully to Château d'Oex (86 km in 10 h; max. 56 km/h, av. 12.8 km/h)
A little before 6 a.m., after a quiet night's sleep, I was awakened by a crop sprayer chopper churning the air around and over the house. The small hedgehopping craft, wrapped into thin white veils, looked like a graceful ballerina dancing over the vines. Over a hearty breakfast, the owner told me that these spraying flights were needed to fight mildew and other fungal diseases. "We just close the windows for a few hours", she said.
Around 8 a.m. I was back on Route 9. The subdued lighting of the early morning had replaced the vibrant tones of yesterday afternoon with by soft, hazy pastel hues. That day, I wanted to sleep in Saanen or Gstaad but there was no way I could get a B & B reservation on the Net. To be on the safe side, I jotted down the addresses of the tourist information offices and Youth Hostels of Château d'Oex, Saanen and Gstaad.
In Vevey, a small city tucked to the lake by Highway 9, I had some trouble finding the Old Cheese Road. A man I asked on the street drew me a crude sketch directing me to the underpass. A few minutes later, I slipped out of the concrete belt on a narrow connecting road so steep that I had to walk my bike up. Soon after, as I was climbing in low gear, the beautiful alpine valley panorama began to unfold, a pleasure for the eye. With a slope never exceeding 4 degrees, the climb was easier than what I expected.
Just before noon, I had lunch in Châtel St-Denis, some 400 meters over the lake, which was now out of sight. Then, I was riding in the middle of the green fields of the flat highlands, taking the narrow back roads recommended by the Guide, most of them clearly shown by distinct color-coded signs (for hiking, skating, canoeing, mountain biking or cyclotourism). In Vaulruz, I went a bit out of my way to see the church and castle on the hill. On the other side of Bulle (one of the rare industrial towns in that area), the alpine landscape gets more character. After passing by the huge cheese factory in Gruyères, I had a command to fulfill, taking a few pictures of the old town for a friend. An ancestor of hers supposedly had been the paramour of the count a long time ago. Crowded with tourists and visiting school classes, that little walled town up on the hill is nevertheless a must-see.
Going down the hill on the narrow empty trails was an exciting moment. Old Route de Rez (above Intyamon Road) offers nice views on the valley, for a price; I had to stand up on my pedals to climb several short steep hills. Passing through Grandvillard around 4 p.m., I stopped to check my map in front of a cold beer. The hot afternoon sun was coming down and Château d'Oex was my best bet.
Just past Lessoc, I fell back on the main road, which follows the Sarine River. Near a small bridge, a Swiss cyclist about my age signalled me to stop. He advised me to take the old road across the river, instead of the main road intermittently blocked by road works. Riding the cool shaded but unkempt road was a pleasure and got me past a long line of vehicles waiting for their turn to pass.
Reaching Château d'Oex at 6, I climbed up one more small hill to reach the tourist information office in the middle of the town. The kind clerk there directed me to Les Chambre d'hôtes du Berceau, a B & B in a farm close to the river, and I got a cosy small room in a recently rebuilt house. Later, at the swimming pool restaurant nearby, I ate delicious perch filets, the other Swiss national dish, except that most of the fish is imported now from Poland or Estonia.
Saturday, June 16
From Château d'Oex to Interlaken (86 km in 8 h; max. 56 km/h, av. 14.4 km/h)
I left at 9 and after a few kilometers on the quiet narrow road on the other side of the Sarine River, I got back on Route 11 in Saanen. This town marks the "linguistic frontier", after which all signs are in German. Feeling great, my only regret was to be on my final day instead of going all the way to Lake Constance. Well, some other time... Traveling without a reservation on a warm, sunny Saturday, I had better get to Interlaken before the end of the afternoon, and decisions had to be made. So, I bypassed Gstaad in order to make good time. The road goes up on a gentle slope all the way to the highest point in Shönried (1286 meters), a total climb of 900 meters in two days without too much pain. Wherever I looked, I was surrounded by big and small mountains, with white-crested peak farther away - Swiss landscape at its best.
After a stop for lunch in a small town called Zweisimmen, I followed the well-named Weissenbach ("the White Creek"), a small raging brook crossed by several covered wooden bridges. For a short while, I rode along a group of kayakists going down the rapids. In Wimms, high mountains block the valley except for a narrow gorge giving access to Spitz, on beautiful Lake Thun. Surrounded by intermediate size mountains, it looks like a scaled-down Lake Léman of sorts. As one would expect on of a fine weekend day, a lot of sailboats were leisurely drifting in every direction. There is a nice bicycle trail along the shore connecting several small public beaches. I would have like to join the swimmers there for a dip, but the afternoon was already drawing to an end. Near Interlaken, the railroad takes the whole width of the shore, and that's the end of the trail.
Basking in the golden
late afternoon sun, the Höheweg was crowded with tourists strolling in front
of world-class hotels at the foot of the
majestic snow-capped Jungfrau (4158 m). Paragliders gently dropped from the
heights, landing in the vast park, an empty meadow bought by the hotel owners
more than a century ago to make sure no other constructions would steal their
unique mountain view.
I had yet to find a room, and to make things worst, the Tourist Information Office had closed at 4 p.m. The attendant of the Youth Hostel told me that due to a punk rock concert at the airport that night, all their rooms were already booked, and all they had left were dormitories. She advised me to check with the information booth near the train station. I got there just before closure time at 6 p.m. and the young lady there made some calls for me. I finally reserved a very nice room in BB18interlaken (85 CHF), not far from the city center. Once I was settled in, I walked back to the station to get my train ticket and find a place to eat, casting my choice on a very good Asian restaurant.
Sunday June 17
Hoping on the Geneva Train
In the station, the platform of the Geneva-bound train was full of people and I didn't know where the bicycle car would stop. When the train came in, seeing a couple of cyclists hurrying in the direction of the front cars, I followed them, pushing my fully-loaded bike as fast as I could. Other cyclists helped me to get in, then, I took off my panniers and hooked my front wheel up to make some place for other cyclists. Standing the bikes vertically definitely is the most compact way to stack them in a train. I found a seat with a couple of cyclists from Bern going to Geneva for a round trip around Lake Léman. Three middle-aged Japanese cyclists on the other side of the aisle borrowed my Cycling in Switzerland guide. They were going for a round trip from Geneva to Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc, crossing the Forclaz Pass (1526 m) and coming back through France.
In conclusion, I think that Switzerland is the most bicycle-friendly country I've visited for many reasons, including its extended bike path net, its distinct pictogram signs guiding the cyclists, first class rent-a-bike services in major cities, not to forget the train and bus which allow self-loading of bicycles to get to (or back from) any place in that beautiful country, without having to cross boring urban or industrial areas.