Pastoral pedaling: Swiss bicycle Route 5 is easy going
Stars and Stripes June 5, 2003
This was not our favorite Swiss ride.
Bicycle Bob, my husband, who is passionate about pedaling, and I set out to conquer Switzerland’s national bike route No. 5, the Middle Land route, over the Labor Day weekend last year. In previous summers we rode four of the country’s nine national routes and were awed by the scenery and challenged by the tough terrain.
The Middle Land route crosses Switzerland from Romanshorn in the north on the shores of Lake Constance to Lausanne in the south on Lake Geneva, a total of 228 miles (369 kilometers).
The weather was not the greatest during our journey. In four days of cycling, we had two hours of sunshine, a couple hours of a downpour, and hour after hour of gray, dismal clouds.
It was so overcast we never saw any of the spectacular mountains, the reason we love Switzerland. We rode through lots of farm country, pretty but boring after a while. And we had to ride next to highways to get around the Zurich airport — not a pleasant experience.
For the most part, the cycling was mundane on relatively flat terrain. We like the variety of demanding ascents followed by fast and thrilling descents.
As we had seen on previous Swiss rides, the route was well marked and easy to follow. We rode mostly on bike trails, not busy streets. And, because the riding was easy, we were able to pedal some 60 miles on each of three days. On the fourth day, we only rode a half-day as we had to catch a train to get back to our car.
We usually begin our rides at the train station in the town at the start of the ride, as that’s where there are signs for the route. We found no Route 5 signs at the Romanshorn Bahnhof, however, so we pedaled around looking for the red and blue markers.
As usual, Bicycle Bob thought we should go one way, and I was just as sure it was the other way. A woman walking her dog finally pointed us in the right direction.
As soon as we left town, we were deep into Swiss farm country. There were orchards whose apple trees were so burdened with fruit that the branches had to be propped up with stakes and ropes. There were cows and sheep, even a front yard full of rabbits nibbling on grass. A flock of honking geese crossed the road in front of us, and we rode alongside a group of cows on its way to the barn for milking.
It was all pretty and pastoral, with most of the farmhouses decked out in flowers. We pedaled on and rode along a stream whose crystal-clear waters gurgled over rocks, then into a forest on a gravel path.
After a lunch break in the town of Wil we moved on to Winterthur. Leaving town, we encountered a bit of a challenge, a long uphill climb. Then we rode on a trail skirting an autobahn and into the town of Bassersdorf, where we spent the night. Our hotel had a Cuban restaurant, so we dined on a tasty Cuban chicken dish.
The next day we had to get around Zurich. The route went by the city airport, and although it was on a bike trail, the trail was right next to a busy highway.
After Zurich, it was more farmland, then along a river that was a haven for a variety of water fowl, including strange-looking orange ducks. The river flowed into the town of Baden, a picturesque place with a covered bridge and interesting riverfront houses.
We were in Switzerland, but we couldn’t escape Cuba. Lunch was at the Havana restaurant in Brugg. We usually have lunch late, and it was the only restaurant we found still serving. After a 45-minute wait, we asked where our food was.
“Saturday is the day to clean the kitchen,” the waitress explained, and the cleaning had to be completed before lunch could be prepared.
By the time we finished eating, it was raining. On with the rain gear and back on the trail to Olten, where we spent the night.
At Olten, all the hotels in our price category were full. The only room we could find was at the Hotel Europe, a suspicious place with lots of sexily clad young women strolling about, and a loud, noisy bar packed with men — and more of those sex bombs. Our tiny, worn-out room with threadbare towels, peeling wallpaper and a dirty bedspread was no bargain at 145 Swiss francs — about $112 at today’s exchange rate.
We left Olten the next morning in a drizzle, again riding through a woods by a river. We pedaled in and out of towns and through some industrial areas. All those miles we had pedaled were taking a toll on my back and neck. It was good to take a break for coffee mélange (topped with a mini mountain of whipped cream) in the town of Solothurn, known for its Baroque architecture, including the St. Ursen cathedral. We rode around town admiring the buildings before heading out.
The route headed southwest, bypassing the town of Biel but continuing along the shores of Lake Biel. We had looked forward to some scenic pedaling along the lake, as that’s what the map indicated. However, a forest separated our trail from the lake, so all we saw were trees and vacation bungalows.
We spent the last night of our trip in Erlach, a tiny town on the shores of Lake Biel.
Day four in the saddle was more farm territory — this time corn, corn and more corn. The fields were being fertilized and the stench was overpowering. The best part of the day was a lunch break in the lakeside town of Estavayer-le-Lac. We were now in French-speaking Switzerland, and the cuisine was deliciously French.
We did not have time to ride all the way to Lausanne to complete the entire route. We stopped instead in Yverdon- les-Bains, where we boarded the train back to Romanshorn and our car.
Maybe we were spoiled by the breathtaking vistas on Swiss rides we had taken in the past. Maybe we would have had the views we treasure if there hadn’t been so many nasty clouds. Maybe we’re just too demanding.
Whatever — the Swiss Middle Land route did not inspire us.
But it is not bad for well- marked, basically easy cycling — especially if you like farm country — and Cuban restaurants.
Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, is a journalist living near Stuttgart, Germany.
About the nine Swiss bike routes ...
Cycling in Switzerland (Veloland Schweiz) has nine marked bike routes through the country. The routes are explained at the Web site www.veloland.ch.
On the green band that runs across the top of the homepage, click on the small “e” to get the information in English. There are brief descriptions of the routes, as well as information on the guidebooks that accompany each route.
You can order route books from the Web page, but unfortunately they are available only in German and French. However, even if you don’t speak or read these languages, the books contain helpful strip maps, detailing the distance between points and showing symbols to indicate steep ascents and descents and alternative transportation available. For example, when the going gets really rough (steep inclines or heavy traffic), you may have the option of continuing the route by train, ski lift, bus or boat.
We’ve ridden five of the nine routes and used all of these forms of transportation with our bikes at one time or another.
While we were not enthralled with Route 5, we can recommend Route 3 from Basel to Chiasso, which is spectacular but difficult. My husband, Bicycle Bob, even cycled over the Gotthard Pass. I took the easy way out and rode a bus with my bike.
Route 7, the Jura route from Basel to Nyon, is Bicycle Bob’s favorite — not easy but beautiful and almost entirely on paved bike trails. I loved No. 9, the lake route from Montreux to Rorschach, which has the perfect combination of mountain and lake scenery — and plenty of challenge.
Forget Route 1, the Rhone route (Oberwald-Geneva) — too much of it is on busy roads.