Cycling in the Swiss Alps and round the Italian Lakes in 2000.
By Owen Barder and Grethe Petersen
Though we are relatively fit, we we were not very experienced cyclists. We spent a couple of weeks in the Alps and Northern Italy in the Summer of 2000. These notes are intended to help anyone who is planning some cycling in the area. We started in Davos, in order to take part in the Davos Marathon (highly recommended for runners who like off-road mountain marathons.)
Day 1: Davos to Vals
101km 5h10m via Monstein, Wiesen, Tiefencastel, Thusi, Bonaduz, Versam, Ilanz, Vals
Largely downhill to Tiefencastel (apart from a short climb into Wiesen), on quiet roads. From Tiefencastel to Thusis there is more traffic, but not too much for cycling. There are occasional tunnels up to about 2km long which can be quite scary, mainly because of the noise of cars echoing through the tunnel. Bikes are not allowed in the newly built tunnel into Thusis – there is presumably a road round the side, but we just went through the tunnel anyway.
From Thusis to Bonaduz is easy and flat. Bonaduz is a good place to stop and eat (we noticed a sushi bar here, for that authentic Swiss experience). Turn left at Bonaduz for a road that rises slowly through a pine forest, before opening up into a gorge. The Rabiusa river at the bottom of the valley is a striking aquamarine colour. A bridge over the Rabiusa, then a tough climb brings you into Versam, a small village at the top of the ridge. There is a good descent into Ilanz, through picture postcard, Swiss villages of wooden houses, with colourful flowerboxes, complete with Swiss flags (we were passing through on a national holiday, August 1st).
Ilanz has plenty of amenities, including an excellent internet cafe.
From Ilanz, we took a detour by cycling 20km up to Vals, at the head of its valley (there is no way through by bike or car: you have to come back the way you came). Here there are thermal springs, with the water having high concentrations of sodium sulphate. The baths are owned by the Hotel Therme a fairly plush hotel with extraordinary 1970s decor – but there is access to the baths, at a price, if you stay at one of the several other hotels in Vals.
Vals is a small and quite remote town built alongside a stream. The Valsper mineral water bottling plant greets you on arrival. We were there on a festival day and joined the townfolk as they gathered in the town square to hear speeches and a brass band, to watch fireworks let off from the mountaintops, and to eat and drink.
Day 2: Vals to Andermatt
83km 5h14m 16km/h (Oberalpass 2046m) via Ilanz, Thun, Disentis, Oberalpass
The descent from Vals to Ilanz was a welcome easy start to the day. Turning left along the Rhine, heading towards its source, there is a choice between a fairly busy main road or a cycling track along the river. The section of the cycle path that we tried (from Waltensburg to Tavernassa) was off road, and fairly hilly and muddy, so we returned to take our chances with the traffic on the road. (From the road, however, it looked as if the cycle route from Thun to Disentis was concrete).
The road rises gradually to Disentis (which is a good place to stop for lunch, before the 20km ascent to Oberalpass). This is fairly easy at first, but in the last 3km the road rises steeply through a series of hairpin bends up to two reastaurants at the top of the pass.
From the top of the pass, the road is flat at first, along the edge of the lake, before descending rapidly down 8km of hairpin bends into Andermatt. Andermatt is a centre for hikers and bikers in the summer, and full of hotels and restaurants. We stayed at the Alpenhotel Schlussel above the Coop, which we recommend.
Days 3 & 4
We took the train to Sion, changing at Brig, to see Kasper Ernst and Sarvat. Kasper’s parents have a little cottage near La Forclaz, originally built as a stopover by farmers migrating their cattle between the alps and the valleys. The ride was sharp up to Vex (pron. veh) then a long climb along the Val d’Herens to Les Hauderes. It was slow work in the rain, taking just under 3 hours to cover 30km. Then the final push up to La Forclaz, and down to the cottage. We walked in the evening to Ferpecle for dinner at a hotel & restuarant at the end of the valley, at the foot of the glacier de Ferpecle. (American tourists who had asked for the most remote hotel at the end of the most isolated valley in Switzerland had apparently been sent here).
The cottage had cold water, and a new hot shower, but no electricity. We slept in a bunk bed in the kitchen, and woke up like children to watch the household getting up.
We hiked in the morning, in damp, sweet-smelling forest, along a waterfall.
The ride back to Sion took just an hour, downhill the whole way apart from a short pull up into Evolene. Exhilarating, and in places so steep that it was hard to beieve that we had cycled up the day before.
Day 5: Circuit of the three passes (120km) 8h23min 14.2km/h
Sustenpass (2224), Grimselpass (2165), Furkapass (2431) Total climbing 3600m
We managed to pick the worst weather to do this round trip from Andermatt. We decided to do the passes anticlockwise, partly bcause this gives longer (= less steep) ascents, and partly so that we did not have a steep climb into Andermatt at the end. The road down to Goschenen is quite spectacular. You then descend further to Wassen, where you turn left up a quiet road, clearly labelled to Sustenpass. The 19km climb is consistent and not too hard (don’t believe the Baedecker guide which claims it is just 8.5km from Meiendorfi to the pass – it is much further). The final approach to the pass is steep and the top (2259m) was desolate to the point of eerie. There is no hotel or restaurant there.
The 28km descent similarly begins steep, then flattens out. We paused for breakfast in Gadmen, mainly to get warm and get some dry clothes on.
At Innerkirchen (751m) turn left for the 31km climb to Grimselpass. There is a bit more traffic on this road, but not too much. This is a pretty valley, with pleasant villages on the way. Eight kilometers before reaching the pass, the road runs along the lakeshore of Grimselsee. Even in the mist this was very impressive and slightly spooky. There are a couple of nice restaurants and souvenir shops at the top of Grimsel Pass (2165m).
The descent to Gletsch is only 6km, down a series of hairpin bends. You can see Gletsch below and, more alarmingly, the road rising out of Gletsch to Furka Pass. Between the two is the head of the Rhone Glacier, which is at the start of the Rhone river. You can get to the Glacier at the Belvedere Hotel, two thirds of the way up the ascent to Furka Pass.
After Gletsch the ascet of Furka is 10km, very steep just before the hotel but flattening out a couple of hairpin bends after it. There is a cafe at the top, but it shuts at 5.30pm so if you are doing the three passes the same way as us you will have to make good time to get there before it closes.
The descent to Realp is steep, and consists of hairpin bends all the way down. From Realp it is a gentle flat ride to Hospental and back to Andermatt.
The round trip took us nearly 8hrs 30min of cycling, and more than 12 hours including stops for meals. So make sure you start early enough to get back before dark (it got dark at 8.45pm in early August).
On a good day, this route would be beautiful, through beautiful mountain gorges and alongside majestic mountains. The day we went we could see little apart from the road ahead of us – not even the top of the passes unti we arrived. Even so, it was a very enjoyable, if strenuous, day.
Day 6: A run and a train ride
We ran along the river to Hospental, in freezing rain, then went to Brig by train. Came back by coach to Oberwald then train to Andermatt.
Day Seven: Adermatt to Lugano (120km)
5h 55min 20.3km/h St Gotthard Pass (2108m)
The road from Andermatt to St Gotthard Pass goes through Hospental, before rising gently to the pass. The old road runs up the same valley and carries almost no traffic. However, it is cobbled, and is considerably harder cycling than the faster main road.
At the top of the pass is a lake, hotel, museum and a couple of restaurants.
The roads down to Airolo are amazingly engineered, with hairpin bends built out of the mountainside on stilts. The old road and new road descend in a sort of double helix, intertwined all the way down. The new road is designated for cars only, so bikes are supposed to go down the old road (which is also cobbled).
From here on Italian is spoken, and few people understand German or French. South of St Gotthard Pass, the roads and villages seemed more Italian than Swiss.
From Airolo, the traffic goes along an Autostrada while the cyclist can stick to a well marked road down the valley, following along the river and passing through a spectspectacular gorge. This road is fast and very pleasant – probably the best day’s cycling we had.
Bellinzona is remarkable for its three medieval castles, and a pleasant church square. From Bellinzona to Lugano was harder work: more traffic, and the road passes through more built up areas.
Lugano, on the lake shore, is bustling. The gardens at the Palace of Congress are worth visiting, and there is a good selection of upmarket shops. We stayed in a hotel (the Excelsior) looking out over the lake, which is certainly recommended.
Day Eight: Lugano to Colico (49km)
2hr 37 min 18.6 km/h
We spent the morning in Lugano, then cycled east along the lake shore to Menaggio. The Route along lake Lugano was amasing with spetacular views over the lake. The border into Italy was casually patrolled and after a slight acsent Lake Como and Menaggio becomes visible. We took the ferry to Bellagio on the opposite shore of Lake Como. From there we took a boat across to Varenna. The ferries are frequent ad cheap, and offer spectacular views of the lake shore. From Varenna, we got back on our bikes and kept the lake on our left as we went to the eastern tip of the lake, to Colico. Colico has a small marina, with several upmarket reastaurants and a four-star hotel (which was either full, or didn’t want lycra clad cyclists clogging up its foyer). We stayed in a less celubrious, but perfectly clean, hotel in the town.
Day Nine: Colico to Bormio (111km)
5h 48 min 19.2 km/h
Probably our toughest day so far. We followed the Adda river on the north side, where the road carries much less traffic than the main road on the South. There was a headwind, and the valley is slowly climbing so progress can seem slow.
We stopped for lunch in Sondrio (307m) where there is a bustling market and lots of tempting food shops. Then up to Tirano (450m) and up the valley. Bikes are not allowed on the main road which goes through several long tunnels, but there is a parallel road, somewhat more up and down and rakishly signposted, that runs parallel and which is mercifully traffic free.
After a final push to Valle di Sotto the main climbing is over and you can enjoy the run in to Bormio (1125m).
Bormio is a medieval town at the foot of two key alpine passes (Pso dello Stelvio and Pso di Foscagno), and has enjoyed the status of a trading and market town for centuries. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants in its narrow cobbled streets (I am writing this at one of three cafes with tables on the Piazza Cavour).
Day Ten: Bormio to Pso della Stelvio and back (43km)
Umbrail Pass (2502m), Pso della Stelvio (2757m)
We decided to tackle Stelvio without panniers (though you could alternatively go over Umbrail towards St Moritz or over Stelvio towards Merano). The continuous climb to Stelvio is beautiful, and there are no particularly steep sections. About 2km from the top is a left turn into Switzerland. About 200m into Switzerland is the Umbrail Pass – worth a detour if you are collecting mountain passes. We had splendid weather, and the several restaurants and hotels at the top were bustling with motorcycling and cycling holidaymakers. The view on a fine day over the alps is magnificent.
The descent is also spectacular: we took it slow, reflecting the severity of the hairpin bends and the need to pay regard to the traffic.
Even leaving relatively late, and taking your time on the descent, you can get to the pass and back to Bormio in time for lunch.
Day 11: Bormio to Ponte di Legno (50km)
3hr 51m 12.8km/h Passo di Gavia (2652m)
We left Bormio the other way, taking the road up through S. Antonio. Sta Caterina Valfurva (alt 1738m) is a pretty ski village. Straight out of the vilage the road winds up in manageable hairpins to Passo di Gavia. This is fabulously pretty, and there was little traffic. Very good cafe at the top. On the way down, the road quality deteriorates – the road is concrete here, and in need of some repair.
Half way down, Owen lost his pannier, which tumbled over the edge of the road into a field of stinging nettles. We searched for a couple of hours but didn’t find it. So we stopped at Ponte di Legno to report it (for insurance) and to relace necessities. Ponte di Legno is a pretty, if a little touristy, village built along a stream. Accommodation is plentiful and relatively cheap.
Day 12 Ponte di Legno to Salo (141km)
7hr 24min 19.1km/h Passo di Croce Dominii (1892m)
The road west out of Ponte di Legno (at 1258) was downhill, fast and moderatley busy. We turned left at Edolo (alt 699m), sticking to the S42, and headed for Breno (alt 342m). Breno is a pleasant if unremarkable village – we stocked up on fruit and food.
The clib to Passo di Croce is long (21km) and quiet. We didn’t enjoy it much, but for no particular reason (except the weather turned against us at the top).
We barely had to pedal from the pass to Salo (alt 73m), some 50km away, since it was all downhill or flat. We turned right at Lago d’Idro, and followed the road through Vestone and Vobarno.
Bizarrely, we didn’t find accommodation easily in Salo. In the end, we stayed in a very nice, though quite expensive hotel. We were tired, so we stayed an extra day here (and went running in the morning along the lakeshore).
Day 14 Salo to Venice (170km)
We took the ferry from Salo across to Garda, then went South of Verona and Vicenza. Our map was inadequate, and we got completely lost around Padova. We arrived after nightfall, and ended up staying at a Holiday Inn near Mestre (the mainland town next to Venice).
The cycling was flat, and the countryside was pretty enough. We made reasonably good time, but it was hard work all day to cover the distance.
Day 15 To Venice Airport
We spent our last day in Venice, by cycling to the airport, locking our bikes there, and then taking the boat-ferry into Venice itself. Finding a way to the airport proved problematic, as all the road signs take you on to the motorway. There is in fact a back road, but it isn’t easy to find and there aren’t very many people around to ask. Make sure you’ve got a good local map before you attempt this.
There are, of course, cheap flights from Venice back to the UK, if that is where you are going.
General guidance on cycling in Italy
- Roads turn in to motorways.
- We found that you don’t usually need to book accommodation in advance. As long as you are not too fussy you can always find a room somewhere. This means that you can be fairly flexible, cycling for longer on days that you feel inclined, and cutting short cycling on other days.
- Pack light (see the packing list below).
- The weather in early August was really hot – from 30 to 35 degrees.
- Drink lots of water. We managed 4 to 5 litres a day on really hot days in Italy.
Here is what we took with us:
- 2 pairs cycling shorts
- 2 t-shirts or cycling vests
- 1 pair running shoes and shorts (we are runners!)
- 1 long trousers, smart shirt, sandals for evenings
- 2 underwear and socks
- a tube of travel washing liquid
- toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shampoo
- sunglasses, sun tan lotion & after-sun
- cycling shoes, gloves and helmet
- water bottle
- maps (see below)
- folding anorak
- tools: allen keys, pump, spanners for rack, headset and pedals, inner tube, brake blocks
- a bum-bag (for Americans: this is a fanny pack)
- camera, film, personal organiser, pen
- mobile phone and charger
For Italy, we used 1:200 000 Touring Club Italiano maps (Grande carta stradale d’Italia). There are 15 sheets, covering the whole country.
We used the Michelin Green Guide to Italy. For booking accommdation ahead, the Michelin Red Guide is available to be downloaded onto a palmtop computer, which saves room and weight in your panniers.