This October we spent a few days in Austria on a long-planned family holiday. As this included crossing all of Switzerland, we thought we might as well continue the vacation a bit longer and do a short cycle tour from there. We had a week to spend, and we ended up cycling in four countries (Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland) and over four mountain passes (no, actually, five). We went from glorious autumn weather to the beginning of winter. The trip was short (too short!), but it gave us back a bit of the cycle touring feeling we had been missing since coming back home last June.
It was a tough week, but a very happy one.
Read on if you want to know more about it!
Part 1: Fernpass
After four days of pampering, spa visits, playing with nieces and nephews, and eating way too much, we set off from the Alm Hochhäderich, the place where we had spent our family holiday. We had arrived there by bicycle from the Swiss border town of Sankt Margrethen, taking advantage of the Swiss train system’s possibility of sending bicycles to almost every train station in the country.
So, we started off by following a hiking trail, then a mountain road that went steeply uphill before diving down into Germany, where we joined the Bodensee-Königssee cycle route. We followed the route – with a few variations – until Pfronten, by the border to Austria. On the map, this stretch had looked quite flat to me, but we sooon realized that there’s nothing flat in this part of the world. We had to scale back our expected daily distances…
But the route was beautiful. Some was on cycle lanes, some on small countryside roads. It was warm and we were cycling in shorts and t-shirts.
In the afternoon, we decided to find a campsite. A disadvantage of cycle touring in autumn is that it gets dark (and cold) early. The region didn’t seem very suitable for wild camping – it was all fields, most of which had just been fertilized with cow dung… We managed to hunt down an all-year-round open campsite next to a lake (Güntensee). It wasn’t cheap but it was nice: nicely heated bathrooms, a perfect hot shower, a picnic table, and a restaurant for the (very important) after-cycling beer.
The next day saw more great weather, mountain views, and perfect cycle routes.
After crossing the border to Austria, we joined another great cycle route: the Via Claudia Augusta. This was the first real road across the Alps, built by Roman emperor Claudius. It’s now having a comeback in the form of (supposedly the easiest) cycle route crossing the Alps. We didn’t known about this route before and were positively surprised. We would follow this route until just below the Passo Stelvio in Italy.
But for the time being we had to master our first serious climb, on a steep dirt road out of the town of Reutte. We first thought that this was the Fernpass, but then realised that it was just the appetizer…
We stopped for the night at a campsite in Biberwier, just before the start of the road up the actual mountain pass. The nights started getting colder, and cooking and eating dinner outside was getting less comfortable.
We tackled the Fernpass the following morning. It was more like a mountainbike route, with rough unasphalted trails and some steep and narrow paths. Not easy to cycle. But it was great fun to pretend being a mountainbike for once!
Part 2: Reschenpass
After our sporty descent from the Fernpass, we treated ourselves to a second breakfast in the sun to warm up a bit. The route now got flatter and we joined the town of Imst, where our route started following the Inn river.
The Inn cycle route was nice and mostly sparate from the main road, but from the town of Landeck it was in the shade, and by the end of the afternoon we were freezing. We put up our tent in the campsite in Ried, took an indescently long hot shower, and went off for dinner in a warm restaurant. The only one we found was a Turkish fast food kind of place, but at least it was warm, and we spent some time there planning the next day. We had been getting on more slowly than originally expected, so we were facing a problem: we didn’t have enough time left to cycle all the way to the Stelvio (both in terms of time we could spend on this vacation, and in terms of the weather forecast – we had only two sunny days left). We found out that there was a postbus going almost all the way up to the next pass, and it was supposed to carry a trailer for bicycles. Would the bus take our recumbents?
Early the next morning we were ready and waiting at the bus stop, our panniers taken off the bikes and neatly arranged by the side of the road. The bus arrived on time and yes, it had a bike trailer. And yes, the driver let us put our recumbents “if they fit” – and they did fit. What a luxury having this big trailer just for our bikes!
We were happy to have taken that bus. It would have been a long and cold uphill in the shade, we would have arrived freezing, and would never have made it to Stelvio. After getting off the bus in Nauders, the last town before Italy, we treated ourselves to a second breakfast. We briefly debated whether we deserved it or not, but then decided that we did – and anyway you never know where the next bakery will be! We then set off in the direction of the top of Reschenpass (a small uphill) and the border with Italy.
Part 3: Stilfserjoch/Passo dello Stelvio
Now began an absolutely glorious part of this whole trip. A delicious cycle path, first undulating along the lake Reschensee, then going down into the valley to Mals and on. It was so tempting to just continue following this dream cycle route all the way to Venice or Verona. But, painfully, we were only on holiday and thus our time was limited. And, most importantly, the highlight of our trip was waiting for us.
Our plan was to cycle up to the last village – Trafoi – before the long climb to the pass and spend the night there, to gain a bit of time and altitude before the next day. After all, we were climbing to 2700 metres altitude, so we could use a little headstart. Arrived in Trafoi in the early evening, we were confronted with bad news: None of the hotels or guesthouses were open, and we didn’t manage to negotiate an exception in the places where we found someone to ask. So, we had two options: either to camp wild somewhere, or to cycle back down a few kilometres to the last village (Gomagoi) and lose 300 metres altitude. Given that we were at 1530 metres altitude and that it was already very cold in the early evening, the idea of wild camping didn’t appeal much to us (there wasn’t even a restaurant in the village where we could have warmed up). So we reluctantly chose the second option. In less than 20 minutes of freezing downhill we were back to where we had taken our afternoon break, and in a warm hotel room, with the added benefit of a good dinner and a buffet breakfast the next morning.
This way, we can at least say that we cycled all the hairpin bends in one day! The road up to the pass has 48 turns and they’re all numbered. Not sure if this helps psychologically, but at least it makes you feel that you’re progressing (albeit very slowly).
The sun was out again for what was our last sunny day on this trip. We had magnificent views, which distracted us a bit from the physical effort and pain needed to get all the way up there.
By mid-afternoon we made it to the top. We were so proud of having managed to cycle up one of the highest road passes in the Alps! We had seen a few other cyclists on the way – all road cyclists on their fancy hyper-light carbon road bicycles. But we had managed too on our heavy “tanks”! Surprisingly there was no proper “photo spot” up there, we had imagined a big sign where all the cyclists would take their selfie – after all this is one of the road cyclists’ “trophies”. We had to make do with a small sign next to the tacky souvenir shops.
A beer and a cake later, we dressed up in all our warm clothes for the downhill to Switzerland. Actually, the border between Switzerland and Italy is technically another pass, the Umbrail. But you hardly feel it’s there because it’s not very distinctive in the landscape and you don’t really feel like you’re on top of a mountain pass.
Part 4: Pass dal Fuorn
We speeded downhill into the Val Müstair in Switzerland, on an almost empty road snaking through a deserted valley. The quietness was very welcome after the constant motorbike noise on the Italian side (do those motorbikers realise what crazy amount of noise pollution they produce?).
Soon we arrived in the village of Santa Maria, where we had reserved a room in a hotel we already knew. We enjoyed a hot bath, a warm room and a bit of rest, which was needed before the last leg of our trip. On the next morning, we woke up to rain. The weather forecast had been right. At least it was not snowing! We set off anyways, equipped with our rain gear, to master the last mountain pass: the Pass dal Fuorn (or Ofenpass in its German version – this part of Switzerland is Rumantsch-speaking).
In the end it didn’t rain that much. It was just cold, which was a bit annoying because we were sweating at the same time. The cars of Swiss holiday-makers driving home were also quite annoying – the Swiss don’t drive as considerately towards cyclists as they like to make believe. We were frequently overtaken with not much space.
We arrived at the top in time for lunch, which we took in the restaurant in the form of a hot soup. It had started snowing and picknicking outdoors was not tempting! We then dressed very warmly for the ride down to Zernez. This part of the road was insidious, because after an initial downhill it flattens and then climbs again, making us sweat like crazy in our winter clothes. We arrived in Zernez in the afternoon and checked into a hotel with a small spa, where we spent the rest of the afternoon – we think we deserved relaxing in a hot sauna!
On the next day we still had a bit of time, so we decided to ride in the direction of Sankt Moritz.
The cycle route was very nice, winding through a forest and up and down small hills. But it was cold, we were tired, it snowed from time to time, and the route was mostly on dirt roads.
Around midday, as we were sheltering next to the cabin of a golf club, we decided to call it a day and catch the next train from the closest train station, which was Bever. A small train station, but it had clean toilets and a heated waiting room. With the help of the conductor, we managed to heave our bikes and all our luggage into the train, and off we were for a six-hour train trip all across Switzerland and back home to Geneva.
Just a couple of days later we were on a beach in Portugal, swimming in the sea! Crazy change of seasons…
What a great little trip this was!
Here’s the map of our route:
And a neat little gadget-y profile Miguel made of our trip – drag left and right to see:
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