Riding through Switzerland…

This was supposed to be a short riding day from Basel to Interlaken. It would be my first day of riding through Switzerland. As always, the prospect of riding through a new country was exciting. It was sprinkling down in Basel when I walked out of the HI hostel in the morning to go get the bike. Rain again! Is there ever any escape? And to think that I thought I had picked the wrong month for visiting Europe, imagining it would be unbearably hot. Turns out, I had indeed picked the wrong month, but for an entirely different reason. I zipped in the liners to my jacket and pants. Even if it was just sprinkling, I didn’t want to take the chance that it would turn into a downpour.

I needed to fuel up before I left – I never appear to get into the habit of fueling up at the end of the day so that I could just get out and ride the next day – but the Zumo routed me to locations where no gas stations existed – twice! It was beyond maddening because Basel was an incredibly difficult city to ride through and I kept making wrong turns and needing to backtrack. All this while moving really slow and gettijng more and more warm in my gear, while the rain kept misting up my visor. I finally found a gas station and after puzzling over the options – none of them were in English – picked one that looked least likely to be diesel and fueled up. This was the first station I had encountered that accepted only credit cards. Almost every other gas station required you to fuel up first, leave the bike parked, and to go inside and pay the attendant (unlike in the US where you insert a card, fuel up, and the machine automatically deducts the correct amount). The machine asked me to enter a pin number, even though I had used a credit card. Not wanting it to do a cash advance, I used my debit card instead.

Since I was routing through non-toll roads, the GPS routed me through various small roads and cities to Interlaken. There was a lot of construction on the way and traffic moved slowly. I found a few really nice roads that went through forests and fields. Most of the route was over small hills, nothing overly dramatic, since I’m guessing I was still in the lower foothills of the Swiss Alps.

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The road got dramatically better as I neared the last 50kms to Interlaken. It went right past the lake, which was a vision. Co-incidentally, the music playing in my helmet switched to “Welcome to Dreamland”, which I thought was fantastic timing. The lake and sky and mountains blended in a vision of deep, sparkling blue. The sun wasn’t out yet, but it had stopped raining and it really felt like I was riding through a dream. The road surface was impeccable, and it twisted and turned past the blue waters. Far off in the distance, I could see the mighty mountains… finally!! I reached the hostel in Interlaken all too soon.

Throughout the ride, I had been thinking about the weather forecast. It was sprinkling today, but they predicted heavy thunderstorms through the area I would be going through the next day (Interlaken to Bellinzona via the Grimsell and Furka passes). I was already a little spooked by the thought of riding through my first high mountain passes, and I was less than thrilled about having to do it in spectacularly bad weather. By the time I was pulled over at the hostel in Interlaken, I decided that I would try to cancel my reservation there, and keep going towards Bellinzona. It was only 2:00PM, and if all went well, I would reach Bellinzona before dark. I wasn’t too tired, although I knew that I would be before long, but it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

The hostel refused to refund the booking fee, in spite of me having bought the cancellation insurance, which was irksome, but they did help me call the Bellinzona hostel to move my reservation from the next night to that night, and advised me on my route. They said to skip the Gotthard tunnel, which was a 48km long tunnel – not much fun for motorcyclists – and go on the outside roads instead. I took heed of their suggestions and left.

It’s a shame I couldn’t stay in Interlaken. It looked like a gorgeous place, and a haven for outdoors-y people with tons of climbing and kayaking.

I ventured on towards Grimsell Pass. It was raining steadily now and as I climbed, it got colder. The road was very challenging to me as I wasn’t used to riding switchbacks like these. The weather meant that there was hardly anyone out, and I didn’t see very many motorcylists on the road. I kept climbing higher and higher, getting ever so nervous as I did. The views were spectacular and panoramic, and I eyed them with fascination mixed with trepidation. At one point, I turned a corner to see an almost otherworldly vision of an immense landscape of green strewn with grey boulders of every shape and size. The mountains were huge and towering. If only I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get out of the bad weather, I might have just stopped and gazed and gazed. I had never seen anything like it before.

I managed to take these two photos when I stopped briefly to check that I was on the right track. It doesn’t quite convey the enormity of the mountains and how dwarfed I felt by comparison.

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I reached the top of Grimsell Pass and pulled over to take pictures. They weren’t very good because of the fog and the rain. A few other motorcyclists were stopped too. We left at about the same time, and I trailed them for a little while until they lost me.

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Onward now to Furka Pass. I was a little cocky now after having gotten through my first mountain pass unscathed. This was nothing to be afraid of, I thought. It was actually getting to be very good fun! If only I had had enough sleep and rest and slightly better weather, I might have had the time of my life on those roads. As it was, I had a big grin on my face as I descended the first mountain and ascended towards the next pass.

The grin was completely wiped off and replaced with a deer-in-the-headlights type terror as I climbed to the top of Furka Pass. It was high up there and no guard rails to speak off. The cars ahead of me slowed to a crawl, as did I. I had one near death moment when a tour bus lumbered towards me from around a corner, but I didn’t dare to swerve right to get out of its way. I also happened to be in the wrong gear, so I couldn’t even accelerate out of trouble if I had wanted to. Fortunately, the bus went past with a few inches to spare, but I really thought I was a goner then.

The descent was equally scary for at least the next ten minutes, with steep hairpin turns that plummeted far below into an abyss, should you miss a turn. It also got colder and colder. This was the least fun part of the ride. Once I had more or less descended, I was okay, but still a little shaken and wondering what Gotthard Pass had in store for me. I soon found out – almost zero visibility rain and fog. I had to ride with my visor up so I could see anything at all. I stopped at one spot and turned into a restaurant I spied to ask them how long the weather would continue as it didn’t really seem safe to keep going when I could barely see. There were a couple of motorcyclists there who had stopped for the night. They said that it would be terrible weather until I got down to the motorway, but I should keep going and go slow. From there it was only about 40 miles to Bellinzona. I was so close now that there was no way I could stop, even though I was tempted to stay there for the night.

This was on top of Gotthard Pass. The only dry spot here appears to be directly under my bike.

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Go slow I did. The rain kept up throughout until I reached the point where I could get on the motorway. I didn’t have a vignette to drive on it, but I was beyond caring. I had gone so slow all day, that I just wanted to get to my hostel in the fastest way possible and stop for the night. I made good speed on the motorway and surprisingly enough found that I had that high you get after you’ve been through a long, hard day. It had been a day well lived, in spite of the scary moments. In many ways, it had been the first real motorcycling adventure day. I’m sure that in ideal conditions, this would have just been a fun little ride, but on this particular day it had really tested my mental and physical endurance, and I was thrilled on the high of having made it.

Bellinzona was cool and yet another city that I wished I could have spent more time in. The hostel was clean and affordable, the town square was walking distance from it, and I was able to get some good ravioli and red wine to celebrate the end of a very full day and feel like I deserved it.

Here is a picture of Bellinzona that I took the morning after. It looks positively tropical in comparison to the Switzerland I had seen thus far.

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My next decision would be whether I should go north back into the mountains (and more rain) or south towards warmer climes. It was an easy decision.

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[See more photos of Grimsel Pass here, Furka Pass here, and St. Gotthard Pass here. And more about the Alpine Passes here. And this guy here has a fantastic set of photos that document the ride I did.]

Here are a few that show the roads that I rode. I’m slightly frustrated that I couldn’t have done them on a better day, but I feel privileged that I was able to ride them at all! And I know they will still be there when I return. In fact, I have a feeling that this is going to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

The below pictures are courtesy of www.pictures-switzerland.com. The first two are of Grimsell Pass and the last two are Furka and Gotthard Passes respectively.

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furka-211   gotthard-04

Published by Rashmi Tambe

I am a motorcyclist from Seattle, WA. This blog records my motorcycle, code-monkey and travel related musings! For the other motorcycling related site I run, check out Global Women Who Ride.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi,

    Long tunnels are definitely not fun, especially for motos. Gotthard road tunnel is actually 17 km (over 10 miles) – still, I always avoided it when possible (in winter it was the only choice tho).

    The 48 km tunnel is the new Gotthard train tunnel…

    You are brave with your Acrophobia.

    Lucky you without the vignette… Fine is 140 CHF, not negotiable.

  2. “The 48 km tunnel is the new Gotthard train tunnel…”
    Ah, they seemed to imply that it was for cars. That long in a tunnel seems mind-boggling.

    Acrophobia sucks. :(

  3. some boring stuff to get it right:

    “Under construction since 2002 and estimated to be completed by about 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel (a second rail tunnel), will be longer than the first one (57 km) and be put into operation for the use of express trains travelling from northern Switzerland to the Ticino area and beyond.”

    “The St. Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland is the third-longest road tunnel in the world.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gotthard_Road_Tunnel

    It has some bad history:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1723406.stm

  4. Actually, the fine is exactly 100CHF. But – of course you have to buy a vignette right there for 40CHF. :)

    But as I sais before, I’ve never been stopped in more than one year now and I have never heard of anyone being stopped…

    Besides, the Gotthard is one of the most beautifel passes in the Alps. Especially the old trace with cobblestone pavement. Just so cool.

  5. I wish I had actually got to see the Gotthard Pass! It was raining and fogged up so much that I think I just felt my way around there. What a shame.

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