This trip was supposed to happen in August but a couple of days before we were due to leave Giles drunkenly broke his toe, so we put it off. Finally in October we got another shot. A week before we were due to leave Giles fell off his bike and dislocated his shoulder.
James and I decided to go anyway but then I managed to book my flight for the wrong weekend, and James had tickets to see Fat Freddys Drop, a brilliant and unmissable New Zealand reggae band.
So we decided fuck it we’ll do a short 2 day ride, better than nothing, and on a beautiful Thursday evening we caught the train to Solothurn in the German speaking part of Switzerland.
Solothurn is a cute little town on a river, where they make absinthe, so, we sank a couple of beers then hit a very cool bar called Die Gruene Fee.
If you’re ever in town I highly recommend the place. They have dozens of different locally made absinthes and all the cool paraphernalia.
Where long term absinthe abuse causes insanity, short term absinthe abuse just causes a lovely dreamy drunkenness. It also makes you very hungry so we ended up at a jolly fat Turk’s restaurant eating delicious grilled lamb. Not a very Swiss German culinary experience, but hey, that’s a good thing.
We ended the evening in a foggy field just outside Solothurn trying to put up James’ tent in an absinthe induced haze. No one fell over or lost an eye but that was just luck.
Every trip so far had been during the summer, under blue skies, replete with sunshine and heat, sleeping in a tent was optional and you could wash when and wherever you damn well pleased. Now though it was October and the morning was incredibly damp, foggy and cold, but my anus was in one piece after a night in a tent with James so result.
The day started pretty much as per usual with a breakfast of delicious pastries and revolting coffee. The Swiss Germans are about as unlike the French as it is possible to get, gastronomically speaking, but breakfast is remarkably similar.
The morning was spent cruising gently along next to the river Aare, more or less due west, headed for the Lac de Biel. It was still very foggy which deadened all sound and made the world a very peaceful place.
The cycle track was remarkable. Bike touring in Switzerland undoubtedly has its drawbacks, but the quality of its cycling infrastructure is not one of them. France’s is pretty impressive, but doesn’t come close. Everything is clearly sign-posted so even if you are as stupid and hungover as us you never get lost and end up missing lunch, plus you can go pretty much anywhere in the country on a cycle track, every single centimetre of which is immaculate.
Bang on lunchtime, we rolled into a quaint old walled town called Buren (but with an umlaut) an der Aare.
Streams of locals were headed towards a great looking restaurant on the town square and we joined them. The inside of the restaurant was bustling and homely, and the daily special was Tagliatelli with mushrooms, bang in the middle of mushroom country during mushroom season. Perfect
Plus they had beer, mmmmmm beer. Sure, they spelt “mmmmmm” wrong, and “beer” for that matter, but small quibbles, no matter, what could possibly go wrong?
Overcooked mushy pasta, tinned mushrooms that tasted of brine, overwhelmed by taste enhancer and smothered in cream. It was nasty. And it was about three times the price you’d pay for a plate of pasta with mushrooms in Italy, and in Italy the sweet singing of angels would accompany every mouthful.
That, in a nutshell, is the main problem with cycling around Switzerland: crap, expensive food that all tastes the same thanks to the above mentioned taste enhancer. It’s called Aromat and it is formulated to please the taste buds of children.
The Swiss Germans sprinkle it over everything savoury, before, during and after cooking. If you walk around a Swiss German village around suppertime all you will smell is this stuff. During our ride I ate the mushroom pasta, an expensive fillet steak, venison and a sausage, and it all tasted of this stuff. At first it’s just annoying, but after a couple of meals it makes you want to curl up on the floor and weep.
Luckily the scenery (and the cycle paths) are magnificent and more or less make up for it.
The afternoon was short because it gets darker earlier in October, and we were just wondering where on earth we’d be able to wash when we spotted a campsite. Good, time for a wash. Touring in October is altogether more complicated than in the summer: it’s colder, damper, the weather less predictable and you can’t wash outside unless you’re made of Viking. Municipal swimming pools and campsites are your only obvious options.
Except this was the German part of Switzerland. The Swiss Germans are what the English think the Germans are like (but actually aren’t like). The Germans themselves are generally friendly, open, relaxed, generous people. The Swiss Germans are small minded, money grasping, anally retentive and only barely tolerant of strangers. So the camp-site people had installed a system on the showers that required you to have a special fob to get in.
That system must have cost them a fortune, and for what? So that maybe 20 people a year don’t sneak in and use the showers free of charge? Really? Fucking hell it made me angry.
To calm down and cheer up we bought a bottle of red and some cured meat products and went and sat by a very picturesque lake for a mid-afternoon reviver. As you know by now I am a man of vast oenological experience so I swiftly and expertly uncorked the bottle, and spilled red wine all over myself and causing James to laugh so hard he almost soiled his trousers.
At least the place we intended to camp was excellent – a clearing in a little wood right next to the lake, with a ring of stones where you could light a fire and admire the view. Still badly in need of a wash we headed into the local town of Le Landeron, cheered to have arrived in the French speaking part of Switzerland.
The sports complex was closed for the summer, the campsite was for RVs and caravans only so no showers there and there was no public swimming pool for 40 km in any direction. Bollocks. Then we passed a small marina, and some dim memory surfaced of going sailing off the coast of Kent for the weekend and the marina having fabulous hot showers. This marina did have showers, and you can use them grunted a hairy throwback with a reticence bordering on outright hostility, but you have to pay. The shower was amazing and I’d have happily paid four times what the guy asked but just be fucking nice. Please.
That evening we drank more absinthes, and ate only the second decent meal of the trip (the first was the Turkish meal). It was a cute little gaff on an equally cute town square and the meal was classic Swiss hunting season food, venison, game birds etc. The difference with this place, what made all the difference, was that the owner and all the staff were Pakistani. Incongruous maybe but as anyone who lives in London knows, boy they can cook. And they don’t use fucking Aromat.
After sinking a few digestifs with the fat, merry owner we headed back to the place we’d decided to camp, lit a fire and spent a merry couple of hours by the lake drinking single malt whisky and talking complete shit.
Sunday dawned foggy and tranquil. Well it may have done, I wasn’t wake to see it, but that’s how it was when I got up much later. The lake looked ghostly; even the single little fishing skiff out on the still waters looked other-worldly and ex-temporal; these were my thoughts as I squirted an endless, golden, steaming arc of piss straight into it (the lake not the skiff).
Breakfast took too long to get to and was taken in a very odd café that was really just someone’s front room. The only patrons were ourselves and a very drunk old peasant who veered wildly between aggressively unfriendly and friendly but incoherent. It wasn’t very relaxing and we left as quickly as possible.
The fog lifted and the day turned into one of those sunny, warm autumnal days where literally the best thing you can do is go for a long bike ride through the Swiss countryside. It was stunning. Lunch, predictably, was expensive and deeply underwhelming (”Chateaubriand” I thought to myself, “surely they won’t smother that in flavour enhancer”. Wrong.)
All in all though, a delightful, uneventful jaunt. We saw veteran tractors and a weird totem pole (cooler than it sounds) and James saw some scary things. All too soon we rolled into Neuchatel, jumped on the train, got back to Geneva, had a quick shower, and went to the Fat Freddys Drop gig. It was fantastic. Really. If they ever come to your town, go see them.