Week 28: Planes, Trains, and a Bicycle

While my race in Engadin was over on Sunday, I still didn’t have to be back in DC until Thursday. Plus, the upshot of having an unexpectedly short race day meant that my legs weren’t trashed. So, what to do for three days in an expensive country with a well-developed trail system? Bike touring!!!

Bicycle touring is a well-established past time in both Europe and the United States. It typically involves a touring bike loaded with panniers or saddle bags, a well-planned route, clothing to accommodate the expected weather, and one or more traveling partners. I had none of those things. Meaghan had to return home on Monday, so I was flying biking solo. Unlike my previous solo travels, in which I arrived in country without a single reservation or plan (or guidebook, cough), I had at least booked hotels for two nights and had a general route in mind. Emphasis on general.

Monday: Silvaplana-St. Moritz-Zurich-Schaffhausen

Monday morning was totally normal. Same old same old. Just another day.

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If only every day could start like this.

After checking out of the hotel, we stopped at the grocery store in St. Moritz to get some lunch chocolate and cheese. I noticed a Swiss cycling guide for sale. Normally, my reaction is to note how useful something like that would be, and then keep on walking. This time, I shocked myself by actually purchasing (and reading!) it. After taking the train to Zurich, Meaghan and I stored our suitcases in a luggage locker in the train station and hit the town…which meant hiding in a department store because it was pouring. Uh oh. We made the most of our time by ogling the fancy foods and getting our poor dry, chapped skin repaired by the kind Bobbi Brown rep in the makeup section.

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Note the hand-crafted beauty. And the prices. (1 franc = 1 dollar)

After Meaghan left for the airport, I met up with a Swiss friend for a drink and then my host sister for dinner. But I couldn’t stay long, because I had a date with the northern city of Schaffhausen. If you aren’t familiar with Schaffhausen, it has a cute old town, sits along the Rhine, and is so close to the German border, the Allies accidentally bombed it during World War II. Twice. I used hotels.com to find the cheapest place to stay that wouldn’t cause me bodily harm. That place was Hotel Zak, conveniently located a few blocks from the train station but inconveniently located right above a bar with sidewalk cafe. However, I was pleased to hear the noise quickly subside around 9 PM…as it was replaced by thunder and torrential rain. Oh boy.

Tuesday: Schaffhausen, Rein etc., Kreuzlingen, Romanshorn, Rorschach

[Foolishly] undeterred, I headed to the train station bright and early dark and stormy Tuesday morning. The Swiss rail system now offers bicycle rentals (including helmets and locks) at reasonable [for Switzerland] prices, with the option to drop off a bike at a different train station for a small additional fee. I had originally planned to bike from Schaffhausen to Rorschach (near the Austrian border) and back, taking the bike path along the Rhine and Bodensee/Lake Constance. However, thanks to my bike book, I was able to map out a new route that would take me from Rorschach back to Zurich, thus saving the train fare between Schaffhausen and Zurich. Clever, right? I had stored most of my luggage in a locker in Zurich, so I was traveling with just a backpack. Light! Flexible! Fancy free! Just me, a backpack, a hybrid bicycle, and some well-marked route signs! Missing: geography skills or attention to detail. The first 30 minutes of my journey were spent realizing that Rheinfelden, Rheinfell, and Stein am Rhein are not the same thing, and that the river flows west, not east.

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I want to go to (all of) theres.

But eventually, I found the right path, realized that one must be eagle eyed for signs at every intersection, and was off on my grand Swiss adventure.

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Oops. Fun fact: the German town of Büsingen is an enclave totally surrounded by Switzerland. And on my bike route. 

I made it to Kreuzlingen around lunchtime. This town had special meaning to me when I lived in Switzerland in high school, as it’s on the German border. This meant I could use my Swiss train pass to travel to Kreuzlingen for free, then hop across the border to Konstanz and be treated to significantly cheaper McDonalds, phone calls, and postage. (Clearly, 17 year old me had her priorities nailed.) This time, however, I stuck to the Swiss side because I hadn’t thought to warn my credit card company about possibly traveling to Germany, and didn’t want to risk the card getting declined and flagged. (34 year old me has different priorities, like food and shelter.) I did, however, treat myself to a rain coat. It was bright yellow, 50% off, and made the rest of my journey 2000% less miserable.

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Also helpful.

Despite the rain, the trip was beautiful. I went through small towns, fields of sunflowers, dairy farms with cows’ obligatory bells providing some moo-d music (couldn’t resist!), compact medieval villages, and dozens of miles along the Rhine and shores of Lake Constance. I chose this route because the Lake Constance/Bodensee area has the sunniest weather in Switzerland and relatively flat terrain. Well, one of those things was true. While I am always glad to be biking and passed some stunning scenery, I was definitely counting down the miles to Rorschach and to my hotel at Schloss Wartensee. Yes, that’s right, I was staying in a castle! But pause for a moment. Think. Where are castles? In the center of town? Along a nice, flat, easily accessed road? That’s right. They are at strategic locations that tend to be high and hard to reach. This includes via bicycle.

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Needless to say, I did not venture back down the hill for dinner.

Wednesday: Rorschach–Hagenwil–Winterthur–Zurich–Uster

The rain paused in the morning, so I had a chance to survey my location. Verdict: not bad.

But there was no time to waste–I had some distance to cover. Maybe it was my imagination, but my backpack felt heavier and bike felt rustier. Always encouraging. I coasted back into Rorschach and backtracked about 10 miles along the lake to the split between Route 2 and Route 5. It was time to head inland. When my guidebook said the route was appropriate for riders 12 and up, I don’t think they were accounting for heavy backpacks or “City-bikes” (German word). While the route didn’t exactly traverse mountain passes, it did have a fair amount of climbing, much of which was on unpaved roads or trails. As with the Rhine route (and probably all Swiss national bike routes), my day was mostly spent away from traffic, either on dedicated bike paths, cycle tracks, hiking/biking trails, or farm roads that are not open to through traffic. Everyone I met was extremely friendly (the Rhine route is especially popular for bike touring), and I never felt unsafe. I was able to replenish my Camelbak and snax at water fountains and grocery stores, and even took breaks in barns to escape the rain and warm up. Go Switzerland!

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Well hello, tiny village with amazing water castle. What a lovely surprise.

However, the journey was not easy. It was pouring. I was cold. My backpack was heavy. My back hurt. The bike was inefficient. Despite being in a small country and measuring in units that were smaller than miles, it felt like I was making zero progress. But then I had an incredible realization: I’m on vacation. I don’t actually have to bike to Zurich. I could stop anywhere, and take the train back. In fact, the city of Winterthur had a train station that served as a rental bike drop off point (thanks again, bike guide!). Suddenly, the day became manageable again. It would “just” be five hours and 57-ish miles, and then I could change into dry clothes, eat a hot meal, and ride back to Zurich on one of the plentiful train connections from Winterthur. And even though those dry clothes were an already-worn pair of running shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt, and the “hot meal” was from McDonalds, it was heaven.

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Taking refuge under a covered bridge. Now if only it were 100k long…

I returned to Zurich, picked up my luggage, bought some wine (from “the other” Washington) for my host family, and boarded the train to my old town, Uster. As soon as I arrived and saw my host dad, I was reminded of how awesome my host family is, and why I was so happy living with them [once I learned enough German to understand them]. The house and my family looked exactly the same, though there were some big changes, namely my older host sister now has three small kids! They were really fun and surprisingly well versed on Moose; apparently Esther had been letting them live vicariously through my photos. We ate one of my favorite Swiss dishes, Apfelwähe, which is basically phyllo dough with ground up almonds and sliced apples. (Me at 17: “But it doesn’t have any protein! How is this a healthy dinner?” Host mom: “It has almonds. And also you eat chocolate and bread for lunch!” Me. “Fair point.”) In the morning, I went for a run in the woods behind the house, lamenting that I hadn’t realized at the time what a great location this was for triathlon training – lots of running and biking routes, plus a large indoor pool just a five minute bike ride away. Oh well, at least I can visit.

The journey home almost went (metaphorically) south several times. When I checked my bag at ZRH airport, the friendly agent said that she had tagged it all the way to my final destination, and here are my boarding passes for ZRH-IAD and IAD-PDX. Wait, what? I pointed out that I’m just going to DC, and that the second boarding card had someone else’s name on it…then noticed my bag had already disappeared onto the conveyor belt. She promised that it would be ok and arrive in DC. And, it did…eventually. So after the flight, bus to metro, metro ride, another bus, and then schlepping my suitcase up the hill in “feels like 100” weather, I finally made it home. Time to reach into my bag and…not find the keys. This was not great. I did eventually find them, and was reunited with Moose (and a cold beer). Phew.

And no time to lose, since I had a flight to San Francisco about 60 hours later.

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