Travel Series: Biking Across Switzerland, Part I

{Ed. Note: This is Part I of a travel article from Books and Vines Contributor Dlphcoracl. Part II will be published in a few days. Note that all pictures in the article can be shown in enlarged high resolution format simply by clicking on it. A second click will bring even more resolution and enlargement.}

This year’s cycling trip, Biking Across Switzerland, was in several ways a redux of my cycling trip across Belgium last year.  Similar to my Belgium trip, I cycled across a small European country, border to border, in one week.  In Belgium I traveled from West to East whereas in Switzerland the trip would proceed from North to South. Both countries are outstanding destinations for cyclists.  They have superb infrastructure – well paved and demarcated roads and highways, ample bike lanes,  traffic laws giving cyclists access to the road, and sympathetic motorists who unfailingly yield to cyclists on the road and travel cautiously about them. As with Belgium, this was my first visit to Switzerland.

The trip began with a flight from Chicago O’Hare airport to Zurich.  As is always my custom with cycling trips I only check one large suitcase and I take a smaller carry-on piece of luggage with essential items in the event my larger suitcase is delayed or temporarily lost.  The essentials include: two days worth of cycling clothing, cycling helmet, cycling shoes with cleats and corresponding pedals, cycling gloves, prescription sport sunglasses, and two days of civvies underwear and socks.  Fortunately, my large suitcase had an uneventful journey and I claimed it and proceeded to the train station at the Zurich Airport.  The train station is located directly underneath the airport and I took the train approximately sixty miles north to the small town of Stein am Rhein, where the entire group of cyclists was to meet our tour guides.

Day 1:  (15 miles)  Stein am Rhein sits on Lake Constance (Bodensee, in German) at the point where the Bodensee again becomes the Rhine River.  It is at Switzerland’s northern border with Germany,  a picturesque town with a small well-preserved town square (Old Town) and Main Street, featuring a row of townhouse with painted frescoes and numerous half-timbered houses.  As with any fairy-tale town it comes replete with a castle (the Hohenklingen) on a steep hill overlooking the city.  Arriving one day earlier than our cycling group was scheduled to meet enabled me to decompress, recover from any lingering jet lag, and explore this historic medieval city on foot.  The following morning I arose early to climb up the steep hill to the Hohenklingen before the day became unbearably hot (Switzerland was in the midst of a very uncharacteristic heat wave with temperatures reaching 90 degrees F.)  A lively farmer’s market was setting up shop in the town square with a beautiful array of fresh vegetables and home-baked goodies.  The climb up the densely wooded hill to the Hohenklingen was steep but well demarcated.  Although the castle was not terribly impressive from either an architectural viewpoint or the antiquities contained within, it did provide a wonderful aerial view of Stein am Rhein.

Photo 1: Main Street, Stein am Rhein
Photo 1: Main Street, Stein am Rhein
Photo 2: The Hohenklingen (castle), Stein am Rhein
Photo 2: The Hohenklingen (castle), Stein am Rhein
Photo 3: Buildings with painted frescoes, Stein am Rhein
Photo 3: Buildings with painted frescoes, Stein am Rhein
Photo 4: Town Hall, Stein am Rhein.
Photo 4: Town Hall, Stein am Rhein
Photo 5: Farmer’s Market in town square, Stein am Rhein. Produce is fresh and of the highest quality.
Photo 5: Farmer’s Market in town square, Stein am Rhein. Produce is fresh and of the highest quality.
Photo 6: View of Stein am Rhein from Hohenklingen Castle
Photo 6: View of Stein am Rhein from Hohenklingen Castle

Later in the day, the cycling group assembled with the tour guides shortly after noon, our bicycle seats and pedals were installed and we were fitted to our bicycles. Following lunch, we went for a “quick hitter” – a flat 15 miles ride to familiarize ourselves with our bicycles and make any final adjustments in our bicycle fit and positioning.

Day 2:  Stein am Rhein to Baden (52 miles)

Today is the first full day of cycling.  Upon leaving Stein am Rhein we are quickly greeted by a field of sunflowers (photo 7), a cheerful way to start the day.  We pass around Schaffhausen, one of the best preserved towns of the Middle Ages.  Just past Schaffhausen we encounter the Rheinfall, the largest waterfall in Europe, with a width of 150 m.,  a height of 23 m.  and an average of 700 m3 rushing over the cliffs each second (photos  8, 9).  Not everyone was impressed, however (photo 10).  We continued cycling to Hohentengen where we reassembled for a picnic lunch (photos 11) before continuing into Baden.  The town name (also known to the Romans as ‘Aquae Helvaticae’) refers to the mineral hots springs which were known as far back as the Roman era.  Our hotel for the evening is the Hotel-Atrium Blume, so named because the floors and rooms are arranged about a large central open-aired atrium which extends the entire height of the building.  On each floor, the central atrium is separated from the hardwood floors and rooms by a beautiful railing with elaborate handcrafted metalwork, giving the hotel an appearance that harkens back to the 1920’s and 1930’s, or, perhaps, to Buenos Aires (photo 12).

Photo 7: Sunflower field upon leaving Stein am Rhein
Photo 7: Sunflower field upon leaving Stein am Rhein
Photo 8: The Rheinfall
Photo 8: The Rheinfall
Photo 9: The Rheinfall with visitors atop an island in its midst
Photo 9: The Rheinfall with visitors atop an island in its midst
Photo 10: Fressen über Rheinfalls
Photo 10: Fressen über Rheinfalls
Photo 11: Stopping in Hohentengen
Photo 11: Stopping in Hohentengen
Photo 13: Hotel-Atrium Blume in Baden.
Photo 12: Hotel-Atrium Blume in Baden.

Day 3: Baden to Zofingen (54 miles)

After leaving Baden we head towards the Aare River, passing the magnificent castles of Wildegg and Lenzburg.  Continuing along the Aare river we pass through Aarau before entering Zofingen along a cobblestone road flanked by two short columns with lions perched atop (photo 13).  Zofingen is yet another small, historically significant Swiss town, dating back to the 11th century.  Our hotel (Hotel Zofingen) is located on Niklaus Thut Square featuring a statue of same (photo 14).  The dinner in the hotel dining room in the evening was excellent (photo 15).

Photo 14: The lions greet us as we enter Zofingen
Photo 13: The lions greet us as we enter Zofingen
Photo 14: Statue of Niklaus Thut in Zofingen town square.
Photo 14: Statue of Niklaus Thut in Zofingen town square
Photo 16: “Why We Ride” - #1
Photo 15: “Why We Ride” – #1

Day 4:  Zofingen to Bern (40 miles)

Leaving Zofringen, we rode on gently rolling roads with little traffic.  Nearly 10 km out of Zofingen we encountered the massive Abbey of St. Urban, a Swiss heritage site of national significance.  It is considered the most impressive example of Baroque and Cistercian architecture in Switzerland.  The original Cistercian monastery of St. Urban was established in 1194 and the present complex was designed by the Vorarlberg architect Franz Beer and built in the early part of the 18th century.  Monastery life ended in 1848 and the complex is now used for cultural purposes (photos 16, 17, 18).  One of the most unusual and interesting aspects of the complex was a massive bronze sculpture the St. Urban Monastery commissioned to sculptor Zeng Chenggang as part of their series: “Chinese Artists in St. Urban – A Passage to the Alps”.  The work is entitled “The Prophets”, consisting of a row of sculptures of six important philosophers (as chosen by Chenggang) arranged from left to right: Socrates, Confucius, Lao Zi, Sakyamuni Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Karl Marx (photos 19, 20).  In view of his infamous quotation: “Religion is the opium of the people”, the presence of a sculpture paying tribute to Karl Marx in front of an important historical religious site was more than a bit incongruous (photo 21).

Photo 17: Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 16: Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 18: the organ at Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 17: the organ at Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 19: Interior of the Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 18: Interior of the Abbey of St. Urban
Photo 20: Zeng Chenggang bronze sculpture “The Prophets”
Photo 19: Zeng Chenggang bronze sculpture “The Prophets” #1
Photo 21: “The Prophets” #2
Photo 20: “The Prophets” #2
Photo 22: Bronze sculpture of Karl Marx
Photo 21: Bronze sculpture of Karl Marx

Leaving the St. Urban monastery, we continued along a beautiful agricultural region (photo 22) passing through Burgdorf, a major city in the Emmental region famous for the “cheese with holes”, aka “Swiss cheese”.  We arrived in Bern in late afternoon and after the usual shower and daily laundry chores ( washing the day’s cycling clothing) we were given a guided tour of Bern, the capital city of Switzerland.  Bern is a beautiful city and its Old Town section has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nearly 30 years.  After taking the tram from our hotel along the Kornhausbrucke (Kornhaus bridge) across the Aare River we quickly arrive at the start of our tour, the Kornhausplatz. Here we were greeted by one of Bern’s most (in)famous fountains, the Kindlifresserbrunnen (literally, “child-eater fountain”).  Although there was a McDonald’s restaurant several blocks away, close inspection reveals that the macabre-looking jester atop the fountain column is not eating a tater tot – he’s eating a tiny tot!   And for good measure, he is holding a sackful or other little morsels in his left hand for further delectation (photos 23,24). The fountain dates to 1546 with several theories regarding its origin and meaning, the most plausible of which is that it was erected to be incorporated into Switzerland’s Fastnacht or “Night of Fasting” festival for parents to warn their young children about the dire consequences of misbehaving.

Photo 23: Cycling through beautiful farmland
Photo 22: Cycling through beautiful farmland
Photo 24: Kindlifresserbrunnen fountain of Bern
Photo 23: Kindlifresserbrunnen fountain of Bern
Photo 25: Close-up of the Kindlifresser
Photo 24: Close-up of the Kindlifresser

A few hundred yards down at the corner of Kramgasse and Marktgasse stands the city’s famous clock tower, the Zytglogge (photo 25).  Built in the early 13th century it served as the gate tower of Bern’s western fortification.  An astronomical clock was added in the 15th century with the Brunner clockwork installed in 1527-1530,  a mechanical marvel (photo 26).  To the right of the clock dials are a group of mechanical puppets that perform four minutes before every hour.  The jester in red costume is especially animated during these interludes (photos  27). Walking further along the Kramgasse brings us to the Bern Munster (Cathedral of Bern) on Munstergasse, an iconic Bern landmark and a beautiful example of Late Gothic architecture (photo 28).  The church is Switzerland’s largest religious building with a cathedral spire 100-meters height.  Although construction was begun in 1421 the church tower and steeple weren’t completed until 1893 (shades of ‘La Sagrada Familia’)!  Over the cathedral’s main portal is a remarkable Late Gothic sculpture of carved and painted stone entitled ‘The Last Judgement’ (photo 29).  The theme of this sculpture must have appealed to the Protestant reformers of Bern in the early part of the 16th century because it survived their decree and mandate that all Catholic statues and icons should be destroyed.

Photo 26: The Zytglogge - Bern, Switzerland
Photo 25: The Zytglogge – Bern, Switzerland
Photo 27: Close-up of the mechanical clock (Zytglogge) and dancing puppets
Photo 26: Close-up of the mechanical clock (Zytglogge) and dancing puppets
Photo 28: The dancing puppets of the Zytglogge
Photo 27: The dancing puppets of the Zytglogge
Photo 29: Bern Muenster (the Cathedral of Bern)
Photo 28: Bern Muenster (the Cathedral of Bern)
Photo 30: The Last Judgement - Cathedral of Bern
Photo 29: The Last Judgement – Cathedral of Bern

Careful inspection of ‘The Last Judgement’ shows the central figure of Michael the Archangel with raised sword.  He is engaged in a struggle with Satan and seems to be more than holding his own.   He has inflicted a gaping wound in Satan’s abdomen with entrails spilling forth (photo 30).  To the left of Michael (as one faces him) are the virtuous and saved in white gowns awaiting entrance into Heaven.  To the right are the damned, a cacophony of naked figures en route to Hell.  Of particular interest is a small green figure at the extreme right, another depiction of Satan.  A priest has been having an affair with a nun and although this has escaped the notice of the priest’s colleagues, Satan is working 24/7 and the sordid affair has not escaped his notice. He judiciously applies the tongs to the wayward priest’s nether region to dampen his misplaced fervor.  The nun does not pass unscathed – after all, it DOES take two to tango.  She is tethered behind the priest and forced to march through town in her birthday suit (photo 31).  It certainly can be said that medieval justice was direct and had a way of getting to the root of the matter.

Photo 31: Michael the Archangel battling Satan
Photo 30: Michael the Archangel battling Satan
Photo 32: Satan and sinners
Photo 31: Satan and sinners

Day 5: Sightseeing Day

Day 5 is a rest day in Bern and a chance to further explore this beautiful city.  Some of the group opted to take the tram up to the Gurten, a park located 20 minutes south of Bern on a small mountain nearly 3,000 ft. high, overlooking the city of Bern and providing wonderful views of the Jura mountains and the Berner Oberlander’s spectacular Alp peaks.   The Gurten is host to a popular music festival in mid-July and it has a children’s playground and a viewing tower (photo 32).  After returning to Bern I decided to spend the afternoon at one of Bern’s finest museums, the Zentrum Paul Klee.  Klee was born in Switzerland and the museum has the largest and best collection of his works in the world.  A quick word about public transportation throughout Switzerland – it is everything you have imagined it to be: clean, modern and, above all, punctual to the minute (photo 33).  It is not an exaggeration to state that one can set his/her watch to the arrival and departure of the trains, buses and trams.

The museum itself is worth a visit, an ultramodern steel-and-glass design completed in 2005 by world-famous architect Renzo Piano.  The design features three undulating curves which blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape (photo 34).  The museum was hosting a special exhibition entitled ‘Klee & Kandinsky’ examining the friendship and friendly rivalry between the two artists.  Klee and Kandinsky are both ‘classical modern artists’ and their works are especially approachable with abstractions that are both harmonious and colorful.

Photo 33: Aerial view of Bern from viewing tower - Gurten park
Photo 32: Aerial view of Bern from viewing tower – Gurten park
Photo 34: Modern trams in Zurich
Photo 33: Modern trams in Zurich
Photo 35: Zentrum Paul Klee (Paul Klee museum designed by Renzo Piano)
Photo 34: Zentrum Paul Klee (Paul Klee museum designed by Renzo Piano)

The remaining few days of the trip will be covered in Part II, coming in a few days.

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