Switzerland 2: Bear to Milano

12/10/18 – 25/10/18
Distance travelled: 3760km 

The two weeks that we spent in Switzerland are starting to feel like a distant and very beautiful dream.  We could have spent twice as long in Switzerland, a country where natural beauty abounds, but coffee is pretty pricey.  I think it is fair to say that we worried about our finances in Switzerland, but we shouldn’t have done because we’re annoyingly sensible!  Moreover though, upon reflection it is landscapes, scenery and cycling like we experienced in Switzerland that we enjoy the most and every single day was breath-taking.  You can’t put a price on that.

Lake Crestasee

Part 1: Dog and Bear Adventures

Our time in Switzerland started and ended on mountain passes.  On Friday 12th October we wound our way down from the Col de la Forclaz into Martigny and followed the Rhône until, from the other side of the river, someone screamed “D!”.  We crossed over a wooden, hut-like bridge and I felt so happy to see my best Bear pal and I felt a huge sense of achievement in making it this far.  Meeting up with Lucy (Bear’s actual name that I will endeavour to occasionally use) had always been an integral part of the trip: she got a job at an international school and moved to Villars-sur-Ollon a year ago and I had delayed visiting, promising that I’d reach her by bicycle when Olly and I embarked upon our adventure.

After huge hugs, it transpired that Bear was a bit grizzly: the tarmacked, traffic-free cycle route she had intended to cycle on to Martigny had turned out to be a very busy main road.  It turns out it was one missed turn that had led Bear the wrong way and with Olly safely in his navigational seat we set off to Bex where we caught the train up ‘Bear Mountain’ to Villars-sur-Ollon.  It was brilliant cycling with Bear and the 20km flew by as we chatted.  When we reached the train stop (no more than a little hut at the side of the road), Bear produced two chocolate and banana muffins from her bag and we exchanged them for a squashed Nutella crepe that we’d bought about a week ago.  Unfortunately it was already dark by the time the train arrived and we’d heaved our bikes onto it, me and Olly that is, Bear could lift hers with one hand, and so we didn’t see much, but this increased our anticipation for the magnificent views that I know Bear lives with that we’d see the next day.  We got off the train in Villars-sur-Ollon and Bear promised it wasn’t far to her apartment (which is in a big chalet), but it was quite steep.  At one point we passed a sign for the Col de la Croix and Bear laughed when I told her afterwards that I thought we must have been nearing the top of it on our night-time ride.  Before too long we were chez Bear, cosy, content and soon filled with tasty fajitas, it was Friday after all. We’d had the perfect start to our time in Switzerland.

We had the weekend with Bear and it was hard to decide how to spend our time as she had so many incredible suggestions and over the past year she’d told about so many great adventures.  On Saturday, and in awe of the views, we decided to have a quick walk around town, stopping at the bakery to buy bread for a picnic at Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman to the locals. This bread ranks as one of my favourites of the trip so far!  (We find ourselves idly chatting about all sorts when we’re cycling…)  We also ventured into Migros, one of two big supermarket names in Switzerland, the other being Coop (and Volg in the smaller towns and villages as we progressed into German/Romansh-speaking Switzerland. And thank goodness for Aldi and Lidl too!).  I love moseying around supermarkets wherever we are and usually leave Olly outside of them “looking after the bikes”.  We learnt a lot about, and became quite fascinated by Switzerland during our time there, and something that sticks in my mind is how a huge effort is made for all produce to be Swiss and anything that isn’t, and which needs to be imported, is mega expensive, i.e. sweet potatoes. 

View from chez Bear

Bear and her parents had imported caramelised red onion chutney of their own accord and it tasted like home with cheddar (available in Lidl – we’ll overlook how famed Switzerland is for cheese for now) in sandwiches sat on a rock at the Chateau de Chillon at Lake Geneva.  We had a veritable feast and we’d compiled it in the boot of Bear’s car!  After lunch we went for a swim in the lake, it only took Olly about twenty toe dips and as many minutes to make his grand, splashing entrance. Bear and I tottered in from the shore, all tyrannosaurs-rex arms as it was pretty chilly!  We dried off with another of the banana and chocolate muffins, watching as the steam boat cast ripples across the lake and a couple of divers making bubbles in it too. 


Dont' be fooled, this wasn't as affectionate as it looks!  Olly clutched me with his cold, cold arms.

We then headed back up the mountain and were treated to such a brilliantly relaxing afternoon of wellness at the spa in Villars. Thanks, Bear!  No need for dinosaur arms this time as the pool was heated and the view was of snow-dusted mountains.  Wearing our spa-sunnies we breathed deeply, contemplated how far we’d come and wondered at the scenery we found ourselves in.  A good few hours and a dip in the ice-cold plunge pool later, we left the spa just as two ice-hockey teams were warming up.  We all agreed that it would have been awesome to stay and watch and we promised we’d do it next time as a comforting pasta bake and sofa time awaited us at home. 

Top effort!

On Sunday, Bear organised her first group hike. We met Gemma, Ben, Ellie and Josh at the Swiss cow at midday and made our way up to The Crazy Moose. It was a spectacular hike with views for miles, such a scenic lunch-spot and a good round of pine-cone football thrown in for good measure.  It was on the hike that Ben received a text about the Welsh mountain biker, Marc Sutton, who had been killed by a hunter in The French Alps, not far from where Ben works.   It sobered us all up a bit, got us talking and got us thinking.  We had a drink at ‘The Moose’ to celebrate the end of our hike and then headed back down the mountain on the train.  Olly mocks me for how much I love travelling by train… Train rides in the mountains are so epic, even when a Jack Russell takes an interest in your ankles!

The Crazy Moose

The crazy moose?

The craziest moose?

Lunch with a view

After an awesome weekend, Bear headed to work on Monday morning and Olly and I had two days to do some organising and adventuring on our own.  We took one of Bear’s recommendations and walked through a forest to La Barboleuse, a nearby town. The walk through the forest was wonderful and peppered with autumnal delights such leaves underfoot and ombré trees, turning orange. It was also, however, almost completely downhill and so we climbed back to Villars along the road planning and organising as we went.


On Tuesday we walked up to ‘The Hut’ (official name, ‘Scex Hut’) which is an incredible vantagepoint and provides an exceptional view of the town of Villars-sur-Ollon and the surrounding mountains.  Tuesday night was our final night with Bear and it had come round far too quickly; I was quite ready to stay forever.  We watched ‘Bake Off’ and then, to Olly’s delight, ‘Celebrated Hunted’ came on and so we stayed up later than we should have watching that too.   It is not enough to say that we were ‘beyond humbled’, Bear One, because we had such a fantastic time with you. It was so good to spend time adventuring, exploring, eating and chatting together against the backdrop of beautiful Villars-sur-Ollon. Merci mille fois, mon petit ours, c’était difficile de partir.

On Wednesday morning we waved Bear off as she cycled to work before heading back upstairs to pack up the panniers that had taken over the lounge. With everything back on the bikes (or so we thought… the ‘dog stick’ was mistakenly left as a gift for Bear) we set off down Bear Mountain.

Part 2: Mountains of fun 

It was 10km down the mountain and then we headed back in the direction of Martigny in order to pick up the Rhône Route and head east along the valley.  We’d managed to organise two Warm Showers stays for the two days after leaving Bear’s and our first was with Eric in Sion. We had a delicious tomato fondue with potatoes for tea and homemade compote for pudding as we talked about adventures, Switzerland and skiing, and I remember really enjoying the playlist!  Eric made us feel incredibly welcome and I loved how vivacious both Eric and his apartment were.

The vineyards on the mountain

From Eric in Sion we cycled to Brig where we stayed outside of town with Karin and Martin, a Dutch couple passionate about life in the mountains.  It was on this day that I had to say goodbye to my beloved, pink helmet as at lunch time my bike fell on it and cracked it too much for it to be safe when mountainous descents were high on the agenda.  (It was also the day I discovered my spirit animal/patronus: the Valais blackneck Swiss alpine goat!)  Fortunately, as we cycled into Brig there was a bike shop ready and waiting for us, and there was a helmet with pink flashes and polka dots that had my name written all over it.   After parting with a fair sum, but having received an awesome discount too, I handed over my pink helmet and had a beer (/swapped Olly’s empty bottle with my half-consumed one), courtesy of the cool dude in the shop.  

Jaffa cakes, a cracked helmet and mountain goats
Colourful Brig
Colourful bee hives

Our stay at Karin and Martin’s incredible home – which was built and delivered! – was really wholesome and good, and they had an excellent warm shower! We ate delicious, nutritious food, courtesy of Karin, and talked cycling all evening and especially about their recent experiences cycling in Iran. Karin and Martin asked if we wanted to stay with them an extra night and accompany them on a trek to Zermatt. Because we had some wheels in motion, we declined their offer, something I look back on a bit miserably – I’m reluctant to say regret, but… Next time, for sure.  And so onwards we went to Oberwald where we camped for the first time since arriving in Switzerland. The ride, weather and scenery were all so beautiful and we were becoming really, favourably accustomed to alpine architecture: every town or village we passed through was perfect.  The campsite was quiet, but wonderful and we pitched up next to an old train carriage which functioned as an indoor room for campers. We had it to ourselves and quickly colonized it with our panniers. Despite being cosy in our sleeping bags, we woke up the following morning with a frosty tent. I moaned and groaned about being cold even having donned my mountain gloves, but soon piped down as we took on the almighty Furkapass.

Emerging alpine villages
We had to cycle across a lump of old snow

Trains in Switzerland are Swiss coloured!

First Swiss camp spot

Breakfast time
Frosty tent

Immediately upon leaving Oberwald we started the epic climb and the 6000 layers that I’d put on in the shade of the mountains at the campsite were soon stripped off!  Initially the pass was quite forested, but upon reaching the town of Gletsch, it really started to open out. Gletsch was a strange, meeting-point of a place, but not much more.  It seemed a little left behind.  At Gletsch we had a tea/coffee and a banana looking up and left to the windy Grimselpass and ahead to Furka. We had been following the Rhone river for a long time and today we would reach its source and have lunch under the Rhone glacier.  (It was also in Gletsch that Olly stood up too quickly and hit his head on a road sign, thus cracking his helmet!)

Furkapass from Gletsch

From Gletsch, there was a long straight stretch of road where the twists and turns of the pass were clearly laid out ahead us. We paused when we reached the end of the straight and I remember looking up at the abandoned hotel and being quite intimidated. However, there was no doubt in Olly’s mind that we would make it and that was all that was needed for me to re-clip into my pedals and continue.

Deceptively steep

Looking up at what was still to come.

On the long, straight section of the pass.

The long straight completed.  Gletsch just visible in the middle of the photo.

It took us about five hours to reach the top of the Furkapass and when stopped for lunch, feeling giddy, elated and super proud of ourselves we actually still had another 2km and 100km of climbing to go! Our lunch spot was mesmerising, regardless, but impossible to truly capture on camera. We were told that the iconic hotel on the corner now stands empty as a result of people being able to easily conquer the pass in a day, or indeed in a morning or afternoon if not relying on pedal power. There is no longer a need for this resting point and as such the hotel is now merely a remnant of a past, slower age.

Lunch spot

It felt like we were on top of the world.
The very top was rewarding and our highest point to date. The descent into Andermatt, however, a little hair-raising as we saw an overturned car and lots of flashing, blue lights. We had noticed that Swiss drivers can be a little reckless and complacent, especially on the mountain roads, and we felt we’d had quite a few close shaves. Olly took to trying to stick the dog-stick out to act as a reminder that 1.5m isn’t too much to ask. 

In Andermatt, a small and pretty town, the campsite we’d intended to stay at was closed, and we weren’t carrying much water and it was starting to get dark.  I started to feel a little fraught as I’ve realised I do when we don’t know where we’re going to sleep at night.  Fortunately, Olly stopped another cyclist and the man pointed us in the direction of the next day’s pass and a valley coming off it.  We thanked him and set off, adrenaline kicking in as we had to start climbing again.  We left Andermatt and found the turning before too long and passed a herd of yaks (!) in our bid to find a suitable sleeping spot. We pitched our tent next to a bench and a river that we used to filter some water.  As night fell I couldn’t believe how well our tent disappeared into the darkness and also how incredibly bright the moon was. The wild camp encouraged us to get an early start the next morning and so after saying goodbye to the yaks, we set off on to the Oberalppass.

Packing up with the sunrise.

Oberalp started nicely enough and it was interesting to see how encased in shadow Andermatt was because of the mountains surrounding it. Before too long, however, we were enveloped in the same shadow and the day became cold and windy and the pass never-ending. The road wasn’t steep enough to be considered foreboding, but it was so long and gradual that I became quite disheartened. A cup of hot chocolate (made with milk and not water) at the top was enough to perk us up (and significantly lighten our wallets) and see us all the way down the other side.


It became a long day, and the nerves I had felt descending the Furkapass the day before manifested themselves in broken brakes: first front, then back and then front again. Olly managed to fix them the first two times, but by the third time, fortunately at the end of the day, there was no way I was stopping.  We were heading to Trin and had to be there by 7pm as our Warm Showers host was heading out.  The hours ticked by and at times it didn’t feel like we were getting any close. We passed through Illanz and started a beautiful cycle that felt so far removed from the beginning of the day. However, as we were pressed for time we couldn’t, or didn’t, appreciate the landscapes as much as we could have. We were climbing again, but this time the views were spectacular: we passed through the Ruinaulta, or Rhine Gorge, known as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. With the autumnal colours and fading light, it was, even if only briefly acknowledged, stunning.

At Versam we texted Michael who told us we still had about an hour to go. We watched and waited for ‘the cows to come home’ and then knuckled down to carry on. It was when we were stopped at some roadwork traffic lights, heading downhill, that my brakes made the clicking sound that was becoming all too familiar. As we turned off the main road, which was descending through a forest that felt so vast and open that I felt completely free, and onto single track, mountain bike paths that my brakes cut out for the final time that day.  Suddenly very much back in the present.  We walked through the, now, dense wood and met Michael running towards us as he had offered to pick up our luggage as the climb to his house was significant. With a broken bike, however, it and I too were bundled into the car and we left Olly to climb up to Trin on his own.  In an instant I felt both relieved and guilty – Olly has just told me he felt scared and abandoned, but his recreation of the event is daft and overly embellished! That said, after an already challenging day, Olly did have an extra 5km and 300m to travel and Michael was optimistic when he said it would only take twenty minutes!

Michael’s place in the mountains became a real haven, though, especially as he encouraged us to stay an extra day to rest and recuperate. We were so grateful. We spent the morning doing jobs and in the afternoon we took a scenic bus ride to Flims and then walked home via the Lago di Cresta, or Lake Crestasee. It was so serene and beautiful.

The view from Trin 
Leaving Flims

Playing on the pontoon

Getting there

We bid farewell to peaceful Trin and headed to Donat, for another Warm Showers stay, this time with Chris, Judith and their family.  The cycle this day was really nice and I remember stopping on a bench for second breakfast and talking to some runners who were encouraging and nodded a lot when we said we were heading for New Zealand via Thusis! We then wound up on a mountain bike trail through a beautiful forest, but annoyingly we could see our track on the other side of the river… We walked through the forest before heading to the edge of and admiring the blue, blue river that we’d been snaking alongside of.  We stopped for lunch and watched as a helicopter lifted supplies up a mountain.  It was a great day, made only better by the doughnut that Olly inhaled in the Lidl carpark. We reflected again on cycling shorter distances if they were going to allow us to be more explorative, relaxed and happy.   From Lidl we didn’t have far to go to reach Donat, just a challenging, but rewarding. climb through several short tunnels and a final climb up into the little mountain-side village which we arrived at at promptly 6 o’clock.  We felt so at home at Chris and Judith’s house and really enjoyed raclette with lots of the family that night.  We lost count of how many languages were spoken over the course of the meal!  It was a super stay with them and we started to feel really sad that our time in Switzerland was coming to and end after the warmth and hospitality of so many over the past few weeks.

Lunch spot

Viamala Gorge

Cows walking home in Donat


From Donat, the short distance to Splügen and the campsite there that was fully set up for winter tenting: we sat eating locally made yoghurts and chocolate in a nicely heated hut and had to muster all our strength not to let the campsite cat in! The following morning was our final Swiss pass: Splügenpass out of Switzerland and into Italy. We had ten Swiss francs left to our name and so headed to the little Volg store first thing to spend five each! We both bought a chocolate bar that we’d been craving: Olly, Ovalmaltine and me, Callier.

In cheerful spirits we started the climb and it was beautiful – my favourite of all the passes we’d done in Switzerland. After leaving the town of Splügen behind, the pass, as was becoming customary now, opened up and the fifteen consecutive switchbacks were good fun and manageable. I as reached the top of the pass, someone did a whoop and a fist pump and I responded, feeling good. The fist had belonged to one of three Swiss guys whom we chatted to and who were on their way home to Zurich from Rome. We took the obligatory photos at the border and celebrated by eating a mushy banana before descending into country number six.

Lunch in Italy
The descent into a new chapter of the trip was good fun and the views of the mountains, blue and hazy in the distance were captivating. Our plan was to camp on the northern tip of Lake Como and we stumbled upon a campsite just as it was getting dark. The following day we cycled around the western edge of Lake Como and something that was immediately noticeable was the pollution that filled our lungs. The mountains were disappearing from view and the unadulterated beauty of Switzerland with them. However, Italy was very much alive and we were excited for these new adventures.

In Como I headed to my first Italian supermarket and was a) overwhelmed by the pasta aisle and b) scolded by the cashier for trying to put too many vegetables – and their appropriate labels – on only one plastic bag. (Recently I was scolded by a member of the public for not wearing a disposable, plastic glove as I picked up my vegetables to put in their individual plastic bags.) We then wound our way through Como to a meeting point where the night’s hostel owners were to meet us to collect our bags as the hostel lay at the top of a steep and unwieldy path; we learned the next morning that going up was easier than coming down. We had decided to stay in a hostel as the weather forecast showed nought but rain, and indeed the heavy rain continued for the next two weeks and, as was reported quite widely in even the British news, storms wreaked havoc with much of the north of Italy. The hostel was different to a British YHA and as such we couldn’t cook our own dinner. Instead we had delicious ravioli dish stuffed with potato, ricotta, sage and butter – I think! It wasn’t the best night’s sleep we’ve had so far, but upon hearing the rain beating down on the ground, we were grateful to have a roof over our heads.

From Olly's roll.

From Como we took the train to Milano, a decision reluctantly made. The forecast was bleak; we’d been told that cycling into Milan from the north is neither easy nor very scenic; and we were due to meet Emma, one of Marta’s friends, at a precise time and didn’t want to be late. After a fracas with our bikes, an impatient woman and the lift, we made it to the platform and then on to the appropriate train. However, note to my future self when taking a train seems like a good call: it is quite stressful travelling with bikes like ours. We think Marta was chuffed to bits when Olly broke the news to her that we’d “unfortunately” have to go to Milano. Marta is from Milan and is passionate about and proud of her home town. We are so thankful to Marta for hooking us up with two of her friends, Emma and Elena, in Milan and to them for sheltering us from the worst of the storms and for welcoming us so warmly that Milano is now firmly on the list of ‘places to go back to’. We arrived in Milan with time to spare before meeting up with Emma and so we went to Upcycle Bike Café and felt quite at home surrounded by bike wheels and cycling jerseys. We also relished the warmth. After a cup of tea and coffee, we headed out into the rain once more that day and met Emma as she was returning from the bakery; she was waving her green umbrella in the air. Once again we felt proud that we had arrived where we were supposed to and in the four days that followed, we settled into la vita italiana.