In July 2015 I cycled across Switzerland from Lac Léman in the west to Lac Konstanz in the east with a friend, Martin Thorpe.
500km in 5 days.
The plan was to follow one of the Swiss National Cycle routes, #4 Alpine Panorama, but the official route for Alpine Panorama runs from Rorschach on Lake Constance to Aigle. We wanted our route to start from Vevey and finish in Rorschach, rather than the other way round, hence the slight change in our route compared to the published Route 4. We also only had 5 days maximum to complete the trip so we covered larger distances on some dates compared to the published itinerary. This blog is intended as a guide for those cyclists wishing to follow Route 4 across Switzerland and want some information on what the route is like and where to stay and eat. The route is spectacular, the cycling is challenging but not too difficult and it can easily be done in the time frame given here.
Day 1 -Vevey to Thun
Having driven this route the weekend before, to get an idea of which routes to follow, we decided to follow driving route 9, which runs all the way from Vevey to Thun. This is a fairly main road but there is not too much traffic and was perfect for our route. Our day started at 7.30am with a coffee in Place du Marche in Vevey with the sky a little overcast but dry. We set off at 8am and despite some unexpected rain for the majority of the journey, the day was good. The ride was steady and scenic although the weather conditions meant the ride was not as spectacular as it could have been but it did not stop us from making good progress throughout the day and we reached Thun before our expected time.
We covered the first 45km from Vevey to Charmey in about 2 hours before stopping for a coffee and sheltered for a while from the rain. The route through pretty Fribourg villages took us over rolling countryside roads, past plenty of farms and wood stores. The 20km climb up the Juanpass from Broc was not too difficult despite a steady gradient and we reached the summit after 65km..
Despite wanting to stop for lunch there were no restaurants were open due to the poor weather so we decided to descend and see where we could find open. The descent was amazing with lots of switchbacks, amazing views and amazing speeds, nearly topping out at 70km/h!! Once off the pass the road through Boltingen to Thun was relatively flat although a wet and slippy train line caused us to come to a crashing halt, fortunately with nothing more than a few cuts and some ripped shorts!! Even more reason now to stop for food so fortunately we stumbled upon a roadside café serving the best (well, what seemed like the best at that particular time!!) Chinese food.
After refuelling and getting a little warmer we were able to cover the remaining 30km or so to the TCS campsite in less than an hour. We arrived soaking wet and looking forward a hot shower and some dry, clean clothes….and a cup of tea!!
Our accommodation was in Swisstubes, cylindrical shaped buildings with two sets of bunk beds, a bathroom and more power points than we had devices!!
The campsite had a restaurant but we decided to have an evening stroll and meal in Thun as the weather was still too overcast to risk getting the bbq out. El Camino served us some pulled pork burgers with sweet potato fries which were excellent, particularly when washed down with a pint of the local beer.
Day 2 – Thun to Sarnen
Route 4 in reverse runs from Sorenberg to Thun via Flueli. We decided to add some extra kilometres to the end of the trip to allow us to stay in Sarnen as there was more chance of finding accommodation.
The portable grill allowed us to boil some water and after some homemade porridge and tea we were off at 8am towards Sarnen. We headed immediately for Thun and picked up the signs for Route 4 in the town centre which saw us head north and up and away from Thun along designated cycle paths away from traffic and through some stunning countryside and little villages with amazing views. After leaving the vicinity of Thun the road settled down and we cruised along at a steady speed until we hit the first climb of the day after 25km to Schallenberg at 1110m. The road contained a few gradual switchbacks and we made it to the top at about 9.30am and made the first stop of the day for coffee. The café was clearly a popular stop with cyclists and motorcyclists as these were the only people to enter whilst we were there.
With the sky clear, the descent from the summit was amazing and it was hard to keep our eyes on the road with some incredible views to take in. From Schallenberg we headed towards Schangnau which was another 10km further on. At Schangnau we had the option of following Route 4 towards the mountains and hoping we could follow it through the hills to save us 40km and get us to Giswil at our expected time or take a longer route via Fluelen and Sorenberg, which is the published route, but would add another 2 hours to our journey time. We opted for the first option as I had studied this before the trip and it looked possible for us to get across, even on the road bikes we had. Even the Route 4 signs showed it was suitable for our bikes as opposed to just mountain bikes, so we went with the hunch…. As we passed Kemmeriboden, the signs were still showing route 4 but
ALAS……soon after taking the designated route the road turned to gravel and it was clear we could not continue. We descended to where the road forked and chanced our arm on another hill with a serious climb but this turned to gravel at the top too which left us deflated and slightly annoyed at the lack of decent signs. Our only option was to ride back to Schangnau and take the other Route 4 towards Luzern and head around the mountain we had hoped to ride over. This was a relatively flat route until Sorenberg but it had cost us 40km and at least 2.5 hours!!!
Before getting to Giswil, and after 100km already ridden, we hit the final climb of the day, the Gluebenpass, at 1600m. The road climbed 450m in 6km and was a serious hill although the mood was lightened a little after finding cows blocking the route at one point and lightened a lot by finding a little shack by the side of the road just before the summit selling various local cheeses, sausage and beer. We spent 20 minutes on a bench eating, drinking and musing on the days events, with an amazing view of the valley below, albeit somewhat distorted by the low clouds!
After 300m the road descended and we flew down the hill towards Lake Sarnen, finding our campsite, Seefeld Sarnen Camping, at the north end of the lake, arriving at 5pm, nearly 3 hours later than planned!! Our families had arrived earlier in the day as the facilities at the campsite were fantastic, with an outdoor swimming pool, access to the lake, games rooms and an on-site restaurant. We ate in the camp restaurant that evening and relaxed in the grounds, reliving our ride with amusement!
Day 3 – Sarnen to Klausenpasshohe
Doing route 4 in reverse you will finish your day in Sarnen having started in Fluelen, at the bottom of Lake Luzern. Fluelen would have been a natural finish point for us but with only 65 km to cycle to get there and a 30 minute ferry crossing, we felt it was too short and with no climbing, we decided to add the Klausenpass ascent into our day and finish at the hotel situated at the top of the climb.
As it was a beautiful morning and in the knowledge that we only had 76km to cycle today, we decided to start later than normal and have a leisurely breakfast. With 26km to cycle to Beckenried to catch the ferry to Gersau (Beckenried Car Ferry) on the other side of Lake Luzern, which left on the half hour every hour, we planned to leave at about 10am to make the 11.30am ferry . After packing the tents away and starting our preparations we discovered that when you leave a cool box plugged in to your car’s cigarette lighter all night the result is that the battery is dead and the car won’t start!!! Cue much camp laughter at our expense as we tried to get it started without jump leads and then with, until the gentleman who had leant us the jump leads came to put us out of our misery and did it for us!! A quick exit was therefore required and we left the campsite at 11.50 hoping to make the 1pm ferry. However, we found the route to be into the wind for most of the way and we missed the ferry by 10 minutes, necessitating a stop for lunch by the lake, which consisted of an anxious 30 minute wait for sausage, bread and coffee. We took the 2pm ferry and set off cycling again in tandem at 2.30pm heading along the north side of Lake Luzern through Brunnen and Fluelen, where we stopped to take in some amazing scenery looking over the lake towards some of the highest peaks in Switzerland, the highest topping out at 4000m.
After Alpdorf, and 55km, we turned left, past the William Tell museum, and passed the sign telling us we had a 21km climb and a height difference of 1400m to deal with to the top of the Klausenpass!!!
We decided to take it nice and steady and rode in tandem allowing us time to take in the incredible views and the height we were gaining. The route was unlike our other climbs, which contained lots of switchbacks. Although longer than all the others, the road climbed gradually and we never needed to be out of the seat pushing really hard to move. We kept a constant speed of around 8-9km/h with occasional stops to take photos and eventually reached the Klausenpass Hotel, at 1800m, which was our rest stop for the night, at 6.30pm (Klausenpasshohe Hotel)
Fatigued but not completely exhausted, we feasted on roast lamb, vegetables and red wine in the hotel restaurant and, as it was Swiss National Day the following day, we were treated to fireworks before retiring to bed, signalling the end of a great day.
On Route 4, With bad weather forecast for the morning, we decided to delay our departure until the cloud cover and rain subsided. It became clear that this was not going to happen anytime soon so at 10am we decided to leave the bikes on the car and descend a little but until the sky was clearer and the road a little less hazardous. After a few switchbacks and when we were below most of the cloud cover we got the bikes and ourselves ready and prepared to depart.
We had no idea what the rest of the descent would be like but it turned out to be fantastic with long straights and only a few tight turns although the final section over wet cobbles demanded all our attention. We descended about 10km and on a dry, clear day with the mountains looming overhead, it would be out of this world.
The route to Appenzell following route 4 looked flat following the descent from Klausenpass yet it proved to be anything but. We knew we had a journey of 100km plus to contend with but the terrain we rode over was unexpected, although we maybe should have expected it seeing what the trip had thrown at us thus far!!
After descending we continued to follow Route 4 towards Glarus which was relatively calm given it was the morning after the night before but after leaving Glarus the route alternated between designated cycle path through fields, along a railway or on the road. We chose the cycle path to stay away from what traffic there was but this slowed us down quite a bit and we would have been better sticking to the roads. We took the road route towards Wattwil and managed to hitch a ride behind a tractor for a while which allowed us to cruise along at 30km/h with no effort whatsoever!! Fifteen kilometres before Wattwil the road ascended quite rapidly, catching us out and we were back climbing slowly again watching our expected arrival time disappear into the distance. A stop for lunch broke the journey up and then we were back in the saddle for the rest of the climb and then a fast descent to Wattwil before passing out the other side of the valley for the climb to Urnasch which rose 650m in 11km. Dotted throughout the afternoon were lots of pretty hilltop villages with farms, wood stores and machinery workshops which seem to reflect mountain life throughout this country. Self sufficiency is clearly still alive in many rural parts of Switzerland yet none of these villages lie too far from a town or city where cosmopolitan life is the norm. With the light fading and the sky falling, we reached Appenzell after 100km and faced yet another climb to the campsite in Eischen (Gasthof Eischen Camping). This steep 3km climb took us at least 20 minutes to conquer and after another mammoth day in the saddle we were glad to see the tents up and the BBQ in action. Despite the rain falling throughout the night, we both got a good nights sleep ready for the final days riding tomorrow.
Day 5 – Appenzell to Rorschach
Another delayed start, this time due to the endless amounts of bacon that had been bought especially for us and which needed cooking and eating!! We were only too happy to oblige seeing as though our target of Rorschach, on the shores of Lake Constance and the starting point for Alpine Panorama route 4, was about 35km away and, at most, a two hour ride. An 11am departure should have meant a 1pm finish so we could afford to take a ride into Appenzell and check out this beautiful preserved Swiss town, as famous for its cheese as Gruyère (Appenzell)
However, the route played havoc with our YET again as, after leaving Appenzell, we were taken through smaller villages, often situated on tops of hills and requiring us to slow substantially enough to put our expected meeting with our families in doubt. Again Route 4 wound on and off road and on reflection the safest option in terms of wanting to maintain either a certain time or to have a clear idea of route and where you need to be headed is to stay on the roads as to the cycle paths which can be confusing and, in our case, involved a diversion of about 15 extra mountainous kilometres until we realised the Route 4 signs had disappeared and we were well off track and headed for Austria!!
Rather than backtrack we followed the advice of a fellow cyclist and got back on Route 4 before Heiden, a village at the bottom of a nice fast descent and from there we climbed a little until the signs for ‘Rorschach 7km’ appeared as did the turquoise waters of Lake Constance in the distance.
A final push and we were descending set nearly 70km/h all the way into Rorschach where a St Galler bier was just reward for our efforts over the last 5 days.
A trip with lots of ups and downs, in more ways than one, but a great adventure and it felt great, irrespective of the weather, to be out exploring this amazing country on a bike and seeing and experiencing things that someone in a car never would. With many other National cycle routes available on Swiss trails the decision now is to take them all on or find another country to cycle across. The decision? Watch this space!!!