Gas, Gas, Gas!!

After our amazing train journey to the top of The Oberalp Pass we stepped out into cool temperatures and a landscape still covered with large areas of snow yet to melt. It looked a lot colder from the train than it actually was and shorts and a cycling jacket were all that were needed.

The start of a long ride.
“I hope it warms up from here”

It was a beautiful sunny day and after the obligatory photo shoot at the “Oberalp” sign and the lighthouse which has been placed there to mark the Source of The Rhine (Yes! Lighthouse) we started our journey of around 900 miles along the river.

“I have no idea”

We were up at around 7000 feet so the only way was down. Steve has cycled many times in The Alps and is used to the switchback descents. But for Sarah it was a first and it was made even more difficult by the weight we were carrying. A slow and steady start soon began to gather momentum as the severity of the switchbacks became less and less. Our speed began to increase and before long we were hurtling down the mountain at speeds approaching 50 mph! “It’s a good job we fitted new brake pads for this trip”, screamed Sarah!!

The scenery was great.

The views were unbelievable. Snow capped mountains, blue sky, lush green fields and meadows full of wild flowers. Add into the mix a splattering of Swiss style houses and it made a picture perfect scene. We were loving it.

Eventually the gradient became less and less and we found ourselves cycling along the valley floor in the same scene as before but viewing it from a different angle, the bottom rather than the top.

A view from the cockpit!

We moved on through villages and open meadows towards our campsite close to the town of Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland. We rounded a corner and were faced with a hill …. going up! We knew the hill was there, but we hadn’t expected it to be so long and steep. It was like someone had given us a grand piano to carry. On top of this, Sarah had been struggling with a chest infection for a couple of weeks which just wouldn’t go away. In fact, we had had some serious discussions in Belgium and The Netherlands as to whether we should abandon the trip or not, but she decided to give it a go.

“How much longer is this hill”?

Everso slowly we moved up the hill, hoping the next bend would be the last only to find the asphalt stretching on and up again. The clock ticked on and the sun started to drop and the bends kept coming. We stopped at a garage to buy some drinks and have a brief respite before plodding on again. Eventually after what seemed an eternity the top came into view. We cycled over and freewheeled the four miles down to the campsite.

The tent was up in a flash and after a shower and cooking some food at the great camp kitchen, we sank into our sleeping bags and slept like babies. It had been an incredibly long day. Starting in Italy, then the train journey into The Alps and the cycle to the campsite. Sarah had done amazing to get through it.

The next morning we emerged to another beautiful day and only then realised what a scenic spot we had been camping at. We were tired but eager to press on and Sarah said she was feeling a little better each day.

We picked up The Rhine again after passing through the town of Chur and it was now starting to look like a big old river. We had seen it grow the previous day from a fast flowing stream as at propelled down the mountain looking milky blue and glacial. It was now becoming slower and wider but still had a glacial look about it.

A thumbs up is always a good sign.

We followed it almost all of the day travelling along lovely wide asphalt paths. We saw occasional day cyclists and the odd dog walker, but essentially we had the route almost to ourselves. We enjoyed the odd glance behind us to see the snow capped mountains slowly shrinking in the distance and appreciated the hot weather which had replaced the cold chill.

Steve looks back to the start.

At one point we crossed the river via an old covered wooden bridge and found ourselves cycling into the small principality of Lichtenstein. It reminded us a little of Monaco. Everyone looked wealthy and the main square was surrounded by high-end fashion shops and every major watch maker we had heard of. We sat in the small main square and watched the World go by eating our sandwiches and soaking up the sun.

Not your normal border crossing.

After leaving Lichtenstein we found ourselves at the border of three countries where the small Principality ran into both Austria and Switzerland. We followed the Rhine North East into Austria and on to our next campsite.

We had arrived in plenty of time so we had a walk to the local supermarket, bought some ingredients for a small feast, and headed back to cook. Steve got out our stoves and gas. “NOOOOO”, he screamed, as if the world was ending! “What’s happened”, cried Sarah as she rushed to help. “I bought the wrong canisters in Italy. They don’t fit our burners”. Thankfully it isn’t often that we make silly mistakes but when we do it hurts. Neither of us could be bothered to go back into town and find a restaurant. So with no cooking facilities available on the site our feast became a snack of a couple of brioche buns dipped in yoghurt!

The next day we set off in search of gas, hungrier than two ticks on a teddybear. We made our way to where the Rhine enters Lake Constance in the town of Bregenz. We found a sports and camping store and bought the last four canisters. “This will see us through a couple of weeks but we will need more”, said Steve. “Getting this type of canister in Europe looks a bit of an issue”. Sarah then raided the Aldi store and bought enough croissants and wraps to fill an army!

A full stomach and opera in the background.

Bregenz is famous for opera. They have a festival there each year at an open air theatre right on the lake. They were in the process of building this year’s set for Madame Butterfly. There were photos around from previous years and the sets look out of this World.

After our monster lunch, we followed Lake Constance around its North shore and into Germany. It is absolutely beautiful and has a wide promenade, full of activity, and the miles rolled past as we watched the ever changing scene in front of us. When there was nothing to see on the promenade there was always the lake to admire.

We arrived in Freidrichshafen in early afternoon. We had found a lovely little hotel on the outskirts of town, costing not much more than a campsite on the lake, and as it was Sarah’s birthday the following day we took the opportunity to eat out at the pizza place opposite. Beer and pizza …. so much better than brioche and yogurt!

Thats more like it!

Sarah woke up on her birthday in a comfy bed, but there was no day off from the bike. Steve pointed out that we had spent the last seven nights in seven different countries, which is something we probably will never do again.

“Happy Birthday to you”

We headed off, back along Lake Constance, and followed The Rhine out to The West and back into Switzerland. The route was a little more difficult to follow and at times moved away from the river and into forests along gravel tracks. These were slower going and harder on the bikes and us! But the different scenery helped the miles pass by. We also stopped for coffee and apple strudel in the fairytale setting that is the town of Stein am Rhein

The incredibly pretty Stein am Rhein

We finished the day back down alongside the river on a gloriously sunny afternoon as we pitched up close to the scenic town of Schaffhausen. We were next to a couple from Australia who were on a six month tour of Europe. We swapped stories of OZ and Europe and it was strange to have a long conversation in English!

Swan Lake.

The next day was our sixth straight day in the saddle and we had a rest day planned for the day after. We had also booked a small Airbnb for a couple of nights. So we made our way along the river talking about how much we were looking forward to a day of rest and wander around the medieval town of Bad Säckingen. Let’s hope it turns out to be “Good Säckingen!”

Steve with gas canisters that actually fit!

Country after Country after Country!

It seems like a long time has passed since we last embarked on a long distance cycle ride. October 2019 to be precise, when we finished our trip down the Pacific Coast of The USA from Canada to Mexico. Since then we had spoken a few times about planning to do another one and now seemed as good a time as any.

We packed up our car, a different one to normal. Our old Mercedes had finally given up the ghost, not only electrically but also mechanically. We had hoped to get one more trip out of it but with the number of issues it had, and the difficulties in obtaining some parts, it became too much of a risk to drive long distances and too expensive to repair.

Loads of space!

We were taking the new car (well, new to us) and leaving it in Amsterdam as we plan to go straight on to another adventure immediately after this one. So we crossed The Channel by ferry, drove a little through France and made our first night stop in Ypres, Belgium.

The Menin Gate at Ypres

We were hoping to get to Ypres by 8pm in order to witness The Last Post at The Menin Gate. This is an impressive memorial in the town to the fallen soldiers who were killed in the area during World War One and never received a burial. Thousands and thousands of names of British, Australian, Canadian, South African and Indian soldiers are inscribed on the walls of the memorial. Every evening since the memorial was built in 1928 a bugler has played The Last Post at exactly 8pm. The only time this was interrupted was during the German occupation in WWII, when the ceremony was instead conducted at Brockwood Military Cemetery in The UK.

All sizes of buglers are available.

We were surprised at the number of people who came to witness it and a number of wreathes were laid. It is a moving ceremony and made even more poignant as The Last Post was played at Sarah’s father’s funeral earlier this year.

It is an impressive memorial.

After spending a comfortable night in our new ‘two man’ blackout tent we were on the road early the next morning across the border to Utrecht in The Netherlands. Our Dutch friends, Mark and Lisa, recommended it, describing it as “a mini Amsterdam”.

It definitely has an Amsterdam feel.

They were exactly right. Canals, cyclists, ‘Coffee Shops’ and similar architecture. We spent a relaxing afternoon meandering alongside the canals and drinking coffee.

After another night under canvas we embarked on what we knew would be two long and logistically difficult days.

Camping on a farm near Utrecht.

Firstly, we drove to Amsterdam Airport, parked up the car and left with our bikes in boxes and our luggage in panniers to board an early afternoon flight to Milan. It is never easy moving to and through an airport carrying bikes and luggage. There is a lot of lifting, maneuvering, cursing and getting in people’s way. By the time we were sitting down on the plane we were already feeling we had had a long day.

The source of The Rhine is way up high in The Alps, 7000 feet high! There are a few options to get there but the only realistic way for us with all the weight we are carrying was to arrive by train. Steve had mentioned the idea of cycling, however, he had only just started his ‘pitch’ before Sarah well and truly ended it for him. “If I have to cycle over 800 miles carrying this weight, I’m not starting with a 7000 foot mountain”. To be fair, Steve agreed!

We arrived at Milan Airport with luggage and bikes intact and set about assembling them in the arrivals hall. We were under a bit of time pressure as we had to cycle over 30 miles to our Airbnb before sunset at 9pm and we needed to make a small detour to pick up some camping gas at a Decathlon store on the outskirts of the city. We provided some intriguing entertainment for people who were waiting for arriving passengers and there was a sense of disappointment as their family or friends arrived before they were able to see the finished article.

Steve hard at work in ‘Arrivals’

We managed to get the bikes together and loaded securely and by 6pm we were out of the airport and rolling. Normally we would have covered the distance easily, but Steve hadn’t been on his bike at all in Central America and Sarah hadn’t been on hers much since she got off it at the Mexican border with sore everything in 2019! Also the panniers and camping equipment seemed much heavier than last time. Or are we just three years older?

We arrived at Decathlon and Steve rushed in and out to buy gas and we moved on again. It was a beautiful sunny evening as we wound our way up and down through rural Italian villages, with tight streets, sometimes cobbled. Normally it would have been an enjoyable route but all we really wanted was a long, straight, flat road to our destination.

We watched the sun drop lower and lower in the sky, the light started to ebb away and a chill appeared in the air as we cycled through the forest. Steve pushed on and Sarah stuck to his wheel. “Here we go again”, she thought, “Day one and it’s already a pain fest”.

We emerged from the forest, entered a small village and Steve took a sharp turn off a roundabout and at 9.03pm came to a stop outside the Airbnb!

We shovelled some microwave food into our mouths, had a lovely shower and collapsed into a comfy bed. “Were we really on a campsite in Utrecht in The Netherlands this morning?”.

The following morning we were up early and back on the bikes. It was going to be another long day. It started with a 30 minute cycle across the border into Switzerland where Sarah bought us some train tickets to the top of the Oberalp Pass, the source of The Rhine. “We have to catch four trains with some tight connections”, she said with a worried look.

Settling down on the train. (Thanks for all the cycling kit Mark!)

The first train arrived with true Swiss precision, on time, to the second. There was space for the bikes and straps to secure them. The train was modern, clean and comfortable and we settled down to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Train number two arrived and departed with similar comfort and efficiency. Then things started to go wrong. A freight train had broken down and was blocking the line and the train we were on was returning to where it had started. We made the decision to get off in the small village where we had stopped and sit it out until the line was cleared and another train came along. We managed to get a baguette and some ham from the only shop in the village and sat on the deserted platform with our crudely made sandwiches.

Alone on a deserted platform.

An hour came and went and we were just starting to formulate plan “B” when a beautiful sleek looking train came into view. Luckily the line had been cleared and our journey continued, albeit an hour and a bit behind schedule. We then had a stroke of luck when the guard came to check our tickets. She was nothing short of amazing. We got chatting and she was intrigued with our story. She sat down and made herself comfortable. It turned out she was a tour guide before Covid and had to switch jobs to pay the bills. She obviously missed it and was just waiting for tourism to fully return before going back to it. She gave us an hour long commentary as we passed lakes and mountains and bridges and tunnels which were engineering marvels. She also gave us specific and precise directions as to how to cross the platforms and make our very tight connection to the next train. We followed them exactly and made it onto the train as the doors closed and we moved away. We saw several others who weren’t so lucky and were faced with an hours wait before the next train would arrive!

Sarah takes in the view.
The views were pretty special.

Our third train really started to make progress high into the Alps. So much so that we had to physically hang onto the bikes to stop the rolling back, it was that steep. The scenery though was becoming more and more impressive and with the fourth and final train it was even more so. This one was designed with skiers in mind with very few seats and hanging hooks for skis. This time we met a guard who gave Steve an update on the current Giro D’Italia cycle race. The train guards in Switzerland are super friendly.

Plenty of space for the bikes.

Eventually we reached the end of the line and stepped off into cooler, thinner air with plenty of snow on the ground. We were at Oberalp pass, the start of The Rhine and the beginning of our long journey back to Amsterdam. We had landed in Calais at 2pm on Sunday and it was now 2pm on Wednesday. “Have we really only been in Europe for three days”, said Steve. “Yep” said Sarah, “and we are in Country number FIVE”!!

There is a chill up here.