Getting High in Switzerland: Biking the Alps

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My first time in Switzerland was in September of 2003, when I was still a backpacker on a very tight budget and, as a double whammy, at a time when Switzerland was nowhere near as affordable as it is now. (The franc is one-to-one with the US dollar finally…can you believe it?!) So I lived a very frugal existence, stayed in the notorious Balmer’s hostel in Interlaken—a backpacker’s rite of passage—as any early twenty-something is wont to do, engaged in the few adventure sports I could afford (and fell in love with canyoning), and left when my money ran out. Of course, my money went all the quicker when I became that cliché, the one who leaves the country with two Swatch watches and a Swiss Army knife to boot. And chocolate. Lots and lots of old-fashioned Swiss chocolate.

When I got invited back six years later, there was not a moment of hesitation. Switzerland had always been high on my list of favorite countries, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to return—and do it right, this time (and on someone else’s dime at that!). Even better: the theme of the trip was adventure, and well, was there something more fine-tuned for me—trekking and biking and the like in the high Alps? No, no there was not.

I was a little surprised by how similar the weather in the Alps is to…my beloved San Francisco (at this time of year at least)! Foggy and cool in the mornings, which would burn off midday and make way for some gorgeous Indian summer afternoons.

The thing is that getting to Switzerland from California is not as easy as it was while I lived in New York; to arrive in my first stop of Pontresina took two long flights and four train connections. But the outcome was totally worth it. For example, this was the view from my balcony at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in cute lil’ Pontresina the first two nights. Pure bliss, I tell you.

This was the interior; by far the biggest room I’ve ever stayed in anywhere in Europe. (The continent’s not exactly known for its spacious digs.)

After a leisurely first evening, we were thrown right into the outdoors mix, with an all-day mountain biking journey beginning early the first morning. Mountain biking is something I have done very little of in my life; like skiing, the going downhill really fast on unstable terrain scares the bejeezus out of me.

First, we had to lug our bikes all the way up from Engadin Mountain Bike Tours in the town of St. Moritz to the peak of Corviglia via a series of cable cars. We were so high up that from the moment we started for the tram, I felt extremely light-headed; in fact, much of my time in Switzerland was as if I had always just consumed a bottle of champagne—I was that dizzy from the altitude.

And then after one speedy session with how to work the gears and brakes—why did I remember mountain bikes being so much easier than this?—it was time to hit the trails.

I was a bit terrified to find that we would be going downhill the whole time; I would much rather climb some mountains on my bike than go plummeting down one. One look at the grade and loose gravel had my stomach jumping up into my throat. I’m fearless, but clearly not that fearless.

After I made her go ahead of me in my numbing terror, my fellow Sewanee gal Kate took a spill on the first hill and tore her hands to shreds—not to mention, her legs looked like victims of domestic violence—but was a total trouper and had some worthy battle wounds to show off the remainder of the week.

It was only fitting then that I would follow suit and take a spill myself on the second hill and bang up my knee pretty badly—only, the sad part is I WASN’T EVEN BIKING. Oh no, rather we were walking our bikes down said hill after Kate’s tumble, and while doing so, I slid on the gravel, my feet came out from under me and I fell right on top of my bike, in typical Kristin klutzy fashion. This was taken right before it happened when I still had my cool.

And no, I did not deign to actually film on the bike this time. We all recall what happened the last time I took a stab at that—and that was on a pretty flat paved path in California, too.

The landscape was unbeatable, though. And, we saw Heidi’s hut (“hutte”) from the iconic movie!

(It was much tinier than it looked onscreen.) After the hard work was done, we cruised along Lake Moritz and cooked up one mean picnic.

And by we, I mean the rest of my group. I was too interested in photographing the friendly ducks (do not ask me why).

But they did good (my fellow bikers, not the ducks, that is). The food was delicious.

As was the backdrop.

Oh Switzerland, how soon can I move to thee?

Biking the Alps from Kristin @ on Vimeo.

  • September 28, 2009

    Absolutely stunning! I have enough trouble walking downhill though – I can’t imagine how nervous I’d be to bike down… but that doesn’t stop me from wanted to do it!

  • September 28, 2009

    Ug…one of my best friends is moving to Zurich in a few months. Obviously, I hate him but now I don’t have an excuse not to visit, right? Looks wonderful and those are some very pretty pictures you’ve got there.

  • September 28, 2009

    Some great shots there! Love the first one!

  • September 28, 2009

    This sounds like a fantastic trip, one that me and my husband would enjoy on our next vacation. Now if only I won the lottery we’d be set…

    I recently took up road biking and I love it. I hate mountain biking though. A few years ago I slipped on some gravel and had a Matrix moment – you know, when everything is in slo-mo until you hit the ground? – and have not tried it since. I had cuts and scrapes all over my face and hands for weeks. I looked like someone dragged sandpaper across my body.

    Even though I had that horrible experience I’m open to giving mountain biking another shot. I love trail running, so I’m hoping mountain biking will be just as fun.

  • September 28, 2009

    The Swiss scenery is breathtaking. But I’m not really a biker.

  • September 29, 2009

    I never mad it to Switzerland when I lived in Europe but it remains on the to-do list, looks breathtaking!

  • September 29, 2009

    Your photos are beautiful! And I, too, would have heart in throat about barreling down a mountainside on a bike. Steep grade? Loose gravel? Call the medics now, it would not have ended well for This Girl! But then again, I trip over my own feet on a regular basis. But, like Rachel, I would still totally be up for an adventure like this!

  • September 29, 2009

    As always, fantastic writing and photography!!! What an incredible adventure. I’m glad that you weren’t hurt worse! That hotel room looked pretty luxurious. 🙂

  • September 29, 2009

    Those pictures look simply stunning and the mountain biking must have been a lot of fun, even with the injuries!! I have to agree with you though – after breaking my arm snowboarding I am VEEERY hesitant to go racing down hills and mountains on any form of transportation! 🙂 This is on my list now!

  • September 29, 2009

    I had the privilege of working in Switzerland for 3 years. The country is gorgeous, clean, a picture postcard each and every single day. I have nothing but wonderful memories and also often long to return there. I don’t think I could have done the biking downhill like that, but I would have been totally down for the picnic and sitting by the lake!

  • September 29, 2009

    How lovely! Those mountains are unbelievable.
    Also, can we talk about how hardcore you are for even *agreeing* to bike down a mountain? That would have been the point in which I would have sat on the ground with my arms folded and refused to move. Again, I repeat. Hardcore.

  • September 29, 2009

    Yeah, I’d rather bike up a mountain, too. I can’t wait to see your photos of Zurich!

  • September 29, 2009

    Hey Kristen. I read your blog and love your sense of travel. I thought you might enjoy this from the Smithsonian mag:

  • September 29, 2009

    Enjoy your blog. And I can’t believe the size of that hotel room. That must have cost a small fortune. For Switzerland, that is huge. I live in Switzerland and I love hiking, biking, all the outdoor things you can do here. But since the dollar-franc is now about one-to-one, it actually makes Switzerland less affordable for Americans. When I moved here over three years ago, the dollar was worth about 25% more against the franc than it is today. I find that rather amazing.

  • September 29, 2009

    It looks like it would be fun! Scary but fun!

  • September 29, 2009

    Oh what a great adventure!
    When I was an exchange student in high school my host family took me to that region (the Engadin) for 10 days of fantastic (except for my cartwheel down a black diamond) skiing. I’m glad you had a good time! Did you have any raclette while there?

  • September 29, 2009

    Gorgeous! I’m not a bike person either . . . you were brave!

  • September 29, 2009

    Need. To. Go. To. Switzerland.

  • September 29, 2009

    I would have rocked that mountain bike right into a boulder. And then stayed overnight in the creepy hutte to speak with the soul-sucking DEMONS that must live there. My favorite shot in this awesome set.

  • September 29, 2009

    BRAVE girl! We have tons of hardcore mountain bikers in our tourism community here and that stuff scares the crap out of me!

  • September 29, 2009

    Love this post! I was actually able to get my husband to read it, so I definitely give you two thumbs up. An impressive feat as he doesn’t even bother reading mine. *sigh*

  • September 30, 2009

    I can only imagine the air must be so clean. I want me some clean air!! Nice photos. Switzerland rocks!

  • October 7, 2009

    Great Pictures!! I m just back from Corviglia and l really loved biking there – we even had the same bikes from frischibikeschool

  • December 9, 2012

    Wow, this looks like great fun!

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