Europe Bikepacking Part III 5/31 – 6/11

After five days of wall-to-wall riding it felt wonderful to slow down for a couple of days in Lyon. We slept in our first morning, enjoying the feeling of a real bed and not being camped illegally. I ate an ungodly amount of food at the hostel’s all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and we headed out to see the city. We met up with Taryn’s friend for lunch and she took us on an amazing tour of the city. Having a local tour guide really is a game changer.

After the tour we said goodbye to the friend, grabbed our stuff stashed at the hostel, and road across the city to the apartment of a college friend where we were planning to stay the next few nights.

The next day we had a good scare when we went to a pharmacy to inquire about our flea bites that were still very red and still covering a good part of our backs and butts. The nurse at the pharmacy let out a concerned breath when she saw my back and then informed us she thought it was bed bug bites. We spent the next few hours panicking that we had just introduced bed bugs into our friend’s apartment. Eventually a combination of internet searches and worried phone calls to Taryn’s family-doc dad convinced us that the bite patterns didn’t look anything like bed bugs and we were able to return to the apartment.

After our friend got off work she took us on an amazing evening bike ride outside of Lyon. I was blown away by how easy it was to get out of Lyon and how quiet and rural the roads felt just 45 minutes outside the city.

The next day was our final day in Lyon. Taryn and I went for a midday run and ended up at the botanical gardens. The gardens were absolutely packed full of exotic plants and we ended up spending a while walking through the various wings of the greenhouse admiring the cool plants. The gardens were built in the mid 1800’s and it was fun to imagine it being toured by people who had never (and would never) see the tropics in-person. What a window into another world that must have been!

We spent the rest of the day grocery shopping, organizing gear (and finally tracking down camp fuel!), and generally soaking up the down time before it was time to return to long days on the bike.

We woke up early the next morning and shuttled our bags and bikes out of our friend’s apartment and headed towards the train station. Taryn’s dad was stationed in Bosnia working as a doctor for the Foreign Service. We had agreed to meet Taryn’s dad in Zurich on the 10th for a long weekend together which meant we had seven days to make our way out of France and across Switzerland. This amount of time made for a much more relaxed schedule than our push from Nice to Lyon so we decided to plan on a few non-biking days in Chamonix and the mountains outside of Interlaken. For a route to Zurich, we mainly planned around wanting to pass through those two locations but were pleased to discover a national bike route, the “Lakes Route” mirroring much of our planned route which gave us confidence that we would likely find good riding along the way.

We got off the train to Annecy in the middle of a rain squall but luckily by the time we were on our bikes and outside the city it had largely passed. Lake Annecy is a absolutely stunning, turquoise water surrounded by lush mountains and imposing limestone cliffs. Annecy, sitting right on the lake, with it’s reasonable size and close access to the mountains definitely ranks high on places I would love to live if I got a chance to live in France.

After wrapping part-way around the lake we cut off and started to climb up into the mountains.

Eventually we reached the ski village of Saint-Jean-de-Sixt and started up the first real climb of the day, the ascent to Col des Aravis. As we began winding our way up we once again started to see signs for “Route des Grandes Alpes”. We laughed when we realized that, apart from our detour to Lyon, we had unintentionally just planned a bikepacking trip along a major sightseeing route through the French Alps! We could have saved ourselves a lot of last minute planning stress if we had just done a tiny bit more research about bikepacking in the region and realized our dream route was already planned.

The moody weather continued but by some miracle the rain held off and the cloud cover kept the temperatures extremely comfortable. The real highlight of reaching the pass was not the exceptional mountain views or the promise of a long descent, but rather an extremely affectionate bulldog that we got to make friends with.

The descent down towards Flumet was a beautiful switch-backing affair that eventually deposited us in a lush valley that felt reminiscent of the PNW.

We wound along a river until we popped out at Flumet where we stopped for a quick lunch. From there we road north for 10 miles until we began to contour around the side of a massive valley. As we rounded a corner a break in both the trees and the clouds lined up and we saw a hulking, glaciated mass on the horizon. To our joy we realized we were getting our first views of Mont Blanc!

We descended down to the head of the valley and tried to figure out of next move. We had just blindly assumed the route to Chamonix would be straightforward but now at the end of the valley it seemed the only road heading up into the mountains was a highway that the map showed passed through multiple tunnels. Our phones told us to continue up the highway so we pushed aside any doubt and road along the on-ramp and onto the shoulder of the highway. We had only been riding 30 seconds when a cop car pulled over behind us. Luckily the stereotypes about non-American cops seemed to hold true and they kindly asked what we were doing, confirmed that riding along this highway was definitely illegal, and gave us some instructions on how to find the bike-friendly route up to Chamonix.

We thanked them and retreated back down the on-ramp and followed their instructions through town which lead us to a small switch-backing road that led up the hillside. I snapped my chain so after starting the climb but we had some spare links and were able to be back on our way without much delay. The back-road route up to Chamonix is definitely not direct but the epic views provided great inspiration to keep going.

As we got higher towards Chamonix we began to talk about where we might want to sleep for the night. I suddenly remembered that some guys I knew in college had done a Chamonix ski trip and I had a vague memory that they had stayed with family. Thinking it was probably a Hail Mary and we would likely be sleeping in the woods again, I texted one of the guys, Jack. To my shock he responded almost immediately saying his dad did in fact have a house in Argentière, a small village just north of Chamonix. He said no one was home but gave us the code to the garage and said we were welcome to crash. What a hero! It felt so liberating riding into the afternoon knowing we had our sleeping arrangements already sorted out.

The bike-friendly route up to Chamonix was surprisingly convoluted and took us winding high up on the hillside above the valley but increasingly insane views of the Mount Blanc massif kept us motivated and moving forward.

We arrived in Chamonix around 6:30 pm and stopped into a cafe for a hard-earned cold beer. Chamonix is another one of those mystical places in my mind, a place with so much climbing and skiing history, that it felt a bit surreal to just be sitting there gazing up at the Aiguille du Midi.

After finishing our drinks we coaxed our sore (and now slightly-buzzed) bodies back onto the bikes and road the remaining five or so miles up to Argentière.

We had a bit of an adventure getting into the house due to a mistyped street number from Jack and a confusing mess of underground garage entrances, but eventually we were settled on the correct porch.

The setting was truly heavenly and it felt so special to be able to relax and cook without any fear of being disturbed.

After dinner we set up our pads on the porch and watched the day’s last light illuminate the glacial peaks.

With such a perfect camping situation we decided to spend another night in Chamonix so we could have the day to explore. We found a trail on the map that was nearby town and would get us up onto the Tour du Mont Blanc so we headed into town and locked up our bikes near a raging river.

The climb out of town was steep and switch-backed, but soon we popped out of the trees and were treated to sweeping views of the Chamonix valley.

Eventually we gained the main ridge line and were treated to some of the most picturesque alpine trail I have ever seen.

Our legs felt surprisingly good despite the prior day’s ride so we chose to go all the way to the summit of Le Brévent before turning around and speeding back down to town. I spent the rest of the day trying to locate an outdoor store (of which there were approximately 5000 of in Chamonix) that carried my running shoe of choice so I could replace my very beat up pair. I didn’t end up succeeding but got Taryn and I some ice cream which we ate in the park and made for nice backup prize.

After another peaceful night on the porch in Argentière it was time to say goodbye to Chamonix and France and make our way over into Switzerland.

A short climb out of the Chamonix valley brought us into Switzerland.

We made it over the Col de la Forclaz and made a steep descent to Martigny.

From Martigny we headed northwest biking up a broad valley. Almost immediately we were greeted with a super strong headwind that made forward progress difficult. We battled onwards as the clouds grew darker and darker. We began to see flashes of lightning and soon the rolling thunder grew near-constant. It was obvious it was about to rain, hard, and we were convinced we were about to get soaked. By some miracle we came across a small roadside shop with a big awning. It seemed like only moments after we ducked in for shelter the skies opened up with some of the hardest rain I have ever seen.

Luckily the storm was as short-lived as it was intense and we were able to emerge from our hidey-hole. The headwind departed with the front and we enjoyed beautiful conditions for the next 10 miles until it was time to leave the main valley and start the long climb up to Col du Pillon. Exiting the main road we passed by a beautiful castle and some amazing vineyards.

The climb started hot and steep but eventually we made it high enough into the mountains to enjoy some cool alpine conditions. As we approached the col we got our first taste of Swiss mountain villages, marveling at how they somehow managed to be even more picturesque than their French counterparts.

The weather remained moody, but we reached the Col du Pillon at around 4:30pm to mostly sunny skies.

The descent down from Col du Pillon to Saanen was breathtaking and we did our best to soak in the views, enjoying the gravity-assist after what had felt like a long day of climbing.

We soon reached Saanen, our destination for the night. Aware of Switzerland’s affinity towards structure and order we decided to stay in a campground for our first night to get a feel of things. This turned out to be a good call as it seemed every square inch of flat ground was someones farm.

We arrived at the campground a bit unsure of what to expect. European campgrounds are certainly more expensive than their American counterparts and we had read a few things that said the culture around camping was a bit different. Riding to the main office to check in we passed row after row of camper vans and permanent-looking trailers, confirming this wasn’t going to be a night of spaced-out tent-sites like we were used to. We received our site number and much to our amusement identified it as a small patch of grass between two trailer homes. With not even a real tent to set up we unrolled our pads in the middle of the plot and did our best to blend in.

Taryn ran to a local shop to grab some dinner ingredients (and a bottle of wine as a treat!) and we settled in for a peaceful evening, doing our best to ignore the strange looks we were getting from the many kids running by. A friendly cat came and cuddled with us and we drifted off to sleep before the sun had even fully set.

The goal for the next day was to reach Interlaken. For much of the trip we had been trying to set up Warmshower stays, and app where generous humans offer to host smelly bike-tourers for free. However, due to a flaky app, difficulty keeping our phones charged, and our general inability to plan more than about 6 hours ahead, we had been unable to line up anyone who could host us. This changed when Taryn received a message from a man named Matthias in Interlaken saying he would be happy to take us in.

The ride out of Saanen was stunning and we soon joined national bike route #9, the Lakes Route.

I hadn’t been sure what to expect of these national bike routes (it seems like every city and state in the US has some tourism site that lays out bike routes that, more often than not, are made of sections that cross busy roads, are under constructions, or simply don’t connect). The Swiss bike route blew my mind. Every intersection we came across was meticulously marked with an arrow pointing exactly in the direction we needed to head. The route also largely stuck to extremely small back-roads, to the point where we often felt like we were riding down someones driveway. The combination of these factors meant that we were able to enjoy some truly spectacular biking on roads we would have otherwise never dared follow, all while having to do no real phone navigation. Dreamy!

Thirty-five miles of idyllic biking took us to Spiez and the shores of Lake Thun. We stopped for some lunch at a beautiful grassy park overlooking the lake. Taryn made a few passing comments about feeling a bit off but we thought nothing of it and soon got back on our bikes to finish the ride to Interlaken.

Arriving in Interlaken we made our way down north of the city and down to an amazing little cove on to the beautiful Lake Brienz. We changed into our bathing suits and jumped into the cold, turquoise waters. Taryn is normally a lover of cold water so I could tell something was up when she almost immediately retreated to the warmth of the rocks. After leaving the cove we headed up to explore the nearby Ringgenberg Castle. Once there Taryn admitted that she was feeling pretty nauseous and feverish. I felt her forehead and she did indeed feel warm.

Showing up sick to our first Warmshowers stay wasn’t exactly what we had planned, but we were also relieved that we at least had a plan for the night and figured we could always camp in the yard if our host, Matthias, didn’t want us in the house.

All of this was of course predicated on the ability to find Matthias’s house. We had been using Warmshowers on Taryn’s phone but her phone had died during the way. We had luckily recorded the address but when we tried to navigate to it we found that Google led us down a dead-end road to a nearby wooded park. Without access to the Warmshowers app we realized we had no way to get in touch with Matthias to ask for clarification.

We walked up and down the road and through the park. Grimly we semi-joked to ourselves that at least we could probably sleep in the park if we couldn’t locate our host. Eventually we wandered into the neighborhood on the other side of the park, looking for any signs that a particular house might frequently host bikers. We were feeling pretty hopeless when, by some miracle, a man out watering his garden made eye contact with us. We approached him and explained our predicament. He laughed and informed us that Matthias was his neighbor across the street and he had figured we were looking for the house by the sight of our loaded bikes. We headed across the street to a cozy looking home so relieved to be out of our predicament.

Meeting Matthias we explained that Taryn wasn’t feeling well, but to our absolute delight he was not bothered by it in the slightest and informed us that he had an entire downstairs flat we could stay in for as many days as we needed to rest up. He gave us a quick tour and proposed dinner the following night, but seemed to deeply understand Taryn’s need for rest and excused himself.

The flat was our Eden. It contained a hot shower, a small kitchenette, a comfy full sized bed (our first since arriving in Europe!) and outside the window was a beautiful lush garden. Taryn showered and immediately crashed into bed. I ran out to grab some ingredients for dinner, but joined her shortly after eating.

The next day Taryn was still feeling pretty sick so she decided to head back while I headed up to Grindelwald for the day.

It was a quick jog from our host’s place to the Interlaken train station. From there a beautiful 45 minute train ride took me up through progressively larger and larger mountains until I reached the mountain village of Grindelwald. The weather was pretty rainy when I arrived but I decided to head out on a run in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the famous Eiger north face.

The trail was beautiful, winding up through grassy meadows before entering the alpine. Even through the clouds I could feel the weight of the Eiger’s north face above me as I made my way across massive scree-fields.

Luck was on my side and right as I reached the col where the west ridge of the Eiger touches down the clouds parted a bit and I was able to get my first real views of the towering face looming over the valley. I took a few moments to soak in the views and then reversed by tracks back down to Grindelwald.

Taryn reported feeling a bit better after a day spent napping so we joined Matthias upstairs for an amazing home-cooked meal. He really could not have been a more amazing host.

The day we had to leave our wonderful oasis in order to make it to Zurich in time to meet Taryn’s dad. We mournfully said goodbye to our comfy bed and warm shower and hit the road again.

The start of the day was rough. Taryn was still experiencing pretty sharp stomach pain and some fatigue. After only 30 minutes or so of riding I had a bug ride into my mouth and felt a super sharp burning sensation in the back of my throat and realized it was a bee and I had been stung. Luckily I didn’t have any major allergic reaction and my breathing was unimpaired, but it made swallowing pretty excruciating and the next hour or so generally miserable.

Despite our woes, the scenery of Switzerland did its best to win us over. Every corner we rounded presented us with yet another postcard-worthy view of turquoise lakes and perfectly green grass.

The national bike route continued to be an amazing resource, taking us on all sorts of quiet gravel roads and bike paths that we would have otherwise never found.

Taryn was a trouper and continued to keep the pedals spinning despite bouts of stomach cramps so bad that she wasn’t able to speak. We stopped for some lunch in the lake town of Sarnen and chatted about what to do. It was clear that it was not a day to push it so we decided to set our sights on Lucerne, only another 15 miles further.

The beautiful sunny weather we enjoyed earlier in the morning had all but left by the time we reached Lucerne and we rode the last few miles in a light rain. We spent a bit of time exploring this scenic city, but the highlight of the evening was definitely the delicious Pho we had for dinner. The warm broth was the perfect antidote to an otherwise challenging day.

In between the rainy weather and Taryn’s health we decided to splurge on a place to stay for the night. But in sticking with our style we picked the cheapest hotel/hostel we could find. We arrived at the address to find a dingy locked door with a little sign saying to call a number to check in. Another group, an American dad and his son were waiting to be let in. After a few attempts we finally managed to get through to someone and they eventually came and let us in. They informed us we couldn’t store our bikes inside but after some argument we convinced them to let us lock them in the hall. After all the days mishaps it felt like a small miracle when we finally got into our room and eased into bed.

The next day was just a quick flat ride to Zurich.

The scenery was fairly plain compared to the near-fairytale levels we had been experiencing the last few days but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of green space outside of Zurich. The bike route led us through some forested bike trails before we popped back out onto actual streets, directly in Zurich.

Taryn’s stomach was feeling a bit better so we treated ourselves to a yummy lunch and then headed to a nearby park to hang for the afternoon. As the afternoon wore on both Taryn and I began to feel worse. The weather once again turned cloudy and Taryn’s chills came back full force. Luckily it turned out the Airbnb Taryn’s dad had picked out was happy to host us an extra night (we were scheduled to meet up with him the following morning) so we packed up our stuff from the park and headed across town.

When we arrived at the Airbnb and were surprised (and overjoyed) to find that it was a room in this amazing co-op/community art house. Every single wall was painted with some different design and each room seemed to have some sort of theme. It felt a little like being back in Panarchy at Dartmouth.

But most importantly for us, it was another dry, warm place to sleep and as soon as we had checked in and unpacked we were asleep.

Taryn’s dad joined us in the morning and we spent the day exploring Zurich. Like much of Switzerland, it felt a little sterile compared to Lyon or Nice, but it certainly was beautiful, with some ancient buildings, shaded parks, and great swimming in Lake Zurich.

Perhaps most importantly, Taryn’s dad got Taryn started on some antibiotics he had brought with the hopes that they would help her feel better in a day or two.

The antibiotics seemed to do the trick and the next day Taryn woke up feeling much better. Taryn’s dad wanted to see the mountains so we decided to back track to Lauterbrunnen, the twin village of Grindelwald. It felt a bit funny taking a train back along the route we had just spent the last few days riding, but soon enough we were leaving Interlaken and on a train to the stunning valley of Lauterbrunnen.

I thought we had witnessed picturesque Switzerland already, but Lauterbrunnen was in a league of its own. Multiple waterfalls poured over steep limestone walls on either side of the village and the massive Jungfrau overlooked it all at the head of the valley.

We followed our nose out of town and ended up on a trail that took us above the cliffs and up to a hanging valley that houses the magical village of Mürren.

We could not have picked a better day to be in the mountains with warm weather and crystal clear skies. As we climbed above Mürren the views just got more and more expansive, eventually the impressive faces of Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger all visible in one jaw-dropping panorama.

In true Swiss fashion the hiking trails seemed to be almost hand-manicured, shortly-cut grass surrounded by blooming wildflowers. It almost felt too perfect.

We made it back to Lauterbrunnen just as the sun was setting and caught our train back to Zurich, tired but glowing from a perfect day soaking up world class views. It had been a bit of a roller coaster getting to Zurich from Lyon, but once again we could only marvel the depth and richness of life we had been privileged to experience the last 12 days.





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