On August 1st we celebrated my first Swiss National Day as a Swiss National. After clearing up, on the 2nd, we packed our camping gear into a couple of trailers and started cycling across Switzerland, from Neuchatel towards Appenzell.
Our aim for the first day was fairly modest: to go from our home to a campsite on the shore of the Lac de Bienne.
We ended up fighting a couple of fierce inclines (by the side of a lake, no less!) so made much slower progress than Google Maps had predicted. (This did help us recalibrate expectations for the rest of the week’s cycling, though, very importantly.) As our 8pm check-in deadline (the closing time of the original campsite’s reception) was fast approaching, we settled for a different – but very nice – campsite a few clicks short of it.
It was our first night of camping since last year’s big trip, and thankfully all the pegs and poles were where they needed to be.
The next day we headed up to Nidau – just south of Bienne – to find the Aare. The Aare is one of the most important rivers in Switzerland and heads down from the Bernese Oberland to the Lac de Bienne and then flows from there down to where it meets the Rhine. Our plan was to follow it as far as we could before splitting off towards Appenzell.
On the second day our plan was to get to the lovely city of Solothurn.
A little less than halway along we stopped off at Büren an der Aare for the kids to cool off in a local swimming pool, which was a lot of fun.
Büren an der Aare has a lovely covered bridge – the first of several we saw on the trip.
Along the way we passed through the village of Altreu, which has huge stork nests on many of its rooves. Too cool!
After a comfortable night at the campground in Solothurn, we hit the road for Aarburg.
Our first stop was in the city of Solothurn itself, where we enjoyed the market and stopped for lunch before heading onwards.
All the way along the Aare we saw people floating along, whether with their clothes in airtight bags or on the back of various flotation devices. Our next trip we really want to do something similar: maybe we’ll float down from the Thunersee to Bern (or even try to get as far as Bienne, which would be pretty epic).
Cycling along the Aare sometimes meant a longer (when winding) or a slower (when the paths weren’t great) journey than it might have been, but it often meant we had shade and we were never far from being able to jump in to cool off.
On our way along the Aare we found another spectacular bridge at Wangen an der Aare.
We were surprised there weren’t more campsites heading east from Solothurn, though: the next one was all the way in Aarburg, which was way beyond the ability of my family to cycle without a break for the night, based on what we’d learned from the first few days.
We thought we’d just stop and ask a local farmer if we could pay to camp on their land: when we did we were told (very politely) that we’d be better off just camping down on the banks of the Aare. It turns out it’s tolerated for people to camp for one night when travelling through. Fair enough… it meant we could choose a spot with a fabulous view across the river, and take dips before sleeping and upon waking.
Quite magically we woke up to the sound of someone on the far bank practising their Alpenhorn. It was just one of those beautiful moments, someone obviously has it in their Sunday morning ritual to blow their horn on the bank of the Aare. Awesome.
While we were packing the tents we did receive a few sideways looks from people power-walking past, but noone actually said anything other than “Guete Morge”: you quickly get used to this kind of passive-aggressive (but thankfully non-verbal) disapproval in Switzerland. And I can say that now because I’m Swiss. ;-)
Once packed we headed on towards Aarburg. We had a few uphill sections to deal with on this leg – as well as a fun piece where we chose to cycle along a hiking trail rather than leave the banks of the river, which turned out to be a mistake – but otherwise it was fairly uneventful.
We stopped to buy some fruit from a stall outside a local farm (some absolutely amazing plums and nectarines) which we then took down to the river to eat for lunch.
We arrived in Aarburg mid-afternoon. We had some time to settle in, and I ended up asking the campsite owner why there were so few camping options in the area. He explained that the vast majority of his business came from Dutch families stopping off on the way to Italy: they’re really just a stopover, there’s very little other real tourism (beyond people doing day trips from Bern etc. by car).
We found this a real shame… the town of Aarburg is incredibly pretty. Somewhat crazily the castle – the largest medieval castle in Switzerland – isn’t available to visit (we tried several times the next day) as it’s used a detention centre for juvenile offenders.
From Aarburg we headed towards Brugg, where we knew we’d stop following the Aare as it headed northwards towards Germany. The only campsite we found in the area was one for naturists (I kid you not), so we planned to camp, once again, on the banks of the river. Which was absolutely fine by us.
Some of the journey towards Brugg was a little boring – as it deviated from the path of the river – but we made good progress. We chose not to stop in either Olten or Aarau – these are easy day-trips by train from where we live – and rather choosing to stop in Schönenwerd at an extremely parched – almost Ballardian – swimming pool for the kids to cool off in.
As we approached Brugg we found ourselves in forest: we ended up stopping about 5km from the city, finding a nice spot to camp down by the river.
The next day ended up being our last real day of cycling, and that was just with a short trip into the centre of Brugg.
From here we decided to hop on a train to Winterthur, where there was a nice campsite and the Technorama for us to visit.
It’s quite easy to take the train with your bikes, in Switzerland: you just need to buy a supplemental ticket (which was 15 CHF per adult per day with our half-price travelcards) and then find a train that can accommodate the bikes. This proved pretty easy – at least getting to Winterthur – apart from the fact we had the two trailers to deal with.
Once in Winterthur we pitched our tents and visited the campground: this as the first place since we’d left home that we’d be staying two nights.
Our main purpose for visiting Winterthur was to take the kids to the Swiss Science Center, also known as the Technorama.
Many of the exhibits are similar to those found at the Discovery Museum in SF, for instance: our kids just love these places.
I really liked the optical illusions area: here’s a chess-board that isn’t quite what you’d think.
It was nice to see some early 3D display tech, although some of these exhibits could use a bit of a refresh, at this stage.
There was a cool section about the human body, including a very interesting mirror which had handles you could grip: they would detect your heart-rate and literally display – through a section of the mirror – a physical heart that beats at the rate of your pulse. Today you’d do this using Augmented Reality, but it’s really fun to see something similar done using (almost literally) smoke and mirrors.
There was a section where you could check your proportions according to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man: it turns out I’m pretty close to perfect (in this one very limited way, anyway ;-).
We stayed in Technorama until we were kicked out, at which point we went back to the campsite for dinner.
The next day we headed across to our trip’s ultimate destination, Appenzell. Once again we took the train for this leg, as it all starts to get very 3D in this part of the country.
We knew the weather wasn’t going to be great, up there, so we’d looked into alternatives to camping. Appenzell’s hotels were either fully booked or unaffordable, but we ended up finding a fantastic “Schlaf im Stroh” (or “Sleeping in the Straw”) experience via Airbnb. The place was a working farm at the foot of the Ebenalp hiking trail, which was just perfect!
After dropping our bikes and trailers, we took the gondola up to the top of the Ebenalp to enjoy the view. Wow.
We stopped for a drink at the unbelievably picturesque Berggasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli.
We walked down – buying some cheese at a local farm, on the way – and stopped off for dinner. We were welcomed back at our home for the night with the news that a new calf had just been born. The kids were delighted: we got to see it that night but also when it took to its feet the following morning.
After a hearty breakfast, our last bit of cycling took us to the centre of Appenzell, where we wandered around for a few hours.
Appenzell is known for its painted buildings, which are indeed very pretty.
Then began the journey home by train. It was Friday lunchtime when we left, which left us trying to change trains in Zurich main station at 4pm (bad idea) and then again at Bern station at 5pm (even worse).
In the end it took us 5+ hours to get back: for most of the journey I was standing, whether holding bikes or being ready to move trailers when people got on or off the various trains.
But it was worth it: we finally got home after a brilliant 10 days away.