An occasional journal of the Life of Reilly

Friday, May 22, 2015

Zermatt, Switzerland: Pedals and Rails in the Alps

When the sun shines, all is forgiven.  And it is almost too good to be true if there is a tailwind, the road is flat, and there are views of snow-capped mountains.  This was our day when we passed through the town of Annecy and followed the rail trail south along the shore of the large Lac d’Annecy to the south.  It was a national holiday and there were people eating at the outdoor cafes, exposing their alabaster bodies of winter to the sun on the beaches, and sharing the bike trail with us.  There were plenty of families and groups on bikes, but also lots of very fit recreational cyclists on ultralight racing bikes.  With our loaded bikes we were the lumbering elephants among the sprinting gazelles.

The glacial water of Lac d'Annecy are turquoise blue on a sunny day.

The Palais de l'Ile was classified as a national monument in 1900.
Since the early stages of planning this journey, we wanted to venture into the Alps.  But we knew from our last bike tour in Europe in 2008 that windows of good weather are brief in these mountains.  Our goal was to go to Chamonix to see Mont Blanc, and then Zermatt to maybe, just maybe, see the Matterhorn.  So as we were enjoying that perfect day riding along the shore of the lake, we were also anticipating the 2,000 feet we had to climb to get to Megève the next day.  Would our weather window hold?
A perfect cycling day.
The next day we woke up to heavy dark clouds.  And John forgot his water bottles at the campground, and it was too late to go back and retrieve them.  And when we started heading down the road we were to follow to the pass there were “route barrée” and “déviation” signs blocking the road, and we were told it was impassable even for bikes.  Our only option to get to Megève was to follow a minor road that switchbacked up the mountain.  John’s normal optimism faltered, and he fatalistically observed that all signs were that maybe the elephants shouldn’t go into the Alps. 
An unanticipated obstacle.

Looking down on impossibly steep pastures from our detour route.
But we proceeded anyway, crawling up the switchbacks at a speed not much faster than we could walk.  We shared the road with plenty of cars and a few too many construction trucks, also detoured by the road closure.  We had a chance to rest when it started to rain, so we parked under a tree and munched on our emergency bar of nougat, all sugar and nuts, to continue to contemplate the signs.  But the sky brightened a bit and we were able to continue.  Soon we were heading downhill on hairpin turns back to the main road.  We stopped for lunch, our legs a bit shaky from the exertion.  We persevered the rest of the afternoon and made it to the pass and then dropped down to the town of Le Fayet.  We were spent, having climbed over 3,000 feet that day.
What goes up must come down.

Water is not scarce in this part of the world.

We are in Heidi-land!

Chamonix is down that valley somewhere.
Rain and cold temperatures and the need to rest kept us in a cozy hotel for three nights in Le Fayet.  We learned it was not possible to bike to Chamonix because of more road closures, and due to that itty-bitty weather window and the elevation gain, we opted to take the train to Zermatt.  A bit pricey at about 200 euros for both of us and our bikes.  But within a day we traveled the distance that would have taken us three or more.
Hey, this is more comfortable than a bike seat!

The transportation cooridor heading into Chamonix -- no room for a bike!

We aren't sure, but we think one of those is Mont Blanc.

Not much room for error on this railway line.
The train ride from France to Zermatt, Switzerland was amazing.  The cars had big picture windows to see the lofty peaks that zoomed by.  The train route often was only wide enough to carry the breadth of the train, going through long tunnels or under avalanche shelters.  We had to change trains four times to get to Zermatt, and each train arrival and departure was precisely punctual.  It would have only been three, but when we changed trains near Chamonix, we were the only ones on the  train and no conductor came by to check our tickets to enter Switzerland and we eerily rattled down the rail and got off one stop too early. So we cycled 10 kilometers down the road and caught the next train going our way.  There were certain cars dedicated to carry bikes, with racks to prop them upright.  The last train we boarded had no bike cars.  The handsome conductor did not even hesitate to help us get our bikes on anyway.  He was incredulous when we asked if we should take the next train -- why, that would be in another 20 minutes!  No need to wait!
Making one of our connectionson the way to Zermatt.

Impossibly beautiful views out of the train window.
We reached Zermatt with clouds shrouding the surrounding peaks.  The town is a tourist mecca.  No cars or buses are allowed, so everyone comes by train and gets around on foot, by bike, or in little electric-powered taxi carts.  Ski lifts, gondolas and trams rise out of the valley to impossible slopes and peaks in all directions.  We cycled around, venturing up canyon with the hope of seeing the Matterhorn.  But this was not the day.  We got up as far as we could and looked in the direction it was supposed to be.  We were not alone -- a group of other visitors were also there, watching and waiting.  But it was not to be.  We dropped down to the campground in Tasch six kilometers down the valley, and spent a cold night next to the train tracks.  Trains ran day and night on their way to Zermatt, at least every half hour, and the melodic sound of the crossing gates marked the time.
Our fellow Matterhorn groupies.

Going back down to Zermatt.

Our campsite in Tasch, with some odd goats.

Not sure what they are, but they were more interested in the grass than us.
But the idea of seeing Matterhorn does not die hard, so when the next morning dawned with the cloud ceiling just a bit higher, we made a break for it.  We rode our unloaded bikes up the canyon to the view spot of the previous afternoon.  And we watched and took photos and had our photo taken in front of that iconic peak.  And even though the sun did not shine, all was forgiven.
Our first view of the Matterhorn!

Awesome!

Happy to be here!

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4 comments:

Monica Kaseman said...

Sounds like a heavenly and hellish week all at the same time!

Ann said...

You are just having the most AWESOME adventure!!!!

Joe Blommer said...

I didn't get to see Matterhorn when I was there...snowing. Now I see it is awesome!

Carol Kaser said...

I've never been to Zermat but looks spectacularly beautiful as most of CH. My family is from Biel and were dairymen for many generations. Currently my distant cousins are living and working in Bern. I admire and enjoy your photography but even as good as it is I know it doesn't capture the awesomeness of being there and viewing firsthand!

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