Monday, September 17, 2012

Post-Matterhorn, Pre-Mont-Blanc

With our minds slightly blown from the day before, we set out again on our bikes ready for just about anything on the 17th. It was a calm kind of touring day, with blue skies, few clouds, and mostly flat, easy to follow bike routes. We learned about Switzerland's best kept not-actually-a-secret. The Wallis (Valais, Vallese) is the section of the Alps to the south-west in Switzerland, those mountains that border Italy and the Val d'Aosta. But it's also this incredible, mild valley where the Swiss are growing food for a nation.

Here's a thing about Switzerland - and Joshua and I noted this as we passed fields of apples, apricots, grapes, tomatoes, and who-knows-what-else - the Swiss are totally, completely independent. They are at the heart of Europe, but not part of the EU and they don't have the Euro. Prices are more akin to those in Skandinavia, because cheap things are considered poor quality things. They have a milk mountain; they produce more milk than they need so it is inexpensive, like other countries we've all heard of. They encourage the purchase of local, Swiss products, from milk, butter, and cheese, to wine, fruits, vegetables, and even nuts and flour. 

At the supermarket, anything Swiss is clearly marked. Often, Swiss fruit is more expensive than fruit from Brazil or South Africa. Let's review: a mandarin that has been shipped thousands and thousands of miles, probably by boat and then truck, using incredible amounts of fuel, is cheaper than something that came from relatively close by. Because to live in Switzerland (and grow fruit in Switzerland) you've got to make a decent living wage. I guess.

The fact that Switzerland is selling Swiss-grown apples in months like May is a bit astounding to both of us. I mean... what? Where in Switzerland can an apple tree get enough sun and warm weather to produce apples by May. It's just unfeasible, right? 

So wrong. The Wallis. Already in Visp we felt the Mediterranean. The dry rockiness, the lighter, duller greens. And of course, the warmth. It may be mid-September and cooling off for fall in Zurich, but down here, between rows of Alps, it's mild. I mean, it was very hot in the sun. 

The weather. It is always good in the Valais. Or so we hear. We hypothesize that Switzerland knows exactly how much food it would take to feed her citizens, and every year she notices whether or not she is producing what is necessary. Just in case.

bike paths like this
see the little bike route 1 sign? 
the goats here? black on the front half, white on the back half

We went through a town called Sierre. Hello French-speaking Switzerland! Don't get me wrong, we like France, and we like the French. We like the language and we love the pace of life and strong cultural balance between work, family, and wine drinking and eating really great bread and cheese. However, the French have some frustrating driving habits and they are just not that considerate or careful when it comes to cyclists on their roads. That is a huge, unfair generalization. But we've spent plenty of time in enough European countries now, on our bicycles, to be able to feel the difference.

In the part of Switzerland where they speak French, the people - and the drivers - are also pretty French. The bike path also stopped being intuitive, well-maintained, and obviously created by a cyclist. Honestly, we crossed a border and everything was just a little different. A little tougher. But never mind, there were fighter jets buzzing overhead. I cannot believe the photo that I got, while riding, of the fluorescent pink bomb strapped to the bottom of the fighter jet going over just behind me.

a bit fuzzy, but wow
I actually blemished-out a telephone line in this photo. It's kind of better.
tiny village, on a hillside, between staggering mountains

Everything was beautiful. And for the most part we were riding along the Rhone, on a bike path. There were relatively frequent cars that drove on the bike path. Each time we had to slow down considerably and crowd to the very edge of the path, because it really was just wide enough for a single car. Many parts of the path are dirt or slightly rocky, so it's uncomfortable to have to skirt the edge on a fully loaded touring bike. The road is closed to traffic, or the signs say it is, and I cannot imagine that there is any advantage for a driver of a car to take the route along the Rhone. But there you go, passenger cars at regular intervals on a bike path. 

As we neared Martigny, our destination for the evening, we were keeping our eyes out for a campsite. The wind rustled up a bit and was in our faces. It was an 80km day. No campsites were obvious, although there were two we'd marked on the map. The wind became more and more persistent, and then it was downright brutal. For a while Joshua pulled with bravery and got us through the baldest parts, providing me with a bit of wind protection. Then suddenly we were at the elbow of the valley, where the Rhone turns north. 

Our option, having run out of water completely, was to head into town. We aimed for the train station, so we could learn what the schedule was for the train up and over to Chamonix the next morning. We quickly found a water fountain (bless the Swiss and their water everywhere), and then followed signs to the train station. The thing about going from Martigny to Chamonix is that it's a really huge climb, on a road without a separate bike path, for about 40kms. Having opted for the bus once, we figured the special train was probably a good bet. Plus, we were going to cross into France in ernest, and we certainly didn't want to rely on patience and space given by French drivers, not around here.

However, we learned that the next day the train was only going to the border at Le Chatelard. The French portion was undergoing repairs, and for pedestrian travelers there was a bus. But bikes were not allowed on the bus. So. That's too bad. Or, maybe it's not. 

We'd seen signs for a campsite right there in town while riding to the station, so we decided to get ourselves set up for the night and think on our situation. Continue along the Rhone and go around to Geneva? Just bike it? Take the train as far as it would go? We had hoped to head up to Chamonix, take the tunnel under Mont Blanc, and bike along the Val d'Aosta, then south the Genova. What if getting up to Chamonix is  not an option?

After a fast, efficient set-up, some well-deserved showers, and a brief walk back into town, we found ourselves pondering over delicious pizza, wine, and arugula salad. Again, a change from our standard cheese and bread. It was delicious. We chose not to worry. About anything.

1 comment:

shay said...

So incredibly beautiful...