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Switzerland 2003

Cycling Through Three Cultures in One Small Country

Part 5: Locarno to Montreux
 
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Path to Locarno
Nearing Locarno, CH
We continued on Cycle Route #3 for the flat, easy 15 miles from Bellinzona to Locarno. Known as the Magadino Plain this is the Ticino river delta as it empties into Lago di Maggiore. Formerly a vast marshland the river was canalized and the area drained in the early 1900's. Now it's a network of country roads and thriving vegetable farms. We had cycled down the Leventina Valley and visited Locarno on a previous bike trip in 2000. Additional narrative and photos on the Ticino Canton can be found on our web site "Switzerland 2000."
Locarno film festival
Locarno International Film Festival
Locarno was hosting its annual International Film Festival when we arrived and the place was jumping. Fortunately we made reservations at the youth hostel a few months in advance or we could have had problems. Among the venues for viewing is the outdoor setting in the Piazza Grande.
hyper bike
Tandem in Locarno, CH
The leopard motif of the festival was evident throughout the old town including this tricked-out tandem.
serenaders Sidewalk serenaders lulled the afternoon along with Italian ballads.
leaving Locarno
Intragna, CH
Leaving Locarno we headed west into the Centovalli. The Italian town of Domodossola was the day's destination about 34 miles away. We were no longer on a Swiss national cycle route for this short stretch. We used Kompass map #90 (Lago Maggiore/Lago di Varese) and map #89 (Domodossola) as our guide. The maps have a scale of 1:50,000.
narrow valley
Centovalli, CH
Riding out of the city on the road along the Maggia River we noticed quite a bit of traffic for a couple miles. Arriving at Ponte Brollo we crossed a bridge and entered the Centovalli proper, heading due west. Suddenly the traffic dropped considerably. We don't recall any trucks or busses on the road and only light traffic the rest of the way. We were pleasantly surprised as it was a Saturday morning in the tourist month of August. The valley is rather narrow at the beginning and the road clings to the hillsides. Further up the terrain begins to open a bit and the road becomes wider.
Centovalli
Bridge in Centovalli, CH
A railroad bridge crossing a tributary valley near Intragna. A light railway goes up the Centovalli but it does not take bicycles. The valley makes a gradual climb for about 26 miles from Locarno to the high point at Druogno, Italy. The elevation gain is 2100 ft. But it's never steep, just an even, gradual climb that turned out to be very pleasant riding.
entering Italy The Italian border is located at Camedo. It was a rather sleepy border crossing and the guards just waved us through. The road surface was excellent on both sides of the border. The Italian part the valley is called the Valle Vigezzo.
basilica
Sanctuary Madonna del Sangue
explaination
An unexpected vision appearing somewhat like the Taj Mahal greeted us as we approached the village of Re. The Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sangue enshrines a miracle that occurred here in 1494. The modern basilica was built in the 20th century to accommodate the faithful visiting the miracle site.
tunnel
Valley Vigezzo
The map indicated three tunnels on the descent from Druogno down to Domodossola. We were concerned as tunnels can be a hazard to cyclists. However two of the tunnels were open on the valley side allowing light to enter and the third, although dark, was short enough to pose no problems. As we reached the mouth of the valley the Domodossola train station came into view. We bought tickets for the train through the Simplon tunnel to Brig, Switzerland. An hour later, after lunch, we were on our way back to Switzerland.
Valais
Brig, CH
The architecture of Brig told us we were back in German speaking Switzerland. We are in the canton of Valais and Brig is the main town in the upper Valais. The train station was a short distance from our hotel and after checking in four of us took a local bus a couple miles down the road to Brigerbad and enjoyed the thermal pools. The best thermal pools we were told is in Leukerbad, further down river and about 10 miles up a mountain valley.
Rhone Valley
Rhône Valley
The Rhône River valley slices through Valais from east to west and makes cycling easy in this mountainous region. We are now riding on Swiss Cycle Route #1. Valais stretches from Ticino to Lake Geneva and the valley is said to have the hottest and driest climate in Switzerland. Fortunately for us the heat wave has ended and the temperature has settled into the manageable 80 degree range. The traffic is low as a nearby modern highway takes the through traffic away from our route. We are gradually dropping in elevation until we reach Lake Geneva.
small town
Niedergesteln, CH
The upper section of the valley contains attractive villages snugged up against the base of the mountains. Many are just a stone's throw off the road and this one we found irresistible. It was just a cluster of houses next to a deep cleft in the rock with a rushing melt-water stream. We had to investigate.
alleyway It was so quiet in the village it felt like we were entering someone's private compound. It also felt like we stepped back about 150 years. It was Sunday. Where was everyone? Off to the "big" towns of Brig or Sierre for brunch?
Feng Shui
Sculptures in Niedergesteln, CH
In the tiny village square we found four exquisite sculptures representing the four seasons. Venerable wooden houses stood on lots no bigger than the structure, testimony to someone's foresight in resisting the temptation to modernize everything. There was a comforting sense of unplanned, outdoor Feng Shui amidst the place. You can't miss it from the road. You'll see the large rock outcropping with the ruins of some kind of mini-fortress draped on its flanks. The village is called Niedergesteln.
stopped  for grapes
Rhône Valley
Just before we reached our overnight stop in Sion we saw vineyards on some amazingly steep south-facing slopes along the Rhône River. Valais is the main wine production region in Switzerland. The primary growing area is between Leuk and Martigny and one finds numerous wine villages along this stretch of the Rhône. Most of the wine produced is white such as Fendant and Johannisberg. We also enjoyed a popular red called Dôle which is made from the Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. The wine is so good that Switzerland keeps much of it for domestic consumption. Try asking for Swiss wine at your wine shop in the states. Chances are you'll not find any. If you should be lucky enough to find some you won't be disappointed.
Sion Castles
Sion, CH
Sion is the cantonal capital and largest city in Valais with a population of about 27,000. We entered into French speaking territory about 12 miles back near Sierre. There is a lot to see in Sion with several museums, the cathedral, the Château Supersaxo, and the medieval fortresses perched on the two hills in town. But we didn't see any of it as we only had time for dinner, then hit the hay, and we took off the next morning after breakfast. We should have scheduled a layover day to allow for seeing the sights. We stayed at the Sion youth hostel. It's on the other side of the river from the old town in a commercial area.
Pears On our way to Martigny we rode through an expansive area of orchards. Pears were everywhere. They looked great but unfortunately they weren't ripe. So one of us of bought a bottle of pear liquor in town to commemorate riding through "pearadise."
Martigny
Martigny, CH
Martigny is said to be the oldest town in Valais. There are ruins of a Roman amphitheater and a museum with Roman artifacts. We stopped along Place Centrale for lunch and lingered around the old town waiting out an afternoon shower.
walking through bushes After Martigny the river turns to the northwest. The bike route was on the west side of the river on the way to Lake Geneva. Just before reaching the lake we turned east, crossed over the Rhône River, and entered a flat delta area. The bike route became basically a hiking trail for a couple miles until we reached Villeneuve.
Lake view
Lake Geneva at Territet, CH
Our day ended at the youth hostel in Territet, just a mile south of Montreux. This is the view of the lake across the street from the hostel. We were in the posh Swiss Riviera, on the lake, at budget prices that couldn't be beat! Along this stretch there were mostly private residences on the lakeshore, no restaurants. We ate a light dinner at the local tennis club, a short walk from the hostel.
Château Chillon
Château Chillon
The next morning we toured nearby Château de Chillon, the inspiration for Lord Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon." The castle is built on a rock roughly 100 yards by 50 yards and is literally a stone's throw from shore . There has been some kind of fortification here since at least the 9th c. Construction began in earnest in the 12th c. and renovations continued until the 16th c. The modern restoration work has been superb.
dungeon
Dungeon in Château Chillon
This dungeon is where political prisoner Francois Bonivard was chained to the fifth pillar for four years until he was freed by Bernese troops in 1536. Byron visited Chillon in 1816 and was so moved by the experience he composed his famous poem. He also allegedly carved his name on the third pillar which can still be seen.
Inside Chillon
Château Chillon
The upper floors have several wonderfully restored rooms with period furniture, weapons, and tools. Also notable are the medieval window casements, frescoes, and an elaborate wooden ceiling. It's one of the more interesting European castle tours we've taken.
Prosit Our journey is at an end. After the castle tour we cycled to Montreux and caught an afternoon train back to Geneva. We accomplished our goal to cycle through three cultures in one small country. The uniqueness of each makes it seem like we took three trips within a trip. Each section holds its own vivid memories but we're still talking about that heat wave!

If you have questions about cycling this route or comments about our website you can contact us here. Bob Parry & Ed James 2003, 2004

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