Tour of the Alps 2002, Part 3

July 17 (Wednesday), Brig - Nufenen Pass - Airolo, 86 km Map

What Swiss cuisine lacks in dinner it makes up for in breakfast -- hearty muesli, thick apricot yogurt, dark bread, creamy cheese, and rich whole milk. Cars are swishing through water in the streets and clouds are heavy, dark, and low. But it's not raining...yet.

Bicycles aren't allowed in the tunnel that the main highway takes out of town, so I ride down to the train station, where the red trains of the Furka-Oberalp are waiting for passengers.

Whooo-whooooooo, chr-chunk, chr-chunk, chr-chunk. A little steam locomotive with two passenger cars comes huffing and puffing by like the "little engine that could." I imagine it going over the pass, "I think I can, I think I can..." In one of the cars two men are drinking a toast. It's only 9 a.m.

The bicycle route crosses the river to Natars, which would be a quieter stage stop than Brig, and a bike path follows the river for a few kilometers before joining the highway east of town.

I stop at a bank for Swiss francs, but the machine rejects my card, as has happened on past tours in Switzerland. However, this machine is malicious -- it doesn't eject the card completely. As I get out the needle-nosed pliers to do the extraction, the card is slurped into the machine. Argh! After the initial panic subsides, I'm relieved to find that the bank is open. The cashier fetches the card from the machine, reads the instructions, and then sternly explains in German what I was supposed to do. I only understand the part about going to a bigger city, but this bank takes traveler's checks, so I'm soon back on the road, card and Swiss francs in hand.

Rhone in the Goms

The Rhone now leaves the agricultural lands and heads into the mountains. Tidy picturesque villages dot the route. I stop for lunch at one of the bar/restaurants and share a table with a Swiss couple who are amused at my attempts to order in French and English. They order in German. My minestrone soup must apparently wait for their meat entree to be cooked. I sit and listen to Swiss yodeling and polka music and wonder who it is for -- foreign tourists or local farmers. What do the Swiss listen to at home?

Back on the road it starts to sprinkle, then rain lightly, though the temperature is fairly warm at this low elevation. The river is full and waterfalls cascade down the steep hillsides. I ride past rough-hewn wooden houses with geraniums and picturesque churches with spires. Road signs count down the kilometers to Gletsch. At the turnoff to Nufenenpass the rain is steady. But riding in the rain is better than sitting in a bar listening to yodeling music, so I turn up the pass. Several other cycle tourists are also headed that way and one of them is being followed by a support vehicle, so I am in good company.

Enough of Nufenen

The grade is steep from the junction. I stop to put on rain gear, though the net effect is to funnel all the water and sweat into my cycling shoes. I click into low gear and churn up the grade. "I think I can, I think I can." The road switchbacks into an upper valley, which must be quite scenic when not filled with fog. After following the stream for a ways, the road makes a few final loops to the summit.

Tour busses are plying the route, apparently undeterred by the weather. I think of those poor people cooped up in the bus, while they're probably pitying the poor bedraggled bicyclists out in the rain. Being low on entertainment today, I decide to change that perception.

A large tour bus is headed my way, the kind with a panoramic windshield and theatrical seating several rows back so everyone gets a good view of the road. I push back my dripping hood, muster my biggest American smile, and wave enthusiastically. The bus driver and a dozen tourists wave back, laughing. Now who's having more fun? I grin and giggle to the top of the pass. Attitude inversion is good for the soul.

At the summit I wave to the other soggy cyclists huddled at the restaurant and head down the other side without stopping to let the cold leak in. It's steep and wet, so I take it easy. Even with the rain gear on, the body is chilled and hands are frozen into a braking grip by the time I reach Airolo. Even though it's only mid-afternoon I decide to call it a day.

Since it's mid-week and early in the day, I'm expecting no problem in finding a hotel. But surprise, it takes five inquiries before I land a room at a small bar/hotel tucked away up the street. With several large three-star hotels in town and a bunch of smaller ones, this is hard to understand. But it seems that Airolo is strategically situated on a popular tour route, lying at the base of the famous St. Gotthard Pass and near the ring of spectacular passes in the high Swiss Alps -- the Grimsel, Furka, Oberalp, and Susten. A better strategy would be to stop at one of the small villages near Airolo, as most have at least one hotel.

The rain looks like it might lift, and tomorrow I'm headed for Italy.

July 18 (Thursday), Airolo - Passo del San Bernardino - Splugenpass - Campdolcino; 151 km Map

Valle Leventina

There's blue sky in the morning with only a few clouds hanging around, so I eat a quick breakfast and get on the road early. The Italian border is on the radar. I head southeast down the Valle Leventina, which is a major transportation corridor from northern Italy to Switzerland. A check of the map shows no alternative route over the hills. Autoroute, highway, train, and electrical lines interweave as they follow the Ticino River from Airolo to Lake Maggiore. Quarries dot the hillsides and statuary stands in roadside lots. The ridges on either side are near-vertical and long ribbons of water cascade through slots in the rock. Now I can see why there are no secondary roads over the mountains.

The lower valley returns to a subtropical climate, and the vegetation changes from montane conifer forest to monkey puzzle tree, hydrangea, and palms.

Val Mesolcina
Val Mesolcina

Before Bellinzona, I turn northeast towards the Passo del San Bernardino and enter a beautiful green valley dotted with farmhouses. The autostrada on the other side of the valley is carefully hidden and you'd hardly know it was there.

Well-groomed San Bernardino

The grade starts out nearly flat, but gradually increases up the pass. I stop for a grocery lunch in Mesocco, and then the climbing begins in earnest. The fields are left far below as the conifers begin to make their stand. The valley narrows, and autostrada and old road interweave in the limited space. Above Pian San Giacomo the inside curves of the hairpins are inlaid with stone and the guard rails are built of stone pillars and wood railings, earning this pass the "best manicured road" award.

San Bernardino Pass
San Bernardino Pass

San Bernardino is a ski and resort town and I pass it by. The traffic takes a shortcut through the tunnel, but I take the scenic route over the pass. The road climbs through a fragrant forest of pyramidal spruce, then winds past dwarf pine and juniper of the subalpine zone, and finally enters the alpine zone. Here there's is a rock garden of stonecrop, purple habeneria, white daisies, purple centaria, large heads of thistle, and white bearded grass. Steeply dipping schist and gneiss form spectacular ridges against the gray sky.

At an elevation of 2065 m, this pass isn't as "high and mighty" as some of the more celebrated passes, but the climbing starts at a lowly 240 m, so it's a good long haul. I don't stop long at the summit, because the clouds are darkening and I'm eager to beat the rain down the mountain. Tight switchbacks descend the steep wall to the Hinterrhein, which flows north into Switzerland and the Rhein River. A thunderstorm is rumbling in the valley below, and the spattering starts midway down. The clouds don't follow through on their threats, though, and the rain lets up on the way to Splugen.

Splugen Pass
Splugen Pass

Splugen Amusement Park

At Splugen I turn south and start up the famous and much-photographed switchbacks of Splugen Pass (2113 m). The pristine road lies in nicely graded intestinal loops up the mountain, and I quickly climb back through the forest into the alpine zone. The summit is what I've been waiting for. I cross the border into Italy with a whoop, after being waved across by the border guards. Back to the land of colorful food and bank machines that emit euros.

The descent whisks me down to a junction where there are two roads, each leading to Chiavenna. One appears to be a well-graded road signed for trucks and trailers, the other is rough, old, and narrow, so this is the road I take. It is a remarkable piece of engineering. A gallery of tunnels, chutes, and incredibly tight hairpins negotiates the cliff, alternately carved out of the rock wall and stuck to the cliff like paper mache. A peek over the edge gives breathtaking views into the canyon below, but it is better not to look, in order to stay on the road.

The cliff road finally joins the valley road at Campodolcino, a nice little town that has a bar/hotel, where I decide to stop for the night. Dinner is down the street at a cantina with the decor of a grotto. There is no menu, but whatever they're cooking tonight is fine with me. Out it comes -- a creamy risotto, legumes, salad, and potatoes with rosemary. I sleep well, dreaming of passes to come.

July 19 (Friday); Campodolcino - St. Moritz - Bernina Pass - Nuova Olonio; 190 km Map

The bar is busy serving cappuccinos as I check out, and the overworked senora is trying to do everything at once. I wait patiently for the note. The sun is out and it's a fast descent down the canyon to Chiavenna, where I turn east up the Val Gregaglia and the Maira River towards Maloja Pass and St. Moritz. The pass isn't particularly high at 1815 m, but again the climb starts low, at 331 m, in one of the deeply scooped valleys of the Alps. I soon cross the border back into Switzerland.

Traffic is heavy. It's Friday, so evidently the crowds are getting an early start on the weekend. Cars, campers, minivans, trucks, busses and a good number of luxury cars -- Mercedes, BMW, Audi -- come rushing by. Many cars have bike racks, but few have bikes on them.

The switchbacks climb steeply to the upper valley and finally top out at the usual cluster of restaurants and kiosks. The lakes are dotted with wind surfers and yachts and are ringed by ritzy hotels. It's downhill, but not much, to St. Moritz, where the hotels are even more palatial and fancy boutiques line the streets.

Bernina Express

I skip it all and turn south up a busy Bernina Pass (2328 m). There are beautiful views of the glaciated peaks from the barren upper valley. At the summit, the sign in Jobst Brandt's picture of forty-some years ago has been replaced by an institutional blue one facing the wrong way for a good backdrop. The dirt road of his picture is now paved and the traffic is pressing.

I sit on a boulder surrounded by wildflowers and eat a lunch of cookies and fruit, thinking about how times have changed. The red Bernina train glides over the pass, powered by electricity. I collect a few wildflowers, take pictures of the train, and head down the mountain.

Bernina Pass south
Bernina Pass south

The descent is one of the most beautiful in the Alps. The sweeping curves are open enough to let off the brakes and enjoy the speed. Down, down, down...forever. Little towns beckon a stage stop, but I'm bound for Italy once again. Near Tirano I cross the border and head west along the Adda River, which flows to Lake Como.

Adda to the Lakes

Now begins the ride on the highway from heck. The only way back to the Lake District is to follow the Adda River Valley. And everything does. The S38 is a major transportation corridor and there is no autoroute to carry the heavy traffic. The map shows secondary roads paralleling the main road, but my attempts to follow them dead-end in hillside villages. It's getting late in the afternoon, so I decide to high-tail it on the main road back to the Lake District. There is no shoulder, so I claim the white line as my lane and defend it tenaciously. Trucks and cars give me berth, but there is little to spare.

I try to shut out the roar of traffic and concentrate on the white line, pedaling fast, head down into the headwind. At Sondrio, my pace is interrupted by a "no bikes allowed" sign, and I'm forced off the bypass into the busy city. After a stop-and-go transit I finally get back on the highway and down in the drops. The headwind is stiff and getting stronger. Industrial towns fly by, nothing to stop for.

Near Lake Como, there's a junction with the autoroute. The traffic rushes south and with relief I turn north towards the small towns at the north end of Lake Como. I'll take the first hotel that comes along. It is a small bar/albergo and I get a nice room on the third floor with shower, toilette, TV and two beds, all for 22 euro. What a deal!

I ask about pizza and the manager points me down the road and to the right. To the right takes me up the hill to a restaurant with neon sign, snuggled in the trees. It's abuzz with activity and filled with locals. I take an outside table next to a dozen well-dressed older women having drinks and engaged in earnest and animated conversation. The pizza looks good, but I get a agnolotti verdi al burro e alvia (tiny ravioli) with Bernina Acqua mineral naturale and have tiramisu for dessert. As I finish with a caffè, the ladies click-clack down the steep stone driveway, careful not to slip in their fancy shoes. I soon follow in Teva sandals as twilight provides just enough light to see the way back to town.

July 20 (Saturday); Nuova Olonio - Centovalli - Crodo; 160 km Map

Italian Lake District

The hotel's bar was lively with conversation till 1 or 2 a.m. and then opened at 6:30 a.m. for caffè. It is packed with customers. A cappuccino gets me off to an early start. I round the north end of Lake Como and head down the west side. The road is narrow, twisty, and busy with weekend traffic. The mountains loom up behind the lake, gleaming through the early morning haze.

Lake Como
Lake Como

At Menaggio, I turn west and climb steep switchbacks to the high valley linking Lake Como with Lake Lugano. I stop for a grocery breakfast of yogurt, raisin bread and tart at a village grocery store. Half a dozen local women are doing their morning shopping. One is pushing an old-fashioned black baby carriage and the gurgling bambino is the center of attention.

I continue over the hill and down to Lake Lugano, which has nice restaurants and a strolling path on the northwest side. I sit on a bench to watch the passeggiata and finish the grocery breakfast. Then it's on around the lake to Lugano.

At the outskirts of the city, I wonder if there's a scenic bypass, so turn north into the hills towards Tesserete. It's noon when I reach the town, and the bells in the tower are chiming in multiple pitches. The air is sultry. I wind down to Taverne and join the main road to Locarno. At Quartino there's a bike route into the city and then a big confusing wheel-spoke intersection. The direction I want to go excludes bicycles, so I take the next right, headed for Ascona, a town to the south. The road passes some industrial buildings and the signs indicate a dead-end, but bicycles are coming my way, so I continue. Magically a bike path appears and leads to Ascona where I follow the signs to Centovalli.


The "100 Valleys" is a much-advertised scenic train ride from Locarno to Domodossola, and the route is evidently popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists, as well. Fortunately, the road is too narrow for tour busses. The road winds steadily up a spectacular canyon, weaving under and over the railroad line which carries the little blue train. There's one steep pitch to the village of Intragna, and then a moderate climb to Camedo. With a sleepy nod from the border guards, I'm back in Switzerland again. I stop for tomato and cheese panini, a rather watery strawberry frappe, and two gelatos. After a bit more climbing, the road finally heads downhill, steep and fast, and traffic from the west increases.

Out the other side, I turn towards Masera, a small town across the river from Domodossola. Bells are playing melodies as I pedal slowly through town.

Sidetrip to San Giacomo

Now I'm headed up the valley of the Toce River to get in position for a look at San Giacomo Pass tomorrow. No bikes are allowed on the main highway here, so I go under it to the next intersection and stop to pull out the map. An old Italian gentleman pedals up on his cruiser and asks if he can help. He recognizes the name "Crodo" through my rudimentary Italian and points up at the switchbacks on the hill ahead, smiling.

"Phwt, phwt, phwt," he whistles, tracing out the switchbacks with his hand, then "shwweeet," up the hill.

"Gracie!" Looks like there's more climbing today.

I head up the switchbacks and congratulate myself on conquering them so late in the day. Then I catch up to a smart-looking Italian lady on a black city bike, in skirt and dress shoes, carrying a large bouquet of calla lilies. As I ride by in crusty bike shorts and sweaty jersey, I feel completely outclassed once again.

Near Crodo there's a restaurant/hotel/bar with rooms available, so I stop here. The going price is once again 22 euro for a nice-sized room with private bath, even if the decor is somewhat institutional. Suits me fine. After a hearty dinner at the hotel, I turn in for a good night's rest.

July 21 (Sunday); Crodo - San Giacomo - Stresa; 137 km Map

I need an early start today to make it to Stresa by 7 p.m. for dinner with the tour group. So I make sure there's a way out of the hotel by 7 a.m., something I've learned not to take for granted.

Waterfalls tumble in ribbons and riffles down the high rock walls, reminding me of Yosemite. Crodo is well known for its bottled mountain water, and as I head up the valley under heavy gray skies, it looks like I might get to sample the unbottled water, as well. Granite is being worked in the cliffs, and cranes stand over their quarry like storks guarding their nests. I climb the stair steps from one valley to the next.

There's a steady stream of traffic headed up the road, which is surprising for this early in the morning. Of course, it's Sunday and everyone is headed out for a day in the mountains. The clouds grow darker and by Valdo Formazza it starts to rain. I stop for a grocery breakfast and repack for rain. The streets are lined with parked cars. Food is being cooked under a large tent and people are setting up for picnics, seeming not to notice the weather.

La Cascata di Toce
La Cascata del Toce

But the traffic doesn't all stop here -- there's another attraction up the valley, La Cascata. It's a steep climb to the base of the spectacular roaring waterfall, then another pitch through avalanche chutes to the top of the falls. People are swarming the overview, hanging over the railing, and jostling for photo spots. I continue on steep switchbacks up to the reservoir -- Lago Morasco. The original plan was to hike up to road to San Giacomo Pass, but the rain is pelting steadily and my enthusiasm for hiking in the mud is waning. San Giacomo Pass will have to wait for more time and better weather.

I undo all the climbing in short time. Back at Formazza there's a long line of people waiting for food under the tent. It's still raining, but a bit of dampness won't spoil a Sunday picnic in the mountains. I feel a bit silly in rain gear, when everyone else is out in their Sunday casuals. Maybe some day I'll get onto this rain thing in the Alps.

Lago Maggiore Finale

Where the road intersects the highway leading to the Simplon Pass, I continue south to Domodossola and bump through the cobbled streets. It's early afternoon as well as Sunday, so the shops are closed and the streets are deserted. By now the rain has quit, the sun is peeking out, and the temperatures are beginning to warm. I stop in Preglia for a large plate of spaghetti and an enormous slab of tiramisu, approximately one-half of a large rectangular casserole dish.

Well fortified, I continue following the Toce River south through small towns to a western spur of Lake Maggiore. After a bit of navigation to get through the congestion, I pick up the main road on the western shore to Stresa. Luxury hotels line the lake and for the first time in two weeks I am trying to find one particular hotel, the Hotel Milan Speranza Au Lac, where I am to meet La Cima Tours.

As I walk the bike through the town square, craning to see the hotel signs far overhead, I encounter a prim little lady in Sunday dress skirt, also pushing her bike. On the handlebars is a wicker basket carrying a fluffy black pooch with a red bow in its topknot. "Ahhhhh!" What else can one do but stop to pat its head?

"You are sportif!" the lady says, noting my rather crusty cycling garb.

And you are tres chic!" I reply, and we laugh.

She points me in the direction of the hotel, and I check in with half an hour to spare before dinner.