August 23 – Camp Muhleye to Les Jeurs (100 km, 62 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 23, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 23 Route Map

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Looking west down the Rhone Valley near the village of Agarn. The Rhone Valley extends 152 kilometers (95 miles) from the Rhone Glacier to Lake Geneva. It comprises the western half of a great valley system that bisects the Swiss Alps from east to west, across the entire width of Switzerland. ^

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I got up early this morning and was riding by 7:30. The weather for the day looked good – some clouds to keep it cool, but they were high and thin enough not to produce rain. The ride today was quick thanks to it being all downhill along the Rhone River, although in the lower half of the Rhone Valley where I was today the gradient was pretty slight. I rode 75 kilometers in 3 hours and 45 minutes.

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I was crossing a bridge over a small creek, and this rock outcrop was right next to the bridge. It shows how the creek has downcut through the rock over time. The gap seen here is about one meter wide at the narrowest part, and it is completely vegetated above. An unwary hiker would definitely be in for a surprise if he stumbled across this without knowing about it. It's about a 20 meter drop down to the creek. ^

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Many people don't know this, but Switzerland produces quite a bit of wine. The Rhone Valley has numerous wineries and vineyards. This sculpture in the middle of a roundabout marked one such region. ^

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A vineyard next to the road. The grapes weren't fully ripe, but still tasty! ^

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This is one of several castles I saw in the Rhone Valley. This one is on an outcrop above the village of Sion. Notice the cornfield and the modern buildings and new construction. In Switzerland flat space is limited, so it's necessary to take advantage of every bit of arable land to grow crops. ^

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I got to the town of Martigny, which is at the southwest end of the Rhone Valley, right where it makes a 90 degree turn to the north. I found a pay phone across the street from the train station and called Florence to let her know I was in town. It was nice that the phone accepted credit cards because I had no change at the time, so I was able to use my ATM card for the call. Florence was still at work and wouldn’t get home until about 6:00 pm so I decided to go ahead and ride up the mountain to meet her near where she works. I was on my way out of Martigny when I realized that I needed to stop at an ATM and get some cash, but when I got to an ATM I couldn’t find my ATM card. Then I remembered I had left it in the phone booth a kilometer away! I rushed back to the phone and found that my card was still sitting on top of the phone where I had left it about 45 minutes earlier. Crisis averted. It’s a good thing most people use cell phones now and don’t need old-fashioned pay phones, otherwise my ATM card would have been gone.

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Looks like someone had a bad day. This is at a Honda dealership. ^

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Just west of Martigny, the road I took passed through a large area of orchards. The road, appropriately, was named Route des Fruits (Road of Fruits). For about 11 kilometers (7 miles) the road was lined on both sides with apples, plums, pears, and apricots, and a few cornfields in between. ^

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Looking west along the long, straight Route des Fruits. ^

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A plum orchard. ^

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The climb up to Forclaz Pass from Martigny wasn’t too bad. Not a whole lot of traffic, and it was a nice wide road and not too steep, although it climbed 3,378 feet, 300 feet higher than the climb from Grindelwald to Grosse Scheidegg. The lower part of the road switchbacked up though steep vineyards, and several turnouts provided nice views of Martigny and the Rhone Valley stretching out to the east. Very nice view.

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The town of Martigny is a crossroads for southwest Switzerland. From one roandabout you can choose to go to Italy or France. The road to Italy crosses over the Alps at the Grand St. Bernard Pass. The road to France takes you to the famous resort town of Chamonix. ^

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Hmm... which way should I go, Italy or France? How about both! ^

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I got to the top of the pass in 2 hours and 26 minutes, then it was another quick ride down the other side. As seems to happen too often, after riding all day without rain, when I got to within 3 kilometers of my destination it started raining hard enough to put on the raingear. I then got about one kilometer further down the road when Florence drove by, coming out to meet me. During the week she lives near work in the little village of Les Jeurs, which is about 1,000 feet above the valley floor and is accessible by a steep, one-lane road with tight hairpin turns and a couple of untrustworthy-looking tunnels. When I first saw the road from the valley floor I assumed it was the old road that was abandoned after the newer road was built. I assumed wrong – it is the road she takes every day, even in the winter. It’s an amazing little road.

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Here's the road to France. It climbs about 1,100 meters (3,300 feet) above Martigny through vineyards and forests. This is the road I took to get to Les Jeurs. ^

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View of Martigny, the Rhone Valley (on the left) and the valley leading to Le Chable (on the right). In the middle of the Rhone Valley is the long, straight road through the Route des Fruits. ^

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All across Europe, from Norway to Italy, you see evidence of how much Europeans are dedicated to recycling glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper. And unlike in most of the U.S., they’ve made it easy to do so. It is common to see recycling containers strategically placed along roads and in neighborhoods. Each container is plainly marked for a specific type of waste. It’s also common to see people arriving at the grocery store with bags or boxes of plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans, for recycling at the store. I think every U.S. politician currently in office or newly-elected should take a trip to Europe to see how they do things here, and then go back to the U.S. and establish similar recycling facilities and methods all across the U.S. It’s just common sense and it shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do.

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Here's the Swiss version of our ugly American dumpsters. But these aren't just trash cans - these are typical neighborhood recycling containers. The left-most one is for glass and the others are for garbage. The interesting thing about this style of container is that you see only one -third of them. The other two-thirds are in a pit in the ground. To empty them, a truck comes along, unlocks the lid, and lifts the giant garbage bag out using the eyelet on top of the lid. It's a nifty design, and they definitely look better than our U.S. dumpsters. ^

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August 22 – Aare River valley to Visp, Switzerland (72 km, 45 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 22, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 22 Route Map

The motorcyclists were up early this morning. I heard the first ones racing up the road at about 6:00 this morning. I guess that’s a good time for them, as there were practically no cars on the road, so that they pretty much had it to themselves and could go as fast as they wanted – and they did.

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A view of a portion of the old road on the north side of Grimselpass.This part is now the bicycle path that bypasses the new tunnel. The road was carved out of a rock face and they just left a large rock overhang over the cobblestone road. Pretty cool. This was my impromptu campsite last night.

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View of the north side of Grimselpass, showing a portion of the road leading up to the pass.

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Ahhh - the top at last. Let the downhill ride begin!

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I got moving at 7:30 am and climbed the remaining 2,500 feet to Grimselpass, arriving there at 9:30. The elevation at the pass was 7,117 feet – my highest altitude so far on the trip. This being the weekend, and a sunny one also, there were hundreds of motorcycles in the parking lots of the restaurants at the pass. And in addition to the motorcycles, there were lots of fast cars also. A Lamborghini, several Corvettes, too many Porches to count, and even a classic Ford Cobra passed me on the way up. When I got to the pass the Lamborghini and the Cobra were parked next to each other. Lots of people were milling around gawking at them, and so of course I had to get a few photos as well. Before leaving the pass I had lunch at one of the restaurants. I had Rosti, which is sort of like hash brown potatoes, with bacon, cheese, onions, and tomatoes mixed in. Very tasty.

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Grimselpass... a show place for fast and exotic cars. Here's a Lamborghini that rocketed past me on the way up to the pass.

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And here's the Lamborghini with an even more exotic neighbor... a classic Ford Cobra 427. The Cobra is a very rare car, and I was very surprised to see one in person. Together, these two cars drew quite a crowd of people around them. Very impressive.

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Who needs fast and exotic cars when you have a rig like this, my bike? Park it anywhere, and it's light enough to carry up steps. But 0-60 in never!

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After lunch came the moment I’ve been looking forward to for the past six months – the descent from Grimselpass down to the Rhone Valley. It didn’t disappoint. The road had 13 switchbacks and descended 3,600 feet over a distance of 13 kilometers. I made it to the bottom in 45 minutes, but that was with a lot of stops to take photos. What a ride! It was a real blast taking the hairpin turns as fast as I dared, but what was even more amazing was watching the motorcyclists. They’d lay their machines over at such an angle going around the curves that I was sure they were going to slide out and go over the edge of the road. But none did – they know what they’re doing.

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The moment I've waited six months for - the ride down the south side of Grimselpass. 13 hairpin turns and a 3,600 foot descent!

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View of an old barn in a village in the Rhone Valley. It's interesting that it seems to be balanced on top of the circular stones on wooden columns. This was a common sight throughout the Rhone Valley area. I'm not sure why they're built this way. Maybe it keeps mice and other rodents from getting into the barn.

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Here's a close-up of the stone/column support under the barn. There were eight such supports - one at each corner and one in the middle of each wall.

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After reaching the Rhone River valley, it was a quick 48 kilometers, all downhill, to the town of Visp. It is located at the bottom of the valley that leads to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Since it was still early in the day I found a campsite in Visp, got my camp set up, and then took the train to Zermatt for a few hours of sightseeing. Of course I saw the Matterhorn, luckily with no clouds around it except for a few transient, wispy summit clouds. Nice mountain.

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The mandatory tourist shot of the Matterhorn.

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Tomorrow’s destination is the town of Martigny, about 65 kilometers west down the Rhone valley.

August 21 – Grindelwald to Aare River valley (51 km, 31 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 21, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 21 Route Map

I woke up this morning to a cloudless sky, which was exactly what I wanted for the climb up to Grosse Scheidegg and over the pass. Yesterday there were clouds drifting past the Eiger, so I didn’t get a complete view of it. But this morning I was able to get a perfect view of the entire mountain. Pretty impressive.

I got underway at 8:15 this morning and reached the pass at 11:00, taking 2 hours and 45 minutes to ride 11 kilometers and climb 3,034 feet. If I had not stopped so often to take pictures of the amazing scenery, I probably could have gotten to the pass an hour earlier. But there was just so much to see – huge mountain walls, glaciers, waterfalls, and even the classic Swiss scene of cows (with cowbells) grazing in the high mountain meadows with wildflowers all around. Simply spectacular. As I neared the pass, I started encountering a lot of bicyclists headed downhill, and they weren’t out for a leisurely ride either. They were blasting past me at 40-50 kilometers per hour and they weren’t too keen on staying on their side of the road. Not very courteous of them. It was only when I reached the pass that I discovered they were in a bike race – their race numbers were on their backs, so that’s why I didn’t realize it was a race when I was headed up. The Swiss are great at building facilities for tourists, and the pass was no exception. The hotel Grosse Scheidegg had a nice restaurant with an outdoor terrace, so I had a big lunch of grilled sausage and potatoes, washed down with a local beer, and finished off with vanilla ice cream covered with wild berries and drenched with raspberry sauce.

The descent from the pass was every bit as much fun as I was expecting it to be. It was 16 kilometers, descended 4,400 feet, and it took only one hour. It could have been faster if not for all the hairpin turns on the way down. What a fun ride that was!

Once I got down to the valley bottom, I stopped at a local attraction where the Aare River cuts through a canyon. They’ve installed walkways that are cantilevered out along the walls of the canyon and about 30 or so feet above the river. As usual, it was another spectacular example of Swiss engineering. The river canyon was about 600 or 700 feet deep, and varied in width from a couple hundred feet to only about five feet at the narrowest. It was at this narrowest spot where the walkway spanned the gap between to rock walls on each side, and with the river below. Up above was just a narrow slot between the walls where you could just barely see some patches of sky.

After doing the river canyon tour it was time for me to get back on the road. The route headed south through the Aare River valley and up toward Grimselpass. It was about 40 kilometers from the canyon to the pass, and it was 3:30 when I left the canyon, with about a 5,200 foot climb ahead of me to the pass. There was no way I could get over the pass before it got dark, so at 6:00 pm I found a nice campsite by the side of the road. It was in the area where the original road branches off from the newer road and tunnel that were constructed in 1984. The old road is now a designated bicycle route. It’s a nice little spot to spend the night, but I have to listen to the constant stream of motorcycles racing up and down the new road. In fact, the main road through the Aare River valley is a favorite for motorcycles and fast cars. In fact, I think there were actually more motorcycles than cars. It’s a nice smooth road with lots of curves and tunnels, so the motorcyclists go crazy on it

Total ascent today was 8,450 feet, and the total descent was 6,798 feet. High point was 6,431 feet at Grosse Scheidegg.

I still have about 20 kilometers to go before I get to the pass tomorrow. After the pass, it’s a nice downhill ride on a road with lots of switchbacks down into the Rhone River valley. I’m looking forward to that.

August 20 – Campingplatz Bachmattli to Grindelwald, Switzerland (~100 km, ~62 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 20, 2010 by Scott McGee

I woke up this morning thinking about how far behind schedule I was – about three days or so. While discussing my planned route with Melanie a couple days ago, she mentioned that there were a couple major climbs of nearly 1,000 meters each in order to get to Grindelwald. I therefore figured it would take me two full days to reach Grindelwald, which would put me even further behind schedule. So I opted to use my Eurail Pass for the second time and take a train. There was a train station only 2 kilometers away from the campground, so it wasn’t long before I was on the train bound for Grindelwald. It was a flat trip for the first 10 kilometers or so, but immediately after leaving the town of Giswil the train started up. And it wasn’t a low-angle hill either. It wasn’t a cog railway and I was really surprised that a full-size train could climb that steep of a hill.

I was a bit disappointed to be taking the train instead of riding, but it turned out that I make the right decision. The first major climb was at least 1,000 meters, and the second one into Grindelwald was only slightly lower. So it would have taken two days for sure for me to ride it. As it was, I arrived in Grindelwald at 12:30 pm and got my first full-on view of the north face of the Eiger. What an amazing mountain!
And Grindelwald is surrounded by huge mountains. They’re about 2.5 times higher than the Chugach Mountains that we see to the east of Anchorage.

I took the train to the Jungfrauhoch, which at 11,333 feet is the highest train station in Europe. And this was no ordinary train. It was a cog railway which allowed it to climb much steeper grades – I guess the steepest was about a 20-25% grade, which is about twice as steep as some of the steepest roads. The first stage wound through the forest until the train got to Kleine Scheidegg, a hotel with other tourist facilities just above treeline. From there, a transfer to another train took up and through the Eiger. That’s the amazing part of the trip. Work began in 1896 to blast a tunnel 9.3 kilometers long inside the Eiger up to an area directly beneath a rocky spire on the ridgeline. Along the way, the tunnel comes close to the north face of the Eiger, so they’ve dug several access tunnels that break through to the face of the mountain at about the 10,500 foot level. You can stand right at the edge and look out the windows at the huge, vertical north face of the peak, and look straight down several thousand feet. It’s just amazing. Further up, there’s a huge train station inside the mountain at the 11,333 foot elevation, and from there more tunnels radiate out in several directions. One tunnel leads outside the mountain and provides access to the Aletsch Glacier. Another tunnel leads to an elevator 350 feet directly beneath the visitor center. A short ride up the elevator puts you at the visitor center that’s built directly on top of the ridge. Several walkways around the perimeter are cantilevered out from the rock, and you walk on see-through steel grating to the rocks and glacier hundreds of feet below your feet, so if you look down while you walk you get the unsettling feeling that you’re walking on air. I saw more than a few people staying as close as possible to the wall of the building, with a look of sheer dread on their faces.

I thought the facilities atop Mt.Pilatus were amazing. But the stuff at Jungfrauhoch tops Pilatus. It’s simply incredible what the Swiss have built up there. In addition to the visitor center/observation deck, there are several restaurants, tunnels everywhere inside the mountain, and out on the Aletsch Glacier you can walk around on groomed and roped-off trails that winds around huge crevasses. I took a short walk on the glacier, just to be able to say that I’ve been on the Aletsch Glacier. And if you want, you can go snow-tubing on the glacier (like bobsledding, but with inner tubes), and for the more adventurous there’s a zip line that’s about 500 meters long. It starts out about 20 or so meters above the glacier and gradually reaches the surface of the glacier at the landing zone, where you just come to a sliding stop on your back on the glacier. The whole experience, with all the stuff up there, is just amazing. Everyone should see it at some time in their lives.

Anyway, Grindelwald is an amazing place and it’s too bad I don’t have more time to spend here. Tomorrow (if it’s not raining and whiteout) I’ll ride up valley and over the pass at Grosse Scheidegg, which is a climb of about 3,000 feet. Then it’s down the other side to the Aare River valley. Should be a tough, but fun day.

August 19 – Rapperswil to Campingplatz Bachmattli, Switzerland (78 km, 48 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 19, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 19 Route Map – Rapperswill to Mt. Pilatus Tram
August 19 Route Map – Mt. Pilatus Tram to Campingplatz Bachmattli

I got out of Rapperswil, at the southeast end of Lake Zurich, at 8:30 this morning. There was a little bit of drizzle for the first half hour of the ride, and then it was dry for the rest of the day. By the time I crossed over the hills out of Rapperswil and got into the next major valley to the west, the clouds broke up and it was partly to mostly sunny – the first time for that in about 10 days or so.

I’ve been surprised at the amount of construction going on here in Switzerland. Passing through Zurich, Rapperswil, Zug, Luzern, and a bunch of smaller towns, I saw countless construction cranes. It seems like everywhere you look there’s something being built. I’ve heard that China has about half of the world’s construction activity – I think Switzerland must have a good share of the other half.

I took a little side trip today when I got to Luzern and took the gondola/tram up to the summit of Mount Pilatus. It was a two-stage trip. The first part was in a small, four-person gondola that climbed up through the forest from the town of Kriens, at the base of the mountain. Just below the treeline, the gondola ride ended and it was necessary to transfer to the larger 40-person tram for the second stage to the summit, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Swiss can build anything, anywhere. It’s amazing what they’ve built on the summit of Mi. Pilatus. There’s a huge round building that houses the tram terminal, viewing areas, a restaurant, café, and shops where you can buy stuff. A short walk away is a large and very fancy five-storey hotel and another restaurant. The round building and the hotel are located in a saddle between the two summits of the mountain. Paths lead up to the tops of the two summits. The summit just above the round building is the higher of the two, and it’s reached via a stairway with 278 steps. Starting near the hotel is a pathway/tunnel carved out of the mountain which winds around the lower summit. The tunnel is inside the mountain, but at various places it gets near the exterior part of the mountain, and it’s at these places that they’ve cut viewing ports so that you can stand right at the edge (but still inside the tunnel) and look out and down the sheer vertical walls of the mountain. It’s just amazing what they’ve done. Very impressive.

I found a nice campground to spend the night near the south end of Alpnacher See (lake), which is about 20 kilometers southwest of Luzern. As usual, I quickly got the tent set  up, got showered, and had a nice meal at the restaurant. I really like these European campgrounds!

Tomorrow’s destination – Interlaken (and meybe Grindlewald).

August 18 – Campingplatz Bachli to Rapperswil, Switzerland (39 km, 26 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 18, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 18 Route Map

Today got off to a unwanted start. 500 meters after leaving the campground there was a steep descent to a small river. I knew exactly what followed, a climb. Not a small one either – 300 meters (1,000 feet), which was about twice the height of the descent. But at least it wasn’t raining, so that’s some consolation.

I didn’t have far to go today – only 39 kilometers. I visited Melanie in Rapperswil, which is at the southeast end of Lake Zurich, and about 30 kilometers away from Zurich. I got there at 11:30 am and since Melanie didn’t get home from work until 5:00 pm I decided to take the train to Zurich and sightsee for a few hours. I just picked a street at random after exiting the train station and started walking. It turned out to be the Rodeo Drive of Zurich – Gucci, Armani, Rolex, Swarovski, and other high-class stores lined both sides of the street. Lots of serious-looking guys in high-priced suits scurrying around. And cars – expensive cars. I was fiddling with my GPS and looked up and saw, stopped right in front of me, a Lamborghini. I also saw several Bentleys, a Ferrari, a Maserati, and the more common cars such as high-end Mercedes and BMWs. So there appears to be a lot of money in Zurich – at least for certain people. After a few hours I took the train back to Rapperswil and visited Melanie and her boyfriend. They took me on a short walking tour past the local castle, and then we had beers on her boyfriend’s sailboat. Dinner was pizza at a restaurant near the harbor. By then it was 10:00 pm and time to call it a day.

August 17 – Lindau to Campingplatz Bachli, Switzerland (72 km, 45 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 17, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 17 Route Map

Today was a milestone day – I hit the 1,000 mile mark in the village of Schonengrund, Switzerland, 3.4 kilometers east of tonight’s campground in Bachli. Only about another 700 miles of pedaling to go!

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A view of the Swiss countryside at the spot where I hit the 1,000 mile mark on my ride.

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I got lucky with the weather today. The sky this morning didn’t look promising, and there were a few sprinkles as I headed out of Lindau. But fortunately the rain held off today and I was able to make it to today’s campsite in Bachli, Switzerland without getting wet. I still had a headwind from the southwest for most of the day, but at least the temperature was cool – in the 60’s Fahrenheit – so it wasn’t too bad of a ride. Except for the hills. The first part of today’s ride was around the south end of Lake Constance (Bodensee). The lake is in a wide valley, so that part of the ride was mostly flat. But only about 5 kilometers after entering Switzerland, the real climbing began. The first of many climbs was 1,900 feet (580 meters), and today I learned to hate downhill runs because the downhills are always immediately followed by an uphill climb, and it seems like there’s always more uphill than downhill.

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Europeans are in some ways ahead of us in the U.S. when it comes transportation infrastructure. This electronic sign tells motorists how many parking spaces are available in various parking garages. It makes it easy for drivers to figure out the best place to park without driving around wasting gasoline. Very smart idea.

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Before leaving Lindau this morning I did an online search for campgrounds with Internet access, and found one in the village of Bachli. Their website listed the typical stuff for European campgrounds – showers, food store, laundry service, and so on, plus WiFi internet access. Sounded good and it was also the right distance for today’s ride, so that’s where I decided to spend the night. But when I got here the office was closed and there was only one other person in the entire campground. The food store/café was also closed, which was too bad because I was planning on eating there, so I didn’t visit a food store before arriving at the campground. So tonight’s dinner was apricots and chocolate.

Since I entered Switzerland today I had to get some Swiss Francs, because Switzerland is one of the few European countries that does not use the Euro. I have to say that Swiss paper money is the coolest looking of all the paper money I’ve seen so far on the trip. Very colorful with neat designs. It makes our U.S. bills look plain and dull by comparison.

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The front side of Swiss Franc bills. Click for a larger view.

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The back side of Swiss Franc bills. Click for a larger view.