It would have been easier to walk up to the Jungfrau

Day 68 – Saturday 31st of August – Interlaken (0km)

The number one tourist attraction in Interlaken is the Jungfrau. The tallest peak in the region, it stands 4,158m above sea level, and about 600m below that there is an observation center that offers visitors a unique view of the surrounding peaks and that glacier that extends at its feet. What makes this place special, aside from the fact that it is the highest building in Europe, is that tourists do not need to climb up the mountain to get to it, there is a railway that reaches as far up as 3,454m, travelling inside the mountain to Jungfraujoch station, an underground complex that would not look out of place in a Bond movie. From there, a short elevator ride takes people to the observation center.

It is an astonishing place and one definitely worth visiting, but there are a couple of things to take into account before deciding to go there. First, it is not cheap. A return ticket will set you back just over 160€. Second, the weather is very changeable at that height, which means that you may end up paying a small fortune just for a fancy train ride and get zero visibility once you are at the top.

I had already been there years ago (it cost about 60€ then, which was still expensive for a student on an Interrail trip), so we decided to do something different with our last day before heading home. The campsite rented kayaks, something I had never tried before, and we thought it would be a great idea to explore the lake.

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We were given a couple of life vests, a water-proof barrel to keep our stuff dry and were told to keep close to the left shore as the various ships and boats we would be sharing the waters with were not very considerate towards tourists drifting onto their paths. We dragged the kayak to the cannal, launched it into the water, strapped the barrel onto it and then managed to sit in the thing without tipping over, which I considered a great success already.

We pushed ourselves away from the shore and started paddling up the canal leading into the big lake. We had decided to go for a tandem kayak, as we thought it would be funnier than getting individual ones, but it soon became clear it had been a mistake. With zero experience, the damn thing was impossible to keep straight. We tried to coordinate the paddling, but it was hopeless, we were just wandering from left to right, from right to left, all the time trying to keep away from passing boats.

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Every time we got the thing going straight for a few metres, either Nat or I would paddle to fast once or twice, or even just give a small push with the paddle on the wrong side, and the kayak would start turning fast to the wrong direction. After some exhausting experimentation, we discovered that if only one of us paddled it was quite easy to go on a straight line, and I also discovered that Nat paddled harder on her left side, meaning that left to paddle alone, she would go round in big clockwise circles. We also discovered that we had both been trying to paddle and steer the boat, while the right thing to do is have the person sitting at the front just paddle and the one at the back paddle and steer.

Having learnt the lesson and having had to stand a few condescending smiles from other more experienced kayakers sailing past and from people watching from the shore and enjoying the show, we managed to make some progress and started to enjoy the scenery. The shores of the lake were lined with quaint wooden houses half-hidden in the trees, and most of them had a jetty and a boat. It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people sunbathing by the shore or diving into the lake from their back gardens. After a couple of hours we made it to a public swimming area with a floating platform and decided it was a good place to go for a swim before heading back. The water was quite cold, but it was a pleasure to swim in such crystalline waters.

On our way back we kept the kayak heading straight and true, like real pros, and we made good progress, which was all the more surprising when after about an hour we realized how far we still had to go. We had the feeling that we had not gone very far from the campsite to the swimming platform – true, we had taken a couple of hours to get there, but we had been going on a very erratic line, struggling to go straight – and now we were becoming aware how how much distance we had covered, which made us feel kind of proud.

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We took a few pictures before handing the kayak back and then went for a walk in Interlaken for the rest of the afternoon. In the center we saw a convoy of old Nissan Skylines that were taking part on a rally going from Kuwait to Morocco via Europe – it looked as if they were having great fun!

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We bought some food and a couple of beers for dinner and headed back to the campsite to sort out all the gear and decide which things would stay on the bike and which things Nat would take on the plane.

As we were packing I realized that was it – the journey was coming to an end. Nat had originally planned to join me only for the Swiss leg of the trip because I thought I would be back in Europe much later than I was and not wanting to do so many kilometers on her first trip on a motorbike, she had decided to fly back to Barcelona, so I was going to take her to Geneva the following morning. In the end though, my change of plans meant that she had joined me in Helsinki and we had travelled for about 4,400km on the bike together. Not bad, taking into account that she did not have proper riding gear and had to wear several layers of clothes and a waterproof jacket underneath a summer riding jacket I had lent her, as well as a pair of hiking boots that were not exactly waterproof. She was very, very brave.

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Mountain passes

Day 67 – Friday 30th of August – Sta. Maria to Interlaken (305km)

I said in my last post that I agreed with Top Gear’s conclusion saying the Transfagarasan road was better than the Stelvio pass, but that did not mean that it was the road I enjoyed most in my trip. That honor will have to go to the journey we did today on our way from Sta. Maria to Interlaken, which took us across no less than five passes.

We started climbing the first one right after leaving Sta. Maria, it was the Ofenpass, and at that time in the morning there was no other traffic on the road. It might not have been as visually spectacular as the Stelvio, but as a road to enjoy on a motorbike it was perfect. Fast corners, nice landscape, Swiss-quality tarmac… roads do not much better than this.

We made it to the other side with the tank almost empty, so we stopped at a petrol station in the first town we found. There were quite a lot of bikes queuing there, and it seemed that there was nobody in charge of the pumps or in the register, we had to use a credit card or bank notes to pay for the petrol. Several bikers, including ourselves, tried putting different cards into the machine, which rejected them all, and it would not take anybody’s bank notes either. Frustrated and practically running on fumes, we went on, hoping to find another petrol station before turning right for the next pass, which was quite near. I programmed the GPS to look for one – this is one of the most useful you can do with it – and it led us to one a few meters from the start of the road up the pass.

With the tank full, we started climbing the next pass, the Albulapass, which took us to the Chur area. From there on the road was a tad more monotonous, nice and widing, through beautiful landscape, but without the excitement or views of the passes and with a lot more traffic, as it was a main road. The longuish ride to the next three passes before Interlaken was made a bit more entertaining by a long caravan of classic cars we met, closed by a black Ferrari 575 which provided an excellent soundtrack to go with the views.

We stopped before starting to climb the following pass, the Oberalpass, and I had a can of energy drink to keep me going, as it was turning out to be quite a long day. It was sunny and warm, the roads were excellent and we were not going to cover a lot of kilometres to Interlaken, but riding on such fun roads was exhausting and we had three more passes to go.

Shortly after the Oberalpass we started climbing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass, which were one right after the other. On the way up the first one we saw some thick black smoke coming up from the bottom of the deep valley. We stopped to take some pictures a few corners further up the road and saw it was an old steam train painfully making its way up the valley. It was progressing very slowly, belching out a thick column of smoke. We stopped for lunch at the top of the pass and saw it again nearing the entrance of the tunnel that would take it to the other side of the mountain, far below us. I had been thinking that it had to be a great experience to ride those mountain railways in an old tourist steam train, but seeing how much smoke the engine was making as it entered the tunnel I thought it would not be so much fun for the passengers to breathe soot for the length of the tunnel.

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We had lunch on a grassy knoll overlooking the road, admiring all the exotic metal driving past on both directions – you name it, we saw it. From the usual selection of Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis to Lotuses, Caterhams, TVRs, and some kit cars I was not able to identify. As for the motorbikes, there were hundreds of GSs, you would think they are cheap to buy, seeing how many populate the roads all over Europe!

The road took us down a deep valley where we saw an old train station where the line coming from the valley ended and passengers switched to the old steam trains for the reminder of the way up. The road down from the top of the Furkapass kept crossing the train line, and once at the bottom it almost immediately started climbing again for the Grimselpass, the last one before Interlaken. From the beginning of the last section of the Furkapass we got a privileged view encompassing the railway going down to the bottom of the valley, the station, the road up the next pass and even a glimpse of the lake at the top of it, all in glorious late afternoon light. We went past another lake on the way down from the Furkapass, on a road that offered yet more gorgeous views for what was the last bit of our ride in the heart of the Alps.

After all these marvellous rides, I can come to my own personal conclusion and choose the road traversing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass as the best road I have ever ridden.

I am aware that I missed other great names, such as the St. Gothardo pass or the St. Bernardino pass, but we just did not have the time to properly explore the area. Well, that will be the excuse to come back here in the future.

We stopped in a town called Innertkirchen to do some shopping for dinner and then rode the last few kilometres to Interlaken, where it did not take us long to find a great campsite right by the canal connecting both lakes, within walking distance from the city center.

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The Stelvio

Day 66 – Thursday 29th of August – Cortina d’Ampezzo to Sta. Maria (237km)

Those of you who are Top Gear fans will remember that Clarkson and company declared the Stelvio pass the best road ‘in the wooooorld’ until they discovered the Transfagarasan road on their visit to Romania. I had the privilege of riding that road almost two months ago and I completely agree with them – it is an amazing ride and a must for any bikers riding Europe. Today, however, our route back home was going to take us across the Stelvio and I was eager to see how it compared with the Transfagarasan and whether it deserved that second place.

I was very excited at the prospect of riding another legendary road, what I did not know was that the two days it would take us to get to Interlaken were going to be a feast of absolutely marvelous mountain passes that would make it very difficult to come to a conclusion and chose the best one.

I had bought a good old paper map of the Alps in Slovenia which had a lovely level of detail, and we were going to use that to navigate for the next few days, using the GPS only as extra help to get from one waypoint to the other and programming it on the way, as I did not want to depend on whatever route it might decide from A to B and miss on some great roads.

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We rode out of Cortina under a glorious blue sky, my allergy all but gone, and were soon climbing a pass called Di Sella. The tarmac was in excellent condition, there was not much traffic aside from other bikes and the road wound its way up the pass through lush fields of green, a combination of fast corners at the bottom and hairpins at the top. It was here that I saw for the first time that Italians number the corners on their mountain passes, so can count how many you have to go.

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We stopped at the top of the pass, where there were hundreds of cars parked. It was clear that it was the starting point of many hiking and climbing routes, and the place was crowded. Luckily, we were able to just park the bike next to a couple of GSs right by the road and decided to take a short walk up the mountain to enjoy the views. Nat was feeling a bit cold after the ride in the morning air, but a brisk hike up a mountain trail dressed in bike gear soon warmed us up.

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After taking a few pictures we got back on the bike and rode down the other side, which turned out to be even better.

Rides like this put all other roads in perspective, and once we were down from the mountain pass and going to Bolzano, what might have been a decent road felt like the dullest thing in the world. We went past the city, took a short stretch of free motorway to Merano and then got back on a B-road again, heading for the Stelvio. There were about 50km to the point where the road leading up the pass started, and the traffic was quite heavy. To make matters worse, there were not many overtaking opportunities, at least not legal overtaking, so I was starting to worry. We passed several trucks easily, but what I did not like was the fact that there were quite a lot of motorhomes on the road. I assumed that trucks had no reason to take the Stelvio, but I was afraid that the tourists crawling along on their motorhomes might want to visit it, thus completely ruining the experience for all the enthusiasts riding bikes or driving sports cars that might end up stuck behind them, chugging up the road at 20km/h.

Overtaking as many as I could on those last 50km before the Stelvio, I could not help but to agree with Mr. Clarkson. A truck might be slow, but at least it is performing a service to society, a caravan is just a moving obstacle on the road driven by someone who is too good to sleep on a tent but too mean to pay for a hotel. And not even that, those things, especially motorhomes are expensive, why not just buy a decent car, enjoy a good drive and spend the difference in a hotel!?

Anyway, by the time we got to the junction, we had left all of them behind, and we had a clear road ahead of us. After passing a couple of towns I was very pleased to see signs limiting the length and weight of the vehicles allowed up the pass, which meant that there would be no caravans, motorhomes or tourist coaches blocking our way. Great! I dropped a couple of gears and leaped for the first serious corner.

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What a ride! This was a very different place from the Transfagarasan – one hairpin after the other, I had to take them in first gear, using the whole width of the road to carry enough inertia to keep the bike from falling over or stalling. Remember, this was no sports bike, but a fully loaded adventure tourer with two people on it. In spite of that, it performed admirably, roaring its way up the road and, surprisingly, keeping up with much more powerful machinery.

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Nat did a beautiful co-piloting job, looking up the road as we approached each corner and letting me know if the way was clear for me to use all the available tarmac, and the odd slow car was quickly overtaken between hairpins. Oh, and talking about slow cars, I felt really, really sorry for a convoy of gorgeous Lotus Elises that spent the last part of the way up helplessly stuck behind a RAV4 driven at 10km/h by a family of tourists who looked absolutely terrified at the corners.

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There were hundreds of bikers at the top of the pass, and while the GS seemed to be the machine of choice (there are thousands of these things everywhere!) people had ridden up here in all kinds of things, including an old woman on a classic Vespa.

I bought a Stelvio pass sticker to put on the bike and then sat down to have a rest and ponder whether this was better than the Transfagarasan or not.

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The landscape was no doubt amazing, high rocky mountains covered in snow, deep valleys, lush pine forests at the bottom… but the corners were too tight for my taste, at least on the eastern side, which meant that the riding was less enjoyable than in the Romanian road, which had faster corners. This was all first and second gear. Of course the Stelvio is a well-known name for riders in Europe, and there is something magic to it, but that fame has a price, which brings me to the second reason why I prefer the Transfagarasan. Unlike the Transfagarasan, the Stelvio attracts a lot of people, which is OK as far as bikes and sports cars go, but there are also a lot of people driving very slowly on it, which spoils the experience if you are stuck behind one of them for a while. Finally it also suffers from the same problem that affects all great driving roads in Western Europe – cyclists. Hundreds of them, fantasizing they are wearing the maglia azzurra in the Giro. There is virtually no traffic on the Transfagarasan other than a few enthusiasts, and that is reason enough for me to agree with the boys from Top Gear and rate it above the Stelvio.

Which does not mean I think it is the greatest road ever…

To be completely fair, I have to confess that we did not ride down the other side of the Stelvio, so my impressions might be incomplete. We were heading for the Davos area, so once at the top, we took a smaller road that went down the northern side. It was great – no traffic, faster corners, beautiful scenery, and it even had a bit of adventure riding factor, as halfway down the tarmac disappeared and it became a dirt track for the rest of the ride. It was quite funny to see the faces of some guys on sports bikes and a couple on a Porsche trying to make their way up the pass!

Once in the valley we started looking for a campsite, but there was only one in the area and it did not look very nice. Add to that that the night was going to be quite cold up there and we decided to ride to the next town and try to find a room to rent or some kind of B&B.

The town was called Santa Maria, and it did have a hotel and a youth hostel, but to our dismay the hostel was booked full and the hotel was way too expensive. We were standing by the bike in the center of the town, tired and cold, not very happy at the prospect of having to spend all evening trying to find accommodation when a huge truck came along and started to very slowly negotiate the narrow space between two old buildings. Its flanks were literally only a couple of inches from the walls on each side, and as we were watching the show I hear a voice say ‘cool, uh?’ We turned around and saw a woman contemplating the scene next to us. We got chatting about it and she told us that it was a daily thing, there were big truck passing through the old town quite often. She then saw the bike and asked ‘are you looking for a room?’

It turned out she lived in a big old house round the corner and she had done up a room in the ground floor to rent to tourists. She made us a very good deal, so we parked the bike in her garden and spent the night there. It was much, much better than we could have hoped for. The room was big and cosy, the bathroom was almost as big as the room and best of all… the floor was heated. It was better than many hotels I have stayed in.

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