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Switzerland started as a rebound relationship. For the better part of two weeks, France and Belgium had treated me poorly as I pedaled through their countrysides following the path of the 2012 Tour de France. I entered Switzerland delirious and exhausted; we crossed a stone bridge and Kate looked up and said, “I think we made it.” Then she raised her finger and pointed to the square red flag with a white cross.
Words/images: Heidi Swift
When we saw the flag, we still had more than 100 miles to ride that day and way more than 10,000 feet of climbing ahead of us. The following day would be even worse. But at that moment, free from the relative abuse we had taken in France, Switzerland felt like a respite, the myth of neutrality soothing and soft at the edges. Tidy little houses, wood stacks organized just so, everything clean and neat and lined up perfectly. The visual order was a salve to my emotional disorder. Switzerland made me calm.
Because my parents called me Heidi (I was supposed to be named Hillary, but my father threatened to nickname me “Bump”), I knew a little about Switzerland already. Which is to say, I had fairytale grade information to go on. The hills in front of me were as green as author Johanna Spyri promised, so I believed instinctively that the serene chalets above me were filled with old men who carved spoons and little optimistic blonde girls who survived on porridge and goat’s milk. Kate and I climbed the hills of the Jura canton that day lulled by the low chime of bells ringing from the necks of gigantic brown cows.
“The marvel is that so much naturally occurring awesomeness can fit into such a tiny place and still somehow feel ordered, regimented and organized.”
It was a year before I was able to return and experience the country properly. I stayed with my friends Judith and Simon in the countryside near Winterthur. (Side note: a bookstore clerk in Zürich handily admonished me for calling it the countryside. “It’s the suburbs,” he snubbed.) Whatever the case, my friends’ apartment was surrounded by green hills, peaceful cows, small farms and tiny roads that disappeared straight into the sky at startling angles. It was as quiet as any summer I’d ever spent on my own grandmother’s farm, so I decided to call it whatever I liked; countryside felt proper.
The Swiss cyclists I encountered on my daily adventures struck me as peculiar; they passed me on the paths with nary a twitch of recognition. I returned their stoicism with over exuberance—a giant waving of the arm, not just the hand, and a hearty “hallo!” that refused to be ignored. If Spyri’s Heidi could win over grumpy mountain grandpa, then certainly I could crack the steely surface of these Assos-worshipping whippets.
I traveled to Meiringen to ride the Gold-Tour course of the Alpenbrevet—110 miles with 17,000 feet of climbing over four famous mountain passes. A monument of sorts, I suppose, but I was happier back on the small green hills and lesser-known climbs with Judith and Simon.
Switzerland is a tiny island of a country. It’s landlocked and dense, just three times the size of Los Angeles County, but with far less livable space due to the presence of some of the most famous mountains in the world, including a significant chunk of the Alps.
The peaks are memorable by bike, sure, but go meander through them on foot and scale takes on an entirely new meaning. The marvel is that so much naturally occurring awesomeness can fit into such a tiny place and still somehow feel ordered, regimented and organized. Just when you feel you’ve reached a remote corner of the wilderness, you run into a happy, yellow trail sign informing you that you are just a 90-minute walk from the nearest hut, restaurant or gondola station.
The prescriptive trails and hyper-helpful signage makes my inner-adventurer bristle, but Switzerland still calls me back again and again with the song that originally endeared me to her—the low chime of distant cowbells promising order and calm.