SWITZERLAND BY Bike Cycling through the scenery brings it up close and personal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When I told my friends that I was taking a biking tour of Switzerland, they looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

"Biking? In Switzerland? In the Alps?" they asked, incredulous. "Are you crazy?"

I'll admit the thought did cross my mind. I wondered if the hills would be too steep and the distances too long. I also wondered if I could handle eight days of group togetherness. Once I got to Switzerland, I relaxed. It's a scenic tour of Swiss lakes with

relatively short rides of 20 to 40 miles a day through gently rolling countryside.

The trip was described by the sponsor, Travent International, as an "easy ride for beginning and intermediate cyclists," with one important proviso: Some riders might need an occasional shuttle. The description was accurate.

A couple of novice riders in our group of about a dozen used the van on busy stretches of road; others opted for trains or ferries on days when the grades were steeper (and the distances longer) than usual. All in all, though, the tour is structured so that even the most inexperienced rider can enjoy biking in

Switzerland.

Day 1: Lausanne

After two days of sightseeing in Bern, I am on the train to Lausanne. From there, I'll catch the metro to Ouchy, a lakeside suburb, where I'm to meet the rest of the group.

We have drinks at 2 p.m. in a pleasant garden behind the hotel that overlooks Lake Geneva. Our group ranges in age from Carolyn, a Kansas City marketing executive who's in her mid-30s, to Bunny, a 60-year-old former professional football player who now operates a sports medicine clinic in Florida.

Our co-leaders are Laura Thompson and Nicole Copel, both in their 30s and both experienced cyclists. After introductions, they fit us to our bikes, supply us with helmets and bike flags, and lead us westward for a short practice ride along the shores of the lake.

Dinner is at 8 p.m., a five-course meal with wine that lasts until well after 10 p.m. Over dessert, we're given a briefing on the next day's ride. Our destination is Zermatt.

We'll ride part of the way and take the train the rest of the way. I'm in bed by 11 p.m.

Day 2: Lausanne to Sion

Breakfast this morning (and most mornings) is a buffet with melons, berries and crusty Swiss bread and rolls. No eggs, but plenty of cold ham and cheese and fresh orange juice. Swiss coffee is strong -- and virtually undrinkable without milk.

After breakfast, Laura and Nicole pass out a thick packet of instructions for each day's ride. The first leg of today's trip is along a busy road to Montreux, about 30 kilometers east, where we'll tour Chillon Castle. We're given the option of biking it or taking the ferry and avoiding the traffic. Lou, who's from California, and I decide to ride. The others opt for the hourlong ferry ride to the dock at Chillon.

The tour of Chillon takes about an hour and includes a mandatory trip to the dungeon and the hangman's room (complete with trap door to drop lifeless bodies into the lake). Parts of the castle were built by monks in the ninth century, but it attained its current form under the Counts of Savoy, who acquired the castle in 1150. Byron commemorated a visit in 1816 with his poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon."

From Chillon, we ride to St. Maurice along bike paths borderinthe Rhone River. At St. Maurice, we can take the train to Visp and then on to Zermatt via cog rail, or bike into Martigny, another 17 or so kilometers, and catch the train from there to Visp and then to Zermatt. A third option is to bike to Sion, another 25 kilometers, and take the train from there to Zermatt.

I've set a leisurely pace all day and still feel fresh enough to ride on to Sion. The Rhone is on my right the entire way. The river, like some others in Switzerland, is a curious chalky shade of gray-green. The color, I'm told, is caused by silt from the glacier runoff, not pollution.

If I have any problem on the tour, it's sometimes following Travent's directions. Generally, they're accurate. But they can be confusing, especially when you're on poorly marked back roads or bike paths. "The second road on the left" may actually be the third, if you count a small lane. Distances, too, often seem greater (or less) than indicated.

Day 3: Zermatt

No biking today. Yesterday, I checked my bike through to Kandersteg, a small city south of Interlaken. At Sion, we catch the train to Zermatt.

Zermatt is a mecca for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. No cars are permitted in town, only electric carts and horses and carriages. Drivers park their cars in a huge lot halfway up the mountain and take the train the rest of the way. The hotel where we're staying is delightful. My room faces the Monte Rosa, a huge, ice-capped peak that is even higher than its sister peak, the legendary Matterhorn.

Our options include glacier skiing; short, half-hour hikes around Zermatt; and some longer excursions into the mountains. I debate taking the cog rail to Gornergrat (more than 10,000 feet above Zermatt with a marvelous view of the glaciers, according to the Michelin guide) or hiking one of the nearby trails. I decide to hike, and Sally, a travel agent from Charlotte, N.C., offers to go with me.

It's a difficult trek that takes about five or six hours. It's at least another thigh-wrenching hour down. Back at the hotel late that afternoon, Sally wobbles off to bed, utterly exhausted. I stagger to a Jacuzzi.

Day 4: Zermatt to Giessbach

A beautiful morning, clear and cool. I snuggle into my down comforter, aware that my thighs still ache. A shower helps, but it's still tough going up and down stairs.

We leave Zermatt at 8 a.m., and change trains at Brig for Kandersteg, where our bikes await us. We're off immediately on a route that takes us north through Spiez, Thun and then east to Interlaken and Brienz. Our options are to ride part of the way and take the ferry to our hotel at Giessbach or ride all of the way to Brienz and hop the ferry there.

Sally and I stick together on the first part of the trip from Kandersteg to Thun. Surprisingly, neither of us is bothered by sore muscles when riding.

Leaving Kandersteg, there is a glorious, 2-kilometer downhill run. At the bottom, we intersect with a broad, well-paved bike path through scenic farmland.

Scattered along the way are old Swiss chalet-style farmhouses with traditional German inscriptions and window boxes overflowing with red and white geraniums. The air has a deep, rich country smell.

Lunch is leftover bread and cheese from breakfast, and a banana and bottle of mineral water purchased at a roadside market. We eat it at a rest spot overlooking Thun Lake. Then it's off to the village of Thun, where I drop Sally at the ferry dock and continue on to Interlaken and Brienz along a heavily trafficked main road.

There's much news at dinner tonight. Sally missed the connecting ferry in Interlaken, and Laura had to drive to get her. Bunny describes in hilarious detail an encounter with a motorist who cut him off near Interlaken. After a 10-minute heated debate in which neither side understood the other, Bunny finally told the guy, "Go to sleep, child," the only German he knows.

Day 5: Giessbach

A light day. A chance to ride to the Freiucht Museum, an open-air museum in Ballenberg that traces the history of residential architecture and country crafts in Switzerland (about $10 per person), or ride to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which provides a good view of the snowy peaks of the Jungfrau and the Mittaghorn-Grosshorn range.

I trail along with a group going to the valley. It's uphill, but gently so, along a scenic path, with a 30-minute detour to view the magnificent Trummelbach Falls.

A few in the group decide to catch the cable car to Schilthorn to view the mountains. Sally and I pedal into Interlaken for a late lunch and some sightseeing.

Interlaken takes its name from its location between two lakes, Thun and Brienz. It's a typical resort town with huge old hotels lining both sides of the main drag and a bustling downtown shopping district where you can buy everything from baskets to Swiss hats to trinkets from the Orient and India.

Day 6: Giessbach to Vitznau

We're off for Vitznau, a small resort town a few miles east of Lucerne, where we'll be staying the last two nights of the tour. It's a long ride with an option to take the Brunig pass from Meiringen to Giswil.

My focus is entirely on getting over the Brunig pass. The hardest part of the ride is not the climb, but coming out of murderous, hairpin curves and gaining enough momentum to climb the next grade. Downhill is a wild, exhilarating run, despite the switchbacks and lousy banks. Later, the group meets for a lazy, idyllic lunch beside Lake Sarnen. Then it's off to ride the last 15 kilometers to Alpnach and Stans, where I catch the ferry to Vitznau.

Dinner that evening is buffet style: steak grilled to order, baked potato, salad, blackberry mousse.

Final day: Vitznau

I'm tempted to do the Grand Rigitour around Lake Zug and Lake Lucerne, but decide I've OD'd on scenery and ride into Lucerne instead. There are two museums that I especially want to visit: the Picasso Museum (about $3) off Market Square in the old section of the city, and the modern Kunstmuseum (about $5) adjacent to the railroad station. The Picasso collection is devoted to the last 20 years of Picasso's life; the Kunstmuseum has a fine collection of expressionists.

Lucerne is a charming city. Richard Wagner, the German composer, lived here from 1866 to 1872. His home is now a museum. A few minutes' ride from the Wagner museum is a Jesuit church, built in 1667. Its plain facade gives little indication of the architectural splendors inside.

Lunch is a salad and a glass of beer at a sidewalk cafe along the quay of the Reuss River. Facing me as I eat is the Kappellbrucke, a covered bridge that crosses the Reuss at the point where it merges with Lake Lucerne. The bridge was built in the early 14th century and is adorned with more than a hundred paintings from the 17th century. After lunch, I wheel my bike across the bridge and up a short hill to the Hirschenplatz, a beautiful cobblestoned plaza lined with restored houses with painted facades and intricate wrought-iron signs. A few streets beyond the plaza is the first of nine old stone watchtowers that once protected the city.

Dinner that evening is festive -- if a trifle sad. We've reached the end of the tour, and most of us realize we'll probably never meet again.

After dinner, we adjourn to the lounge for drinks. There, Laura and Nicole preside over the traditional Travent farewell ceremony symbolizing all the weird things that occur when a dozen people spend a week riding bicycles in a strange land.

Bunny is awarded a miniature boxing glove to commemorate his encounter with the bellicose driver. Lou, who packs green beans in his saddlebag, gets a 2-pound can for a future trip. I receive the coveted "EDI Award" (a plastic ruler adorned with scenes of Switzerland).

"It's for riding Every Damned Inch of the tour," Nicole explains.

IF YOU GO . . .

For information about Swiss tours:

Travent International, P.O. Box 305, Waterbury Center, Vt. 05677, (800) 325-3009 and (802) 244-5153, offers four five-day/four-night and 10 eight-day/seven-night Swiss lakes tours from June through September.

The five-day tour starts in Vitznau and ends in Interlaken. The eight-day tour starts in Lausanne and ends in Vitznau. Cost: $1,550 for the five-day tour and $2,625 for the eight-day tour, including lodging and all meals (except lunch and one dinner). Also included: either a 21-speed hybrid or a 12-speed touring bike, plus helmet and handlebar bag.

Back Country, 1516 Fifth St., Suite Q315, Berkeley, Calif. 94710, (800) 462-2848 and (510) 527-1555, has three six-day/five-night Swiss inn trips in July and August. The tours start in Kandersteg and end in Lucerne. The price is $1,790 and includes lodging and all meals (except one lunch), but does not include the $139 rental charge for a 21-speed touring bike.

Both trips are suitable for beginner or intermediate riders. Mostly

flat terrain with some small hills.

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