I always wonder the changes that will come when I cross over an invisible border into the next country. Heading into Basel was a big deal for me. It meant that I had cycled across France and reached my first border overland in Europe. I had arrived in Switzerland. Hayley and I celebrated our achievement with cheap German beers from Aldi. The streets lining the park where we sat reminded me of Berlin. Children were playing ballgames in the middle of the road. Bicycles leaned on fences and gates which led to the plain Facades of apartment buildings decorated only with block balconies. Here, we met Ana and Ralph, two incredibly open and relaxed cycle tourers. We shared beers and wine long into the night, hearing stories from their own cycle tour around Europe when they met a bear in Romania and were followed by wild dogs in Serbia.
Changes happen very slowly when you travel by bicycle. It can seem like nothing changes for days on end but slowly the landscape melts into something else and differences appear in the bricks and mortar. Heading out of Basel, the canals and the Loire were swapped with the river Rhein, a stronger Germanic alternative of its French twin. Renaissance architecture and pale stone buildings were remoulded into gingerbread houses from the pages of a Swiss folk tale. Cheese in the supermarket was replaced with plastic salami and chocolate.
The Rhein was taking us in the direction of Bodensee, Europe’s third biggest lake that links arms with three countries: Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Nestled at the mouth of the lake, is the medieval town of Stein am Rhein. Walking through the ancient gateway to the town we were immediately invited to a free Schnitzel at Tiergarten Bistro by a burly, bald-headed man, arms wide in invitation. His restaurant brought together the different characters of the town with the promise of local beer and cheap wine. Posh ladies in fur coats mingled and joked with youths in joggers. The familiarity of the tacky restaurant united people under its canopy.
In Stein am Rhein we stayed with Linda who, a few years older than us, had already completed her solo world tour by bicycle. Linda’s ease and it will be fine attitude gave me an immense confidence in my capability to cycle to the otherside of the world. She reinforced that it is the fear of doing something that is greater than the fear itself. We ate honey that she had brought back from Kyrgyzstan whilst listening intently to stories from her journey, told enthusiastically with a tinge of sadness and longing in her eyes.
I was often overtaken by pensioners riding electric bikes as I followed the shores of the lake the next day. The path would switch from Germany to Switzerland regularly, the border signified by underwhelming red and white barriers. I was cycling alone again that day, something that had become very normal for us, until I met Marianna a cycle tourer cycling home to Armenia from Amsterdam. We rode slowly, chatting about our plans, and admiring the intimidating Alps towering in the distance. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy that she was travelling alone without the stress of accommodating her trip for another person.
After going our separate ways, I faced my first ever big climb on a bike. Sweat poured from my body like never before. My muscles ached. My mind complained. But the views – wow. The lake stretched out far beneath me, its pale turquoise waters inviting the mountains into its depths. Small villages and church spires dotted the hillsides, and Swiss flags waved energetically in the wind. Finally after two hours, I arrived victoriously, thrilled at my physical progress made since the start of the trip.
No sooner than Franceska had welcomed us into her home, gin and tonics were placed into our hands. Her house, perched in the mountains was a place of warmth and enjoyment which she shared with her two boys and husband. They made the hard work to reach their house completely worth it. The evening finished with schnapps. Franceska was a soft woman who had an underlying strength to her. Her nose stud told of tales of perhaps a wilder youth, a sense of adventure that she still had not lost. I met many encouraging women over those first days in Switzerland who gave me strength to continue my trip in ways they probably never realised.