Day 10: To Splügen Pass and beyond

Matt and Bert at Splügen Pass

We awoke to a cool but already sunny morning in the camp. Bert had the smart idea to set up our tent in between as much shelter as possible, so we didn’t get too much wind battering us in the night and I think that made a big difference.

Sheltering in Campodolcino

For those interested, the holiday home of our Italian hosts from the night before was across the way. We ate inside, not at the outside table.

Inside the camp at Campodolcino

And here’s another view of our setup. Bert’s a pro.

Safe from the wind

We brushed our teeth, hung up some clothes in the sun, and set off into the town, to get some breakfast. The Italians from the night before had highly recommended that we buy some bresaola, so we headed for the supermarket. I picked up an Italian cooking magazine for Jelena (the only one they had) but it turned out to be a bit of a bust. Well, it’s the thought that counts, right???

Bert heading back to camp

Bresaola, bread, butter, and cheese

I asked the girl at the meat counter what cheese would go well with the bresaola and she suggested some kind of alpine cheese. Actually, I read that bresaola originated from a nearby valley, so I guess her recommendation was appropriate.

After another delicious breakfast, we packed up and got everything in order to leave. Some German couple had arrived late in the night and slept in their car. They were fellow bikers and we borrowed their bike pump to top up our tires. They weren’t too talkative but that’s Germans for you! Funnily enough, we would see them pass by later on, as we went up the hill. I guess they drove up half way just to have fun on the mountain with much lighter bikes.

Easy going on the way to Isola

We got a tip from the Italian couple and the camp owner to take an easier and more scenic detour, around Lago di Isola and decided to do that. Although we didn’t want to make the journey easier, we were interested in the scenic aspect. The route wasn’t easy all the time but there definitely were some more easy-going parts and I think it only added 1km to the journey.

Isola route

Bert taking a break on the Isola route

I think the views were worth it and it wasn’t long before we hit some tough inclines, earning us some short snack breaks. Then we met up with the main path and continued as normal. I think we avoided a few very steep curves is all.

Mountains

Matt and mountains

Bert taking a break

As always, the amazing views continued as we made our way up the pass. We were constantly overwhelmed by what was ahead, behind, and all around us. It was a tough climb but in a good way. We were never dying and we took breaks as needed. Sure, we didn’t do it all in one go but you try cycling up all that way with all that weight! We were very pleased with our progress.

Just around the above-pictured bend was another amazing and unforgettable experience.

Knocking on the door of the cheese master

As we climbed, I noticed a sign on the house that said to call about cheese for sale. I shouted ahead to Bert and explained the sign. We decided we simply had to turn around and find out more about the promised cheese.

Initially, we were disappointed. After knocking on the door repeatedly, there was no answer. We decided to try the phone but my broken Italian seemed insufficient to explain to the man that we were interested in his cheese. We waited a bit longer, hoping he would come to the door but our spirits dampened as time passed and we decided to get back on the road. Just as we were pushing our bikes out of his driveway, the cheese man appeared at the door! He beckoned for us to come inside – we hurried after him, intrigued by this beared old man and his mountain refuge.

Inside was dark and there was farming machinery for milk and cheese. He led us into the next room and opened the door to a closet.

Cheese

CHEESE! I was simultaneously very excited but also filled with guilt, knowing Jelena would be overwhelmed with joy to witness this alpine cheese oasis. I couldn’t wait to tell her about this tale, even though it was not yet finished. Although Jelena has only attempted to make her own cheese a couple times, I could imagine us having our own cheese closet some day, if Jelena had her way!

The man explained that the cows and goats were 30 years old and that they would never be used for meat. He followed the Hare Krishna philosophy and believed that the cow could be your mother or the goat could be your father (reincarnation?), so you should treat them well. He asked what we do for work. I already knew I was in the wrong line of work for him and he, indeed, did not approve of my chosen profession of computer programmer. As for Bert, he seemed pleased that, as a nurse, Bert was doing something to help people.

We didn’t know how much the cheese costed but asked him how much a decent slice would be. After he wrote seemingly random numbers on a piece of paper, he came up with 3 or 4 euros, which actually ended up making us feel a little bad for being cheap. Still, we explain that we had very little space to carry anything and that we couldn’t buy more. We took our cheese, thanked him, and went out to get back on the road.

Cheese on a bike

Before we could get going, the cheese man came running out of the house, both hands filled with cherry tomatoes. He explained that they were from his garden and offered them to us for free. Another guardian angel wished us on our way.

Beware of cows

I’ve seen many deer warning signs but I’m not so used to being warned of cows! Well, those cows could be reincarnated Italian relatives, so I took extra care. Before long, we arrived at Lago di Montespluga, which basically meant we were almost at the pass. I could hardly believe it because I thought it would be harder to get to this point.

Lago di Montespluga

Riding alongside Lago di Montespluga

This was a plateau before the final climb and I remember checking it out when planning the trip, knowing that once we made it to this point, we were almost home free. As a nice bonus, the whole area was beautiful and mind-blowing. Sadly, my phone crashed at this point and I didn’t get any other pictures. I think I got some video with my cheapo camera but I haven’t processed any of that yet. At least I’ve got mental pictures.

After a leisurely ride along the lake, we continued on to the small village just past it. I suggested to Bert that this might be a good place to get his postcard and decided to buy one myself for Natalia. I also got a fridge magnet with a guy biking up the Spluga Pass, since Jelena sometimes likes to get them on our trips.

It was here that we met another amazing character on our journey – a woman from Canada! She must have overheard us talking in English because she asked us where we were from. Turns out she is from Vancouver and was there with her 90 year old father, to bring back her mother’s ashes to the village she was from. We were taken aback by her sincerity and how quickly she shared her personal story with us. That’s something I miss with the closed nature of Europeans. Canadians are always willing to share their whole life story from the first minute they start a conversation with you.

Montespluga

We told her about our cycling trip and she was genuinely impressed. She asked if we were blogging it or anything and I said yes. She even asked for the URL but we got interrupted and then we changed topics, so I didn’t end up giving it to her. Later, we really regretted that because she seemed like she would have enjoyed reading. We met her father outside and he seemed in good condition for a 90 year old man. Well, they build them sturdy in Switzerland, I guess.

After saying goodbye, mailing our postcards, throwing on some extra clothing layers, and eating some snacks, we got back on the bike for the final ascent to the summit.

Matt cycling to the Spluga summit

Bert cycling up the Splügen Pass

And then we were there! I looked around in disbelief. Could this really be it?

Splügen Pass

Yes, there was no sign or anything, just some closed down toll booths from a time when borders still divided Europeans, and some construction work on the Swiss side of the border. I looked desperately for some kind of congratulatory sign or even something to mark the fact that we were at the summit. Sadly, there was nothing – nothing but amazing views and a huge sense of accomplishment. And that would have to do.

Bert enjoys the Swiss mountains

We did it! We conquered the Splügen Pass. And it wasn’t even that hard. What lied before us was all downhill and the views were even more mindblowing than everything we’d seen on the way up. I also managed to get maybe my favourite photo of the trip.

Matt and Bert at Splügen Pass

Matt and Bert, at Splügen Pass. What a wild ride. To think that we started in Marseille, on the southern French coast, and were now overlooking Switzerland. I really like this photo because it includes me and Bert and an amazing view – and you can see how happy we are! It represents everything about the trip.

We began our descent into Switzerland with a section of many turns and ear popping drops in altitude. I have some video, which I hope to clean up and post some day – but that will take me a while. At one point, I felt like I was in the scene in Spectre, when James Bond is crashing down the alpine mountain towards the town. We arrived in the town of Splügen, after which the pass is named, and bought a few more supplies at the supermarket. I wanted a warm meal but when I got a look at the Swiss prices, we got back on our bikes and fled.

A bridge over the Rhein

Another cool thing about Splügen is that one of the tributaries of the Rhein (Hinterrhein) flows through it, so we actually followed the Rhein from this point forward. Given that the Rhein has dominated so much of my life in Germany, I found it especially exciting. At one point, we found this wooden bridge and stopped to investigate where it went (with an ulterior motive of peeing). There we found an interesting hiking path, which I’d have loved to have explored further, with more time and different shoes.

The funny thing is that I don’t have many more photos left for the day but we continued for many hours after reaching the summit. One thing I noticed immediately after starting the descent is how much colder it was in Switzerland. I guess the warm air from the Mediterranean was trapped on the Italian side, while the Swiss side was surrounded by mountains, leaving it a frozen wasteland – beautiful but very cold. I understood why Manfried from the camp on lake Como was sceptical about my fingerless gloves.

Time went on and we kept going down, down, down. At one point, we even went through an amazing tunnel that was almost like a rollercoaster in how rapidly it descended. That is a tunnel I’d like to ride through again – but with an empty bike. It was really cool. I’d love to do the whole way from Splügen to Konstanz with a proper road bike some day.

We wanted to make as much progress as possible and kept passing any chance of camping but we probably got greedy in the end. At one point, we realised that we had reached a dead area of no camps and not even any hotels. The light was almost gone, the cold was increasing rapidly, and hope was fading.

Getting dark in Switzerland

Another challenge was that I had no connection to the Internet in Switzerland, since the Swiss refuse to join the EU and, therefore, my EU-wide dataplan was not valid there. We kept our eye out for any signs of hotels or camps but I kept laying the groundwork for our eventual stay in a hotel, informing Bert that I was simply too cold to survive a night in a camp. Despite all our progress we were still at a pretty decent elevation.

Finally we came to some small town, where I asked a random passerby about any nearby hotels. He let us know there was one in the next town maybe but that there were certainly hotels in Chur. Well, when we arrived in that next town, we found the one hotel, which was unfortunately booked out. In fact, the reception wasn’t even open, but after bumming a phone off some Italian-speaking Eastern European guest workers, I managed to find out that they had occupied all the rooms. We got back on the road and continued on to Chur.

By this time, it was actually pretty dark and the bike path we were on was illuminated only by our bike lights. Luckily, the path was nowhere near any roads, so we were safe. We finally made it to Chur and located some hotels the good old fashioned way – with our eyes. The price wasn’t right (around 115€) but beggars cannot be choosers, so we accepted the blood price and settled in to our second hotel stay of the journey. At least they offered us a secure and locked room to store our bikes.

As always, the next objective was to find food. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much nearby and we were terrified of Swiss prices. We opted for the pizza at the hotel, which ended up being a junk German frozen pizza.

Bad frozen pizza in Switzerland

The guy at reception claimed that many guests liked this pizza and that it was well-received. For that innaccurate information, he earned a bad review for his hotel. The pizza was edible but I’ve eaten this same low quality pizza many times before – it’s from the freezer. A far cry from what we were used to in Italy.

Anyhow, we had achieved a great distance and now had a comfortable place to recover. I think the hotel was needed to avoid getting sick from the cold and to recharge our batteries for the last leg of the trip.

Campodolcino to Chur

It was a long day but a great one. We went to sleep very satisfied with our achievements, ready to make our way to Germany the next day.

Did you miss a previous day’s tales or are you looking for an easy overview? Then check out the European Biking Tour 2019 page to get a list of all the days and reports from me and Bert!

3 thoughts on “Day 10: To Splügen Pass and beyond

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