It has been a couple of months since we completed our walk across Switzerland and, now that we have had time to recover and reflect, we will try to summarize our experience and answer some of the questions that have been asked (e.g. what was your favorite part, what was your least favorite, what would you have done differently, etc.).
Let’s start with the least favorite (recognizing that the entire walk was amazing, so “least favorite” is relative). Clearly, that was the last 3 days, mainly between Lausanne and Geneva. Why? The landscape, while beautiful, was somewhat monotonous (“boring”, according to our fellow pilgrim Martin). Also, the farm roads were all paved (great for biking, but very hard on the feet) and there was a lot of town, suburban and city walking…and traffic! (We had become used to and spoiled by solitary fields, farm roads and forest trails.)
Not to mention the multiple trips from the lake shore, up to the hills above and then back down again.
In hindsight, a lake boat from Lausanne to Geneva would have been a better choice (in fact we have read that the boat option was traditional for a pilgrim with means in the Middle Ages). Perhaps we felt this way because our walk was nearly over and we were ready to finish; perhaps we were not as comfortable in a French speaking area; or perhaps it really was not as interesting as the earlier sections. But no, really, it was the sidewalks and the traffic. If there had been time to stop, sample the regional wines and linger in a couple of the lovely small towns like Rolle and Versoix, well, we might have formed a different impression…but alas: the downside of having a set schedule.
Once in Geneva, however, things looked up. The walk through the old town and on to the border of France was definitely worth taking. A worthy culmination to our trek, it had some of the historic feel of earlier sections, and gave us a sense of completion.
On reflection, we both enjoyed the German-speaking areas the most, probably because we are more familiar with them (having lived in Zürich in our youth) and are more comfortable with the German language than with French. And let’s face it, the landscape and scenery are more dramatic.
That is not to say there were not interesting places beyond the Röstigraben in the French part of Switzerland. Unfortunately, we had to rush through Romont, a well-preserved medieval walled town, to avoid a thunderstorm, but it clearly deserved a closer look.
Moudon too was an inviting old town that would be great to visit again.
And, as stated before, the wineries along the hillsides of Lac Leman were enticing, but sadly we passed them by for lack of time.
So, what were the most memorable, most challenging, most enjoyable parts of the walk?
Some of our most memorable and enjoyable experiences involved interactions with the locals (mostly in the German speaking region, probably for the reasons stated above). Our first was our dinner with a couple in St. Peterzell. Expecting to be seated at a table by ourselves, we were surprised when the restaurant owner, Heidi, seated us with an unsuspecting couple from Biel (who were originally from the St. Peterzell area and just back for vacation).
We had a wonderful time, conversing in German (absolutely no English) and covering a wide range of topics.
Another was in Schwyz where we stopped near the end of our walking day for a (much deserved) beer. It was a small restaurant that almost looked closed but, after entering from around the back, we found a group of men and the proprietress playing Joss. After seating us and bringing our beers the proprietress began to ask questions as to what we were doing and where we were going. Despite her speaking solely Schwiezerdeutsch (from which she never retreated!), and us speaking only Hochdeutsch, we were able to communicate. Once she understood we were from America and walking across Switzerland, she became interested and wanted to hear more. As we got up to leave, she gave us blood oranges to help us on our way. Interactions with the local Swiss made the trip very special.
As for challenging, the one day that stands out is the walk between Einsiedeln and Brunnen over the Haggenegg. After a (deceptively!) pleasant walk along the Alp river we came to the very steep and rocky ascent to the top of the pass (~1500 ft. elevation gain).
It was grueling, but we felt good about having topped the pass in good order.
Then the real challenge began: the long, steep, painful descent (~3000 ft.) through Schwyz and the rain into Brunnen that hurt Mark’s knees (and from which they never fully recovered). There is a beautiful inn and restaurant at the top of the pass, and it would have been a relief to stop in; but if we had, we never would have made it to Brunnen for the night.
We enjoyed many other memorable experiences along the way: meeting our German pilgrim friends multiple times;
the smell of cows and freshly sprayed fields (strangely, the smell was not at all unpleasant and became an essential element of our daily experience – in fact, we found the cow smell much more pleasant than the horse smells we encountered in the last half of the walk);
the beautiful wildflowers (in hindsight, we wish we had spent a little time taking some close-ups of all the different flowers);
and the incredible views of the mountains, especially the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau that followed us for days.
On the topic of cows, Switzerland no longer is a land of mostly the Braunvieh (Swiss Brown). While the Swiss Browns still predominate in many areas, especially in the northeast, there seems to be more variety now throughout the country.
We found that walking provides an interesting and different perspective on geography. Seeing a distinctive mountain feature in the distance is a common enough experience, but then to watch it approach, grow, slide by and eventually recede behind you, all at the rate of two miles an hour, is something else again!
A great example is the mountain formation between Einsiedeln and Schwyz called the Mythen (home of the infamous Haggenegg). We had our first sighting of the twin peaks through the clouds as we approached Einsiedeln, and caught our last glimpse of them as we left the Vierwaldstättersee at Bouchs days later.
One thing that we found curious was that we were asked a couple of times if we were from the Netherlands (while never being asked directly if we were American). Why was that? Perhaps because our German was not so great, or perhaps, as a German colleague suggested, no one expected to see a couple of old American guys walking across Switzerland.
The informal, self-service Pilger (pilgrim) rest stops were intriguing. They ranged from a simple box where you could get a drink and an inspirational token to large shelters where you could rest and get out of the sun or rain. All were self-serve and on the honor system, but who should be more honorable than a pilgrim?
We came across four different self-serve kiosks that were also interesting and seemed appropriate to the region we were in at the time: milk, fondue and Raclette, cheese, and potatoes.
And new knowledge was gained: who knew that in some regions they serve potatoes with cheese fondue? Surprising, but it is kind of like having fondue and raclette in the same meal. Maybe worth trying at home, especially if you have gluten sensitive friends.
One of the greatest things, and something we did not fully appreciate until we had one of our Ruhetage (rest days), was how far off the normal tourist itinerary we were. It took going to Mürren and Gruyeres to really experience the difference. Prior to that, we were in places that had no, or very few, Ausländern (foreigners) or at least few non-European Ausländern. Until going to Mürren we did not hear anyone speaking English, Chinese or Japanese. Only then did we really realize that we were about the only Gringos on the Jakobsweg.
And on the subject of tourists, we encountered one of the worst tourist traps above Mürren on top of the Schilthorn – Bond World! Tacky to the extreme! Who would have thought that the Swiss would allow a location so dramatic to become such a B-hole. Maybe it is just to contain the tourists …
And then there was the Geiger Museum in Gruyeres – not tacky, but very weird.
So after experiencing Bond World and the Geiger Museum, we were ready to get back on the trail!
Swiss dogs – absolutely great and well behaved. From the farm dogs to the urban dogs, they were a treat (it was rejuvenating to see and meet a dog every now and then).
Ok, now it’s time to reveal the dark underbelly of Switzerland – Ruhetag! “Ruhetag” is a restaurant’s weekly day of rest, and of course everyone deserves one. Unfortunately, the chosen days are not always the same from town to town, and we seemed to be following the Ruhetag highway – on Monday the town we were in had a Ruhetag, on Tuesday the next town along the way had its Ruhetag, and then on Wednesday our next town had a Ruhetag! It seemed liked we hit more Ruhetags than statistically possible!
Cuckoo birds – yes, they exist and sound exactly like a cuckoo clock. We first heard one climbing over the Haggenegg. Made us wonder where the clock was until realizing that it was actually a bird (could we have been hallucinating from the climb?). This is no exaggeration: Mark keep looking for the chalet with the out of control clock that had to have been just out of sight.
We saw an article about how trash discarded along the hiking and bicycle paths was impacting and actually killing farm animals (see Swiss Litter). The article admitted that the problem was indeed being caused by the “sportlich” Swiss and so a big advertising campaign was initiated to inform the public about the problem. We were watching for evidence of this issue and did not see any significant trash, but did find a couple of signs in German and French. Obviously the ad campaign was successful.
And sort of along these lines, a walk through Switzerland reveals a certain awareness on the part of its citizens for many of the other residents of the country. For example, we encountered a number of “insect hotels”,
as well as frequent signs warning us to watch out for our smaller friends.
What would we have done differently?
Take more time and allow for more flexibility. For this walk, we only had a set amount of time, so we had to keep to a schedule, but having more flexibility to stop whenever and wherever, or to take an extra rest or short walking day, would have been nice. In planning our walk we were a bit concerned with the possibility of stumbling into a small town late in the day, in the rain, and having to then search for lodging. As it turned out, having no schedule would have been just fine at that time of year: we were clearly ahead of the tourist season (May/early June) and accommodation was no problem – more often than not we were the only guests in the Gasthausen. Next time …
But still, we did get a few things right.
First, we did a good job of keeping our packs light, waterproof and more than adequate. Pack weight was never an issue with either of us: about 12 pounds excluding water (which is admittedly heavy, so say 15 lbs max).
And very importantly, we used the internet extensively in the months ahead of the trip to study the route, learn some of the relevant history and alert ourselves to noteworthy sites. In fact, two apps proved to be indispensable. The SBB (Swiss national railway) app (one of the greatest things ever!) lets you check train and bus schedules and buy tickets, right up to the time you board the train/bus. It was incredibly easy to use and very convenient – much easier than using the ticket machines. Then the Switzerland Mobility app (essentially a GPS map of the Jakobsweg) was great at keeping us on the trail (or leading us back when we missed a signpost and wandered off!). If any of you are thinking of walking in Switzerland, we strongly recommend that you take full advantage of these two apps.
Finally, in the two very “touristy” towns we visited, we had the advantage of staying overnight. The advantage? Being there in the morning before the buses arrived! Here we are in Gruyere before the deluge.
OK, time to get to the hard discussion – lessons learned, focused on us old folks. And they are not pretty.
Lesson #1: Train before you go! And train on hills. Just walking on flat land does not do it. Switzerland is nothing but uphills and downhills (Mark would sometimes complain of “pointless ups and downs”). If you do not have hills to train on (and even if you do), train at at least a 20% faster pace than you plan to walk. If you cannot train at that pace, you will never be able to go for 20+ days at a slower pace, unless you reduce your daily ambitions.
Lesson #2: Do multiple training walks of 10-15 miles on hills at your training pace. This will help reveal issues with shoes, feet, knees, etc. There is a very real difference between walking 6-12 miles and 12-18+! And hills will reveal shoe, knee, foot issues in a way that flat land walking never will. If you find issues, fix them, because once on the trail, it is too late.
Lesson #3: Don’t count on your training pace. Reid trained at around 3 miles/hour on hills, Mark at around 3 mostly on the flats. Taking into consideration rest stops and photo opportunities, what it all boiled down to, uphill and down, day after day, was 2 miles and hour. So plan on that and if you can keep up a faster pace , you can take a nice lunch break (if you can find a restaurant that is not closed for their Ruhetag),
Lesson #4: If you think you may have health issues, don’t wait to the last minute to deal with them. Even if you think everything is fine, get a physical 3 or so months in advance to identify potential issues early. Don’t wait to treat in-grown toenails or other problems until the last minute. Recovery becomes harder once you start walking 6-9 hours a day!
Lesson #5: Not withstanding lesson #2, address problems as you can. Mark had never in his life had knee problems, so he made the foolishly wrongheaded decision (against his wife’s insistance) to not use trekking poles from the outset. Halfway through (and after the brutal Haggenegg decent) he finally saw the light and acquired poles in Murren. Better late than never! Too bad he wasn’t smart enough to also face up to the fact that his boots were wrecking his feet, and purchase new shoes too! Oh well.
Lesson #6: Don’t carry extra weight, i.e., lose weight before going. You will lose weight on the walk, but no need to bring an extra 10-15 pounds on your belly – that is the weight of your pack.
Lesson #7: Plan as much extra time as you can. In our case, due to Reid’s work, we had very little choice. If schedule is not an issue, you will have some flexibility to make changes, take extra rest days, or stop in different towns.
Lesson #8: Don’t kid yourself – the walk is hard (but beautiful and completely worth it)!
But lets end on a positive note: if you are wondering about a similar trek for yourself, but think maybe you are too old…you are not! We were told by fellow pilgrims of a gentleman from central Austria whom they had met on his way to Compostela. He appeared to have some years on him, so when asked he admitted he was 80. Oh, our friends thought, he’s not going to make it. On further inquiry, however, it turned out that he was on his third pilgrimage, the previous two being round trips! So, put those doubt aside: you can do it too!
Would we do it again? Absolutely (if Mark’s knees can handle it)! Being able to forget about normal life for weeks on end and just letting the mind wander while walking for hours was incredible. The scenery was great, the food wonderful, and the whole experience was both exhausting and invigorating. But if we ever get the chance, rather than repeating the Jakobsweg or continuing on to Compostela, we would choose to walk the Via Gottardo (Swiss national route #7) south from Basel over the St. Goddard Pass to Chiasso on the Italian border, a route first opened in the early 13th century. Maybe for Reid’s 65th birthday – But would two brothers attempt such a thing again together?
Bottom line, it was not easy, but it was absolutely beautiful! Spending long days walking through amazing scenery with your best friend was almost indescribable.
Finally and most importantly, thanks to our lovely wives for allowing us to disappear for a month so that we could have those experiences and share these memories! We love you!