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Swiss Rides: Valais, Goms region

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2 Feb 2018
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Apparently hotelier Ceasar Ritz was born just down the road from here in a town called Niederwald back in 1850. Its population at the time was 100, and that’s 40 more people than it boasts now.

The villages here in Goms are as sparsely strewn as they are diminutive, yet just as they’ve produced the world’s most famous hotelier, so too have they bred world-famous cows, tamed world-famous mountains and – in the case of the Hotel Nufenen’s proprietors in Ulrichen – fostered what must surely be world-class hosts.

Since our arrival late last night we’ve been treated like family by owners Martin – himself a passionate cyclist – and wife Vrony, who really understand the preparation needed for the kind of ride we have planned today. And that’s food, food, sweet mint tea in bidons, then more food.

The mint tea is already welcome in my chilly hands. The weather is expected to be fine today but it’s 9am and while we’re in a valley, it’s some 1,300m above sea level, so the temperature is brisk, as signalled by several nearby chimneystacks cheerily puffing little plumes into the air.

This morning will be something of a baptism of fire according to my ride guide, Anthony Walker, who operates the rather brilliantly named Kudos Cycling.

We’ll be tackling the west side of the Nufenenpass straight off the bat, a 13.5km long road that averages 8.3% across 16 hairpin bends. Apparently Martin from Hotel Nufenen has already been up there this morning. Kudos indeed.

 

Brutalist beauty

Within a few pedals strokes we’ve left Ulrichen’s jumbled wooden buildings behind us, the whitewashed spire of the Church of St Nikolaus around which the village centres now a receding speck in the distance.

Ahead, green hillsides lie uniformly covered with conifers as if the trees have been individually plucked through this grassy gauze.

The road surface on the lower slopes of the Nufenenpass is a mottle of speckled greys, the sun not yet having cleared the trees to relieve the floor of its damp.

Leaves are heavy in the light breezy air, and as we cross a small bridge even the waterfall next to it sounds sleepy. Then, before we know it the road swings in a tight arc to the right, then a wider arc to the left and a vast valley unfolds into view.

The road is so straight it’s difficult to gauge distances accurately, but after toiling away for several more minutes we come to another bridge, and looking up it suddenly hits home just how far we still are from the top. The Nufenen is an imposing beast.

The initial sets of switchbacks prove relatively easy, with each negotiated apex offering a reversed perspective of the road above and the valley beneath.

For a long time it feels as though we are the only two souls around, but as the gradient sharpens to the other side of 10%, we discover we’re not alone.

A fully laden touring bike is propped up against the Armco barrier, its owner watching our progress with interest. We stop for a chat, and it turns out the fellow is from South Korea and has been bike-packing all the way from Vienna.

Both Anthony and I remark that we’re glad we don’t have his burdens to carry, but he seems happy enough, despite proceeding to push his bike up this steeper section as we make our slow departure.

The remaining hairpins are arduous but spectacular. It’s said there are prettier climbs in the area, but now that we’re well above the treeline I feel sure there are few climbs more inspiringly rugged.

The landscape is spartan, the grasses sun-scorched, the granite grimly iridescent, but somehow the vista is inviting all the same, like some undiscovered world.

The cows and the Moose

The descent of the Nufenen flashes by like lightning, and in what seems like just minutes compared to what felt like hours of climbing we’ve swung back onto the main road.

With Ulrichen at our backs there’s now a slightly petering 50km adjacent to the Rhône separating us from our next ascent, the Moosalp.

At 2,048m the Moosalp isn’t quite as challenging as the Nufenen, but with 24.4km of climbing that will take us up 1,428 vertical metres, the gradient is similar and while the spikes are slightly shorter, they’re more aggressive.

Its base in the town of Visp and subsequent passage through Stalden feel like thriving centres of human habitation compared to the narrow slopes that surround us by the time we’re halfway up the climb, but we’re kept company by the occasional interested Hérens cow, insouciantly donging its neck bell as it raises its head to watch us pass.

Farmers’ dwellings dot the mountainside but these sun-blessed structures are mostly shuttered down, their inhabitants tending to livestock in pastures higher up.

By the time we crest the Moosalp’s summit the light is beginning to turn, the grey peaks of the surrounding Pennine Alps fading from slate grey to milky purple.

We’ve no choice but to descend as quickly as we dare, through the chilly pines of the Moosalp’s northerly side and on to Unterbäch, where we’re happy to put our feet up after a testing but highly rewarding day in the saddle.

For more information on exploring the many attractions of Valais by bike, see visitvalais.ch/cycling.

 

Twin peaks

Take on the slopes of the Nufenenpass and Moosalp

• To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/swissrides3

This route is a point-to-point effort beginning in Ulrichen and ending in Unterbäch to the southwest. From the Hotel Nufenen, head south over the Rhône River and follow the signs for the Nufenenpass.

Make the climb – which is the only road – then turn around at the summit and descend back from whence you came. Follow the Rhône and Route 19 southwest all the way to Visp, where the Moosalp begins.

Look for signs to Zermatt and Grächen and follow that road south as far as Stalden. Take the main road through town then turn right where the road you’re on, Kantonstrasse, intersects with Törbelstrasse.

Follow the natural path up, keeping an eye for signs to Plattjistein Guesthouse, which is at the Moosalp’s summit. From there it’s a straightforward case of descending to Unterbäch via Burchen.

For more on cycling in Central Valais, go to visitvalais.ch/cycling.

 

 

How we did it

Travel

We drove from Zürich airport to Ulrichen, but it is fairly straightforward to travel via train, a journey that takes around four hours. The Swiss SBB railway network is bike friendly and trains to Ulrichen are regular, although expect to make anything between one and five changes.

Prices start from around £90 one way, but if you are planning a longer stay in Switzerland with multiple train journeys, a Half-Fare Travelcard can be purchased for £140, which not only provides half-price rail fares, but also discounts on museum passes, rail travel in neighbouring countries and car rentals. See sbb.ch for more details.

Accommodation

We stayed in the charming Hotel Nufenen (hotel-nufenen.ch) and were well looked after by husband and wife team Martin and Vrony. In between cheffing in the hotel kitchen, Martin can often be found halfway up the Nufenenpass on his bike, while Vrony is like a mum away from home, offering bidons

of hot mint tea for early morning rides and second and even third helpings at dinner for hungry cyclists. There is even a decent bike storage-cum-workshop to boot should you need it.

Destination

The Goms region in Upper Valais is almost as famous for its whitewashed, slender-spired wooden churches as it is for its mountains and its proximity to the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, a Unesco-protected area containing the north face of the Eiger and the largest glacier in the Alps, the Aletsch Glacier.

The Glacier Express panoramic train line serves Goms, linking it with Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos, while just 5km down the road is the start of the Furka Line steam train, which puffs a wonderfully scenic route over 18km of mountain track from Oberwald to Gletsch to Realp. 

The trip takes two hours in total, so if time is at a premium you might just be better off by bike!

 

Beyond the bike 

While the cycling in Switzerland is jaw-droppingly stunning, there is a whole lot more to the country than pristine asphalt and lung-popping climbs. 

The Rhône is breathtaking from afar, but up close aboard a raft it is an exhilarating ride. Various pockets of white-water exist along the river, but one of the most thrilling yet accessible is between Susten and Sierre, where the guides at Valrafting will expertly show groups of 1-30 how to traverse the rushing waters (valrafting.com).

With Switzerland blessed by so many towering peaks, there are some incredible climbing opportunities to be had.

Experienced hands can get a map and just get going (the north face of the Eiger anyone?), but for beginners and intermediates the 460m long, 125m high Tiere Via Ferrate trail is a must-do route (see champery.ch).

Switzerland isn’t shy when it comes to lakes and rolling hills either, so for a more relaxing day out try a steamboat cruise on Lake Thun, Lake Brienz or Lake Geneva, or a guided walk with herb specialist and chemist Markus Metzger, who’ll help you sort your Edelweiss from your wild thyme, and then turn it into tea.

And while climbing mountains by bike is one way to hit the heights, you’ll never quite get as lofty, or enjoy such fine views, as you will by jumping off them in a paraglider and riding the thermals like a bird.

There are countless operators in Switzerland, but one of the most experienced is the Flugschule Emmetten, which offers everything from taster tandem flights to single-flight training courses over the spectacular scapes of the Lucerne canton (see flugschule-emmetten.ch).

• Discover more about cycling in Switzerland at myswitzerland.com/roadcycling