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Alpine Escape: Swiss rolls in Graubünden

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12 Sep 2018
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Words Mark Bailey Photography Joe McGorty

Cyclists don’t have to learn a lot about Graubünden before wanting to dig out their passport and bike box.

Stretching across the chocolate box landscape of southeast Switzerland, the region is blessed with 937 mountains, 615 lakes and 150 valleys, providing a winning mix of Instagram-friendly scenery and Strava-boosting climbs.

It is the largest canton in Switzerland but also the most sparsely populated, with just 28 inhabitants per square kilometre, giving you a luxurious sense of freedom as you pedal from wooden chalets and alpine meadows to rocky gorges and corkscrewing mountain roads.

This corner of Switzerland connects with the wider Arge Alp bike network through the eponymous Graubünden route, a sumptuous 130km course which weaves through the ruggedly beautiful Viamala gorge and over the colossal 2,066m San Bernardino pass.

Unlike many cycling routes in the Arge Alp region, which typically follow dedicated bike paths, this route takes place mostly on roads. But with hardly any summer traffic, and stunning vistas at every turn, the smooth ribbons of tarmac are welcome and rewarding, making it easier to relish the twisting hairpin climbs and spiralling descents.

My guide today is Kurt Ladner of Moose Tours, a passionate fan of American culture who drives a gleaming white pick-up truck, rides a loud pink bike, and enjoys Breaking Bad.

He has travelled extensively across the States, but says his home landscape remains his favourite place to ride. He’s also a trained bike mechanic, while wife Nicole is a co-owner of a local bike shop, so there is no danger of mechanical dramas while we are in his company.

The host town for our Grand Depart today is Chur, which archaeological evidence suggests is one of the oldest settlements in Switzerland. Its car-free centre is a tangle of ancient squares and historic cobbled streets.

We ride past the white tower of the late Gothic St Martin’s Church and the Romanesque portal of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, before gliding through Arcas square, where colourful houses sit alongside the remains of the town’s medieval walls.

Heading west out of Chur takes us past a pump track and football pitches before we arrive at the stark grey bridge of Reichenau, where the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein tributary rivers collide in swirls of seething chaos to form the River Rhine.

This rich mountain landscape is as popular with rafters and kayakers as it is with cyclists. As we peer over the bridge at the torrent of water, a red train slices through the valley, transporting merry tourists all the way to St. Moritz. The 2,998m pyramid of Piz Beverin dominates the skyline.

We swing south, following the turquoise slither of the Hinterrhein through the Domleschg Valley, which is lined with hill-top castles built centuries ago to guard this strategic trade route through the Splügen, San Bernardino and Julier passes. Clusters of trees line the rocky horizon like battalions of camouflaged soldiers.

After passing the town of Thusis the rocky pinnacles and pine trees which line the road begin to loom closer as we plunge into the Viamala gorge. We dive through several tunnels (lights are a must on this section) and pass between narrow walls of rock up to 300m high.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described the Viamala gorge as having a ‘terrible magnificence’. Viamala, or Via Mala, translates as ‘bad road’, and the name stems from its origins as a notoriously rugged and difficult trade artery in the Roman era.

Today you can still see the ruins of old bridges, once used by mule traders, as you ride along the smooth tarmac. We pass stone bridges and listen to the sound of thrashing water reverberating up from the ferocious river below.

After darting past the neat orchards, cream houses and thermal spas of Andeer and skirting around some peppermint-coloured lakes, we arrive in Splügen – an idyllic mountain village of pretty wooden houses crowned with roofs of heavy gneiss slab.

Piles of firewood sit outside the cosy homes and Swiss flags flutter in the breeze. From this viewpoint the scenery is irresistible so I unclip from my pedals and soak up the panorama of pristine meadows and saw-toothed mountains.

Anaesthetised by these wildly beautiful landscapes, we have unknowingly been climbing for quite some time, from an altitude of 672m in Thusis to 1,456m in Splügen.

But the real quad-burning ascent to the 2,066m San Bernardino pass begins when we swing south and face a succession of switchbacks spiralling up to the heavens.

The pass was given its current name in the 15th century in honour of Saint Bernardino of Siena, who preached in the area.

Humans have crossed this pass for centuries, from prehistoric hunters to rampaging armies, but a paved road was finally constructed here in the 19th century. Now it’s largely the preserve of adventurous cyclists and touring motorbikers.

As we curl up the hairpin bends, the valley opens up beneath us and we enjoy a wonderful vista of forested peaks dropping dramatically towards the sparkling Hinterrhein.

We cut through meadows and past glacier-polished rocks into a high-altitude lunar landscape of dark crags and rivers of scree. At the summit lies the eerie black surface of the Moesola Lake.

We stop for lunch at the mountain-top restaurant, where we devour vegetable-rich barley soup and slabs of homemade lasagne, washed down with mugs of hot chocolate.

Even more satisfying than this hearty mid-ride feast is the knowledge that we now have over 2,000m of descent ahead of us. In fact, we will drop 1,500m in the next 25km alone. We shoot around hairpin bends, past avalanche barriers and cattle huts, then swoop into a dense forest where pine trees tickle the sides of the road.

I suspect you could glide from the very top of the San Bernardino pass into the lush Valle Mesolcina without touching the pedals, but we pump our legs hard and crank up the speed.

The jagged drama of the pass has now been replaced with the soft, sunny warmth of the valley. We spin past tranquil lakes and picturesque valley towns, before pausing for a rest at the Grotti di Cama – a cluster of old stone storage cellars hidden in a densely-wooded chestnut forest, which were used centuries ago to preserve wine, cheese and fruit.

From here it’s an easy ride to the medieval fortress town of Bellinzona, the gateway town to northern Italy, where you can stay the night and plot the next stage of your pan-Alpine odyssey.

For now, we’re content to sit in a shaded terrace in Cama and reflect on a memorable day of gorges, glacial valleys and gargantuan peaks.

The route: High times

The San Bernadino pass awaits on this 130km ride

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/alpine2. Beginning in Chur, the 130km Graubünden route heads west to Reichenau, before diverting south through Thusis, the Viamala gorge, Andeer and Splügen. The course passes up and over the San Bernardino pass then continues south through Mesocco and Cama to Bellinzona. The route is presented in rich detail on the Switzerland Mobility website (schweizmobil.ch). 

How to get there

Travel

Zurich is the nearest airport to the Graubünden region and EasyJet, Swiss and British Airways all offer direct UK flights. You can hire a car at the airport for the 120km drive to Chur or take a 90-minute train.

Where to stay

We stayed in Chur at the Hotel Post (hotelpostchur.ch) close to the old town centre. The Ambiente Hotel Freieck (freieck.ch), Romantik Hotel Stern (stern-chur.ch) and Zunfthaus zur Rebleuten (rebleutenchur.ch) are also recommended for a mix of old town charm and character. 

More information

Information on cycling in Graubünden can be found on the tourism website (graubuenden.ch). There is also a site dedicated specifically to Chur and its surrounding areas (churtourismus.ch). Guiding and transfers are available through Kurt at Moose Tours (moosetours.ch).