Turn on the power and cycle through the Emmental
Were it not for all the hills and mountains, Switzerland would be a cycling paradise.
But as swissinfo discovered, there is hope for pedal pushers wanting to tour the countryside without collapsing from exhaustion – or even breaking into a sweat.
A bike trail with a difference has opened in the Emmental, running through the lush green hills and bucolic villages which make the region one of the most picturesque in Switzerland.
But feeling neither very fit, nor masochistic, I baulked at the idea of jumping in the saddle to see for myself whether the “Heart Route” was everything it was cracked up to be.
I was told the route meandered along back roads, sticking for the most part to the country lanes hugging the heights.
But to enjoy the panoramic vistas of the Bernese Alps to the east and the Jura hills to the west, I would have to climb.
“The normal Emmental bike routes follow the valleys, so you don’t see the real Emmental,” said Alfred Bauer of the regional marketing organisation, Pro Emmental.
What eventually changed my mind was the discovery of some small print on the back of the Heart Route pamphlet, promoting electric bikes for hire.
“All you have to do is press the ‘on’ button, and away you go,” said Kurt Schär of Biketec, manufacturer of the e-bike called the “Flyer”.
Schär convinced me that the Flyer would do the work, leaving me to concentrate on the sightseeing.
Powered by a small lithium-ion battery weighing only 1.5 kg and with a maximum range of 50km, the bike would get me up the steepest of Emmental hills, promised Schär.
“You’ll smile while you ride, but you won’t sweat,” he added.
Just in case, I was provided with a back-up battery and a Heart Route map detailing each turn-off and listing railway stations where the e-bikes can be hired or returned.
It also suggests restaurants and inns along the 55km route, where hungry and thirsty riders can take on fuel, and where the batteries can be charged or replaced.
“The Heart Route is a excellent model showing how partnerships between non-profit and commercial operations can work,” enthused Bauer.
“It involves communities, the regional railways, local businesses and rental companies.”
Saying goodbye at the railway station in Lützelflüh, I turned on the bike, but did not exactly leave Schär and Bauer in my dust.
The battery provides pedal assistance, not turbo power, yet despite its lack of speed, the bike lived up to all the hype – as did the route.
The country lanes see more tractors and cattle than cars, and I passed through a sleepy village or hamlet every couple of kilometres, tempted time and again by quaint bakeries and cafes where I stocked up on fresh pastries and coffee.
One of the highlights is the village of Affoltern which boasts Switzerland’s best-known show dairy, producing the country’s best-known cheese, “Emmental”, or simply “Swiss cheese” to North Americans.
And there is a dash of history thrown in too. According to the pamphlet, the next hamlet, Rüderswil, was the birthplace and home of Niklaus Leuenberger, the 17th-century leader of the “farmer’s rebellion”.
After about 30km, I stopped to recharge the batteries – even though I was not in the least bit tired – at the Bären restaurant and inn in the village of Madiswil.
The Bären’s well-manicured yet rather eccentric “Bike Garden” contains whimsical sculptures made of twisted iron and old bicycles.
Proprietor Eliane Ingold, who looks after the garden while her husband cooks, told me to help myself to as much water as I wanted from the old stone fountain.
Battery charged, I ordered a small “gourmet rucksack” – a picnic basket for bikers before heading off again.
It was filled with salad, sausage, cheese, pâté and bread, a bottle of wine and water, and the all the gadgets needed to slice, spread, and pop corks.
“It’s designed for people like you on e-bikes,” Ingold told me. “You can take your time and enjoy yourself since you don’t have to work hard pedalling.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in the Emmental
The Heart Route is 55km long, starting in Lützelflüh in canton Bern and ending in Willisau in canton Lucerne.
E-bikes can be hired for SFr35 ($28) a day at the railway stations in Lützelflüh, Burgdorf and Willisau, where maps of the route are also available free of charge.
E-bikes can also be hired in Locarno and Ascona in canton Ticino.
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