Switzerland: Cycling the Swiss alps without breaking a sweat

It's difficult to believe when you look at it now, but the picturesque town of Willisau nurses a grizzly past. The central Swiss village of 7000 residents has been ransacked by marauders and ravaged by fire several times over. Women accused of witchcraft were once burned alive here and a chapel immediately outside the city's medieval-era wall is dedicated to the memory of three ill-fated mercenaries mysteriously struck down one-by-one after allegedly drawing the blood of Christ following a card game.

I've barely left town on my way to Lucerne when my resident guide for the day, Stefan Tolluso, points towards the site where criminals and sorcerers hung from the gallows, close to the banks of the Seewag River. Thankfully, though, it's mostly butterflies and dandelions from this point forward.

We've set aside a day to cycle from Willisau to Lucerne, following one of 54 designated regional bike routes mapped out across this mountainous country. Because of those mountains, riding a bike here can be a masochistic exercise unless you happen to be a cyclist in the calibre of Cadel Evans. But there's an effortless solution at hand, and let me tell you it may well be the future of cycle touring.

E-bike is its name, and mine is a Flyer C8.1 fitted with eight gears and a 36-volt motor. The battery-powered motor is capable of cycling up to 180 kilometres between charges and it comes with four support modes, including one that makes riding up hills a doddle. In Switzerland, a bike could boast no better feature.

The 100-kilometre Route 38 connects Pfaffnertal with the resort town of Brunnen on the banks of Lake Lucerne. Called the Lucerne Hinterland-Rigi, it's broken up into three stages and we're doing the 37-kilometre middle section, with an additional eight-kilometre side-trip to our lunch spot.

After trailing Stefan down Willisau's cobbled Old City streets, we exit through its eastern tower gate and begin climbing towards the tidy rural villages of Stettenbach, Tambach and Seehof. The odorous stench of fertiliser and manure fills our nostrils and the rhythmic chimes of cowbells ring out in a region listed as Switzerland's largest farming municipality.

For the next hour, we pass cornfields and orchards containing cherries, apples and plums just ripe for picking, clicking through the bike's power modes and gears to make our journey easier. Hunger eventually starts to gnaw away and for the only time all day, we detour off-track to climb a ridge with views across the neighbouring valley.

Nestled in the creases of this ridge above the town of Wolhusen is an innovative greenhouse farming tropical fruit and freshwater fish. As an aside, it helps pump waste heat to a nearby hospital and paying visitors are educated about the merits of sustainable farming. Under the same glass and steel roof is a restaurant, where Stefan and I feast on spicy river perch and creamy mushroom linguine.

Rather than retrace our steps, Stefan instructs me to gear down and switch into high power mode so we can ride straight over a crest to Ruswil. Ruswil is strung out along an artery road from Lucerne and the cycle through town is the only time all day we encounter anything remotely resembling traffic.

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Baroque church steeples rise above the village and we watch teenage children in potato sack shorts trial for the school wrestling team. Called schwingen, this endemic wrestling code requires combatants to pin down their opponent's shoulders. This they do by hoisting them off their feet and "swinging" them to the ground – hence the name. Tournaments typically contested by burly farmers and tradesmen are staged all around the country, with bulls awarded as prizes. One is held here in Ruswil each May.

From Ruswil, we climb the steepest pitch on our route, effortlessly passing two girls on horseback on the first incline out of town. Our road twists and turns until we make it to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Holz. At 733 metres, this is the highest point on the route, where ordinarily we should be gasping for breath. We've barely broken a sweat, however.

Upon reaching a lonely chapel perched on Brunau Ridge, we begin our descent into Lucerne via the suburb of Emmenbrucke. At the junction of the Reuss and Emmen Rivers, we merge onto a bike path tracing the Reuss' southern bank eastwards towards Lake Lucerne.

Along the way we pass young adults partying in parklands and bathers soaking up the summer sun. Tourists rub shoulders with locals in Old Town squares and swimmers drift down the river on air mattresses.

Lucerne Railway Station is the end point of our day's ride and we return our bikes to a depot tucked in behind it. Stefan then walks me through the charred remains of the Chapel Bridge opposite, while retelling the story of how Europe's oldest covered bridge was set alight and partially destroyed by a discarded cigarette butt in 1993.

Many of the centuries-old paintings inside were lost in the inferno. Many of those that remain depict ghoulish scenes of demons and religious wars and bubonic plagues from the city's past. Considering the gruesome tales I'd heard back in Willisau, it's a fitting end to our day.

Mark Daffey travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

myswitzerland.com

FLY

Swiss flies to Zurich via Singapore or Hong Kong, code sharing with Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Prices start from $1760. See swiss.com

TOUR

E-bike hire costs about $75 for one day, plus an additional $14 if not returned to the same station. Helmets are included. The writer hired his bike from Rent A Bike in Willisau. See rentabike.ch

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