Switzerland provides some of the most spectacular and best-maintained motorcycling roads in Europe, if not in the world: so much so that the more popular among them are frequently punctuated with warning signs both for and about motorcyclists. Riding fast on these roads is definitely a test of skill, and unfortunately, it is a test that all too many fail every year. Riding more slowly is fun, too, and at the end of a day's ride you may well feel that you have been working hard: both the concentration and the physical effort required can tire you out.
The scenery, of course, is spectacular. It has been said that Switzerland is not a small country: really, if you could smooth it out and iron it like a tablecloth, it would be the size of Australia. This is clearly an exaggeration but after a day's riding you start to believe it.
There are some very handsome cities -- the situation of Zuerich, for example, is superb -- and many pretty villages, though these can tip over into 'pretty-pretty' and become somewhat saccharine; a bit like riding through a giant movie set for The Sound of Music.
The big drawback to Switzerland, though, is that it can be very expensive, especially if you are not careful. Also, the Swiss have a distressing tendency to reduce everything to money. Once, for example, the waiter counted the rolls we had eaten from the bread-basket on the table, and charged us per roll. The public toilets are all coin-in-the-slot, and if you haven't got the coin, tough; we once had to rely on charity so Frances could use the loo. Fortunately, individual Swiss are as kind, generous and friendly as the Swiss as a nation are distant, mean and suspicious.
Overall, the word that sums up Switzerland best is 'quality'. Unless it's good quality, no matter what 'it' is -- food, hotel rooms, clothes, cars, cameras (we use the amazing Alpa, www.alpa.ch) or anything else, the Swiss are not really interested. And if quality costs money: well, that is the way that it is.
The www.myswitzerland.com web-site provides a fair amount of useful general information, though very little that is of specific use to motorcyclists.
The most detailed easily available maps are the Michelin 1:200.000 sheets 551, 552 and 553: these are 1cm = 2km, or about 3 miles to the inch. There's also an atlas from Kuemmerly+Frey, www.swissmap.com at 1:301.000, 1cm = 3.01km or four and three quarters miles to the inch.
I said in the original Motorcycle Touring in Europe that Swiss drivers were law abiding but not disciplined; that there seemed to be an informal competition to see how badly they could drive without actually breaking the law. Twenty years on, I still think I was right. They're not dangerous, or malicious: they're just not very good at it.
When it comes to motorcycling, seriously fast riding is the order of the day, despite the speed limits (below). Of course, it's hard to catch motorcyclists riding fast on mountain roads: there are just too many twists and turns, and too few places you can safely set up a radar trap. Also, the Swiss tend to be realistic about their mountain roads: they know that the safest way to overtake is often with a very powerful vehicle that can accelerate extremely quickly and brake with equal aplomb.
A lot of Swiss motorcyclists tend to be 'weekend warriors' who make rather more of a pretence of being wild men on their days off than you might expect from their workaday selves; but then, where is that not true, nowadays?
Helmets are required, but not a first aid kit or a spare bulb set, though daylight riding lights are compulsory. These must be headlights: sidelights are illegal. You also need a nationality sticker on the bike. 'Needless and exaggerated' use of the horn is illegal, and indeed, it must not be used except in a genuine emergency between 2300 and dawn.
As already noted, Swiss roads tend to be a motorcyclist's paradise. The standard of maintenance seems to be significantly higher, however, in the German-speaking north than in the Italian-speaking south.
If you want to use the motorways, you must (like the Swiss themselves) buy a carnet and affix it to your bike. These cost the same for cars and motorcycles and are available only in annual form at a very stiff CHF 40 (call it US $27, 25 euros or maybe GBP 18). Don't put a trailer on your bike: that's another CHF 40. Personally I'd rather avoid the motorways, though some of the tunnels (Gotthard and Santo Bernadino) are motorway-only, so if you want to use these, you have to have a carnet. Mercifully there's no extra toll. The Grand St. Bernard toll is CHF 27 for cars and (I fear) the same for motorcycles. Carnets can be bought at border crossings, post offices and petrol (gas) stations.
The basic rule on right-of-way is priority to the right, but trams and post-buses always have priority. Post-buses both deliver the mail and carry passengers, as their name suggests.
Main roads have right of way over minor roads, but only in built-up areas do they have priority signs; elsewhere, blue posts by the side of the road indicate that it has priority.
On mountain roads, ascending vehicles have priority over descending, and on the flat, if two vehicles are not of equal (or roughly equal) size, the larger vehicle has priority.
At junctions, if two people coming from opposite directions want to turn left, they should in theory drive around behind each other, instead of the rather easier idea of driving in front of each other. This one seems to be ignored more and more often, as is its mirror image in England.
Urban speed limits are 50 km/h (31 mph); on the open road, 80 km/h (50 mph); and on motorways, 120 km/h (75 mph) -- all unless otherwise signposted. The Swiss are unusual in sometimes signposting higher speed limits than would normally apply. The 50 km/h limit also applies to all 'secondary roads' though I am not quite sure what these are, and there's a blanket 80 km/h limit for trailers, even on motorways, which I believe applies to motorcycles as well as other vehicles.
Speed limits are fairly well observed, though 5 km/h or even 10 km/h over the limit on the open road does not seem to be unusual among the Swiss themselves. Speeding fines are payable on the spot and begin at CHF 60 (call it US $40 or 40 euros, or GBP 25) for modest infractions such as 6 km/h over the limit, up to losing your licence at 25 km/h (16 mph) over the limit.
Overtaking is normally to the left, but motorcyclists may overtake both stationary and moving traffic on the right if there is room and if it is safe. 'If it is safe' specifically discourages weaving in and out of lanes, overtaking first on this side, then on the other.
Overtaking is forbidden where visibility is restricted, or where it would involve crossing a single, solid white line.
Trams and trains must be overtaken on the left, unless there is no room, in which case overtaking on the right is permitted. Stationary trams may only be overtaken on the left if there is a pedestrian refuge: otherwise, they must be overtaken on the right.
Parking motorcycles on the sidewalk (pavement) is legal, subject to the usual considerations of not creating an obstruction. I was once much worried to find a Swiss cop inspecting my bike, parked on the sidewalk in Zuerich. I hastened to ask if it was legal. "Oh, yes," he replied, "I was just admiring it because I have a similar machine myself. I was in London a few weeks ago and I did not know it was illegal to park on the sidewalk, and I got a ticket."
WHEN TO GO
The strangest thing about riding in mountains is that quite often, you will feel warm or even hot in the sun, but very cold indeed in the shade. On one trip to Switzerland (September 2003) we rode so high that we could look down on glaciers -- but we were still in our shirt-sleeves, even at 1700 in the afternoon.
There is far more variation in Swiss weather than you might expect: not just day to day, which you would expect, nor even merely with variation in altitude, which again, you would expect, but also from valley to valley and from one part of the country to the other. I once had the surreal experience of riding into a mountain tunnel in misty rain, and emerging on the other side of the mountain into bright sunshine.
There are lots of good geographical reasons for this, including rain shadows and winds that reverse during the day (up-valley in the daytime, down-valley at night). Chaos theory also holds good: the Quantum Weather Butterfly (Papilio tempestae) is found as much here as in the Amazonian rain forests. The central plateau is where most of the Swiss live, and where all the major cities are, so it makes sense to begin with that to get an overall weather picture.
Spring is late and short, but beautiful: the average daily maximum in Zuerich rises from 10 degrees C, 51 degrees F, in March to 20 degrees C, 68 degrees F, by mid-May. The summer is delightful but wet (in fact, it is the wettest time of year, with 136mm or 5.4 inches of rain in July in Zuerich) and then the autumn can be good too, though temperatures drop sharply during the course of October. Winters are generally cold and foggy. Some years, temperatures will stay below freezing for weeks on end, with frequent snow; other years, snow will lie only for a few days at a time.
In the far south -- south, indeed, of the main Alpine ranges -- average daily minima drop below freezing only for a few weeks from late December to mid February; spring comes as early as April, and summers are downright hot with average daily maxima of over 24 degrees C, 75 degrees F, from late May to mid-September. It is however very rainy in spring, summer and autumn, with average monthly rainfalls of more than 150mm (6 inches) from May to October, and only a fraction less in April and November. Most of this rain falls in heavy downpours.
In the high Alps, by contrast, average daily maxima may well stay below freezing from November to April, with daily minima rising above freezing only in the warmest months: June, July, August and September. There can also be over 300mm (a foot) of rain in the wettest month, June. Once again, bear in mind what was said above about riding in the mountains.
The famous (or infamous) Foehn wind is warm and dry and blows from the south: temperatures can rise as much as 20 degrees C, 36 degrees F, in an hour or so, which can lead to fast snow-melt and avalanches.
Other Christian holidays observed as public holidays include:
Because Switzerland is not an EU country, it has 'proper' borders. Even so, transit tends to be pretty casual: usually, just waving your passport at the guard (he may or may not look inside).
For a stay of less than 90 days, EU citizens need no more than a passport, as do Japanese, New Zealanders, Australians, and inhabitants of the Americas except Belize, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Peru. Others will need visas, applied for in advance: they are not issued at the border. The passport must in this case be valid for three months after the intended departure from Switzerland.
International driving permits are not required; the only reason you might want one is if your national licence is in an unusual language or non-Roman script (eg Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.) The Swiss tourist web-site says that an IDP may speed things up if you are stopped by the police. Carry the registration document, letter of permission (if the bike is borrowed), and proof of insurance. Most EU policies cover Switzerland automatically, but check with your insurer. Swiss medical care is famously among the best in the world, and is priced accordingly. Although an EU-Swiss agreement from 2002 allows you to recover much of the cost of medical care, and to get reduced-cost emergency care, you have to pay up front and get the money back afterwards, and you are still liable for 50 per cent of ambulance costs, including air ambulances. I'd get insured if I were you. For details on the agreement, check www.doh.gov.uk/traveladvice/index.htm.
The limits on booze and tobacco are:
Then there is a 300 CHF 'other goods' allowance, and all 'used personal effects,' plus the rather weird 'Food ready to eat and non-alcoholic beverages for the day of travel.' They do however prohibit sword-sticks, weapons disguised as cameras, night vision equipment, laser sighting devices and -- get this -- catapults! Honestly, this is on their web site.
The Swiss franc (CHF) is probably the hardest of hard currencies: adamantine, in fact. For rough calculations, allow an exchange rate of around 1.5 to the US dollar or euro, and 2 to 2.50 per GB pound. Although prices are always quoted in CHF, they are often quoted in parallel in euros, and credit card bills (credit cards are widely though not universally accepted) will often show both amounts. The Swiss will usually accept euros, if it's a question of that or losing a sale, though you will not always get a rate of exchange that will suit you. Hole in the wall machines (autotellers) are reasonably widespread in the bigger towns and cities.
In the cities, on weekdays, shops typically open at 0830 and close at 1830 with no lunch break; in the country, a lunch break from 1200 to 1330 or 1400 is likely. On Saturdays, expect 0800-1200 and 1300-1600 (again, no break in the cities). Many towns have an early closing day, which varies locally. There may also be one late shopping night per week, up to 2000 or even 2100, typically Thursdays. Banks open from 0830 to 1630 with one late evening per week, which varies from place to place and bank to bank.
The Swiss are not much given to tipping -- service is included in all bills -- so even quite modest tips of 5 per cent are welcome and 10 per cent on the bill will often elicit rather warmer and more genuine thanks than you might expect. Try one franc per person in cheaper restaurants, a couple of francs in better ones, and as much as five francs in top-class ones.
Fuel in the usual grades is available at prices which are pretty much in the middle of the European average, or even a little on the low side. I'm afraid I didn't check oil; I will next time.
Swiss mechanics, like Swiss doctors, are among the finest in the world; and, like Swiss doctors, they know how to charge for repairs. International breakdown insurance is a very good idea indeed.
There are several places in Switzerland where motorcycles may be hired, at anything from about US $80 to US $200 per day: try www.admo-tours.com and www.bosenberg.com.
From a very limited acquaintance with Swiss police, they seem to be unfailingly polite and helpful, and a surprising number speak English. They also seem to be very friendly. But then, they have never run me in for breaking the law. They can impose and collect on the spot fines.
Because of the Swiss passion for order, it is probably best to call the police to any accident: they will no doubt tell you if they do not wish to come.
The emergency numbers are:
The Touring Club Suisse offers a comprehensive motorcycling breakdown package throughout Europe for CHF 41 a year but I'm not sure whether you can join as a foreigner: check www.tcs.ch if you can read French, German or Italian (there's no English version).
Good Swiss restaurants are very good, but they are also very expensive. At the more affordable end of the market, they are rather like good-quality German restaurants: good ingredients, well prepared, but often lacking in imagination. Mercifully, too, they are often less salty than in Germany. A well-to-do Frenchman of our acquaintance, who is not afraid to spend money on good food, is more dismissive: he says it is impossible to eat well in Switzerland at any price.
Picnic food is reasonably affordable, and given the stunning views that can be found all over the country, picnics can be a particularly attractive option. Swiss bread is good, too.
Switzerland is more of a beer-drinking nation than one of wine-drinkers, though there are Swiss wines and they are quite pleasant. You would need to be a fiercely partisan Swiss to argue that they were anything very remarkable, and they are (surprise, surprise) quite expensive. The beer is good -- typically, a strong, Bavarian-style lager -- and usually reasonably priced.
There are numerous mineral waters, most of which are not too salty, but always check the label for sodium (Na) if this worries you. Tap water is drinkable everywhere and can be very pleasant. The blood alcohol limit is 0.08 (80 mg/l).
Down in the south, in the Italian-speaking areas, accommodation is around the European average in price, or even (on occasion) a little cheaper. Other things being equal (which they very seldom are), prices tend to increase steadily as you go northwards. In the big cities, especially Zuerich, hotel rooms are similar in price to London but you tend to get a bigger, better maintained and more attractive room for your money -- often with a bath-tub, too. The Swiss are quite good on bath tubs in hotel rooms.
Prices are normally quoted per room, not per person, and normally include breakfast, which is typically a (rather scant) German-style affair. Often, parking for motorcycles is included at no extra cost: apart from the motorway carnet (see above) Switzerland is quite motorcycle-friendly.
The SJH or Schweizer Jugenherbergen has an excellent web-site www.youthhostel.ch with details of all their youth hostels, including prices; the only drawback is that you have to choose a specific hostel to get a price -- there's no general information. Reckon on around 30 CHF for a dormitory bed in most in the high season: that's around US $20 or 20 euros or maybe GBP 14. Breakfast is included in that price, though. Camp sites are widespread and spotless, but not cheap: for two people and a tent you can easily spend 20 euros. 'Rough' or 'wild' camping is illegal and attracts fines.
There are four official languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansch. The last is spoken by very few people.
Most Swiss speak either German only, or German plus one or more other languages -- usually, another official Swiss language, but quite often, English too.
Road signs are mostly international but a couple of non-standard ones are worth knowing about.
A sign with a post-horn on it indicates a post-bus priority road; post-buses always have right of way, so this amounts to more of a reminder than a warning.
A tyre with snow chains indicates that snow-chains are compulsory for cars. After experience in driving under such conditions I can affirm that no motorcyclist should seriously consider being on the road when snow-chains are required, except perhaps with spiked or studded snow tyres -- which probably wouldn't be legal anyway.
The most useful language is German:
French can also be handy:
And there are times when Italian is useful too:
But you really shouldn't need Romansch.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
last updated: 24/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks