Austrian High, Swiss Low


I have no real plan from Prague onwards, except to try and get to Castelnaud for the weekend. Munich is in a convenient location on the map, and my time there is informative, so I am glad the Road took me there. From there, Basel in Switzerland seems like a sensible waypoint. Looking at the map, there are several ways to get there. One dips into Austria and passes Bregenz.

The name rings a bell! Of course, I have a cousin there. He’s half German but lives on the Austrian side of the border and works for a huge Austrian industrial firm. What the hey, the Road clearly wants me to go there. I message him and receive a reply: he’d be glad to see me.

I decide to exit the German Autobahn at Lindau by the Austrian border so as not to inadvertently get done for not having an Austrian motorway vigniette. In Germany the Autobahn is free because they want people to be able to get to places, in Czechia motorists need to buy a vigniette but motorcyclists don’t, in Austria motorcyclists get a discount and in Switzerland everyone must pay the same exorbitant fee.

Rolling across the border into Bregenz from Lindau along the beautiful lakeshore, one immediately feels a sense of calm. The pleasant lakeside town has an almost resort like vibe. As I discover later, it is indeed a resort favourd by wealthy Germans. By comparison the neighbouring German town feels hectic and rushed. The driving style changes again: it’s slower, kinder, with bigger stopping distances. Drivers who pass me as I try to figure out the route give me more space. I get to a small queue of traffic and it feels almost impolite to filter. The Austrian mountains make a stunning backdrop.

My cousin works as an engineer at a huge transport equipment manufacturer whose gear builds national level infrastructure all over the world. If you’ve ever been anywhere high up or taken one of those silent internal shuttle trains at a factory or airport, they’ve probably got you there. They do have one or two competitors in the world but generally they are seen as the most respected and reliable, building huge things all over Europe, the US, Central and East Asia and so on. He greets me outside their vast facility which has a huge ultra modern HQ ( a “smart” building) and several factory blocks employing thousands.

He insists that there is no need to put locks on Veronica. He tells me that Austria is not Germany, and that he has not locked his front door in several years. He tells me a story of the time he dropped his wallet on the street near his house and it lay there untouched for the whole weekend. I put the disc lock on nonetheless. To quote Hunter S. Thompson “Call on God but steer away from the rocks” or more simply, don’t tempt fate. There are quite a few motorbikes there and none are locked.

I get a personalised tour of the massive incredible campus. The scale is mindblowing and I love it. Huge machines performing awesome complex tasks is fascinating and satisfying. IMG_2998.jpgOver coffee, he talks about their clients in different countries: those in Eastern Europe prefer for the machines to be made in Austria, whilst the US stipulates that a certain percentage of components is manufactured in the US. He bemoans the deskilling of US blue collar workers over the past four decades. In fact he bemoans deskilling more generally: he is a judo coach and he tells me that him and his fellow coaches have to spend time teaching kids as old as 8 or 9 to walk and run before they teach them any judo. Children just don’t play outside any more, they spend the entirety of their spare time with game consoles.

We part on a more positive note: how well various distant and close relatives of ours are doing. The coffee kicks in, and I still have a few hundred kilometers to go until Basel where I’ve decided to spend the night. He reminds me not to forget to get a Swiss vigniette, they have very heavy fines he tells me. I follow his advice, getting one at an Austrian petrol station a mile or so away from the border. All in, for a totally unplanned detour, a very good time has been had, a lot was learned and seen and the impromptu Austrian adventure can be chalked off as a high point. Don’t overplan, be humble and respectful, and the Road provides. I am grateful.

Passing the Swiss border post, everything changes again. Austria was pretty and peaceful, everything was almost like a model town or village. Across the border everything is immediately more in your face, the surfaces are rougher, the buildings more abstract. The border post itself is a sort of glass hut with about ten meters of wooden beams on the ground, presumably to act as a speed reduction measure and several cops are looking past the vehicles entering their country. There appear to be no Austrian cops.

The satnav maps a route to the motorway. It is both too fast and too slow. Traffic moves in stops and starts averaging about 100kph. A car with Swiss plates deliberately swerves into me. Another tailgates me millimetres from my rear plate as I overtake a slow moving lorry. A sense of aggression and malice is evident from many drivers: my first such experience in over 2,000km and five countries. The route goes through Zurich. More aggression from drivers, bizarre improvised junctions around roadworks. The heat is in the mid 30s. Then there is the motorway to Basel. The Netherlands challenged me with torrential rain, Czechia with strong winds. Here it’s the Sun. Riding west it’s shining directly into my eyes. It is also reflecting off the strangely shiny motorway surface, and from my visor into the satnav screen and back into my eyes. Visibility is close to zero, I am squinting beneath my shades and can barely see. Arriving in Basel, there are more roadworks, blocked streets, potholes, unnavigable one way systems. Eventually I find my way to the B&B I’d booked the night before.

The owner guides me into the back garden, I unpack Veronica and put locks on her. The B&B owner is pleasant enough, but there are a lot of weird rules: always wear slippers inside the house, no urinating standing up and so on. There is a bed but there is no breakfast. However the owner puts a few apples out. I gratefully take one to eat in the morning.

My friend S whom I’d not seen in years and with whom we’d arranged to go for a drink turns up in his Porsche. It’s a stunning car but I have no idea how he drives it in Basel. It turns out he drives it quite well. And it’s thrilling being in it, so close to the ground and to the power of its mighty engine. S works in the pharmaceutical industry, in Basel, but he lives just outside on the French side of the border. We go for a drink at a craft beer bar. The alkoholfrei IPA is surprisingly tasty, one of many pleasant non alcoholic beers I’ve drunk on this trip.

S is British, his wife is French and he is able to live in France and work in Switzerland, as he has done for many years. To him Brexit is a very worrying prospect, potentially leaving his entire family and his employment situation in limbo. He qualifies for a French passport both through marriage and having fulfilled the residency requirement many times over. To date it has not occurred to him to apply for a French passport but it seems now he has little choice. To him the whole thing appears bizarre, Kafkaesque almost. Many people he knows are in a similar position.

He has a long day coming up and so do I. We part saying we shouldn’t leave it so long again. Indeed it’s great to catch up. I am grateful for the opportunity. He gives me a lift to the B&B. Sleep is not great again: every noise which the only other guest makes is amplified by the echoey creaky hallway, from him going to the shared bathroom to simply shifting in bed. At 6am very loud church bells begin to chime outside the window. Having barely slept, I head to the shared bathroom, stand under a stream of warm water in the weird open plan shower, brush my teeth and pack. I break fast with the free apple, a pouch of baby food and a cereal bar. There is a kettle and I use one of the tea bags I am carrying to get a caffeine hit. Veronica’s locks are removed, she gets packed.

Looking at the map there are two paths to Lyon, my next destination. One is a skip over the border to France and then quick French motorway pretty much all the way followed by a few miles of country paths. The other lies via Geneva. On the way is Monreux on the shore of Lake Geneva, made infamous by Deep Purple’s biggest hit Smoke on the Water, about their studio burning down and them standing on the lake shore and watching smoke billowing cross the surface. So factually accurate are the lyrics that it became the only metal song ever to be used as a piece of evidence in an insurance investigation. It seems worthwhile stopping at a place which spawned the best known rock riff of all time.

But Swiss time was running out, it seemed we’d lose the race… Heading into Basel with its blocked streets which have no obvious detours, the one way system, potholes, reversing trams, aggressive drivers, incompetent cyclists riding into each other and falling over directly in my path all seem to be conspiring against Veronica and I. The satnav’s traffic warning system is showing the entire area around Geneva glowing a malevolent red. It’s time to admit that Switzerland has been the first total and abject failure of this trip. No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget… Three circuits of Basel later, and unable to get to the motorway for Montruex and Geneva, I spit an expletive inside my helmet and take the first exit for France.

BR7 Munich to Basel


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