Text: Keir Plaice | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: My Media Sydney
To the southeast of Basel in Switzerland’s north, the Aargau is a quiet rural province covered in apple and cherry orchards, thick woods, and rolling hills. Although it is one of the least mountainous regions in the country, it is home to some deceptively difficult riding, with many short, steep climbs to explore. Gravel paths criss-cross the landscape, twisting up and down between the fruit trees, into the forest and out onto green fields. Wherever you are, there’s a village, with little more than an inn, a bakery, and a few houses, nearby. Coffee and pastries are never more than a few kilometres away.
The roads are pitch perfect and almost trafficless. You can easily accumulate a couple of thousand metres of climbing on a ride, or stay down in the valleys and spin your legs on the flat. You’ll see equestrians and tractors and plenty of e-bikers on your way. A network of hotels and restaurants in the area exchanges empty batteries for fresh ones. Their cakes and sandwiches achieve the same end for riders travelling under their own steam.
Make sure to sample the local produce too. A crisp and juicy apple from a roadside stand is a perfect mid-ride snack, and the fruit from the Aargau is renowned. With some of the most fertile agricultural land in Switzerland, it provides pears, damsons, cherries, and apples to the rest of the country. At harvest time, many of the farmers will welcome extra hands to pick the fruit.
The mountain biking in the region is also superb. The foothills of the Jura ripple into the canton’s northwestern corner and are webbed with many cross-country routes. The trails pass through gnarled forests and by medieval fortresses. After a tough day on the dirt, or the road, a long soak in the region’s hot sulphur baths is the best way to soothe your aching legs. The Aquae Helveticae, near the town now named Baden, have been founts of relaxation since Roman days.
Aarau is the capital of the canton. It is a beautiful town, with old walls perched high over the Aare river, after which it is named. The buildings in the city centre date back to the 16th century and are known for their painted timber gables. They now house a bustling collection of shops, hotels, and quality restaurants.
You can be out of the city within a few minutes on a bike though, and then you’re back in the billowy countryside. Stopped under an 800-year-old linden tree, looking out over the hills to the historic Hapsburg Castle, with a silky ribbon of pavement ahead of you to descend, the Aargau’s special character comes into focus. Modernity does not seem to be a disruptive force here. Rather, it is forever being integrated into a culture and landscape that seems determined to last the test of time.
Brand-new tractors till the fields. Through the whoosh of your spokes, you can still hear the songs of the birds.
The sleepy rural province of Aargau is home to some deceptively difficult riding, despite its status as one of the least mountainous regions in Switzerland. There’s an impressive network of gravel roads and paths to explore, and quiet roads virtually free of traffic, making the region a low-stress sojourn for the road cyclist.
Countless charming villages and towns dot the Aargau, ensuring you’re never far from the comforts of home-away-from-home. The canton’s capital, Aarau, is especially appealing.
During our time in the region, we stayed at:
In addition to the broad diversity of road and ebike routes through the region – including sections of the Route Verte – Aargau also has an impressive mountain bike offering. The foothills of the Jura across Aargau’s northwestern corner are webbed with cross-country routes.
For a less adrenaline-filled diversion, relax in the hot sulphur baths of Aquae Helveticae, or take in some of the region’s heritage at the 800-year-old “Linner Linde” tree, overlooking the Habsburg Castle.
St. Moritz is the original Alpine resort. Home to the Cresta Run, snow polo, the Corviglia downhill, and the world’s first and only remaining natural bobsled track, it’s hosted two winter Olympics—in 1928 and ’48—and countless skiing and sliding world cups.
Its hotels, which overlook Lake St. Moritz high in the Engadine Valley, are among Europe’s grandest. For more than 150 years, nobles and magnates have been travelling to them to winter. In 1864, a local innkeeper made a bet with a party of upper-crust Brits, who were staying with him for the summer to take the waters. If they visited in the winter and were less than pleased with the village’s sunny ‘champagne climate,’ he’d pay all their costs. He won. They came and stayed for the season. The word soon spread. St. Moritz was the place to be in the winter for blue bloods.
Perhaps, it’s that aristocratic heritage that explains why leisure has always come with a healthy dose of adrenaline in St. Moritz. For all the black-tie dinners and butlers and breakfasts in plush hotels during the town’s early days, there were high-altitude expeditions, toboggan runs at 130 kilometres per hour, ski jumping, and horse racing on frozen lakes. People came to St. Moritz to prove their worth. It’s a spirit that still pervades the town. In 2017, when St. Moritz hosted the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, the downhill began on a 100% slope.
It’s not only present in winter, however. Besides sailing, kite surfing and climbing, St. Moritz is an absolute mecca for mountain biking.
There are hundreds of kilometres of trails to explore, from marathon cross-country routes to lift-serviced descents off the 3,056-metre summit of Piz Nair. There’s the Corviglia Flow Trail, a high-speed pump track chock-full of jumps and banked turns, which plummets down the 1948 Olympic ski course from the 2,486-metre Corviglia station to Chantarella, where you can stop for a drink at the Alto Bar, before jumping on the funicular for the ride back up. Its cousin, the WM Flow Trail leading to the Fopettas offers similar thrills.
For more adventure, ride the Bernina Express trail, which ascends the Bernina Pass from Pontresina and offers stunning views over the nearby glaciers. From the 2,275-metre top, head directly to the Belvedere hut or make an extra jog over the plateau to see the magnificent Palü glacier. Then, drop down the technical track towards beautiful Val Poschiavo, where you can take the train back up to the Ospizio Bernina. The UNESCO-protected railway is surely one of the most spectacular in the world. From the top, either continue on by rail to St. Moritz or get out for the thrilling descent back to the hotel.
The road riding in the area is also superb. The Maloja Pass, to the southwest of town is one of the best descents you can ride. It drops down a squiggle of switchbacks into the Val Bregaglia and then races on into Italy for 30 kilometres. In Chiavenna, turn north towards the Splügenpass, an awesome 30-kilometre climb that averages 6%. Near the summit, you’ll cross back over the border into Switzerland. Then, there’s a long descent to Thusis, where you can turn towards home, heading first to Tiefencastel and then up the Julierpass. From the base to the summit, you’re looking at 38.6 kilometres of climbing with an elevation gain of 1448 metres. From there, all that’s left is the fast descent to Silvaplana and a short jaunt back to Saint Moritz to finish what is about a 190-kilometre day. The Alubla Pass to the north of town is also well-worth seeking out, as is the road up the Bernina.
Back in the village, you can enjoy what most others come for. Set on the sloping shores of the lake, amidst snowy peaks and turreted hotels, its narrow streets are packed with world-class galleries and restaurants and shops of the quality you’d see on Fifth Avenue or Bond Street. By the water, St. Moritz Bad is a quieter and more modest neighbourhood that offers the same easy access to the mountains. Surrounding towns such as Silvaplana and Celerina are quieter still.
The Engadine is located right in the southeast corner of Switzerland, so it’s a good jaunt by rail or car from Zurich or Geneva. Milan’s also an option if you’re flying in. Once you’re there though, you’ll want to stay for the sunshine, the luxury, and the thrills.
High in the Engadine Valley, overlooking Lake St. Moritz, is the fabled Alpine resort of St. Moritz.
The town has had an illustrious history, hosting nobility and winter Olympics alike. The winter-offering is world-renowned, but during the green season, St. Moritz has just as much to offer.
With a world-class network of mountain bike trails – hundreds of kilometres of them – there’s something for every skill level and sub-discipline. All of this, of course, is located in the majesty of the Swiss Alps, meaning if you can afford a second to glance up from the trail, you’ll be greeted by magnificent vistas as far as the eye can see.
For an overview of riding in St. Moritz, visit here.
Some of Saint Moritz’s hotels are among the grandest in Europe, but there’s a broad diversity of accommodation on offer – from youth hostels to AirBnbs.
We stayed at:
Let’s face it – you’re probably visiting St. Moritz for the mountain biking. But it’s far from a one-trick town, with plenty to enjoy either off the bike or on skinnier tyres.
The UNESCO-protected train up to Ospizio Bernina offers one of the most spectacular railway journeys in all of Switzerland, if not the world.
Alternatively, jump on a road bike to tackle some of the fabulous road riding through the area. Drop down into Italy along the Majola Pass, climb the Alubla Pass north of town, or ride the road up the Bernina.
There’s also plenty of history, culture and quality shopping to enjoy – both in Saint Moritz and throughout the Engadine.
For a summary of activities to enjoy during your stay, visit here.