Flat Switzerland with Katrin Gygax

Topics covered

  • The e-bike revolution
  • Great, flat bike tours in Switzerland
  • Cycling with the whole family
  • Advice for newcomers in Switzerland

Who We're Speaking With

Today we are joined by Katrin Gygax.

Katrin and her family emigrated from Switzerland to Canada when she was four years old. Now based back in Zurich as a travel writer, essayist and translator, she is the author of the cycling guide Flat Switzerland, and Today's Office Looks Like This - 60 Unconventional Workspaces in Switzerland.

For some time now Katrin has been exploring Switzerland by bike, and in the book Flat Switzerland, she puts together a guide to 33 routes that are mostly flat or downhill and can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

About the Episode

Switzerland is a paradise for people who enjoy outdoor activities. In the spring, summer, and autumn, one of the most enjoyable activities is cycling. Although Switzerland is known for its mountains, there are many flat bike routes in the Central Plateau.

Three great tours mentioned are:

  1. Aarau to Olten: This trip might take you around two hours, and it is pleasantly flat the whole way. Both towns are attractive, historic, and well-connected. No matter where in Switzerland you live, you should be able to get to Aarau and back home from Olten relatively quickly.
  2. Airolo to Bellinzona: This tour is a bit longer, but most of it is downhill. There are some attractive towns on the way, and some parts of the path take you along the river.
  3. Neuchâtel to Yverdon-les-Bains: A route for those who’d like to explore French-speaking Switzerland. You’ll pass lakes and vineyards, so it’s a great one to do in late spring. There is a small incline, but it’s spread out over five kilometres, so it isn’t too taxing.


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Well, hello everybody and welcome to another episode of the Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland.

This is a series of conversations in which we speak with people who could be considered experts on different aspects of life in Switzerland and share what we learn with you.

This series is brought to you by Rigby, we're a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich.

If you, or anyone you know of, is looking for a new role in Switzerland or if you're looking to hire, let us know, we'd be happy to help.

The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch.

Okay, so today we are joined by Katrin Gygax.

Katrin and her family emigrated from Switzerland to Canada when she was 4 years old.

Now based back in Switzerland and working as a travel writer, essayist and translator, she is the author of the cycling guide ‘Flat Switzerland’ and 'Today's Office Looks Like This - 60 Unconventional Workspaces In Switzerland'.

So, any time would be good to speak with Katrin, but especially now as summer approaches. For some time now, Katrin has been exploring Switzerland by bike and in the book 'Flat Switzerland' she puts together a guide to 33 different cycling routes that are mostly flat or downhill and can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.

If you're interested in the idea of exploring Switzerland by bike, this will be one for you.

Katrin, thank you for joining us.

Thank you for having me.

Okay, to begin with could we speak a little bit about your background and your ties to Switzerland?

Well, as you said, our family emigrated to California and then Canada to Vancouver when I was very small. So I did the whole kindergarten to university in West Vancouver. I grew up there.

But almost every summer, they would send us to Switzerland to our cousins in Winterthur. So I got a lot of both cultures. I got a lot of Swiss culture. I got a lot of Canadian culture. I got the nice Canadian accent and I got the Swiss German, which is also great. Because yeah, you don't get that for free so easily. So I'm happy about that.

That's for sure.


And have you always been a cyclist?

Yes, I have.

Even though we lived at the top of a very steep hill in West Vancouver, and I had a bike that only had about 10 speeds or 10 gears. Yes, definitely. But yeah, no, I love zipping around.

But yeah, thanks to that hill, I've done my elevation gain cycling and I'm happy just to do flat Switzerland now. But yeah, love to cycle.

Me too.

And was your motivation cycling around Switzerland was that a kind of discovery or rediscovery of the land of your birth or was it just to keep fit or..?

Um, actually it came out of my job, my daily work. I'm self-employed. My office was always at home. And that got a little old after a while. I wanted to just get out more. And as technology was more conducive to that sort of thing, especially the smartphone, I was able to actually leave the office behind and go work. And first I started sort of in local libraries and the odd cafe. And then I started taking the train and working on the train. And then at one point I thought how about combining that with cycling so that I wouldn't just be sitting – instead of sitting behind a desk all day sitting in a train all day. The first time I I took my bicycle I rode my bike to from Zurich to Baden and left my bike in Baden and then got back on the train and continued working for the rest of the day and then the next time I went out I picked my bike up in Baden and rode it to either Lenzburg or Aarau. I can't remember honestly.

Anyway, I then left it there in Aarau and and I started that in sort of spring, and I just kept doing that until I'd made my way more or less all around Switzerland. Sort of up the Aarau River over to Lake Geneva up the Rhône to Brig, and then by train over to the next valley and down to Interlaken and and then again by train over the Brig to Lucerne and then all the way down back to Zurich. And then each time I would leave my bike at the next stop and then pick it up the next time, so in in these little increments from starting in spring and ending in the fall I started doing that, doing my own little Tour de Suisse.

Yeah, it was great and it was nice to break up the day. And it was a lot of fun and I've been doing that since since 2009 now. So a really nice way to see Switzerland on the whole and a great way to break up your day if you're a digital nomad for example.

Yeah, for sure.  You know, Katrin, I love my bike and cycling as well. Although some people might say that it's cheating - I've got an e-bike!

You see them everywhere now here in Switzerland, and all over I suppose. What do you think of the e-bike revolution?

I think the e-bike revolution is awesome. And whoever says cheating or whoever says that they are for lazy people, they don't know what they're talking about.

I don't mean that you don't know what you're talking about! I think you know this as well! Yeah, because they they get you places where you wouldn't be able to go to otherwise. They get you up little local mountains that you wouldn't get to. If you're riding in the city, they get you ahead of cars faster. So I find – I mean me personally – I find it less dangerous, because at a red light when it turns green I can just go boom, pull away and there are cars - yeah, they're in my dust and and I'm ahead of them so they can see me and hopefully notice me. So no, I think I think e-bikes are great.

And I use the other one for the little Tour de Suisse, the Flat Switzerland tours. I do them on a regular bike, but I like the impact too.

Yes, for the Flat Switzerland routes an e-bike might be pointless. Not necessary, actually.


No, it's really not. You'd just be basically peddling for nothing, kind of thing.



And you covered 33 different routes in the book. Are there two or three in particular that you consider favourites that you would recommend to people?

Um, I mean, obviously, I think they're all wonderful.

Um, but sort of for different reasons.


I think, I think Aarau to Olten is kind of a take-it-easy route, because the route is bookended by two old towns, so you can, say, take the train to Aarau with your bike, or rent it there, whichever you're doing and you can go and look at the old town first, buy some stuff for your picnic basket and then cycle along the river down – no, up – to Olten and have a nice, you know, lazy picnic by the river in the green grass with the flowers and the bees and the cows and the whole Swiss thing.

And then you get to Olten in about, it's like not even two hours. And then you've got another little old town to look at. So it's a very, it's a nice little sort of easy Sunday ride to do.

And if you're feeling a little zippier, there's Airolo to Bellinzona, which about two thirds of, is pretty much downhill. It's just you kind of get on your bike at the top and then just go. And it's – I did this in the 90s. When it was really dangerous because it was, it was only on that road. So the Kantonstrasse, the main road. But they've really, they really fixed that. There's still a bit on the main road, but a lot of it is now lower down in the valley. They've actually got a cycling path that takes you along the river.

And so, which means you can, you can stop and take a dip in the nice, freezing cold Ticino if it's 35 degrees in August or whatever. And you can you can stop and look at the little towns which are all pretty awesome. And then at the end of it, when you get to about Bodio, Biasca, then you've got your grain fields, your cows, your – we're back to the Swiss thing – all the way to Belinzona, where there's those three famous UNESCO castles to look at.

So that's a really nice one too.

And then I also like Neuchâtel to Yverdon-les-Bains, because it's sort of lakeside to vineyards to lakeside and it's got a very French groove to it, especially in sort of around May when all the lavender's out and you've got the green vineyards with the grapes growing already and a beautiful view of that, of the huge Lake Neuchâtel. And it's also the route with one of the very few inclines in the book. It's a whole hundred meters uphill, but it's spaced out over five kilometers, so you don't really feel it that much. But in any case, it is an incline, so yay!

So I would say those three, because you get sort of the variety of Switzerland, how it's not just all cows and bells, but a lot of kind of different, I mean, obviously it is cows and bells, but there's also a lot of a lot of variety in Switzerland, a lot of different views, a lot of different landscapes, which is pretty cool.

And since the routes are mostly flat and not too difficult to follow, actually quite a few of them are suitable for families, right?

Oh yes, definitely, definitely.

There's, I would say there's about two where you'd have to kind of see what kind of kid you've got, how old they are, how often do they cycle, how attentive are they?

And that's actually reflected in the book because we have a little – at the beginning of each chapter, we've got sort of little tips and one of them is: is this route kid-friendly or not?

So that always tells you whether yes or no and and from what age would it be great for kids. And and yeah, so I mean, Switzerland is very kid-friendly to begin with.

And another thing which I think is really cool that people would be interested in is that the routes are also available to people who buy the book as GPX and KML files. Could you tell us a bit about that, Katrin?


Yeah, well, for those who don't know what a GPS, a GPX or KML file is, there are basically files that store location information, so-called waypoints, routes and tracks, and they're generated by either tracking apps on your phone, or you have these special GPS devices you can attach to your bike, or you can draw a route by hand on a site, like OpenStreet maps or Google or even Switzerland Mobility. And then you can download the files and share them with other people. And this is what I've done here.

So you can, if you buy the book, you get the secret link where you can download it, download them all. And you can download them onto your phone or onto - if you have a GPS device, a separate one with more bells and whistles, but your phone will do nicely. And then you can basically just follow the track on your phone as you ride.

Yeah, so that's very, very helpful. Of course, the book also describes the route in detail. So you can read about it beforehand so you know what's coming up. So you don't have to have the track, but if you use both, then you'll have all the information you need.

Yeah, it works really well.

And are there any tips that you would share with people who are new to Switzerland to help them settle in and make the most of life here?

Well, I have a feeling that your listeners have probably been here for a bit, so I don't need to tell them when to take out their garbage. I know that's always an issue!

But I think, if you're planning on staying here for a bit; I know a lot of the expat community will come for a couple years and then leave again on to the next adventure. But if you're going to be staying here for a bit, I would say visit your local town hall and check out – they usually have a list of the so-called "Vereine" or "Associations" that there are in your community.

And the idea of the Verein is, it's a huge Swiss institution and they are like privately run clubs that every community has.

They cater to all different kinds of interests. So there's clubs for, there's choirs, there's gardening clubs, hiking clubs, cycling clubs, sports, teams, book clubs, or if you're fit enough, you can even join the volunteer fire department. So that gets you going.

So no matter if you're not living in the centre of Excitement Town, Switzerland, you can still get out there and do stuff and meet people. Yeah, and even if you don't, if you're not really sure which of these funny buildings in this town is my town hall, just try checking out the name of, you know, nameoftown.ch – it's on the internet anyway.

And I think if you're planning to stay, I would say, just do it, learn the local language, because that will get you so much closer, it will make you feel so much more at home and involved. And obviously, the people who live in Ticino and in the French-speaking Cantons, they're going to have an easier time of it. But even Swiss-German is doable if you put your heart and soul into it.

And I get a lot of English speaking friends who say, ‘Yeah, but people will laugh at me’. And of course they will. They're human. They're mean. People are mean, of course, to laugh.

But if you learn a language, people are always going to laugh at you. That's just that's just what people do.

It’s part of the deal.

Yeah, kind of.

But they will also you'll notice and appreciate that you're making an effort. And it just makes it that much easier to meet people to fit in, to not have those funny, funny mistakes where you're not sure, did I just say something really terrible, or is it just a misunderstanding?

If you know, do I have to have to hide my head in shame for the the rest of my life or was it just a little, yeah, like I think a misunderstanding.

So, I think it just gets you into your neighbourhood, into the people in the office and maybe out of the expat bubble you might be in. Nothing wrong with an expat bubble! I have my own, but it just offers you more variety and you can make long-lasting friendships and I think the whole Swiss experience gets better.

And I've had the same experience in other countries, not in Switzerland. And I just find as soon as you, when people notice you're, you're making an effort, and I say making an effort because of the hard aspect of the difficulty in learning another language, as soon as people realise you're trying, they just open up and start smiling at you and drop sort of that frown.

So that would be, that would be my big thing. It's not that bad. It'll be okay.

It'll be all right. It'll be okay.

Exactly. Yeah.

Well, thank you, Katrin, for joining us. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

Well, thank you very much. Thank you very, very much for having me.

Yeah, it's been a pleasure. So take care out there and wear a helmet!

Oh, always, naturally, of course!

All right then. Thanks very much.

Bye bye.

Okay. Thank you. Bye bye Daniel.

Alright! Well, that was Katrin Gygax. We'll be including links to resources to learn more about her and her books in the show notes.

So, thank you too listener for joining us.

This podcast was brought to you by Rigby. We're a staffing company based in Zurich. If you or anyone you know of is looking for a new role in Switzerland or if you're looking to hire, let us know. We'd be happy to help.

The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch.

Okay, thanks and until the next time.