Brilliant creatures

Switzerland's bike lanes, friendly hotels and beautiful scenery make it a great place for a holiday on two wheels, says Stephen Wood. And the marmots are very cute, too
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The Independent Travel

How many times had I travelled on an aircraft with my bicycle? At least 30. And with the exception of a flight to the Caribbean in 1985, during which the bicycle frame was broken, each trip had been free and easy - even on those occasions when doubtful airline staff consulted their supervisor before agreeing to accept a bike as checked luggage. For me, the routine was familiar: let the air out of the tyres (otherwise they can explode in the only lightly pressurised aircraft hold), remove the pedals and twist the handlebars (to make the bike as flat as possible), and then present it for free carriage as part of the baggage allowance.

How many times had I travelled on an aircraft with my bicycle? At least 30. And with the exception of a flight to the Caribbean in 1985, during which the bicycle frame was broken, each trip had been free and easy - even on those occasions when doubtful airline staff consulted their supervisor before agreeing to accept a bike as checked luggage. For me, the routine was familiar: let the air out of the tyres (otherwise they can explode in the only lightly pressurised aircraft hold), remove the pedals and twist the handlebars (to make the bike as flat as possible), and then present it for free carriage as part of the baggage allowance.

But all those previous departures - to Italy and Ireland, Germany and Greece, and most countries in between - had taken place before September 11. True, I did return from the US on one of the first flights out of Boston after the terrorist attacks; but that was before bicycles were identified as a security risk, or at least a hazard to the smooth running of the screening process.

Nowadays, bicycles no longer fly free: most if not all airlines charge a premium for their carriage, whatever the total weight of your baggage. Worse, many of the essentials of a cycling trip can no longer be stowed in hand-luggage (which is all the canny cyclist carries, so as to travel light on steep hills). "Tools are banned," said the stony-faced harridan at Heathrow's Terminal 2 security check. Not tools for writing with, obviously, nor for inputting data or brushing teeth; but definitely any tools that could be used for putting pedals back on a bike. And, she added as I headed back towards the check-in desk, my bicycle pump would have to go in the hold, too. What did she think I was going to do with that? Blow up the plane?

Unlike Terminal 2, Switzerland welcomes cyclists. Most Swiss trains have areas reserved for bicycles; for almost the entire, 90km length of the lakeside road from Geneva to Montreux there is a marked bike lane; and the country even has a network of cyclist-friendly "velotels". Once I had successfully reunited bicycle, tools and pedals at Geneva airport after a late-afternoon flight, my immediate destination was the velotel in nearby Nyon.

What would a velotel look like? I imagined a cross between a youth hostel and a bicycle-repair workshop, but nothing in Nyon matched that description. Leaning my bike against the pleasant looking Hôtel des Alpes, I checked my co-ordinates - to discover that I had arrived. Velotels, it transpired, do not necessarily carry a stock of inner-tubes and sprockets, nor expect guests to supply their own sheet sleeping-bags; judging by the Hôtel des Alpes, it appeared that they are merely places whose hospitality extends to welcoming arrivals dripping with sweat and to finding a space in a back office where a bicycle might safely be parked.

Secure parking is one of the defining characteristics of a velotel, as I discovered from the semi-official website, www.cycling-in-switzerland.ch, which lists such properties all over the country. A velotel has a bicycle parking space which is covered and lockable; its inventory includes a "good pump and tools for minor repairs" and its restaurant serves "meals specially geared to the needs of cyclists. Large portions of vegetables and carbohydrate-rich food on request."

None of this impinged upon guests who never slip into tight Lycra, so the Hôtel des Alpes suited me. For mine was less a cycling trip, more a safari in search of marmota marmota, a large member of the squirrel family.

I first saw Alpine marmots three years ago. Although while travelling on behalf of this newspaper I had often been in their vicinity, they had always been asleep. For a ski correspondent, it doesn't make much sense to visit the Alps except between October and April; but during that period, when the weather is cold and food hard to find, marmots prefer to sleep - so deeply that during hibernation their oxygen consumption falls by a factor of 20. They were, however, awake and whistling when I went climbing in the Austrian Alps in the summer of 2000.

Marmots are highly socialised animals. They take a mate for life, and the couple provides a home for the offspring for three years or more until they, in turn, are ready to mate. They warn other members of the colony about any danger, with a complex language of whistles that describes the type of threat and its imminence. The arrival of a group of UK ski writers wearing short trousers on the foothills of the 3,798m Grossglockner obviously provoked a high-alert whistle: suddenly the mountain was alive with plump, brown, furry creatures, rearing up on their hind legs to see if what they had heard was true, and then scrambling for cover. Marmots are also very cute. Clearly, a man's taste in animals should mature, at my time of life, to labradors and dead pheasants: marmots might have been designed for six-year-old girls, providing as they do the perfect blueprint for a cuddly toy. But I was smitten. So imagine my pleasure in discovering that one of Switzerland's newest visitor attractions, near Montreux, is Marmottes Paradis, a sort of marmot sanctuary/theme park created - bizarrely enough - by the local railway company.

The company's principal business is the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois (MOB) railway, which has a station at Gstaad; so in search of a greater cycling challenge than the flat road between Geneva and Montreux, I rode up to the ski resort.

I found the challenge: the first 19km stretch up from the valley up to the 1,546m Col du Pillon climbs a formidable 1,100 metres.

The following day I caught a commuter train into Montreux, switching platforms there for the Rochers-de-Naye shuttle. This train faces even more of a challenge: it climbs about 1,650m in what would be 5km if the train flew like a crow rather then wriggling like a snake. When it was built at the beginning of the 20th century, the railway was an attraction in itself. Not any more. With revenue declining and the top-station building (originally a hotel, closed 50 years ago) falling into disrepair, MOB decided that investing in a new attraction on Rochers-de-Naye was the best way of increasing train-passenger numbers. It was the MOB's technical director who came up with the idea of marmots. He discovered that although there are 14 species of the animal, no zoo had more than two. MOB decided to invest 1.5m Swiss Francs (£685,000) in a marmot exhibit in the restored hotel, building and a series of pens and burrows which would house seven different species. (When I visited Marmottes Paradis, the seventh was due to arrive from Kyrgyzstan.)

Collecting the animals was not difficult: the marmot world is a small one, connected via the World Marmot Congress, which held its 2002 meeting at Marmottes Paradis. The only problem was that with trade in the animals being so limited, nobody knew their market value. It turned out to be about the price of a return air ticket to Geneva. To create the pens, burrows and connecting tunnels, MOB used its existing technical staff: they were used to doing similar work, albeit for trains rather than marmots.

Regrettably, the weather on the day of my visit was the kind that makes a marmot think of turning in for the winter. Among the seven pens out on the wet and windy mountainside, number two was recommended to me: apparently its two inhabitants, from Kamchatka in Russia, were less timid than the others. But there was no sign of them. In fact of the 27 marmots in residence I saw but one. In a compact underground viewing area there are windows that look into the purpose-built burrows. The dim light revealed a ball of fur in one burrow. Only when my metal cuff-button clicked on the glass did it become clear at which end was the head. I was not greeted warmly. The marmot looked up briefly for a moment and then - pointedly, with an inaudible sigh - tried to dig itself deeper into the straw.

The exhibition, however, was full of good stuff, some of it scientific, some playfully interactive. The most gripping exhibit was the press-to-play panel containing recordings of 33 marmot whistles, each carefully annotated. I particularly liked the sound of the "alarm call of a female adult with young caused by a man walking downhill in Tajikistan". The saddest display was the map showing the dispersal of the rarest species, only about 100-strong, marking the locations of "solitary marmots" on Vancouver Island. The most charming were the films. Have you ever seen a marmot yawn? Do try: the sight kept me in a good mood for days, even when paying the US $50 bicycle carriage fee at Geneva airport.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Taking your bike: on Swiss (0845 601 0956, www.swiss.com/uk), bicycles are carried without charge only if packed in a hard-shell container (max length 203cm) and if the total weight falls within the free baggage allowance; bicycles shipped unpacked are charged $50 (£33) on short-haul flights from the UK, $100 (£66) long-haul.

Marmottes Paradis: entrance to Marmottes Paradis (00 41 21 989 81 90; www.marmots.ch) costs SFr55/£25 (children under six years free, six-16 half-price) until 30 September, thereafter SFr49/£22, including return train fare from Montreux. Hotel des Alpes, Nyon (00 41 22 361 4931; www.bestwestern.ch/ desalpes): double rooms from SFr170/£77. Hotel Steigenberger Gstaad-Saanen (00 41 33 748 64 64; www.gstaad-saanen.steigenberger.ch): double rooms from SFr226/£103 including breakfast.

More information: Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30; www.myswitzerland.com).

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