How Switzerland is just a little bit different. MIRIAM STEINMANN.

We Swiss are a curious mixture of the old and the new; a nation of mountain peasants who have seen Switzerland's standard of living go through the roof in the last couple of generations. Cycling is important here. You might see men cycling along with machine guns across their backs, off to their quarterly target practice. Pretty much all of the men here aged between eighteen and forty-five have to join the army, and keep a gun and ammunition at home in case someone invades. Or you might pass a group of ladies heading off to the opera, dressed up to the nines, astride bikes that range from disintegrating roadsters to space-age (but spotless) mountain bikes.

Switzerland is a great country for cycle-tourists. You usually know where you are with the weather, and we've managed to resist the temptations of mindless industrialisation. We've got mountains, if you like mountains. And if you want flat bits, we do that too. People often assume that it's Alps, Alps, Alps here, but the terrain really is very varied. The high mountains are to be found in the south and east, in Wallis, Tessin and the Graubünden. To the west lies the Jura region, where you will find hills, mountains and plateaux. The central ‘Mittelland' features fairly spiky hills, too, but the land levels out as you move north towards Lake Constance. So there's something for everyone in Switzerland. Plenty of white-knuckle off-road routes, as well as many kilometres of quiet roads that lead you gently down through quiet and peaceful valleys. There's even one route in Ticino where you can get off the train at Faido, and then ride the 30 kilometres down to Biasca without ever touching the pedals. And with Switzerland, you get four cultures in one: the German-, French-, Italian- and Romantsch-speaking areas are all culturally quite distinct. Add to that the fact that the Swiss ‘nation' is nothing more than a confederation of 23 highly independent Cantons, and you start to get the picture.

Culturally, too, we're pretty well set up for cyclists. Despite the high level of car ownership here, and the excellent public transport, cycling is widely respected, both for leisure and for practical purposes. Every year, schoolchildren go on an annual Schulreise (‘school trip'), and this frequently takes the form of a cycle tour. So in the summer months you will often see long lines of children cycling along, accompanied by a couple of pedal-powered teachers. And while there is something of a car cult here, cycling isn't looked down on in quite the same way as in English-speaking countries. Thus it's not uncommon to find that even higher class hotels have bike sheds around the back. And there are all sorts of cyclist-specific services, ranging from supervised parking to bike washing facilities. Our railway service (the SBB) runs special cycle holidays, and also a network of bike hire-points. You can even do a one-way hire, for an extra fee. And in Zürich we have the ‘Züri rollt' project, where you can borrow a 21-speed town bike for the day, free of charge.

Like many things in this country, cycling is quite closely regulated. For example, all bikes are supposed to carry a registration sticker, from any post office or supermarket. This simply provides third party insurance. And if someone is convicted of riding dangerously, s/he can be banned from cycling for a month or two. But don't be put off: in many ways we're surprisingly easy-going, and the upside of all this regulation is that cycling is seen, more or less, as part of the transport mainstream. Every spring and autumn, local community centres set up drop-in bike workshops, with tools and assistance laid on. Helmets are not mandatory, and cycle paths are completely optional. Taking bikes on trains is seen as fairly normal, albeit with a few restrictions. You can also usually put your bike on trams and boats, and sometimes buses too, for a fee. But don't be fooled by our low overall crime rate (money laundering aside): bike theft is as common here as anywhere else, at least in the cities. Drivers are pretty civilised in the German- and French-speaking areas, but in the Italian-speaking part they're, erm, rather Italian.

The national network of cycling routes, Veloland Schweiz, has been sponsored by the national railway, the tourism bureau, and several transport agencies. This network comprises nine long-distance routes, covers most of the country and offers different cycling conditions for different abilities. In conjunction with using the routes network, cycle tourists can book themselves and their bikes into designated hotels and guest-houses along the way. The routes are well signposted, and there is a host of back-up literature. In addition, any bookshop will stock guides to routes of extraordinary variety taking you all over Switzerland, the tree-house of Europe.

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