Going East

We’ve had some ups and downs the past week or so. There has always been either blistering heat or biblical thunderstorms. There have been long stretches (particularly either side of Frankfurt) that were completely void of shops, cafes or toilets. And there have been days where they have been plenty of those things, but none of them open. We’ve learned to plan ahead for Sundays in Germany, getting food for the coming day the evening before, because absolutely every shop both small and large is shut. We’d checked the list of public holidays, when everything is also shut, and there weren’t any more until October. Then we were cycling through various small towns with nothing open at all in the middle of the week. Odd, but they are small, so perhaps things open later. Then we passed through a large town with an Aldi and everything was shut there. We suspiciously looked up the date, and found it’s a regional public holiday. On a Thursday. Which means everyone also took the Friday off and campsites were rammed for the next 4 days. We got turned away from one, and the others we just had to squeeze in where we could because we hadn’t made a reservation. One site was almost entirely taken up by a multi generational family reunion and we barely found space to pitch. While turning in for the night, one of the dads came over and chatted and said he’d wanted to come over earlier and ask about the bikes and what we were doing, and now wished he had invited us to join the BBQ. It would have been nice, but we had walked into the town of Lohr am Main just to find some shade and have a beer. It was one of those picture perfect towns, and would have been a shame to miss out on.

One of the things I love about Germany is the food, but we’d not tried much traditional fare in the first week which has left some itches to scratch. We don’t stop for a proper lunch, and we don’t tend to camp near towns, so we’ve had the odd snack bar currywurst, but not much else. In Frankfurt I ticked off pork knuckle, which was great but it came with roast potatoes, which are not the ultimate kind. And then I hit the jackpot in Wurzburg, finally finding kartoffelkloesse, potato dumplings which are denser than the Earth’s core, and were served alongside roast pork and creamed cabbage. It was 36 degrees, but I soldiered on.

Having followed parts of the Rhine, Main and the Danube canal, we’ve been on the Danube proper for the last few days. It’s veered between dramatically beautiful, and run of the mill farm land. But it’s been flat and we’ve been able to churn some miles out. We passed through a section with some lovely manmade lakes and since it was the weekend, there were people out with lilos, kayaks, marquees set up on the shore and even some paddling pools. I loathe hot weather. I am quite happy at about 18 degrees, uncomfortable above 24, unhappy above 29, and once it gets into the 30s most of my brain functions shut down and I am just a sweaty pool of misery. This day was in the mid 30s, so it’s amazing to me how much effort people put in to being out in the sun. I would much rather have air conditioning and stay indoors.

Towards the end of our stint in South East Germany it was Johannistag (St John’s night) a kind of bonfire night, and a merging of Pagan Midsummer and Christian homage to John The Baptist, which seemed to be a very big deal. Though thankfully not another holiday. It’s Germany, so the bonfires were perfectly built, with many people displaying beautifully carved representations of St John. This is not like the piles of crates and old furniture we have, or the Guys you’d make out of your dad’s old trousers and wheel round in an Asda trolley. There was an open invite to attend what looked like a large bonfire and BBQ next to a campsite we stayed at. We favoured getting an early night though. It might have been fun, but it might have been a bit Wicker Man.

Our last morning cycling in Germany was flat and beautiful (though hot) and I had mixed feelings about leaving. Then Richard declared we were playing “Last one to Austria smells,” before cycling off. I hadn’t had nearly enough chocolate milk to be bothering with that, but raced on anyway.

It’s no secret that I love this country. The food, the people, the beer, the scenery, they are all wonderful. And I might have painted Germany as almost relentlessly pleasant. But there are still packs of ham which are impossible to get into, bags of pasta which split when you open them, and Audi drivers who are knobheads. And now we are both itching to move on, because the point is to travel, and see new places. 

Here’s a playlist for the last week in Germany:

Going Deutsch

What a difference a country makes. We knew the first couple of weeks would be a test since we weren’t very fit, but it has been reassuring to know that part of it was the headwind and not our failing legs. The cycling has been so much more enjoyable in Germany, and we’re feeling much more upbeat about being able to do this. There’s also a noticeable positive difference in the number of cafes, shops and banks. And there is always Weissbier.

It’s hard to explain how kind and friendly people have been here, so here’s a couple of small examples: One elderly chap flagged us down in a small town, and though I explained we couldn’t speak German, he persistently kept repeating the same words and gestures until I realised he has seen us circling round and wanted to know, what are we looking for? A cafe. So he gave directions, made me repeat them, and then 20 minutes later walked passed us sitting drinking coffee and eating cakes, with an “It’s good, yes?” Another day it was threatening rain and we were in the middle of a queue to check in to a campsite. The receptionist came over to us, and said we could go and pitch our tent first and have a rest, and come and find her later.

The part of the Rhine we’ve been cycling on is fairytale beautiful. It’s hard to have a really bad day when your surroundings are like this. The route is easy to follow, even the city of Cologne was amazingly easy to navigate.

The only downside is that there have been some almighty rainstorms. The kind where tent pegs ping out and we spend sleepless nights worrying if we’re going to get flooded.

We also have an interesting problem with the German language. Because we practice the same phrases over and over again, we give the impression of comprehension, which is the not the one we want to give. What then happens is we are spoken to as though we understand, which we don’t. We need to strike a balance between polite use of a language, and a degree of incompetence. And for those times where we there is true incompetence, we have mime. I have successfully used this (with added sound effects) to buy soluble aspirin in an Apotheke, and Richard has communicated without words that he needs the gears on his bike fixed. The guy who did this just pointed to an honesty box when asked how much he charged.

After some good news from home, we treated ourselves to a hotel room. Duvet! Pillows! But then it was too hot, there was no fresh air, no birds tweeting on until dark and no frogs mating at 3 am. I woke up three times to see lights coming through the curtain, and thought each time “oh wow, our tent is actually really big” before remembering.

After days of glorious scenery and pretty German towns, we reached the city of Mainz. We crossed the bridge over the vast Rhine, with giant flags indicating the State of Rhineland-Palatinate for one side and the State of Hesse on the other. There have been lots of small targets and milestones, but Mainz is a crossroads and the confluence of two great rivers. The Rhine has been good to us. If not for the days of rain storms, it would have been near perfect. But following it south no longer makes sense. It would either force an Alps crossing, something we’re not ready for, or involve long diversions at a time when we need to worry about our time limit in the Schengen area. So we head East, towards Frankfurt, then Wurzburg and the next decision.

Here’s a playlist for the ride on the Rhine:

Electric Dreams

We started this section by having a day off in Namur, Belgium. It felt like ages since we’d had one, and it was good just to rest our legs and drink beer without worrying if we’d cycle into the river. Namur is that nice balance of not enough to do to entice tourists, but enough to do for a couple of cyclists taking a day off. We were drinking outside a tavern, when a woman sitting next to us was very insistently trying to talk to us in Flemish, and it took a while to realise that she had served us in a cafe earlier and had recognised us and wanted to say hello. Her companion, with the help of his phone, translated the history of the tavern, how it had been given to the workers who had built the nearby church, and how proud they were of it. They also had an insanely large beer menu, of which we only had four.

We went north out of Belgium, following the EuroVelo 19 route from around Namur to Roermond in The Netherlands. The section up until just outside Huy is lovely and picturesque. After that it becomes a purely industrial landscape, with large sections of the cycle path removed, and the diversions not always obvious. If this section is just utilitarian for you, then it’s fine. It’s mostly flat, save for railway and road bridges. But if you’re planning on using your precious annual leave on a cycling holiday in this area, then avoid it.

Once past Maastricht, the power stations and piles of aggregate eased off, and the scenery was quite pretty, in a canal kind of way. We were riding into the prevailing wind though, and some sections are very open and exposed, plus the industrial dust is much worse in the wind. It was strength sapping and a bit disheartening. We were getting demoralised that so many cyclists were passing us, some of them easily, until we noticed that they all had electric bikes, which we started to eye with envy.

In Ohé en Laak, we met with a friend from home, Paul. It was very kind of him to come out of his way, and good for us to see a friendly face. Unfortunately he confirmed that absolutely everything shuts on Sundays and holidays in Germany, as it had done in Belgium and the Netherlands. Not the best news with a national holiday that weekend and us running short of supplies. We’ve also met some other cyclists at campsites in the Netherlands – a Danish guy who is riding to Spain and back over the summer because he wants to see Andorra, and a Dutch couple heading for a tour in Northern France.

Just past Roermond, we took a turn to the East, and the relief of not having the wind in our faces was instant. A large chunk of that day was spent riding through a nature reserve and forest. It was tough going, but I found it interesting after long days of very open countryside and same-ish scenery. Richard hated it. It had been forecast heavy rain all day, but it only caught us on the very last bit of trail, which was incredibly lucky, as we would have really struggled to get our heavy bikes through wet sand and mud paths.

Our route from here is to get on the Rhein river and start following that South, hopefully leaving the headwinds in the past.

Just a note for anyone visiting the Netherlands outside of the big tourist areas: Visa and Mastercard (either debit or credit cards) are not commonly accepted. The Dutch use the Maestro system almost exclusively, so if you don’t have a card with that symbol on it, you are unlikely to be able to pay by card in shops and restaurants. You will need to use cash (cash machines do accept Visa and Mastercard, though fat chance of finding one.)

The Netherlands is flat

Playlist for EuroVelo 19:

Belgium Is Not Flat

Turns out there’s good reason that the greatest ever Tour cyclist comes from Belgium. We are admittedly not very fit yet, but we got our arses kicked in Wallonia. Up to 11% climbs, climbs that went on for miles, climbs on gravel and chippings, there is a full variety! On the upside, putting this work in our legs will pay off in the coming weeks. It hasn’t helped that I was sick for the worst days. One campsite we stayed in had a tap on each pitch of “eau potable”, but I was about a litre into a water bottle I’d filled when I noticed that it had tiny bugs in it. Getting ill is part and parcel of travelling, so why not do it in Europe where there are plenty of good toilets to use?

It’s rained most days, though thankfully it’s mostly been at night or while cycling, and not when we’re setting up or packing up the tent. The tent is as battered as we are – one large tear and a broken pole – but we’ve got some major towns and cities coming up and should be able to get some spares and repairs. We also found that my front stem and fork had come loose and were barely attached, which would have meant a nasty accident, but everything seems fixed now.

Our one really warm day had us on dirt tracks through woodland, where we met a family who’d fled Ukraine. The father spoke some English, and we chatted for a bit before he shook our hands and wished us well, the reverse of how it should be.

We’re doing our best to try lots of beer, and it’s a heavy burden to carry. In Belgium, the abv % isn’t listed on the menu, which is unhelpful when you need to know whether cycling is advisable after one of them.

We’ve meandered our way through Belgium rather than going straight across, and our route now heads north for a couple of days to take in a bit of the Netherlands, before hopping over to Germany for pork knuckles.

A flat part of Belgium, fooling us.

A playlist from the ride through France and Belgium: