Homeward Bound

20/7/18. The hills of the Neckar Valley end at Heidelberg and the river flows another 20 or 30 km across the Rhine valley floor to its confluence with its much larger and more famous cousin. It goes through a series of suburbs/dormitory towns of Mannheim before ensuring entering the city itself and the bike route becomes quite uninteresting – so much so that neither of us could be fussed to do the last 3 or 4 km. So we turned off through the centre towards the campsite on the banks of the Rhine to the south of the city and, once past the station, entered a very pleasant wooded area.

 

The campsite was excellent for one so close to the centre of a major city and was also convenient for the station from which we would be taking the train to Belgium the next day. There was a cafe next to the site and, when we went for a drink that evening, we were amazed at the number of people enjoying a pizza and a beer looking out over the river in the warmth of the setting sun.

On Friday we took a series of 6 trains from Mannheim via Mainz, Cologne, Aachen, Brussels and Ghent to de Panne – the last town on the Belgian coast before France. Because of bike restrictions (and also having bought the cheapest tickets) in Germany we were restricted to regional trains rather than the faster Inter City Expresses and so it was past 8 o’clock before we arrived at the campsite in de Panne, which was one we had used 2 years ago when riding home from Berlin along the Baltic and North Sea coasts.

In case you are wondering why we had chosen come to this obscure little town (!) it was because it is relatively convenient for the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover and meant that we could avoid French trains which are not very bike friendly and would have required us going via Paris with an inevitable change of stations and at far greater cost!

Tomorrow we have a 30 km ride to the ferry and then is back to Blighty!

…Quite Quick, Stop!

18/7/18. Well, we didn’t quite complete the “Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow” sequence primarily due to the spacing of campsites (but the temperature and our attitude played their parts too!)

Tuesday took us 54 km from Heilbronn to Eberbach through a succession of pretty little towns and villages situated wherever the hills pulled back a little from the river banks. In between the views were even more lovely than the previous day and every so often there was a large barge or a river cruise boat to provide additional interest.

The campsite in Eberbach could not have been more convenient for the cycle route – the gate was at least 10 metres off to the right! We took a pitch right on the river bank with views of the old town and surrounding hills on the other side. The only slight downside with the site was the absence of Wi-Fi.

As it was only mid afternoon we wandered over the bridge to have a look around the town and to investigate train fares and times for the trip to Heidelberg that we were planning for the next day. (We were only a day’s ride from the end of the Neckar bike route where it flows into the Rhine at Mannheim providing we did not stop to look around Heidelberg on the way and, anyway, there were no campsites around the city famed for its ancient university – a similar age to Oxford and Cambridge.)

Heidelberg was half an hour’s train ride from Eberbach and, while the ticket for one person seemed expensive at €18 return, a ticket for two was only an extra €4. We were both very impressed by the city, particularly when we took the funicular railway up to the castle and wandered around the gardens. The views over the city, the river, the hills and out to the much wider and flatter Rhine valley were stunning.

Slow,Slow, Quick…

16/7/18. (It remains to be seen whether we complete the above sequence with a “…Quick, Slow”)

With the train arriving back in Tübingen (where we had left the Neckar Valley bike route to go to the Bodensee) at lunchtime it was probably an ambitious target to make the first campsite downriver since it was more than 60 km away. With the heat building up through the afternoon and Christine’s legs “blocked” by a week off the bike it proved to be too much and she started to wilt. After a couple of stops to cool off in the shade we decided that a hotel in Köngen or Wendlingen am Neckar (twin towns either side of the river) was the sensible option. At the fourth time of asking we found a hotel that was both open and had a room but of course it was the most expensive looking one!

Christine crashed out at about 5.30 and slept until 8 the next morning other than rousing herself for half an hour to eat a pretzel and take a drink of apple juice mid evening.

In the morning she still felt tired! After a couple of hours sitting still for her “pill day” we set off just before the final check out time of 11 o’clock and headed for the campsite which was about 30 km away in Stuttgart. Although the sun was shining when we set out the clouds started to roll in and, by the time we reached the campsite in Stuttgart 2½ hours later (having passed at least three Mercedes factories – Stuttgart is the company’s headquarters), the forecast thunderstorm looked very imminent.

With reception shut for lunch we were tempted to put up the tent and check in afterwards but we’re dissuaded from doing so by man who was very insistent that “ Reception opens at 2 o’clock”. A few spots of rain were falling by the time we had paid our fees and were “legal” campers so we rushed to get the tent up and were just in time before the heavy stuff arrived. Luckily it only lasted for 15 minutes or so.

The showers continued throughout the afternoon and night (but without thunder) and the clouds were still looming when we set off on Monday morning. The initial part of the route was OK being off road but it passed through an industrial and unattractive part of Stuttgart, but once we left the city behind us the river meandered its way through some steep sided valleys covered with vineyards. Who knew that this was a wine producing region? We certainly didn’t! It was all rather lovely.

Gradually the clouds were burnt off and the sun started to warm things up. However, we made good time thanks to some long shaded stretches and the gentle downward slope. (We’re heading downriver of course. There are no flies on us!) Naturally, the river’s meanders meant that we didn’t make as much progress as the crow flies (at one stage Stephen saw on his Garmin that our starting point was almost exactly half of the 54 km that we had cycled) but that’s not the point. And our intended destination campsite took account of the indirect, scenic route we were following.

It was nearing 6 o’clock when we reached the campsite but Christine in particular felt pretty pleased with herself for having achieved our joint longest day (other than the unloaded blast around Lake Constance) on this trip at 84 km. With the temperature having got close to 30° in the afternoon the showers (normal ones where the water flowed without having to hit a button every few seconds) were really, really welcome and we were more than ready for the usual pasta in tomato sauce washed down with a choice of apfelschörle and beer!

The Bodensee Again

13/7/18. When we arrived at the campsite in Fischbach, the same one that we used last summer, we found we were the only ones staying in the cyclists’ area and so we were able to take one of the prime spots right on the lakeside. There was no sign of a large family of ducks like last year (there was an “army”of 18 ducklings following their mother around). Instead there was a swans nest about 5 metres from our tent with a mother and two cygnets. The father seemed to think his role was limited to offshore protection patrols.

With two full days before the ”kids” arrived we decided to have one lazy day and one energetic one. The showers on Thursday morning were sufficiently heavy to deter even Stephen so the bike ride around the lake was deferred to Friday. He just lounged around the tent reading and listening to podcasts all day while Christine combined similar “activities” with a walk into Immenstaad to pick up food.

A heavy thunderstorm that evening did not augur well for the bike ride next day. Christine was amazed when Stephen fell asleep at about 8 o’clock despite the extremely loud drumming of raindrops on the tent but he was briefly woken about 15 minutes later when there was the most enormous clap of thunder seemingly overhead.

The showers on Friday morning seemed a little lighter than Thursday and so we set off around the lake…

In opposite directions!

You may well ask “Why?”

Despite all our many, many years of cycling together we still ride at very different speeds. Stephen has managed to train himself to stop at various points such as the top of hills, public toilets and junctions when we’re not familiar with the route and might get separated. None of these applied this time as we were going on a circular route which we had both ridden several times before. In addition, Stephen wanted to go anti clockwise “Because we already always go clockwise” while Christine wanted to finish with the “pretty bit” through Meersburg, Hagnau and Immenstaat rather than alongside the busy main road from Friedrichshafen.

As it turned out we both made it all the way round (well, technically, not all the way round because we took a ferry between Constance and Meersburg cutting out the uninteresting northern part of the lake – but the Bodensee Radmarathon (= Lake Constance Cycle Ride) does the same every year so it is “allowed”, right?). It was between 125 and 130 km (depending on whose bike computer you looked at! Christine took a slightly shorter route around the Rhine delta because it is an exposed stretch and the weather was not looking good at the time)

And, since you ask, we did meet up! It was in Switzerland, close to the Austrian border. We were both rather surprised – Christine because it was just after her short cut and Stephen because his computer was showing only 65km compared to Christine’s 60km! (Additional motivation for the rest of the ride for him!!!!!)

The weather was much better in the afternoon and we both arrived back “home” well before dinner time (although Christine’s arrival was delayed somewhat by a celebratory ice cream sundae 10 km from the end!)

On Saturday we made our way to the flat we had rented in Lindau at the southern end of the lake and where we were joined by the newly-engaged Alaric and Annabelle and the Bahrain exiles Conal, Tamsin and Reuben. We’ll spare you the details of our week together other than to say we had a wonderful time and it was over too quickly! (And, of course, 7 month old Reuben was joint star of the show along with Annabelle’s new ring!

Down the Neckar

4/7/18. Although we had been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the cycle paths in Strasbourg they did have a tendency to fizzle out suddenly and signage was a little sketchy (perhaps because we didn’t know the names of the areas making up the city. Of course, as soon as we crossed the Rhine into Germany the infrastructure stepped up a notch, with cycle paths everywhere and signs to towns we could see on the map.  

We found our way to a nice little campsite near the town of Offenburg the only downside being the constant drone of traffic from the nearby autobahn while big positives were (a) the availability of cold beers and Apfelschörle (Christine’s favorite tipple of apple juice and fizzy mineral water) at reception and (b) decent toilets (sorry France, but you really do need to get your act together on toilets before you can truly be considered civilised!)

A short ride into town on Monday morning took us to the station where we caught the train up (altitude gain of 600 metres) into the Black Forest from where we intended cycling down the valley of the river Neckar to its confluence with the Rhine at Mannheim.

Arriving in Schwennigen we looked in vain for signs to the cycle route (we were as well prepared as ever!) but then spotted that the tourist information office was round the front of the station. A town map showed that we were actually on the route already and so off we set!

Initially it was downhill – in the first 10 km we descended more than 40 metres and only “climbed” 2 metres. However, as we approached the town of Rottweil (where we assume the name for Rottweiler  dogs comes from) the route started to go up the sides off the valley and also joined quite busy roads. Christine rapidly became ticked off at the amount of climbing. However, a few kilometres past the town we were back on quiet trails that (mainly) stuck to the valley floor passing under a spectacular bridge carrying the motorway from one side to the other high above us.

As we approached the town of Oberndorf we consulted Christine’s iPad to see where the campsite was located. A man wandered over and asked if we were lost. He told us to look out for the mini golf and ask at the kiosk which we duly did.

The campsite was similar to one that we had stayed at in another town in southern Germany when riding down the Danube 3 years ago. It was a small area hidden behind hedges and clearly intended only for cyclists and walkers there being no room for caravans, motorhomes or tents larger than those for 3 or maybe 4 people. There was a small toilet and shower facility attached to the cafe serving the mini golf which was locked once the cafe closed but we were given a key. It cost the princely sum of €5 post person and we were the only ones staying there! The local “yoof“ had decided that it would be a good location for a party but they didn’t seem to be a bad bunch, kept their distance and were relatively quiet. They even decided that 10 o’clock was time to call it a night so we had no real complaint.

We had told the man running the kiosk that we were expecting to leave between 9 and 10 o’clock so, with typical Germanic efficiency  he turned up promptly at 9 to pick up the key to the toilets even though his normal opening time was 9.30.

For the first time for, seemingly, weeks there were clouds in the sky when we set off and they became more threatening as the morning progressed. We reached the small town of Sulz and spotted a bookshop for the first time since we arrived in Germany and Christine made a beeline for it hoping to find a Bikeline book of the Neckar Valley bike route as she had been feeling bereft without a map on the top of her handlebar bag to follow our progress. Bikeline is an Austrian company that produces books of maps and route descriptions of cycle rides which fit perfectly in handlebar map cases. They are mainly in German (not a problem for Christine ) but the more popular routes are available in English and we highly recommend them as useful and helpful guides.

Success! (So Stephen thought it would be another case of “Happy wife means a happy life”!)

Just as Christine emerged from the shop clutching her book we felt a few spots of rain. They rapidly increased in intensity and so we rushed into the cafe next to the bookshop for shelter and caffeine/chocolate fixes.

Thankfully it was only a short, if heavy, shower and we were soon on our way again. The sun came out and by the time we reached our destination of Tübingen, home of one of Germany’s oldest universities founded in 1477, the ice creams from the campsite reception were definitely needed!

We spent the evening nattering to two British cyclists who were traveling extremely lightweight (no tent – just bivvy bags – and two sets of clothing – one for cycling, washed each night, and one for the evening) and then watching England play Columbia in the World Cup.Christine retired to the tent during extra time, unable to watch any more – but then followed progress on the BBC website! She felt she had suffered quite enough football disappointment already this season, and had no confidence the match would end successfully.

We spent this morning looking around Tübingen which, while beautiful in parts, didn’t strike us as particularly outstanding given our experience of Germany’s pretty towns. After that we made our way to the station where we had 1½ hours to wait for the slow train to Lake Constance. (We have decided to come a couple of days early before our sons and their families descend on us!)

Dieppe to Deutschland

1/7/18. Today was the day when we finally finished the crossing of France by cycling the few kilometres from the centre of Strasbourg to the The  Rhine and across a new bridge into Germany. But first Christine had her ‘pill day’ consisting of 2 hours sitting still before we headed to the cathedral where Stephen enjoyed a couple of coffees in a pretty square whilst Christine attended the morning service. She loved the stunning singing and organ playing in the beautiful old building.

It’s now a good time to reflect on the last 2½ weeks crossing France.

First and foremost, we have had a great time! We would thoroughly recommend the Marne valley and the Marne-Rhine Canal as a cycle route from Paris to Germany. Or even as a driving route.

It is almost two years since we were last in France, other than a couple of days in Alsace (not  “real” France quite yet, even though it is becoming less Germanic every time we visit) last year. We have visited old friends, Marie-Claire and Christian, and seen parts of the country, Champagne and Lorraine, which we haven’t been to before.

The weather has helped. We had drizzle on the first afternoon out of Dieppe and a few spots the next morning. Other than that we have had blue skies all the way and, although there have been a few moans about the wind (well, quite a lot really!) It has been good in keeping us cool when it might have become unbearably hot.

We have enjoyed the bread, the cheese and the wine. The French ambience has been great. We have found the campsites to be extremely reasonable but do fear for the future viability of some of them and most of them have toilets that leave something to be desired! (Why, oh why, do so many not supply seats and paper for goodness’ sake?)

The countryside has been generally pretty rather than spectacular, other than our brief foray into the Vosges, but we have enjoyed it. In fact it has been such a lovely cycle that Christine is already thinking how good it would be to do the ‘Velodyssey’, a cycle route from Brittany down the west coast to Spain. We passed many barges and boats and even a few cruises, but having looked at the prices will definitely stick to our bikes (>$6000 for a 6 night cruise through Champagne). We were delighted at the number of storks we saw, with the highlight being 8 in one field! We both enjoyed speaking French and felt we got more fluent the longer we were there. Now we have to suddenly flick a switch and change to German.

Tomorrow we intend to take the train up into the Black Forest, as one of us refuses to cycle up into the mountains!

Avoiding the Vosges

29/6/18. (Almost.) For those who don’t know the Vosges are a range of mountains running parallel to the Rhine that separate the main part of Alsace from the rest of France. While not as high as the Alps or the Pyrenees they are still a sizeable barrier as we discovered 35 years ago when we went over the Grand Ballon (1,400 metres) on a day ride, having left all our luggage other than waterproofs and lunch back at the hotel. This ride was memorable both for the difficulty and for Stephen overtaking a car for the first time (on the descent, of course) – exhilaration for one of us and cold shivers for the other!

We (well, Christine if truth be known) had plotted our route from Paris following the canal reasoning that it wouldn’t involve long, steep climbs. The theory was fine and had has largely worked out in practice. What we didn’t expect was a strong easterly wind. It had has become increasingly annoying and growing in strength over the last few days with the previous afternoon having been quite hard work as previously noted.

However, Stephen used extra pegs when erecting the tent last night  which seemed to do the trick and the wind died overnight! So we thought we were going to be all right.

Wrong!

By the time we got going (after the visit of the mobile boulangerie with still warm baguettes and croissants) the wind was starting to blow again. As the morning progressed so did its strength to such a point that even downhill stretches became a struggle requiring pedalling rather than freewheeling. It was tough going and we were more than ready for the mid morning snack of croissants after 20 km of battling against the wind.

The saving grace was that the route we were following was mainly very quiet country roads with the occasional dedicated cycle route – if it had been along busy roads it would have been too depressing for words.

As mid afternoon approached we were conscious that we did not have much in the food bag for dinner or breakfast and our intended campsite was not near a town so we headed into Sarrebourg to find a supermarket to top up on supplies.

Getting out of the town was a bit of a slog uphill. It wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if we hadn’t had such a tough start to the day and a slight drop in the wind’s strength went almost unnoticed as our legs tired.

One last long uphill (not really very steep but the wind made it hard work at the end of a tiring day) took us to the top of a gorge where we rejoined the canal which suddenly looked uncared for, with reeds choking the channel and lock gates missing. We realised to our amazement that we had reached the high point of our crossing of the Vosges! We were at the top of a series of 17 locks which had been rendered redundant by a high tech lift which takes boats up and down the eastern edge of the Vosges saving water and manpower (one person per lock v. only 2 at the lift) .

There was a campsite conveniently placed at the bottom of the disused locks which we were more than ready to use for the night with Christine in need of a good night’s sleep while Stephen went to the adjacent restaurant for a glass or two of Alsatian wine.

In the morning we continued our descent from the pass on the towpath alongside the canal. Although the wind had again dropped overnight, by the time we reached the wide valley floor of the Rhine at the pretty town of Saverne it was starting to build in strength and we were grateful for any shelter from trees as we continued heading east.

The towpath continued all the way into Strasbourg and, even better, it started to head southwards which made the wind more of a crosswind.

With our major objective achieved (and very limited options on campsites around the city) we decided to celebrate/treat ourselves by going to a hotel and so we headed for the one we had stayed in about 11 months ago when riding down the Rhine.

Crashing on the bed we started to crystallize thoughts we had both been having over how to fill the week before the house rental on Lake Constance with the “kids”. It quickly became apparent that both of us wanted a rest and a wander round the Capital of Europe rather than to move on the next day so we have extended the hotel reservation by an extra night.

And Into Lorraine

26/6/18. Despite having been to its “partner” Alsace many times we have not been to the second half of Alsace-Lorraine other than perhaps passing through on a train. It has a reputation for being industrial and full of (ex) coal mines but, because we steered clear of the major cities of Nancy and Metz, this has not been our experience although we have been following a number of canals which are presumably part of the legacy of the region’s industrial heritage.

We set off from Bar-le-Duc on Monday morning somewhat apprehensive about what the second half of the day would bring. This was because although we were following the Marne-Rhine Canal we knew that we were going to be crossing from one river valley (the Marne) into another (the Meuse). The canal went south/southeast for quite a long way before suddenly turning north and disposing into a long tunnel which was impassable to bikes.

We followed the superb voie verte along the towpath until Ligny-en-Barrois where we headed due east up the hill on the old road which had been replaced by a nasty looking dual carriageway full of large lorries and speeding cars. Although the road surface had deteriorated a lot in places we were more than grateful not to be on the new road.

And the hill, although long, not was not as steep as it had appeared on the route profile we had looked at. (These profiles can exaggerate low hills as they use the full vertical space to show the highest point whether it is 10 metres or a 1,000 metres up.)

Then the countryside became more rolling once we reached the top. After an excursion into a service area on the new road (unsuccessfully looking for a toilet) we headed back to the former route pushing the bikes across a grassy area when suddenly Christine felt a sharp pain behind her right knee. Although this swiftly passed she felt the occasional twinge thereafter. As the campsite for which we were headed was still some 40 km away we decided to head for the nearest town, Commercy, which was a more manageable 12 km, discretion being the better part of valour and all that.

It turns out that Commercy’s claim to fame is that it is where the little cakes called Madeleines originate from although we couldn’t find out why. Unfortunately Commercy did not have a campsite that took tents so we went for the cheaper of the two hotels, declining the breakfast at €9 each, Stephen being sent out to one of the 5 supermarkets inn the town to buy a picnic salad, Orangina and beer  for dinner, and croissants and orange juice for breakfast at a total cost of €10! (Although Stephen did take a walk into town the next morning before Christine awoke to get his caffeine fix for a further €2.50!)

Christine’s knee behaved itself overnight and she noticed it only a couple of times the next morning so we decided to risk heading back towards our original route and for the campsite we had originally being aimed for meaning that we had two days of about 40 km rather than one day of 70 km. This is not a problem as we have the luxury of time to get to Lake Constance and it was always our intention to take the train part of the way anyway!

Leaving Commercy we found that we were following the route of another canal and river valley (both called the Meuse) and, although the towpath was not rideable, we used quiet roads. It was all very lovely.

Eventually we reached the major road which we had been paralleling the previous day and again took the old road into the town of Toul. With only 10km or so to go and with the day having warmed up we headed into the centre and found a bench conveniently situated in the shade right outside a little bar which formed a very pleasant lunch stop for our baguette and cheese while patronising the local business for cold drinks.

Suitably refreshed we headed up a long drag out of town before going down a steep (13%) hill down to the campsite on the Moselle river (the wine is made where it crosses into Germany).  

The river was wide (and deep, we realised,when a large barge chugged past) and flowed very slowly, with undisturbed reflections of the wooded area on the opposite bank. The cost may have been more than double that of Bar-le-Duc at €20 (v €9) but it was worth every penny for such a glorious setting. And the tent site was in prime position right on the river bank! The only disturbance to the peaceful setting was two French air force jets practising their manoeuvres overhead and seeming to take great delight in buzzing the campsite!

We saw 4 British cars, a couple of Germans but the overwhelming majority of visitors were Dutch caravans – the lady in reception even owned up to speaking a little Dutch!

The next morning (Wednesday) we were spared the slog back up the steep hill because Christine, when going for a walk the previous evening, had found an excellent cycle path on the other bank back with a way across using the lock gates just a kilometre downstream.

We passed through the next village, called Sexey-aux-Forges which made the smutty schoolboy amongst us snigger, and on to the suburbs of Nancy where the short canal we had been following joined our old friend, the Marne-Rhine Canal. Unfortunately, the voie verte had not been developed along this stretch and so we were back on the road which proved to be a bit of a racetrack.  This went on for about 10 km although we were grateful that the traffic seemed to calm down more the further we went from Nancy.

Eventually the main road veered away from the canal and we joined much more pleasant quiet, minor road which tracked the water. The only downside was the wind which had been getting stronger throughout the day and, now we had turned a little north of east, was blowing into our faces and making even the flat road hard work on exposed stretches. (Cyclists are like farmers aren’t they? There’s always something to moan about!)

About halfway to the campsite the voie verte started up again and,with lots of trees providing shelter from the wind, Christine was content. It reminded Stephen of the old adage “A happy wife means a happy life”.

After an ice cream stop (more happiness!) we soon reached the campsite which was another gem – right by the canal, peaceful, extremely reasonable (€10.50, showers included), toilet paper – but again almost empty making us fear for its future viability.

However, if “they” get their act together and convert more of the towpath into voies vertes and then sell the route to the Germans as a cycling holiday from Strasbourg to Paris through Champagne it will be an absolute cast-iron winner assuring the future of small businesses (such as the campsites) along the way. It is relatively flat, passing through lovely countryside with attractions of both an alcoholic and historic (WW1) nature joining two major well-connected cities which are each attractive in their own right. They might even attract a few more Brits!