Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Eurovelo 6: Germany - the good and the bad

 A brave cyclist?
The Danube bike trail in Germany is not as crowded as its counterpart in Austria - but equally interesting. I even found out that there are trail angels in Germany! I was cycling on a really rainy day (something quite normal!) and fled into a bakery to eat something. Sitting there and chewing some wonderful Sachertorte I started talking to the lady running the shop about my bike trip. She was awfully impressed and when I left she gave me some nice pastry as a present because "I am so brave!"

But I have also been victim to vandalism: When I had parked my bike outside a McDonalds (shame on me) in Ingolstadt, somebody had broken the tray of my map holder - apparently just for fun. I could buy a new one the next day but the thing costs 25 EUR and I was pretty annoyed. I didn't expect vandalism in a nice Bavarian town like Ingolstadt.

Eurovelo 6: Passau

Organ in Passau cathedral
Today I am in Passau and currently sitting in a laundromat with internet connection. After 24 hours of straight rain the sun is shining again. I cycled 80 km yesterday in constant rain - it was no fun, but it is possible. My rain gear is much better now, but I still have no perfect solution for me shoes and that means wet and cold feet.  And I still have numb fingers - either from cold, rain or because they have been numb for 2 weeks now. I booked myself into a nice B&B in Passau and was almost surprised the landlady let me go inside - so wet and dirty was I when I arrived. But a long hot shower and a visit of an AYCE buffet helped to improve my mood quickly.
Danube statue

Passau has the biggest organ in the world and I attended a fantastic lunch concert that showed the incredibly effects that can be achieved with such a tremendous instrument. And of course I could not resist to visit the castle on top of Passau although that meant lugging my fully loaded bike up a steep hill. Passau is also the last German city - this afternoon I will be in Austria, home of the best Nussbeugerl in the world!

Eurovelo 6: Regensburg

Stone bridge at Regensbur
In Regensburg I became a victim of a tourist information lady again! I had a reservation at the ETAP hotel but I almost wanted to cycle on. But then she showed me the way to the ETAP hotel which is of course somewhere far outside in an industrial suburb - and you could get there on bike trails! That convinced me and I ended up staying the whole evening in my "plush" ETAP hotel eating hotel delivered pizza and watching TV while outside the sun was shining. Unfortunately, I saw "autopsy", an American crime documentary about serial killers, which isn't the nicest thing to have on your mind while sleeping in a tent hidden in German forests... But I had spent a wonderful day in Regensburg seeing the cathedral and the residence of the famous Thurn und Taxis family.

Inside Walhalla
Next day out of Regensburg brought me to Walhalla, some sort of German Hall of fame built in 1842 by King Ludwig I. It was interesting to see that some of the celebrities featured there have fallen into total oblivion today. It was a beautiful day and the views from the Walhalla down onto the river Danube were amazing. It is fun cycling in weather like this!

Eurovelo 6: Ingolstadt

I must admit that I just stayed in Ingolstadt because the lady in the tourist information office was so nice. She found me cheap accomodation, showed me the laundromats and told me about internet cafes. So I stayed - I didn't regret it! After washing all my clothes for the first time in 3,5 weeks (biker clothes don't stink as much as hiker clothes) I started an extensive sightseeing tour.

Penny farthing at Audi
First stop was the AUDI factory and museum. I showed up at exactly 9 am when they open and was the first visitor of the day. Therefore I even got a private tour - there was just no other visitor around. My tour guide was a student in Ingolstadt and I asked him a hundred questions - me, who doesn't like cars at all. And I really impressed him by knowing Michelle Mouton (she is one of the few female rally drivers and me as feminist knew her of course). They even exhibit old bicycles as Audi started off as a bike manufacturer and I could show off with me knowledge about bike history (thank you Leo, that's just because of you!). After the tour I ran constantly into my tour guide again and got another private tour, just because he seemed to like me and now I know everything about AUDI marketing strategy. Did you know that an AUDI TT sports car is considered a "girlie car" in the US, while here it is something for managers in midlife crisis? Well, I spent 4 hours in the car museum having a fantastic time but I still can't believe that cars are so interesting!

Schloss Neuburg
And then I discovered that Ingolstadt has the biggest World War I museum in Germany, so I had to see that, too - and that was the next 3 hours. The exhibition was huge - and very interesting, but also rather depressing. I had to leave at some point because Ingolstadt staged a marathon race at that day and I had to get out before they closed off all the streets. So big surprise: Ingolstadt, that had sounded so boring in my guide book, was one of the most interesting stops so far.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Eurovelo 6: Danube - German part

Interesting shelter
The weather is still not good, but better. The rain is not so cold any more... But seriously, once in a while I have a day with no rain at all. For example tomorrow the weather forecast predicts nice weather! I have been camping a lot the last couple of days and most of the days I can dry my stuff during the day. And I slowly find my cycling rhythm now. First of all I don't plan the day anymore. It is just too unpredictable - it depends on the rain and the towns I visit. Sometimes I look forward to visit a town like Ulm for example and then I get there and nothing works out. Although there were various Dachgeber hosts in Ulm I could not get hold of them or they had other plans. So I gave up on my rest day there and just left!

But sometimes I come to a town that sounds pretty uninteresting in my guidebook like Höchstädt and I discover an interesting museum (about the battle of Blenheim, that took place there in 1704) - and then I spend the whole afternoon there. The British won this decisive battle and built Blenheim Palace near Oxford is a reminder - but the name is just one big misunderstanding. The battle take place near the village of Blindheim, but the British could not pronounce that and mutilated it to Blenheim. Kloster Obermarchtal was another very handy sightseeing stop as I arrived there just in time for the monastery tour and helped me to get out of a heavy downpour.

Danube close to the source
The Danube has a very humble source and the first kilometers it resembles more a brook than a mighty river. As the river gets wider and the bike paths better the Danube becomes heavily touristed. Now it is still off season and therefore I usually have the choice of staying in a hotel or guesthouse if I can't find a camp spot or the weather is too bad. So I don't need much planning. I just leave in the morning and see how the day develops.

The only problem is my fingers: Now the fingers on both hands are pretty numb all the time. I changed the position of the handle bar several times but nothing works. I did some research on the internet and apparently this problem is quite common. The symptoms usually disappear, but it takes several weeks!!!! So even if I find a better handle bar position, I will not realize it because my fingers will be numb anyway.... If anybody knows a solution, please post a comment!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Eurovelo 6: Lake Constance

Lake Constance with Alps
 There are three countries bordering that lake - Germany, Switzerland and Austria. And before the river Rhine forms the border between Germany and Switzerland, so I was border crossing at least 20 times. The weather got better and on Sunday the sun came out and it got really warm. But I can tell you: A nice sunday at Lake Constance leads to traffic jams on the bike pathes. Everybody and their mother (and their kitchen sink) was out for a stroll, bike trip or car trip. The views of the Alps compensated for everything: Due to Foehn you could see endlessly - the snow covered Alps as a background for blue Lake Constance were phenomenal!

Stilt houses in Unter-Uhldingen
There is a lot to see, too and I visited the Zeppelin Museum and the Pfahlbautenmuseum. And of course there are a lot of churches and castles and so on...although churches are now all baroque instead of Gothic. It took me a long time to figure out what Pfahlbauten are in English and I guess stilt houses or lake dwellings is the best translation. Within one day I saw the remnants of a luxurious Zeppelin and Stone Age stilt houses which are not luxurious at all. The museum showed a documentary soap about some volunteer modern age families who had agreed to live in a Stone Age hut for a summer. Within days they called their TV team for help on their emergency cell phone because the roof was leaking and their rescuers had to come and help them out with a plastic sheet. Although those families survived until the end of summer and the end of the TV documentary in real life they would have died in the following winter: They had not been able to collect enough provisions to last them through a winter.

But unfortunately, my weather luck didn't last. Today the weather turned bad again: It is cold, completely overcast (it will surely soon rain again) and miserable. And I start to get worried about my fingers: My legs and my butt don't hurt at all from cycling, but my fingers have been numb for a couple of days. Apparantly my position on my bike cuts blood circulation to my hands off. I tried to change the position but so far it has not gotten better. Anyway, I am in a nice internet cafe in Tuttlingen now, where I join the river Danube. Reputedly the bike path along the Danube is excellently signposted and that is just what I need now. Now if just the weather was better....

Eurovelo 6: The river Rhine

Rhine fall at Schaffhausen
I was supposed to meet Ursula in Basel but she cancelled in the last moment. I had not received her cancellation via email and waited around in Basel for an hour getting more and more worried about what had happened to her until I checked my email eventually. Shit happens, but I was not happy at all about that last minute bail out. Without Ursula I did not even have maps for the upcoming stretch, but luckily I could by the bikeline guidebook for the Rhine bike trail in Basel.

Stein am Rhein
After navigating through Mulhouse and Basel in one day I was fed up with big cities and continued straight on along the Rhine towards Lake Constance. All my romantic ideas of the idyllic river Rhine were awfully disappointed. The Rhine is heavily industrialized and stealth camping almost impossible. So were would I stay the night? I tried the German Dachgeber for the very first time - their American equivilant is Warm Showers. These are cyclists who offer a roof for other cyclists - there is a book with hundreds of addresses all over Germany. I called the first address and was immediately invited. I ended up in Bad Säckingen with a lady who normally rents holiday flats (Ferienwohnung) and she gave me one of them for free. We chatted the whole evening and a horrible day ended quite nice: In one day I got lost in Mulhouse and Basel, waited and worried for an hour for Ursula who never showed up for our meeting, ruined my brake and broke a spoke an my bike. At least it didn't rain too much that day. But after a nice evening with the Dachgeber people I went to the local bike shop, got my bike repaired, did a lot of sight seeing and life was good again. It didn't even rain that day at all.

Lake Constance
I continued along the Rhine passing the Rhine falls at Schaffhausen and pittoresque Stein am Rhein. The next day I met my former Swiss boss at Konstanz at lake Constance. It was quite a funny encounter. This guy only knows me from business life with me in a formal business outfit. And now I turned up with cycling shorts on a bike! It was a nice meeting anyway - he invited me for lunch and offered me a job. But after hearing about me future travel plans he realised pretty soon that I wouldn't probably take his job - and of course I didn't! The weather eventually became better that day so I decided to cycle around lake Constance (Bodensee) just for fun. It is not on the Eurovelo route, but I have never been in that area, so I just went for it!

Eurovelo 6: From Loire to Rhine

Nice gravel tow path
After leaving the Loire the Eurovelo 6 was often routed along canals. Cycling along these towpaths could be anything from smooth tarmac to gravel trail to impassable mud tracks. One day I tried to follow the Eurovelo 6 map and ended up in mud so deep that even pushing the bike became impossible. Apparantly the Eurovelo 6 had been much more developped on the map than on real ground. The mud clogged up the brake pads and then everything stalled. I ended up half carrying the fully loaded bike half cleaning the wheels every minute. I have never before been that happy to see tarmac again.

Flooded bike trail
The rain had been so bad that it had inundated sections of the bike trail as can be seen on this picture. It was difficult to decide whether to just cycle through risking to get wet when you had to turn around in the middle of it or just look for an alternate around it. Unfortunately there were not too many other cyclists around to see what they were doing. I was probably cycling too early in the season. The veloroute was actually quite nice, but very badly signposted. If you are cycling along a canal and can see for miles on end, you don't need any signposts, but then there were hundreds! But in the big cities, were you really need them, there were of course none. So I ended up cycling around in industrial suburbs for hours in pouring rain being lost.

France was an endless succession of castles, cathedrals, canals and rain, rain and more rain! In hindsight I have probably overdone castle sightseeing a bit. They were so expensive that I have overspent my budget and in the end all those castles looked pretty much the same. Cathedrals on the other hand were at least free. A last and very different highlight of the route through France was Mulhouse: Not only did it have a very centrally located Formule 1 hotel but also a superb railway museum. I wished I had stayed longer but I had to push on to meet Ursula in Basel which was less than a day's cycling from Mulhouse.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Eurovelo 6: Miscellaneous from castle country

Interesting sculpture
The weather has gotten so bad (and I so soaked) that I decided to take a train to today's destination Nevers. I am waiting for my train now and found a internet place. So now miscellaneous from castle country: I have seen a lot of cyclists so far, but they are all on racing bikes - nobody is bicycle touring, not even other Germans. They must have been smarter than me and looked at the weather forecast. Everybody on a racing bike is a) male, b) accompanied by a group of similar males and c) dressed like a parrot in really kinky racing outfits. There are a lot of them, but I don't understand why nobody is touring.....

Morning mist at my Loire camp site
Camping has turned out to be a bigger problem than expected: Stealth camping is usually not a big problem while hiking because you are in the woods on foot trails - and that makes it easy to disappear. When cycling on the other hand you are usually close to roads and civilisation and it has been difficult for me to find stealth camp sites that are quiet and out of sight. The best one so far was directly on the banks of the river Loire and very scenic - especially in the morning mist. But unfortunately I had camped on the site of an old fire place and when I packed the tent in the morning the bottom was all sooty - and after packing it I was sooty, too.That cried for a hotel stay the next night when I had the rare joy to take a shower together with my tent - rather messy affair to say the least.

Not quite a Formule 1 hotel...
Accommodation wise my biggest discovery is Hotel Formule 1 - they are even cheaper than Etap (just 30 EUR), you can book them on the internet and they are everywhere. They even allow you to take your bike into your room, which can be quite a challenge considering that the rooms are really small. Unfortunately, they are usually situated in some commercial zone in the middle of nowhere, so I have become quite efficient in navigating industrial suburbs in pouring rain. You can also check availibility and book rooms online which is really useful for my limited knowledge of the French language.

Bike path along the Loire
My rain gear is absolutely inadequate: I have been cycling in light rain for half a day and I am absolutely soaked. The problem is that it is very cold on top. The biggest unforeseen problem are my feet. I am cycling in normal trailrunners that are not waterproof at all. In all that rain they get soaked very quickly and result in wet and cold feet. When hiking this is not so much of a problem because you are constantly moving your feet and this keeps them warm. But cycling does not keep the blood circulation going in the feet like hiking and soon they feel like ice blocks. My attempts to buy better rain gear in a local Decathlon have only been sort of successful. I could not get any waterproof shoe covers, only neoprene ones that are intended for wear over cycling shoes. But my trailrunners are much bigger and wider than cycling shoes and I had to buy the biggest size availabe to make them fit. They are not perfect but at least my feet are a bit warmer now. But if this rain goes on like that, I don't know what to do....

French keyboards are very different than German ones and this drives me absolutely crazy while typing....

One last good thing: There are a lot of Lidl in France!

Eurovelo 6: Loire Valley

Sunset over St. Nazaire
As this is my first long bike trip and the first time I am flying with a bike I was very excited. But despite all my worries the start was easy. I had disassembled the bike the night before and packed it into the bike box. Wulf brought me to the airport and my nicely packed bicycle was easily accepted. It even turned up completely unharmed in Paris. And it took me only 30 minutes to assemble it again. I had done a lot of research on how to get from the airport into Paris centre and everything worked out just fine - no problems on the subway or cycling a bit through Paris. Even the trains to St. Nazaire was on time. It took me the whole day to get from Berlin to the start of my bike trip St. Nazaire and I just got there for a beatiful sunset. Life as good and everything had worked out.

Cinderella Castle
After one night in a fully booked Etap Hotel I started on the Loire Valley Bike Trail that coincides with the Eurovelo 6. I was very happy to see my first Eurovelo sign - although it would be the last for a long time. At least I had a Bikeline guidebook for the Loire Valley. To my big surprise my butt does not hurt despite the new and hard Brooks leather saddle. My legs do not hurt either, but I am not doing a big mileage because there are so many castles to visit.

The Loire Castles were something I have really been looking forward to - but I did not expect them to be that expensive. There is no "castle pass" and you have to pay for each individual castle. For example there is Cinderalla castle that was used as a modell for Walt Disney movies. There even is a Cinderella exhibition inside. Chambord - definitely the highlight castle. It is huge! And then there are so many others.... All those castles have one big disadvantage: They are awfully cold. My favourite place in a castle was always in front of the fireplace no matter how ugly that room is. After a while all those castles started to look the same anyway.

But there is more to see than castles: By chance I saw a sign for a "mushroom farm" which sounded so weird that I decided to go and see it. I learnt that mushrooms do not need light and can therefore be grown underground in caves where the damp surroundings are ideal for them. Light is only needed for the humans picking them. You don't even need soil to grow them - just some carrier material for the nutrients they need. I saw all kinds of weird mushrooms but decided not to taste them in their little restaurant.

Unfortunaley, the weather has turned bad today, I mean really bad. I already had one night in my tent with -4 degrees Celsius - my water bottle was frozen in the morning. But I have a good sleeping bag and the Vapor Barrier Liner worked absolutely great. But now it has started to rain really bad, raining cats and dogs. And it is cold rain. I have not much idea of how to cope with that rain, it is easier when you are hiking. I want to meet Ursula in Basel so I have to keep going but I am considering taking the train for a short bit to be in Basel in time. Hope for better weather - this is supposed to be spring after all!