Monday, 28 July 2008

Monday 21st July - Offenburg to Frieburg im Brisgeau


More weird farmyard art

Today I reached the famous Frieburg im Brisgeau, apparently the sunniest town in Germany, and spent the evening at the first hostel so far on the trip. It was a nice little place and I'd forgotten how communal backpacker hostels could be having spent so much time being totally independent so far . I spent the evening with a couple of good humoured Ozzies called Will and Nick touring the heights of Frieburg, where we started drinking with a Mass, the famous 1 litre tankard of beer.
Amazingly, I managed to finish most of it, before going on to a cozy night in the park playing frisbee to a backdrop of unitelligible drunken shouting and applause from the local punk bums. Then as we cycled off for more drinking Will and I had a minor collision, which I have come to recognise as the now respected Fate's way of telling me to call it a night.
These little plaques are found all over the pavements in Frieburg outside the houses of former Jewish residents, commemorating their deportation and murder in Auschwitz.
Av. 18.3 kph, Max. 35.7 kph, Dist. 74.31 kms, Time 4.03.42

Sunday 20th July - Karlsruhe to Offenburg

The black forest is hilly and gorgeous; just the antidote to the boredom of the last couple of days of Rhineside cycling. I started off today in the suburb of Durlach on the outskirts of Karlsruhe, where I had spent the night in a 'proper' and over-priced campsite. I bought a map of the region with the intention of dipping into the Schwarzwald rather than just skirting it. It was thoroughly worthwhile, seeing Bad Rotenfels (where a couple stopped to admire my bike and invited me to pick some fresh vegetables from their garden) and Gernsbach en route. The landscape is quite breathtaking, but then I tried to follow the 'Euroman' bicycle route out from Gernsbach, which quickly turned into a rocky unpaved footpath and was such steep-going that I had to get off and push the bike for a while, breaking a serious sweat. When I got to the top I felt like I had never been so happy to see a road in my life and rode the way down to Baden Baden drenched, although happy to have broken my first proper sweat since I left London.
Entering the Black Forest
When I came to Baden Baden, I was surprised to find that it reminded me of Brighton, of all places! It had a large array of the same Regency style houses that pop up in spa towns all over the UK, along with the odd pretentious stab at recreating some classical or oriental masterpiece. Also, half the town seems to be given over to green space, providing a welcome respite for a half hour kip. I didn't stick around very long (although long enough to be comlimented on my bike again and be given directions by another off-duty cyclist. He told me that Offenburg was still 60 kms away and, having already clocked 75 through a load of hills, I wasn't too optimistic about making it. However, it was a nice route through fruit orchards (with delicious plums) and with the ever forbidding hills of the Schwarzwald to my left.
In the end I made it to a good little pizzeria and ate about half my body weight, before finding an amazing hidden bit of woodland next to a lake and camping out, having a glorious late evening swim. It is quite lightly populated around here, so I am hoping this will become a more regular feature of the trip.
Free camping doesn't get much better than this...

Av. 17.5 kph. Max. 47.4 kph, Dist. 139.18 kms, Time 7.54.41

Tuesday 15th to Saturday 19th July - Heidelberg/Heidelberg to Karlsruhe

So there, on the most central street in Heidelberg, with the only balcony situated above the dismal tourist-haunted 'Cafe romantik', I was to stay with my host Arne for the next few days. Arne was a fantastic host, before I'd even arrived agreeing to accept delivery of my replacement bike frame and he, his girlfriend Agnieszka and all his flatmates made me feel warm and welcome from the moment I arrived. The city grew on me more and more the longer I spent there, with lots of fantastic little bars tucked away down side streets which really reward exploration. My favourite was the Orange Bar, a living room sized place full of fascinating clockwork regulars and run by a Kurdish Iraqi refugee called Osama, who had famously escaped by donkey and foot to Heidelberg of all places and displayed a gleeful disdain for quaint European things such as smoking bans and closing times.

My frame arrived the day after me, so I headed out to find the nearest friendly bike mechanics and ended up at Madame Velo, a great, grubby little place run by punks and metallers. I was looked after by Daniel and Sebastien, who lent me the full use of their tools and helped me out on the many occasions I needed some expert knowledge, effectively filling in the gaps and teaching me how to strip down and rebuild the bike from scratch! At the end of the day they asked for nothing, they were so kind and really helped to get me back on the road.


So THAT's what a punk bike workshop looks like...


Daniel, the local god of bicycles

The ride to Karlsruhe when I finally and reluctantly left on Saturday was thoroughly boring, flat and featureless farmland. There was some interesting graffiti going on though, as the kids from Heidelberg and Karlsruhe seem to have some kind of street art battle going on, which the local authorities tacitly support by giving up legal wall space in many places. The Black Forest is the next stop for me now, and that certainly will not be dull, flat and featureless!





Av. 18.1 kph, Max. 34.7 kph, Dist. 112 kms, Time 6.11.52

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Tuesday 15th July - Mainz to Heidelberg

Today felt like a loooooong day of cycling, possibly a little taste of the searing heat that I can expect once I roll down the Alps into Italy and onwards. The latter part was a blast however, as I cycled the last 60 odd kms with a slightly crazy German called Cristoph, making his way 700 kms south to meet his wife and mother-in-law, with just two tiny bags on a gorgeous 1970's steel Cinelli. So he hammered it along at 35 kph and I just about managed to keep up with him. Then, just as the going was getting tough, he confronted me with the immortal question I have heard repeatedly since Amsterdam; '"How would you like to have a schmoke?".







The ride to Heidelberg, endless vineyards...


It turns out that Cristoph, as well as being a part-time randonneur, is also a full-time stoner and finds it impossible to get through a long ride sober. Fair enough, says I, and so he rolled a monster spliff from goods that he had been growing 'in the forest behind the house' and I cycled into Heidelberg happy and tired, with a big grin on my face and a severer than usual case of cycling related hunger.




Christoph - guru of lightweight cycle touring.




The city is an odd mix and leaves a initially sour impession on cycling in from the west. It is set in a little enclave on the banks of the Neckar river and the aldstadt (old city) is beautiful and bustling, but is dwarfed by a surrounding post-war industrial wasteland of fast food joints, concrete tower blocks and American car dealerships. I later discovered this was to cater to the enormous US military presence in the city, although once you reach the cobbled streets of the aldstadt and integrate into its easy pace this becomes less apparent and life is dominated by the student population there; the university of Heidelberg is the Oxford of Germany, founded in 1386 and credited as being the birthplace of, amongst other defining inventions, the humble bicycle in 1817.


Heidelberg aldstadt and the Neckar from the Schloss (castle)

Sunday 13th July - Koblenz to Waldagesheim

Today was supposed to have been one of the trip's highlights, the Rhine Gorge is a UNESCO world heritage site with over a dozen castles commanding a fairly beautiful and epic stretch of the river only about 70 kms long and it certainly didn't disappoint.


The start of the Rhine gorge
It's a kind of Never Never Land here now, as I cannot conceive of how these small historic towns could exist without tourism, ill-suited as they are to receiving shipments. No doubt however this area used to be crucial to control transport, so now there are the Köln-Dusseldorf boat terminals smattered along the riverbank, along with achingly picturesque little towns of half-timbered German houses, flanked on the hills by imposing castles. Most of these castles also have found a new role in post-medieval Europe as Jugendeheberge or Bett und Bike rest stops (essentially youth hostels), although having climbed up to one to have a look down the valley I am thoroughly uncertain as to how anyone is supposed to get a fully loaded touring bike up a 25% gradient hill on what is essentially a forested footpath!


Castles...


castles...


castles! Probably would have given this one a different paintjob myself though.
The Loreley is also found here, a rocky outcrop more famous for its romantic poetic and musical associations than its breathtaking natural beauty. Call me an uncouth geological ignoramus if you will, but I've certainly seen and climbed some far more impressive rocks in the past.
The Loreley (Not my image, my camera was being uncooperative).

View from the castle above Bacharach
More impressive was the way the landscape has been utilised for agriculture, particularly for vineyards (this region produces Riesling, amongst other cracking wines). My hosts for the night were Sylvia, Thorsten and their mischevious little son Jan, living in the quiet little town of Walgaldesheim set in the foothills above Bingen. I had a really nice evening with them, actually staying with my first family through Hospitality Club. Also, Sylvia called her sister Kerstin 50 klicks down the road in Mainz and I stayed with her the following night. Both were lovely hosts, but Mainz was nothing to write home about, so I won't...

The road into Waldalgesheim. This is wine-growing country...
Koblenz to Waldagasheim - ? About 70 kms, cycle computer being petulant!
Waldalgesheim to Mainz - Av. 16.5kph, Max. 50.4 kph, Time 3.07.49, Dist. 51.75

Satusday 12th July - Köln to Koblenz

So, after a few days of holing up in Köln, my bike frame problem is still no closer to being fixed and my legs were starting to turn back into their traditional jelly state. The ride went ok however, in that although the `Schedule`TM said that I should spend the night in Andernach, I ended up pushing on to Koblenz; a pretty and ancient town at the meeting point of the Rhine and Masel rivers. The name Koblenz is, I think, a Teutonic gutturalisation of the original Latin confluentes. On the `German Corner` (Deutsches Eck) at the meeting point of the two rivers is an impressive granite Herculaneum-styled monument which, after many years of deliberation, has had it`s original statuesque inhabitant (Kaiser Wilhelm) restored to the plinth. The place has classic ancient Rhineside make-up, with the kind of narrow cobbled streets and lean-to architecture that forms the fairytale image of Europe that Americans come to see.
Industry and agriculture; the Rhineside southwards from Köln
More importantly, yet more time has been spent on the phone today arranging with Briyton Bikes to send me out a frame. They dont have my original one in my size, so they`ve convinced the supplier to send me the next size up via their next working day European delivery service for (relative) peanuts. Hats off to George, Lincoln and Mogg at Brixton Bikes, they`ve done a great job of sorting me out, since invariably mechanics have told me that the rewelded frame will never make it across the alps. The new frame is being sent to my host in Heidelberg, so I`ll take a day there and find some friendly mechanics who can lend me some space in the workshop to rebuild...

The meeting of the Rhine and Masel rivers
Av. 19.6 kph, Max. 34.2 kph, Time 6.01.17, Dist. 117.75 kms

Monday, 14 July 2008

Thursday and Friday 10th/11th July - Köln

Köln is a great city. It's certainly larger than I expected (around a million residents) and dominated by the famous Dom (cathedral), which is home to some beautiful mosaics. The Roman influence is really strong here and makes me slightly ashamed to be so ignorant of the Roman civilisaton in favour of Greek and Assyrian ones. It was recognised as a Roman city in 50 BC by the name 'Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium' and due to its important location on the Rhine became a major city. One of the highlights is the Germanische-Romanische museum, which has been built over the intact excavated mosaic of a former Roman villa next to the Dom.


One of the many maosiacs in the Dom.


Children's agricultural toys, or very serious Roman make-up removal?

As for the modern city, it's attractive has a real mix of student and regional identity. It seems to have a slightly effete image amongst other Germans; partly as it is the Brighton of Germany with a large and open gay community, but also because the local beer Kölsch is served in diminutive skinny 20 cl glasses, a far cry from hearty Bavarian tankards. The locals have a phrase for the more flamboyuant gay residents of town, 'warm', which became a bit of a running joke whilst we were there - spotting warmth in the most unexpected places, especially sculpture. Nadine was our host, a fantastic girl to go out with, and also a former guest of mine through HC (if you are interested in this Hospitality Club malarkey, check the link on the top right).


Our host Nadine, her boyfriend Stephan, Iain, Toby and me


A rather 'warm' knight in armour

Wednesday 9th July - Maastricht to Köln (via Ed Boosten, car mechanic)

Alas, alas, for Barnaba is dead!

At 10.30 today we left Maastricht for Köln, stopping off in town to pick up some directions via Aachen. Still slightly confused by the bad directions, I resorted to the one thing that invariably leads to disaster whenever I attempt it; multi-tasking. Whilst rolling along in the cycle lane and reading the map, my limited attention was unable to take in the van that would have been filling my field of vision, had I actually been looking ahead. It was a perfect collision; no injuries, no broken spokes, just a bump, before I went to the van driver to apologise... and realised that my front wheel wouldn't turn left to right. Here's why...



Bent, battered and bruised.

After a little chat (the van driver thought this was the funniest thing ever, and will no doubt be telling the story for weeks), we popped the late Barnaba in the back of his conveniently empty van and he agreed to drive me to the local car mechanic, as Tobes and I figured that was our bet bet for a spot of welding. Ed Boosten, the mechanic, stopped his day off to take a couple of hours to fix up the frame and indeed turned out to be, as his colleague said, the 'nicest man in all Maastricht'! He did a pretty good job of putting it all back together, welding the crack in the top tube and cutting out the crumpled section of downtube and replacing it with a bit from another old bike frame. It seems the legend of fixing up steel frames en route turns out to be true, as I am writing this 200 kms further down the road in Bingen-am-Rhein and have had no trouble whatsoever, so far.


The 'nicest man in Maastricht' at work

However, this is not a time for stubbornness. Four mechanics have since told me that this frame will absolutely, no way, never, ever make it to Greece, and so a major headache of the last few days has involved talking to frame-builders and bike shops and trying to get hold of a replacement steel frame (nigh on impossible in Germany it seems, where bikes are sold only complete). Instead, I have decided to keep it simple and get Brixton Cycles in London to send me out a new Cross-Check frame almost the same size; ultimate kudos to those guys for sorting me out! Hopefully it should meet me around Heidelberg where I'll be stopping off for a few days, so I'll have time to rebuild the bike. This is all of course totally in line with the yo-yoing fortunes of the trip so far and anyway, it would just be boring if I didn't have any problems right?


RIP Barnaba, long live Frankenbike!

Monday 7th July - Oss to Maastricht

Today was really tough-going. We started out with a sense of impending doom about the 150 kms we had to cycle anyway and having only covered 60 kms in 3 1/2 hours we already felt like we should have done a whole days riding. From start to finish there was a vicious headwind, the sign-posting was invariably confusing and worst of all, injuries made themselves felt. I had stretched my left calf, which made cycling uncomfortable, but Iain was in full-blown agony whilst his Achilles tendons complained ceaselessly. At Boxmeer, we debated a little and threw in the towel, deciding to get the train the rest of the way to Maastricht. However, this was not without incident either, as we managed to do our usual trick of only just making it to the first train and missing the second altogether (my fault), so we saved our legs, but not the time! Still, that decision to take the train lightened the mood completely and, our masochistic tendencies quenched, we proceeded on at a more leisurely pace.

When we arrived we were hosted by the wonderful Dienne, an HC member who I hosted with her brothers last year back in London. Well, it was returned ten-fold. Dienne was a great host, on the final night taking us to this fantastic warehouse squat full of artists and a ceaselessly creative inventor-activist, designing technology to empower the poor to democracy (www.demotech.org). On the roof was the most spectacular view of Maastricht, certainly one of my favourite European cities and I place I will certainly be visiting again. It was a great send off, for tomorrow we are due to leave Holland and make our way to Germany, my first visit ever.


Av. 19.7 kph, Max. 39,3 kph, Time 3.03.11, Dist. 60.04 kms

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Sunday 6th July - Amsterdam to Oss

Fuelled by a random yet delicious breakfast of Osservost (raw spiced minced beef, with a consistency and shape somewhere between sausage and pate), fresh bread, pastries, steak, juice and Dioralyte, we set off from Amsterdam nice and early in order to make the big ride half the length of Holland towards Maastricht in the southern tip. We took a route recommended by Fiona and Henning and after a few false starts and after 80 kms of pretty boring roads as far as Eindhoven, we suddenly discovered one of The Netherlands most impressive sights, the dykes.



Riding the dykes.


These are part of an enormous post-war project to deal with Holland's constantly erratic water table, with the dykes raised to delta sea level and creating a huge artificial barrier (along with dams, sluices and storm barriers creating a man-made coastline) against water overwhelming the land. Due to constant drainage and reclaiming of land, the peat soil has compressed itself to more than 2 metres below sea level in some places
. The dykes form good inland protection from the three major rivers that carve the country up, the Rhine, Maas and Vaal.


The Rhine

We ended up pushing on past Rhenen where Fiona and Henning suggested camping, as it just felt good to do a long ride. However, by the time we got into Oss I think I was the hungriest I have ever been in my life. We went to some place in
the town square and devoured half the menu between us. Then, thoroughly sated, we found a quiet field off the beaten track and spent a satisfied night sleeping for free.


So, who's going to move the dead rabbit in the field then?


Rural.

Av. 20.2kph, Max. 34.9 kph, Time 6.01.49, Dist. 123.72 kms

Saturday 5th July - Hoek van Holland to Amsterdam

Holland is the land of big skies. The moment we stepped of the boat it was striking how evenly and consistently proportioned the sky and landscape were. I'd heard that the Netherlands were flat, but I didn't expect that the only incline we would have to face at all would be when riding the ramp up into the boat! The Netherlands and East Anglia have a lot in common; a kind of eerie, primeval light and neverending horizon, where people just take things slow, smile a lot and have very green fingers. The moment we got onto the cycle path we were met with about two kilometres of greenhouses; whether they were full of cannabis plantations was unclear.

Green(house)land

After an hour or so we reached The Hague: royal capital, seat of the Dutch government, mecca for international law and diplomatic centre of the Netherlands. However, a far more important series of introductions were due to take place there; namely, my first encounter with the wonderful world of Dutch pastries, as well as a sharp reimmersion into the ubiquitous, generic and trashy Europop so indiscriminately played on the continent. The former I couldn't get enough of in my time in Holland. As for the latter, it is sadly going to continue invading my consciousness until I get home and is in fact pounding my ears idiotically as we speak. Lyrical 'highlights' of the trip so far include repetitions of 'in the fun-shine' for 3 and a half minutes, 'summer is magic, you just have to imagine' and 'Hey now, hey now, hey now (echoing)... the dancefloor is waaaaiiii-ting'. I can't wait to see what the pilled up teenage boys making music in their bedroom come up with next...


Anyway. The other famous thing about Holland is of course it cycle-friendliness and here we were indeed spoilt. EVERY road has a separate cycle lane adjacent to it and clearly marked, whilst drivers seem to give cyclists and pedestrians priority. This is in fact enshrined in law, as everyone is classed as a road user but the cyclists and pedestrians are considered the 'weaker' ones, whilst liability is split 50/50, meaning that both parties have a clear incentive to watch what they are doing. Of course, the provision for separate road users and the calm and respectful interaction between them leads to an air of orderliness and this feeling never leaves you whilst travelling around the country. It's nice to be in a place where people (and governments) just seem to think things through first.

Nice Dutch cycle paths...

When we got to Amsterdam in the early afternoon Toby and I had plenty of time to go for a look around and do the touristy thing, whilst Iain spent some time catching up with our host, his once girlfriend Fiona. The red light district is, frankly, just weird; a really sanitised version of SoHo, somehow less seedy but more discomforting. As for coffeeshop culture, I was thoroughly unimpressed with it in Amsterdam, where it just seemed full of backpackers wanting to get stoned off their tits. It wasn't until we got to Maastricht that I really experienced what makes it so special. Our host there, Dienne, gave us the impression that it was simply an alternative to the pub, where you go to do something a little more relaxed and different than drinking and socialising in that way. In our case, we had a relaxing smoke and played board games. Try doing that with a bunch of 20-somethings on a weekend in London.

Now THAT'S bicycle parking! Charing Cross has none.

After seeing the centre of Amsterdam I can't say I was much in love with the place, but when Fiona and her brother Henning took us out for a couple of beers in a different part of town I really changed my perspective. Away from the flood of rusting bicycles, the rastafari paraphernalia and the soft porn displays, we saw a side of Amsterdam that was warm, welcoming and unpretentious. The Dutch have a magic word for this sort of thing, 'gezellig'. Like the Danish equivalent 'hygge' it is hard to translate due to the richness of its meaning, but it might well be described as a blend of feeling cozy, satisfied and warm. Against all initial expectations after my first view of the city, Fiona and Henning's hospitality made our departure from Amsterdam the next morning a 'zieleleed' one (full of sadness), yet tempered with deep 'gezellig'.


"Don't do it!", cried the other bikes.

Av. 19.2 kph, Max. 37.5 kph, Time 4.39.37, Dist. 89.42 kms

Friday, 11 July 2008

Friday 4th July - Tunbridge Wells to Hoek van Holland


The last week has been frantic. I finished my exams on Friday 27th, meaning I had a full week to sort out all my paperwork, get hold of all of the remaining bits of gear and generally just get used to the idea of living on a bike for 7 weeks; sounds easy enough right? However, I also realised that I had not seen anyone on the long list I wanted to say goodbye to before I rode off for the next 15 months, so it ended up being wall to wall with final lunches and dinners, countless trips to cycling/camping shops, little sleep and a fair degree of pure, yet restrained anxiety. Seeing as I didn’t have a champagne bottle to smash on my bicycle, Lois, Waleed, Lucie and I all christened it on Wednesday in a characteristically bizarre festival of singing and bubble mixture. My vehicle has a name, and her name is Barnaba.

Come Friday morning, my bags are packed and Toby is on his way over. One thing is sitting on my mind as I sit on my hams in the kitchen and look over the suddenly obese Barnaba, hands covered in bike grease and nursing a steaming mug of tea, probably my last decent one for a long time. It’s the weight. No-one told me that this bicycle would be so goddamn heavy! I haven’t been able to weigh it, but with all of my gear attached it must be at least 40 kgs. Disrupting my revelry, Toby phones to tell me the inauspicious news, he’s just had his first puncture. Things are not looking good.


That bike has really let herself go...

It was about 12.30 by the time we got going and with it came the first burst of exhilaration from being out on the open road. Despite her girth Barnaba felt amazing; stable, comfortable and eager to please. There’s something bizarre about riding fully loaded, it’s like the effort to get the bicycle going is the most important surge, as once you are rolling the momentum just keeps it going, with your legs simply acting as fleshy, jointed metronomes. This is of course providing you are not climbing a 20% hill, when it suddenly switches in character from the joy of easy riding to something resembling a punishment dreamt up by the wardens of Guantanamo Bay for a laugh. Thankfully we only had one or two major hills though, and the ride to London was a fairly smooth one.

Rolling into London, finally.

Once we got to the city we visited Brixton cycles, where Iain somehow managed to score a free Brooks titanium saddle, and took the obligatory photo at my symbolic starting point before heading off down towards Liverpool Street for the evening train to Harwich and the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland. We were greeted on the ferry with good beer (just Heineken made in Holland, where people are apparently more discerning about the quantity of chemicals in their booze) and a pretty great cabin, hanging out for a while with a couple on their first little cycle tour to Holland. We slept like babies for the 5 1/2 hours before the ferry pulled in to dock, sated on beer, food and good old-fashioned exercise. This is the way to travel.



Av. 21.5 kph, Max. 61.2 kph, Time 3.26.53, Dist. 74.01 kms