I awake on day 117 of my mid-life gap-year in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France and keen to get to Germany.
Friday 18 September 2015, Strasbourg to Ottenheim
Admittedly, my morning coffee may have been a little strong. But the day is clear and I am leaving France. I’m jumpily excited. My legs bounce at I breakfast.
As I begin my ride, I’m initially on the road and I am pumping, pedalling hard for the border. I switch to the footpath where I can, just to slow myself down, calm myself a little bit.
I reach the Rhine and pedal giddily across – stopping at the Deutschland sign to snap a selfie.
My first stop is the train station – I have booked my tickets from Zurich to Mainz and then on to Berlin online but I need to book my bicycle as well and that can’t be done online. I needn’t pay extra, merely add a bicycle to my booking, but there’s no way to do it online.
The ticket office is busy but slowly efficient. Many of my fellow travellers – or people with questions or problems – for this is that office, are immigrants. Old or new I don’t know. They mostly don’t speak German either among themselves nor with the station staff. There seems to be some nervousness in the air. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, and North Africa have been making their way into Europe all summer but now they are being stopped, trains are refusing them, borders are closing. I’ve caught up on some of the news during my hotel stays this week – places where I’ve had BBC. I get the sense that some of these people are trying to help friends and relatives move further up the road towards Germany.
My next stop is the tourist office – which is in a square bustling with a market. I’m looking for cycling maps to cover my route to Zurich. I’m directed to a bookshop where they have exactly what I need. Germany is being good to me so far.
Then I start riding and everything is lovely and easy, riding along an embankment on the German side of the Rhine. In the late afternoon, I arrive in the village of Ottenheim. I pedal around some and spot a Zimmer Frei sign where I ask for, and receive, a room for the night and breakfast in the morning.
I’ve showered and set out to find dinner. Surprise, surprise – a kebab and pizza joint! But just to mix things up, I’m having the pizza. I’ve also accidentally ordered a huge 500 ml beer. At least it’s just regular beer and not the weird beer I’ve been having lately.
Here’s a thing – I haven’t studied French since year 9 and yet, did okay, I found the reading pretty straightforward and could ask and answer simple questions. German, which I’ve studied recently – and which I really want to learn – I’m shocking. I tried to speak some at the guesthouse and here, at the restaurant, and it just tripped in my mouth. Complete failure.
Now, I’m full of pizza and beer.
Back to the Gastezimmer Zipf
To read and to sleep.
Saturday 19 September 2015, Ottenheim to Breisach
They are pressing apples downstairs. I smell the sweetness on waking. It’s both cloying and nice.
Breakfast is included – oh, it’s so nice to back in Germany! Amazing bread, cheeses, meat, juice, coffee – and lots of it. Served – waiting for me – on my assigned table in a wood-lined and very homey dining room.
The family which runs this pension also has apple orchards and make cider. I have a conversation with one of them about how poor the harvest has been this season.
I stop into the local market and collect things for lunch and dinner as I’m hoping to find a campground tonight. And then I continue the same enjoyable ride I had yesterday – on a cycleway along the Rhine with occasional diversions through forests and farm fields. The riding is easy and pleasant. There are a lot of birds, the same as yesterday: swans, ducks, herons, and hawks.
There are plenty of other cyclists on the path too, but not too many. I only get lost once. It rains a little while I stop for lunch and then it picks up as head towards Breisach, and is coming down hard when I spot a bus shelter. I spend a rain-filled hour reading in its two square metres of dry.
A man stops by to say hello. He lives locally but is originally from an island between Dublin and Liverpool. He too is a cyclist and a bicycle tourist. We have a nice chat. He tells me Breisach is a bit of a tourist town with plenty of hotels. When the rain stops I ride into the city centre.
Ignorance is a funny thing. This town is clearly a tourist town and I have no idea why. There’s nothing obvious – there’s no beach or mountain, I haven’t spotted an especially grand castle, it doesn’t have bad in its name – so it’s not a spa town. But there are hotels and restaurants and people with cameras, looking very much like tourists, wandering around.
Since yesterday morning in Kehl, I’ve been playing leapfrog with a German cycling couple. They pass me, later I pass them – we’ve exchanged nods and smiles but haven’t spoken (I’ve heard them speaking German to one another). They are in front of the closed tourist office reviewing the list of hotels posted there and making phone calls.
I’m tired and just want to find a bed. I circle back to a hotel I noticed on my way into town and check-in. It’s above a Chinese restaurant, which I find strangely appealing.
As I’m ferrying my gear up to my room who do I see also checking in? Sure enough, the German couple. They spot me, I spot them – we all laugh.
There’s no internet here, which is a bit of a problem, I do need to find access tomorrow so as to check on my requests for hosts in Switzerland. I know how expensive that country can be, I really don’t want to risk getting caught out there.
A week from now the showing of Inglorious Basterds at the Zurich Film Festival will have finished. I will probably feel sad – the moment will have come and gone. I need to really try hard to simply be in that moment – or in those 2 ½ hours, as it will be.
I fear I am being financially irresponsible. I could have taken more care selecting a hotel tonight. From the map, I know there is a hostel here but I didn’t really look for it. Now, heading out to get dinner, I’ve seen the sign for it. And I’ve seen a hotel with WiFi which is offering rooms for €6 less than I paid for my room without WiFi. But I am over a Chinese restaurant. And there’s a funky bathroom.
The days are just rolling out from under me. Last week, the last couple of weeks, days were full of riding challenges and historic sights which were emotionally challenging. Now, I’m just riding. And it’s mostly easy. And there’s nothing much I want to see. I’m just riding to Zurich now.
But I’m also increasingly tired. More tired than the day would demand – I think the weight of the stresses of hopes for Zurich and worries about going to the United States have built up and are dragging me down a bit.
I have less than a week of European riding left – I need to focus on staying present and enjoying it.
Sunday 20 September 2015, Breisach to Bad Bellingen
The church bells are clanging their maddening ‘get up and come to church’ ruckus at 6:00 am. 6:00 am on a Sunday. It’s reason enough not to live in Breisach.
20th September – how has this happened?
It’s taking some doing to not be a little disappointed with my route – now that it’s nearly done. I thought I’d go further, I thought I’d go to more places – Denmark and Norway and Holland; maybe something east; Spain and Portugal. But I didn’t. I did what I did and that is as it is. Another time, maybe, I will ride in those other places. The riding days of my life are not over.
I need to sit looking at the money and decide if maybe a radical rethink is in order. Like, maybe I don’t do the German-language course. Maybe, after the US I come back to Europe, travel some in the east, visit a few additional friends perhaps and then … Asia? It would be cheaper.
But, then again, maybe now that I know how expensive Europe is, if I pre-plan more I can make it all work.
This part – the riding part – because of its loose nature was always going to be, at times anyway, expensive. Look, I’ve learned a lot and would do things differently in the future.
- I’d be sure to have mobile data – as it allows for finding campgrounds etc on the move.
- I might trade spontaneity and distance for savings – ie book for a place 40 km down the road knowing I’ll be able to cover the distance and that I’ve gotten the best deal to be found on the internet.
- I might intentionally choose routes with plenty of camping options.
- I might get comfortable with wild camping.
I need to set aside some time to really think about that – perhaps while I’m in Ireland soon.
But, now, it’s time to head down into the Chinese restaurant beneath my hotel room to enjoy the German breakfast which comes with the room and then get going for the day.
Rolling out of town, I pass the lovely looking Youth Hostel I was too lazy to look for yesterday afternoon (fark).
Today’s ride is much as yesterday’s – a pleasant and easy pedal along the Rhine with occasional diversions through forest and fields.
The river is wide, full, pulsing toward the Netherlands and the North Atlantic. It’s lined mostly by trees – occasionally there bits of industry as well as some canoe and sailing clubs. There are, as ever, lots of birds. I think I see two kingfishers of a sort. Do they have kingfishers in Europe?
As I ride, I find I think about what my friend Rob said to me before I left Sydney – “I haven’t known many people as free as you.” And he’s a musician, runs in artistic circles – where I imagine there is rather more freedom than elsewhere. While freedom is independence it’s also a lack of attachments – I am both free to and free from. I do have enough attachments – in the way of friends and a genuine love of Sydney, and the feeling of home it fosters in me – to keep me from floating away entirely. I cannot imagine not going home at the end of this journey. I cannot imagine landing someplace and having it convince me to stay. I guess, in some ways, that’s really the best sort of freedom. I feel able to pursue my passions and interests without risking the loss of my connections.
I stop for a little break opposite a fenced paddock housing a deer. I presume it’s a kept deer and not a wild one which has found its way into the paddock.
I arrive in the spa town of Bad Bellingen and wonder if Bellingen, Australia is named in relation to this place. European spa towns are weird – full of the elderly and the in-firm here to “take the waters”. The tourist office is in a giant bathing facility. I’m tempted to go in for a swim and a bath and whatever else is on offer but it’s expensive and I kind of just want to find the campground and get set up.
It is, of course, at the top of a hill – but the day has been easy so it’s not especially onerous. It does mean I am unlikely to come back down later to the baths.
I have found that the more expensive the campground the more likely they’ll charge for WiFi – I’ve paid as little as €8 – and still had free WiFi. Here it’s €12.75 to camp plus €3 for WiFi.
The shower is awesome though – hot, powerful, a roomy stall.
Unlike the French campgrounds last week, this place is full – at least the caravan and drive-in tenting areas. I’m the only no car/tent person so far.
The bar has opened for the afternoon and I settle in with a beer and crisps. The sky is a beautiful dome of blue, the patio seating is filling with Germans wearing sandals and socks. They make me feel less daggy in my over-worn travelling gear.
Can I switch from beer and chips to coffee and cake?
Yeah, yeah I think I can. Raspberries, chocolate, cream some sort of base – hell’s yeah. Oh, it’s nice to be in Germany.
I look at the money again – and there’s really no need to panic. I think maybe I’m looking for someplace to put my anxiety – which has more to do with Christoph Waltz and Zurich, and the end of this part of the year, and flying to America – than it does with the money.
I make a simple dinner, not much is needed after that cake, and turn in.
I’m struck by the thought this will likely be my last night in the tent before Australia next year. Very peculiar – this trip is about to change a lot. From this – this following my front wheel while barely having human interactions to a much more planned, others-dependent route filled with the renewing of friendships. That might take some getting used to.