Our B&B at Gorinchem was very special. Christina and her husband had bought a plot of dock-side land 20-odd years ago, and, while living on a houseboat, built, brick-by-brick, a house for themselves and an apartment to let out. They clearly love to sit beside the water, reading and drinking coffee. The B&B apartment was charming; so close to the water it felt like a houseboat, though apparently without risk of flooding as the water level is carefully managed. We slept in a box-bed; a cupboard containing a full-length bed.
Christina had helpfully provided some tourist information, including timetables for the local ferries, which forced a change of plan. The ferries we had planned to take to Woudrichem, and later across the Steur, would not start running until noon on a Sunday, so we were forced to re-route via bridges. It was not a big inconvenience, the main thing was to reach the Biesbosch, a glorious wetland well-populated with bird life. It was a rare warm sunny day and we enjoyed the luxury of an easy-paced comfortable ride, stopping at the wildlife museum on Biesbosch Museum Island for coffee and cake.
Being Sunday, racing cyclists were on the road in large groups with team jerseys. It made us realise that we had seen very few fast cyclists in Germany, but the Netherlands certainly made up for that.
In Dordrecht, we stopped for sandwiches on the docks where a couple of young lads were larking and apparently practising their English. “The monkey is in the the car” said one repeatedly, while the other replied “fuck off!”
We reached Kinderdijk, and the spectacular sequence of windmills standing alongside a canal. This is a popular tourist attraction, with many people of all nations tottering on rented bicycles. Here we needed to take a ferry to Slikkerveer via the Ridderkirk ferry terminal. This turned out to be quite tricky because the ferry stop at Kinderdijk had been moved and there was no advertised timetable. But, as so often, we were lucky that the right ferry (number 6) arrived by chance just as we had started to contemplate a 15 mile diversion to reach Rotterdam.
Arnhem has a brand new railway station with fantastic bike-parking facilities. When leaving the parking area, the cyclist must flash an ID card at the attendant to show they are owner of the bike. They do this nonchalantly, en passant, without breaking pedal stroke. The station is on several levels, but these slope and merge without noticeable staircases or escalators. The building won architectural awards. Sadly, the roof leaks.
We had a nice vegetarian rijstafel in Arnhem. The proprietor told us how the many special leaves used in this cuisine give Indonesian workers the ability to work in the fields for 14 or 15 hours a day. Sounds like they need a trade union.
The morning ride out of Arnhem led us on paved but narrow paths through woodland. It also featured a few hills! We’d forgotten about those after many flat days. In the afternoon hard rain and wind reappeared and we had to fight our way to Gorinchem. The final yards were puzzling as we passed through council flats looking for our B&B in a most unlikely area. But Caroline, master of the accommodation bookings, knew what to expect, and it was something quite special.
Orsoy’s an odd little historic crossroads village in the shadow of power station cooling towers. Terrible news from England cast a pall over our stay, but we enjoyed our accommodation in the Schlafkammer, a grand 19th century house divided into commodious apartments. More often used by long-term tenants, we shared the breakfast with a team from Dummen Orange, a cut flower company based in the Netherlands. Though we were still in Germany there were strong Dutch flavours emerging.
Among the odd spectacles seen in the last of Germany: A nuclear power station converted into a family fun park (apparently never commissioned because it was completed just as Chernobyl melted down). An old people’s home in Grieth from which a succession of seniors emerged on mobility scooters for their daily constitutional.
We proceeded towards Arnhem via numerous small ferries, including one that was anchored in the middle of the river and propelled by the natural water current and presumably a rudder. The Netherlands arrived unannounced. A small cattle gate, similar to many others, sat at the border but the only evidence was that signage changed language.
On the next ferry we met a British couple riding Bromptons from Basel to Rotterdam. Mrs Brompton had taken a tumble from her bike in Köln, while crossing a tram track. She needed a bit of medical attention, so dropped in at a surgery. Inside 30 minutes she was examined, stitched and sent on her way. No bill, no paperwork. Good old EU.
We had a two-night stay in Köln and a priority was to get some attention for Paul’s rattly front wheel. Because we were long-distance travellers, Herr Schneider at Schneider Rad Sport made time in a busy day to repack the bearings. Paul rolled sweetly afterwards. Herr S also stroked Paul’s Campag shifters lovingly and said “what a nice bike”.
Our 2-night stay in Köln was hosted by the absolutely delightful and attentive Jens, proprietor of the Hotel am Museum. In his devotion to ensuring visitors’ enjoyment of Köln he gave and demanded a detailed exchange of information, sometimes comically intrusive: “How much did your bike repair cost?”; “Why are you taking your back-pack on your walking tour of the city?”
To the latter question, we reacted sheepishly as we had borrowed towels and a bathrobe from the room for our visit to the Neptunbad Spa, a fantastic 1912 bath house. Great saunas, hot tub and pools, only very slightly spoiled when a heavyweight naked man slipped on a sauna bench and landed with his whole body weight on my toes. Luckily this happened during the ice aufguss, so resulted only in colourful bruising, not swelling.
We ate one evening in one of Köln’s brauerai, serving local beer in tiny 20ml glasses, allegedly so it always remains acceptably cold. We later found out the waiter keeps delivering these until you cover an empty glass with a beer mat; could have been an expensive evening.
The weather in Köln was bizarre. Sunny spells would suddenly end with a colossal thunderstorm and torrential rain, lasting only five or ten minutes.
The route onwards from Köln took us through Dusseldorf, a much lovelier old town than we expected, and Duisburg, a crumbling giant of heavy industry where the Rhine and Ruhr come together to form one absolutely gigantic waterway.
Our evening in Koblenz included a nice meal but with the most frustratingly slow service! The restaurant was Cafe Miljoo, perhaps not the most promising name at least for English speakers. The waitress was a charming young woman but we sensed she couldn’t hold two ideas in her head at once, and needed a little sit down behind the scenes to recover after each one. It took ages to get menus, to have our order taken, and to get our table cleared. I probably didn’t help matters, trying to force the pace a bit, when asked: “alles war in ordnung?” (was everything all right?) I answered “zitronenkuchen” (lemon cake). After that she decided we were lunatics and brought neither lemon cake nor a bill. I tried so hard to catch her attention I thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets, but she seemed to be suffering from tunnel vision.
Koblenz is at the junction of Rhine and Moselle (a junction guarded by a colossal and unattractive equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm), so it receives many cruise boats. As we strolled past one, an entertainer was playing the organ, while thrusting his hips rhythmically and suggestively. Meanwhile, the audience were raising and lowering their arms in time, Mexican wave style. Each to their own.
The ride to Köln was a bit of a faff. Flooding has increased with all the recent rain so we were dodging closures. A German man heading in the opposite direction asked Caroline for intelligence about the state of the path, while his wife sat on a bench, arms folded, as if to say “I’m not going another metre on this stupid bike track.” When C confirmed the next bit was open he dog-whistled his wife to come along. Maybe the flood wasn’t their only problem.
We pointlessly crossed the river by ferry twice, wasting time and money, because our guide book recommends an overnight stay on the other side for those moving at half our speed. We should have spotted that in planning, schoolboy error. The final approach to Köln is industrial and busy, and another German cyclist pedalled in the opposite direction yelling something to me and the only word I could make out was “Autofähre” (car ferry). Maybe it was: “Haha you are the crazy pair who pointlessly crossed the Rhine twice by car ferry!”
But the final arrival was splendid, the Rhine is straddled in Köln by numerous huge and spectacular bridges, and with kids on the waterfront skate-boarding to hip hop, one could be in New York. We have a day off tomorrow, bye for now.
While Caroline continued along the Rhine banks, I took an excursion to the Hunsrück to visit some scenes from my all-time favourite TV/film series, Heimat. In case you don’t know it, Heimat is an epic (53 hours) history of a Hunsrück family through 4 generations. I’ve been preoccupied with it since the first series was shown in 1984. It begins in 1919 and ends in 2000. The family comes from the fictional village of Schabbach where the patriarch is blacksmith. While several Hunsrück towns stood in for different parts of Schabbach, it was the smithy I really wanted to see, and that is in the village of Gehlweiler.
I made an early 5am start and at first followed the south/west bank of the Rhine, then turned left for a stiff climb in steady rain to the Hunsrück, which is a kind of elevated plain at 500m. First sightseeing stop at Simmern was a disappointment. The watchmaker’s shop, which is a reference point in the rise of persecution of Jews and early Nazism, has had a complete makeover and now has a modern plate glass shop front.
But from Simmern onwards the beauty of the Hunsrück landscape started to take hold, and the long descent to Gemunden was magical. Just around the corner from Gemunden is Gehlweiler. Without any great fuss, the village preserves its older buildings and highlights with photos the role each played in the films. There is a 360 degree photo stand, where a smaller man (or a stooping six footer) could (and did) take a selfie surrounded by the village as it was for filming in the early 1980s, and representing the pre-war small town Hunsrück. The smithy was there, with all tools still laid out on the bench. As the rain intensified to an absolute torrent I was happy to see the real Schabbach at last.
There are many more sights that could have been visited but not easily within a single day’s cycling. But I included one for Caroline. The star-crossed lovers of Die Zweite Heimat, Hermann and Clarissa, finally get it together in Heimat 3. They meet as the wall falls in Berlin 1989, and renovate (with cheap East German labour) a decrepit house high on hillside overlooking the Rhine at Oberwesel. That is now the Gunderoderhaus, a restaurant and film venue and tribute to the creator of Heimat, Edgar Reitz. It’s a magnificent spot and is a mere 1km, (and 200m of climbing!) from the Rhine cycleway. We reunited there and had a lovely lunch in Hermann and Clarissa’s dream house, overlooking the most famous section of the Rhine, near the Lorelei rock.
Late Sunday breakfast (8am) and a short hop to Mainz. We pulled away and immediately summoned a huge downpour so sheltered under a shop awning and put on rain gear. Showers heavy but didn’t last long. The next lashing as we passed through Mettenheim, setting up gazebos for the summer fete. The wheat, barley and potatoes gave way to vines, stretching up the hillsides as we neared Nierstein, of the famous (but derided by Jon Smith) Niersteiner Gutes Domtal.
Here we had several embarrassing encounters with a runner sharing our path; three times we overtook, only to stop, to consider the route, disrobe, or check a funny squeak from the bike, and he would pass. Finally we thought we’d given him the slip and sped along our route for several kilometers, then puzzled to find him running back towards us with a broad grin!
Arriving at Mainz early afternoon, we took in the cathedral and the Gutenberg museum, which neatly brought together three themes of the past two days: Luther’s 95 theses (for which he was tried at Worms) were printed on Gutenberg’s press, and bore a striking resemblance to the 71 pizzas listed on our restaurant menu last night.
The most amazing sight of today was the BASF factory at Ludwigshafen. It has 200 buildings, occupies a space of over 10 sq km. They must make a hell of a lot of C90s! (Joke. They sold off the consumer division including magnetic tapes and now create only chemicals). It has its own enormous fleet of red bicycles to allow workers to move quickly around the site.
Lunch stop was at Speyer, in front of the cathedral, which is Romanesque and little-changed from its 11th/12th century form, which makes it a refreshing change from the Gothic and baroque of most European cathedrals.
The banks of the mighty Rhine are still widely flooded, so where yesterday was inondée and déviation, today was hochwasser and umleitung. Except the umleitung was less reliably signed so we improvised quite a lot. We had planned to cross the Rhine a couple of times by ferry, but neither was running even though their web sites announced them in service. Still, there is pretty much always an excellent traffic-free cycle route from anywhere to anywhere, so no worries.
We are now in Worms (of Martin Luther fame) and our hotel window has a view of the giant TV screen in the square so we are all set for England v Russia tonight.
The wetlands of the Sauer delta. And wetlands means floods, floods mean diversions, diversions mean mosquito-infested forests and mosquitoes mean Caroline goes berserk. Seriously, she attracts them like nobody’s business and the bites swell up like golf balls. She emerged from this forest yelling “do that hitting thing, they are all over my back!” They weren’t but only when we pedalled on did I spot one latched on to a buttock and tried bike-jousting but couldn’t reach it. Eventually we outpaced them and reached a sunny place of safety and applied the only vaguely suitable treatment; ibuprofen gel. It works surprisingly well!
The more welcome aspects of delta wildlife are the water birds. We saw numerous storks. There are said to be 160 breeding pairs of heron though we only saw one, so that leaves 319 unaccounted-for. Perhaps busy breeding.
There were numerous German cyclists buzzing through the area (some quite literally because electric bikes are very popular). They all greeted us in German which is a bit odd given this was supposed to be France. Although the loudest and most talkative yelled a string of German that, in hindsight probably meant “get out of my way, I have to leave this forest before the insects eat me alive!” But in contrast to Herr Angry German, a kindly group of six German cyclists guided us on a 10 km diversion to the bridge across the Rhine at Maximiliansau, after our planned ferry was put out of action by floods. Our new friends, living on the quiet and rural west bank of the Rhine clearly thought we were mad crossing to busy industrial Karlsruhe but it’s been interesting to be in an ordinary modern city on the first night of Euro 2016. It put the kibosh on our plans for cold supermarket beer (empty shelves) but that led to a couple of nice pints of Hefe at the bieracademy across the street from our hotel.