Sunday 18 August 2013

And now, the rest of the story

Sitting on the high speed train in Dover, waiting to go. After a late arrival into Brussels, in the middle of some kind of great big street fair, I found my way to my very nice, uber modern and slightly peculiar hotel. Bed was comfortable, room was quiet and, unusually, air conditioned. I slept well, though not enough. Had a hurried breakfast in the empty hotel restaurant. Very yummy pain au chocolate. Everyone seems to do better pastries than the British! In a half awake haze then, I managed to purchase a ticket for me and my bike on the train to the coast. I shoved my bike into a doorway, not seeing anywhere else to put it, and was very glad when the conductor didn't yell at me. Anyway, an hour 45 to the coast, then a 23 mile, very flat, very windy ride across the French border, through Dunkirk, then out through another 10 miles of wasteland and gas plants to the ferry terminal. Amusingly, I had to go through the car lanes with my bike. First security, then French passport control, then British passport control. Then I and a few other cyclists got to stand out in the sun for an hour while they dicked  around and eventually loaded all the other vehicles. Ironically, as I wasn't planning on being in the sun all day and as it was raining this morning, I managed to fry the worst today. Go figure. However, once I decide I was just going to make a day of today, my stress level dropped precipitously from yesterday. Ferry ride was generally relaxing, if 45 minutes late. Badly behaved British children, slightly smelly French people, bespectacled Germans in their VW camper vans, inscrutable eastern European truck drivers. I do like the ferry. It's an interesting  mix of humanity.

So, yeah. Feels like about a million years and three seconds since I left home. I kind of feel a bit like, did I just do all that? I am actually kind of shocked by what a cycling paradise is Germany. And it seems to involve not that much fuss. Fantastic cycle paths built in the middle of nowhere, with very few people using them. No glass strewn on the pavement. Drivers that actually wait for you and make a point of getting out of the way. Whereas British drivers will whiz right by, sometimes, it seems, without even looking, Germans sometimes seems to require almost a written invitation to go around, which can also be a bit annoying as well. Anyway, tomorrow it is back to reality and back to work. Back to probably over 1000 emails I didn't check even once. Suppose that is just how I pay for my adventures. :-)

Saturday 17 August 2013

Shitty poop popsicle mood

So, big surprise, my big, exciting and generally pretty damn cool trip has come unravelled today because Deutsche Bahn decided to suck. After two really relaxing days in Berlin, just hanging out with people,e and eating too much, I started my meticulously planned trip home today, getting to the train station a full half hour before the scheduled departure. Hmm, there is no train on the screen. Oh no, that train isn't running anymore. It was on the old time schedule. Well, it's great then that they sold it to me, isn't it? So, today, so far, I have been on three trains to get most of the way across Germany. In Cologne, I had the pleasure of disassembling my bike and putting it into a bag. In Brussels I get to reassemble it. The train to Brussels then is 45 minutes late because some idiot threw themselves under the train in France. Honestly, people, be considerate of others when you off yourself! I had to fend off a very persistently, multilingual beggar. Finally, after trying to be nice... I'm having a shitty day. I don't care. Go away. In Brussels I had to reserve a room for the night because I missed the last train to London and for tomorrow I have the option of paying £180 for a new, last minute Eurostar ticket or saving about £100, getting a really early train to the Belgian coast, cycling to France, taking the ferry to Dover and then the train to London. I might actually opt for that. At least it would be relaxing! Monday it's back to work. I think I need a holiday.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Dribbling tired

Well, I suppose there has to be one day in a long bike trip that is just work. That was today. It got off to a bad start last night because the stupid neighbours had their TV going until late. So, I started off the day exhausted. The ride itself, 94 miles, was actually, generally, a gorgeous ride. Rolling farmland, forest, towns full of slightly mouldering old houses. Reminded me of England. I was so tired though it all kind of blurred together, plus their was a headwind the whole day, plus there were several very heavy rainstorms, several suggested bike routes that turned to dirt and, to cap it off, I had to wait 40 minutes for a train to take me the last 3 miles because bikes weren't allowed over the only bridge for miles on the Elbe. So, I got to this weird little hotel on a tiny backstreet in this exceptionally quiet town, had a very quick shower then absolutely stuffed myself with a set menu dinner that turned out to include a large pile of mushrooms and tomatoes. I ate them and didn't even cry much. Anyway, tomorrow is Berlin... Good god I'm full. Always great to go to bed right after a 4 course dinner!

Monday 12 August 2013

Chilling in Chemnitz

Hey, as long as you are on to a good sound, why change? Today has been a very interesting day, going through 79 miles of post communism. I started the day in the small town of Cheb, just over the CZ border from Bavaria. Painted in various warm shades of yellows, oranges and brick red, I think Cheb had likely seen better days, though there did seem to be regeneration happening around the centre and there were a surprising number of German stores. The supermarket I went to though was all Czech, meaning I had to actually walk down all the aisles looking for things, as the labels mostly consisted of unlikely combinations involving excessive number of consonants, with a particular focus on z and lots of little additional doodahs over the letters. I'm such the linguist, I am. I was the only person staying in the pension, which made for a slightly awkward breakfast, as they laid out an entire buffet. Even I have my limits, though I did do my best.

I set off then on the rural Czech roads. Not too bad, windy and a bit bumpy with very little traffic. Open farm country. Pleasant. And then then road began to climb into the wooded hills. A bumpy roads sign appears. They don't fool around, as it turns out. Bumpy road meant the next 10 or so mils creeping along, avoiding bike eating potholes. Perhaps the take home lesson about cycling in the Czech Republic is to keep to the larger roads, which have generally been repaved at least once since the fall off Communism. This is up probably like a no shit Sherlock comment, but the Czech Republic really is a different country. Germany I sort of get and can muddle my way through. Rural CZ, well, I was glad my bike didn't fall apart. There was clearly a lot more money in the past though, because there are a lot of really magnificent houses, done in a generally more ornate style than across the border. And, of course, these are interspersed with all the lovely communist apartment blocks. No worse than London though, really.

I crossed the border back into Germany and blessedly smooth roads, though not quite so good as Bavaria. Lots more hills and towns full of very large, old, slightly scruffy looking houses nestled in the hills. This was supposed to be the West Virginia of Europe, and it did actually bear some resemblance. It also reminded me of England more than anywhere else on this trip, oddly. I think it was probably the old brick houses and the slight scruffiness without being messy. Still the anal German woodpiles though. The occasional dead factory, mouldering away quietly, back in the woods.

And then Chemnitz, formerly Karl Marx Stadt. As the name suggests, the city centre is an ode to communism. Stark concrete buildings, wide boulevards, little in the way of human scale. It is quite neat though, and has been greatly softened by pedestrianisation,  outdoor cafes and trees. Still though... Just outside the centre there are still fragments of the old city, some rather magnificent by houses and churches, interspersed with blank spaces or concrete. One rather sudden, fenced off, round and deep pond that looks suspiciously like a bomb crater. And road construction. The Communists may have liked their central wide boulevards, but go away from those and the roads leave a little to be desired. Even 24 years of German money still has a way to go. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by the roads over the border.

Tomorrow is 90 miles of mostly flat, quite the change from everything before. I can't quite believe it is coming to an end soon. I just remembered today that about 15 years ago I said I was going to cycle the Mississippi for my 40th. It may be a different continent, but I think I'm pretty pleased that I'm actually doing the thing I decided to do on a whim all those years ago. Shows the power of just letting an idea percolate... Right. Bed now.

I forgot, today I found the best rail trail I've ever seen. It was about 10 miles long, so smooth you could practically ice skate on it and just about empty. Why are bike facilities in the UK so shit and why are all the roads in such terrible shape? They have a worse climate here and more people. Not looking forward to the traffic, crappy roads, asshole drivers and asshole cyclists in London again. Sigh. Just need to remember the many things I do actually like, as well as the people I know. OK, really need bed now or am going to make myself grumpy...

Sunday 11 August 2013

Chilling in CZ

I know I've said this before, but, being a geographer, I like borders that actually feel like borders. The Czech German border is one of those. While the old naughty strip between the two countries is growing over and the car parks around the old crossing point are weed strewn or taken over by schlock shops and gas stations, things do still change. The hyper neatness of Bavaria disappears, just like that. There's crap strewn along the road (though not to southeast England levels), the houses look a bit tired, suddenly there are very square apartment blocks and the here is a lot more variation in road quality (though still not as suckass as England). There are also people hanging out on street corners in Cheb, where I am, and some pretty mangy looking hookers wandering about. Anyway, I'm staying in a very cute pension in the centre of town. Nicest room so far, actually. I had a 400g steak for dinner. £16.55 with all the trimmings. Yay! I have to say I can't imagine doing these sorts of bike rides as a vegetarian. When I stop, I just want to eat the whole side of a cow. Moo! Today's ride was 86 miles of hills. Gorgeous farmland interspersed with miles of woodland. To be honest, I felt a little bit alone some of today. They were deep, dark, little red riding hood type woods. Didn't want to be alone in them after dark. I was very tired today, though I did actually sleep pretty well at the cloister. Some of today's ride blurs together a bit. I have to say, the nuns put on a good show. Sparkling clean rooms with Jesus hanging about on the cross over every bed. Nice breakfast this morning. Lots of very German looking types heaping their plates full of cold cuts. Mother Superior wandering about. Guten morgen and the like. Much as I'm no big Catholic, I enjoyed staying there. In fact, I just really enjoyed southern Germany. A lot. It's clean, beautiful, friendly, efficient and absolute heaven for cycling. The roads are smooth, the drivers courteous, there are separate bike roads, not just lanes, everywhere and cycling is just a totally unremarkable activity. If the Netherlands are bike first (sometimes annoyingly so, I think, even as a cyclist) and London is just a lot of shrill shouting about cycling, Germany is just, well, people bike, and that's fine, so we will make sensible provisions for it (with the notable exception of the ICE train). It will be interesting tomorrow to cross back into Germany, but into the former east (supposedly the most hillbilly part as well) to see how things are different. Anyway, one thing is clear, I need to learn German. I seem to end up in Germany quite frequently, I like it a lot, but my German fluency is about that of a 2 year old and not a very smart one either. Makes for some very unusual discussions. Right. Time to get ready for bed. More cycling fun tomorrow!

Saturday 10 August 2013

Get me to a nunnery!

Sorry, I just had to say that, seeing as how I'm feeling a little bit cloistered. Ha ha ha! Anyway, I'm typing this away in a Spartan but very clean room in a cloister in Neumarkt in der Oberfelz, in the north of Bavaria. Today was 98 miles of farmland, varying between flat and quite hilly. A good deal of it was on separate bike trails, which I love about cycling in northern mainland Europe. Only downside is they get pissy when you are out in the road if there is a trail. I like Germany. A lot. Especially, as it turns out, southern Germany. It reminds me of the Upper Midwest, except with mountains. The same sort of slightly phlegmatic people. Lots of corn. Very little roadside trash. No noticeable riffraff hanging about. Roads so smooth you could ice skate on them. Even the dinky roads. I was surprised how much I liked Munich. I would definitely like to go back and stay more than a day. I spent most of yesterday walking around, even though the weather was atrocious. If you can like a city even when soaking wet it must have something going for it. Anyway, I walked back into town this evening to have schnitzel and I am now so tired I can barely type. BTW, there are actually people in Bavaria (not many) who wear lederhosen in public. I was shocked. Bed now. It may be silent now but I bet the sisters are up very early. God is an early riser, you know...

Friday 9 August 2013

WiFi on a Rainy Day

Say what you might about Starbucks, but on foreign travels they have (nearly) universal free toilets, a place to get out of the rain, yummy cinnamon buns without raisins (in Germany... Curse the evil British raisin fetish!) and free WiFi. I'm having a rest day today in Munich, staying with Mike and his absolutely lovely (and English speaking) mother. I've just about lost track of when I left, just over a week ago. Had a slightly epic train trip across Europe with Carlos, which included pushing my bike across Paris in nearly 100 degree heat. I have to say, Paris's when it is very hot just smells like pee. I suppose it probably always smells like pee, but it is just more noticeable when it is hot. Oui oui... Had to disassemble the bike in Paris for the train to Zurich, which is always a delight. Put it back together at the Zurich train station. 15 minutes to disassemble, 25 to reassemble. A new world record. Zurich was also boiling hot. That seemed somehow wrong. We met with Avi, walked around, had the very traditional Swiss dinner of kebabs, watched quite a lot of fireworks go off for Swiss National Day and had a drink at a slightly sad gay bar called Cranberry.

Next morning... Gym (it was free with the hotel), then met up with David and Robin, who had taken the early train from Munich. Robin was very sensibly dressed in lederhosen shorts, with suspenders, that he could just about shimmy his ass into. When I queried this slightly odd clothing choice, he said that it wasn't unusual for people to wear this sort of thing in Bavaria. I did pont out that we weren't in Bavaria. And, in fact, as I sit here and type this, in Bavaria, not a single person has come into this Starbucks wearing lederhosen. Clearly I chose the wrong Starbucks. No matter. We walked around boiling hot Zurich, stopping at various Starbucks (do I detect a theme?) then caught the late afternoon train to Goschenen, a pretty seriously dinkydoo town way up in the Alps.

In Goschenen, we had rented out a 3 bedroom apartment, conveniently next to the very prominently placed Catholic church. The church had a big tower with a big bell that proclaimed the glory of God every 15 minutes, most especially at 7am, when there was quite a lot of glory. Glory is very interruptive to those of us when are light sleepers. Anyway, Ben and Justin were staying at the hotel down the street. We all met up for a very expensive and very mediocre dinner, followed by a fair amount of sometimes boisterous alcohol consumption and my 2nd bday cake (a Swiss roll) in our living room. I do hope our neighbours in that very small and very quiet town where you could hear the person down the street sneezing enjoyed that as much as we did.

The following day, Kathleen travelled over from Bern and we spent the day hiking up the valley to a reservoir with a stupendous view of glaciers. Or, rather, some hiked and some wandered. There were interesting plants, rocks, photo opps, any number of reasons to dawdle. One person, who shall remain nameless, showed up to walk with a Tesco bag, this being his first time. And you know what, it was fantastic. We made it to the top, marvelled at the industrious Swiss people cutting hay on the dam and had cake and coffee (or beer) at the restaurant by the bus stop at the top of the climb. Switzerland is great, if slightly weird and rigged to explode in case of invasion.

The following day was a hike I organised, meaning straight up to the top of a mountain. We took two trains up a very inclined track to Oberalp  Pass and from there set off up the side of a mountain. There may have been some minor whining about this, but I think all were pleased by the view from the top. Ben and I continued the rest of the way to the tippy top. It was there and needed to be climbed. We were rewarded for our efforts by a magnificent view, a lot of sheep shit and a hikers' cabin. Dinner that night was back down the hill in Andermatt, followed by packing and general hanging out.

I set off the next day on my big bike adventure, late and a little reluctantly. It felt kind of weird setting off on my own when I had just spent the past few days surrounded by people. I'd never actually felt that before, setting off on my bike. So I pedalled off. Up and up and up, back to Oberalp and then a screaming descent down the other side, into Romansh speaking country. Gorgeous scenery, too much traffic and too much heat. After another very long climb and flying descent, I ended up in German speaking Chur, a pleasant small city on one of the main transport routes through the Alps.

The following day, gym followed by a search for a USB connector dingus followed by lunch followed by cycling. It was very hot again and I started late. I followed the valley north, passing through cornfields walled in on both sides by mountain walls. Sort of like heading towards Palm Springs from LA except with trees and corn. And heat. God was it hot. I passed the border fortifications protecting Switzerland from invasion by Liechtenstein, and spent about two hours cycling the length of that very small and fairly boring little country. I did stop for ice cream in Vaduz. It was yummy. Then Austria and east, back into the mountains. Insanely beautiful and full of, well, Austrian stuff mostly. I was particularly grateful for the very traditional Spar supermarket, where I could fill up on the traditional fare of water and Powerade and salami and junk food. I had to stop about 10 miles short that night, in Fontenella. It was getting dark, there was a big thunderstorm brewing and it was still 3 miles to the pass. Not good. That has been the only time so far I actually felt afraid. First hotel. Nothing. Second hotel. Nothing. Finally, a b and b run by a little old lady who spoke no English, occupied entirely by older, German speaking couples. A tiny little short bed, shared bathroom and €28 cash. Perfect. Traditional Austrian pizza dinner at the only restaurant in town. Also perfect.

The next day. Cooler. A three mike climb. A seven mile screaming descent. An 11 mile climb. Oh God. Another screaming descent. Then gradually down, down, down, through a deep, flat bottomed glacial valley lined with pretty  towns and fields. Ice cream and coffee. More down. Reminds me a lot of the area around Banff, except with farms. The forest changes. Spruce to fir to pine to hardwood. Smooth gorgeous roads. Why can't Britain have smooth gorgeous roads? Honestly! Buenvenidos a Deutschland (or something in German). I stay in a cheap little hotel with a balcony and an amazing view up to Neuschwanstein castle, the slightly OTT inspiration for Hogwarts and Disneyland. Dinner is goulash and pork and dumpling and sauerkraut. Moo.

Next day. Obligatory touristing around the castle (but not in, too crowded) with most of the population of Japan. Bus pulls up. Crowd pours out. Click click click click! They are a strange bunch. Bratwurst on a roll for my morning snack. A late start again. Supermarket for provisions. Then it's adios Alps. Off into the rolling farm country of Bavaria. And traffic. Good God was there a lot of traffic! An evening slog in the failing light into the rather functional looking suburbs of Munich. Oh was I glad to get here and glad for a break. Happy to see Mike and to meet his mother. And now I'm here. The rain has eased a bit and I have to pee. Until the next WiFi...