Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Danube Plains, the Blue Pot, and Ülm

Tessa writing:
We have left the gorges and now pedal across farmland with a tail wind which makes reaching speeds of 25 kph effortless. In future I must remember to make an offering to the tail wind gods before setting out. Along the way we see a stork strutting across a hay field. I had noticed unkempt nests on top of chimneys in some of the villages we had cycled through so I am happy to see one of the nest denizens.

A merchant sign … note the stork nest.

We detour to visit the hanging gardens of Neufra. Babylon they are not. They have a pleasant view to the Danube but are unkempt and I think that the lady who has cared for them for many years is maybe past it or even dead.

Abbey of Obermarchtal.
The abbey church.
The ballroom.

Our next stop is at the Abbey of Obermarchtal which according to Wikipedia was a Premonstratensian (an order that accepted men and women) monastery. The Baroque church is huge with every surface caked with plaster bas relief and swirling bronze; its too much. Luckily though we meet the handyman who takes us to see the enormous (everything is large scale) ballroom whose walls and ceiling are adorned with frothy but beautifully rendered frescoes. Today the abbey is a school and no monks or nuns have lived there for 30 years.  We spend the night in a so-called farm inn … it is close by a busy major road.

Washing potatoes at the farm inn.
Net fishing in the Danube.
The deep Blautopf pool.
The weir, mill & tourist café at Blautopf.
An apfelstrudel to be shared

Its the last day of cycling. We opt to take a longer route via Blautopf and then to follow the river Blau into Ulm. Blautopf (Blue Pot) is a 22 meters deep, cerulean blue pool from which the river emanates. There are apparently many legends associated with the pool the best known being about a nymph who rediscovered her laugh on seeing the blue waters. And so, not quite laughing but definitely smiling about completing an 800 km ride, we swoosh gently downhill into Ulm and to our hotel in the Fischerviertal, the Fishermen’s Quarter.

Ulm Cathedral.
The famous spire.
The crooked house around the corner from our hotel.
New houses in an old style.
Schworhaus.
City Hall with its Zodiac clock.
Closeup of Zodiac clock.
Its strawberry & spargle (white asparagus) season. Farmers’ market in front of the cathedral.
The sparrow is the symbol of Ulm … there are sculptures of them (and real ones) everywhere.

Over 80% of the medieval buildings in Ulm were destroyed by Allied bombing raids in WWII but those that remain have been restored and the empty spaces rebuilt with houses that respect the past. Over all, Ulm is a pleasant melange of old and new architecture, open squares, pedestrian and bicycle-only streets, parks and river banks lined with restaurants and gingerbread houses. Its most famous building is the gothic cathedral whose 161 meter high spire is the tallest of any church in Europe. David writes about our departure for Magagnosc from Ulm so I will conclude this part of the blog with a few observations about the trip.

We were blessed with good weather even if a bit hot and humid at times and so felt there was no need to take trains. After last year’s experience of 80 kms days I was relieved that our average for this trip was around 60 km. It meant that we were not “unable to do anything except eat and fall into bed” tired at the end of the day.

I personally loved riding through the varied countryside on bike paths though David could possibly have wished for more urban sights.

I am still very uneasy about riding on busy highways (thankfully only had to do so a few times) and into towns.  I always seemed to get left behind at traffic lights … am a lousy bike rider I suppose!

As I didn’t know what weather to expect I took too many clothes and hauling an extra 15 kilos is too much. Will pack more lightly next year.

Though very happy to get off my bike (and not ride it for a year!) I am looking forward to the 2018 stage along the Danube to Vienna.

David writing

Now lovely Ülm is only a memory; we are back in Magagnosc.  Our return was  tiring: extremely hot weather; literally only 2 minutes to load our bikes and bags on our Ülm train, into a car that was packed with bicycles – one in my reserved  place;  at our reserved seats, no air conditioning and it working only slightly in the next car;  in the Munich train station no signage for Platforms 1 and 2 and hidden elevators that our bikes barely squeezed in; forty minutes of standing room only, holding our bikes upright, on the U-Bahn to the airport; severe air turbulence over the Alps; our bikes the last luggage off the plane.  No big deal.

Looking back, many of the surfaces we rode upon – roads and bike paths – were smooth, high speed, and very enjoyable . These could be tarmac or packed sand.   Other surfaces were unpleasant, rough roads of loose stones, where we were jounced as we rode at one-third our normal speed, as well as gravel-tar-slurry surfaced roads that required a third more pedaling to power the same forward distance.

In France and Switzerland, bike routes are few and far between, but they are almost always well-paved, and are navigable with a racing bike.  The bikes we saw in France were usually day riders, alone or in clubs, but also bikers out for a weekend, carrying one or two light-weight panniers.  By contrast,  German bike paths and routes and are ubiquitous, but frequently rougher. Many Germans are using bikes and bike routes for their everyday tasks, and  are almost always riding hybrids with wide tires or city bikes.  We encountered laden tourers, like us, once or twice an hour, sometimes heading in our direction, sometimes westwards.

We saw many e-bikes.  E-bikers don’t have to work hard or dismount on hills, but e-bikes have practical discouragements:  they’re not easily chargeable at hotels; their range is limited; and they cannot be transported in airplanes.

My trip log shows that we rode more miles this year than last.  We covered some 741 kilometers this year, 678 of them by bicycle (416 miles), and only 63 by train.

Since our Atlantic start last year we’ve covered 1,587 kilometers (986 miles), and of these 1,254 by bicycle (780 miles).

This will be the last post for this year.  With luck, next year we will continue to  Vienna.

From the Rhine to the Danube

Tessa writing

On the bike path beside the Rhine at Schaffhausen.

Next day we start through farm country. It is hay making time and as the tractor-drawn rotors turn over the drying grass and rodents flee, hawks wheel overhead looking for a mouse meal. We ride through forests on rough tracks but mostly stay along the river until we reach Stein and the banks of Lake Constance. Stein am Rhein, a picturesque town of tall buildings whose walls are covered in murals, is full of tourists as is Radolfzell the next town we ride through. It is a relief to reach our destination, a quiet hotel at the end of Bodman on the lake. The restaurant provides a delicious dinner of salmon trout, and we retire early to bed as tomorrow will be a hard ride.

A covered bridge over the Danube on the way to Stein.
Stein am Rhine
One of many trade signs in Stein.

David had warned me that we would be climbing 2,400 feet to reach the Danube but I had not thought much about it. I am now! It is the hottest day yet and I never again wish to push a bike loaded with 30 lbs of stuff up seemingly vertical roads. Somehow we make it and after a picnic at the top of the watershed with a view south to Lake Constance and north to Swabia we swoop down to Tuttlingen on the banks of the Danube.

Low-traffic road climbing through dark forest
View from the summit back to Lake Constance, 30 kilometers distant. In this direction water flows to the North Sea.
Sign explaining the “continental divide”. In the direction of this view, water flows to the Black Sea.

The hotel where we stay in Tuttlingen, on the Danube, is modern and our room too cutting-edge, very small with the shower and washbasin next to the bed. Thankfully the loo has its own room.

Our interesting room in Tuttlingen.

We eat at a wine and steak bar and enjoy a good meal and good conversation with the couple at the next table. They are winemakers, and Carl says that their winery and 30 hectares of vines have been in his family for generations. I had noticed vineyards beside Lake Constance and Carl says that the area has a mild Mediterranean climate perfect not only for vines but also for fruit trees and vegetables. He makes mostly Sauvignon Blanc but also Chardonnay and Pinot. David asks him if he agrees with a winemaker in Burgundy who said that skill was more important for making a great wine than the terroir. Carl shakes his head and says that his grandfather had taught him which areas of his vineyard produced the best varietals and in his opinion the terroir was more important.  As the wine bar is a client he offers us a tasting of the two different Sauvignon Blancs that he makes; they are delicious!

Its Sunday again, the sun is shining and we head for the bike path of the upper Danube. The scenery is spectacular; the river, at this point not much more than a stream,  wends its way through gorges, forests and small meadows. On top of the higher cliffs are ruined castles no doubt built as strongholds during turbulent medaeival times. Hikers and bikers are out en masse, and there are many beer gardens and outdoor places to eat even in seemingly remote places. Our route is hilly and we notice that about 50% of the cyclists are on e.bikes which annoyingly sail up hills while we sweatily push our bikes on foot. Strangely many of the male e.bikers over 60 bare a striking resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm … all have squarish faces, neat beards and large mustaches. The only difference is that they wear a bicycle helmet instead of a spiked helmet. Its uncanny and slightly disturbing. Though long and tiring I think this has been my favorite day of riding.

Hikers along the bike.trail.
Guardians of the Danube.
Trout hanging in the current of the Danube.
The river is narrow at this stage.

David writing
Tessa does not seem to care for the aesthetics of Stein-am-Rhein (Stein on the Rhine), with its muraled walls and metal hanging signs, but I love them, and I recall with pleasure the long coffee we had there. Stein has the last bridge over the Rhine. The next bridge used to be in Austria, where the Rhine flows into Lake Constance, one-hundred kilometers away in Austria (but the Rhine rises in the Swiss Alps).  (In 1938 a bridge was built across the narrows of the lake at Konstanz.)

 

Hot dog in Lake Constance.

The expansive lake views on the ride beside the lake and a picnic we had therre were for me a lovely change from the constant river and canal views of the previous eight days (and those that would follow). I much enjoyed our little hotel on a quiet branch of the lake, worth the 12 km detour from the direct route.

Dinner by the lake in Boden.

I had hoped that our climb up to the Danube would be gradually spread over the day, but no, it was filled first with steep ups and downs to pass by a famous castle, and brutally concentrated at the end. As Tessa writes, we had to push our bikes endlessly, sometimes through “black” forest, and then through steep open farmland.

School-kids from Romania taking a break after a steep climb.

I was surprised by the difficulty of our first day along the Danube, rough tracks through the forest by the Danube, barely more than a stream, in a narrow valley with constant short steep hills,  with luckily by a few flat paved stretches.  Only that evening did I learn that this area is called the Swabian Alps.

Mulhouse, Basel and the Rhine

Tessa writing
The early drizzle dissipates and the sun appears as we ride back down the national road (mercifully less trafficked today as its Sunday) and are soon on the bike path. We arrive at the yacht basin of Montbéliard and a cyclist, on seeing David looking at a map, asks if he can help. He insists on leading us to our B and B in the old town opposite a large church. Another French Angel!

The self-appointed guide from Montbéliard.
Chateau of the Dukes of Wurttemberg, Montbéliard.

The B and B appears to be an old bank building and, after storing the bikes (mercifully at ground level), we follow our host up to the third floor. Our room, in the large apartment belonging to Claudie and Michel, is delightful and looks out onto the square surrounding the church. Over a cup of tea they explain that one of the biggest Christmas markets in France lasting a month takes place in the square. Their two guest rooms are understandably booked months in advance! The church itself is called the Temple of St. Martin and is the oldest Lutheran church in France. Montbéliard was largely Protestant and during the 17th century the city and its inhabitants suffered greatly at the hands of the Catholics. But that’s all past says Claudie, “Look at us, I’m Catholic and Michel is Protestant and we have no problems!” The next day after a delicious breakfast we say goodbye to this charming couple.

The inedible coypu.

The bike path seems crowded for a Monday; there are many groups of schoolchildren on bikes shepherded by teachers, many more cyclists laden as heavily as we are, walkers, online skaters in formation and the usual cycling speedsters. In addition, the canal banks are lined with fishermen. I see what I think is a large fish but a man who is photographing it tells me that it is not a fish, it is a coypu and one can’t eat it! I hadn’t really wanted to. David says he’s hungry however and, having seen nowhere to eat for kilometers, we round a bend and there is a cafe, “The home of a 100 pastas”, with a multitude of cyclists of all ages sitting at long tables enjoying their carbs. I learn the reason for the crowds; it is Pentecost. Schools, shops and restaurants are closed and we are lucky that our hosts in Mulhouse know that there is one place open to eat. I am confused by its name “Oog” but on arrival there realize it is the French pronunciation of “Hug”!

The B & B (the last we shall stay in on this trip, hotels from now on) is a large house with well proportioned, high ceilinged rooms that are furnished with attractive modern furniture that somehow melds with the original Victorian finish. It belonged to the Dreyfus family and our hostess tells us that a scion of the family visited after they bought it and appeared pleased with the changes in decor that she and her husband have made. After the amazing breakfast David has described below we leave in the rain for an unpleasant slog to Basel. The bike paths are made of hard yellow sand that has been turned into yellow slurry by the rain. We reach the Rhine finally, our bikes and bags covered in yellow sludge, as the sun comes out. To get to Basel we have to cross the Three Nation Bridge so from France to Germany to Switzerland with nary a customs or immigration official in sight.

Our first view of Basel.

David will write about the trams of Basel and I’ll add a couple of observations. Our hotel near the rail station is at the conjunction of many of the tram lines and I worried about noise. Unfounded as it turns out as the trams make a bicycle bell-like chime when they are about to leave and are silent when running save for a pleasant clacking sound on the rails. My long time friend, Luki, joins us for dinner. He is managing a project for a large Agro/Pharma company so is fortuitously in Basel and not in Lucern where he lives. We talk mostly about education as he has two daughters. Tuition costs are not high but standards are. Even in high school there are multiple tests throughout the year but in university (his older daughter is studying at the University of Zurich) the exams become more frequent and if a student fails too often he/she is asked to leave.

We visit the Art Museum the next day and find nothing particularly remarkable save for a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the ugliest Christ child I’ve ever seen; he looks a lot like Boris Johnson the British Foreign Secretary. Art Basel takes place in a week’s time and many of the squares in the city are cordoned off as temporary sculptures are installed; I am sorry that we will miss the art fair.

 

The view from our hotel room.
Installation in the Art Museum.

 

Conversation with a skeleton.

I am happy we decide to take the train to Waldshut, our next destination. The river banks here are lined with the buildings and factories of the Agro/Pharma industry and there is a strong wind blowing; it would have been an unattractive ride. Waldshut is a pretty town on the German side of the Rhine and the next day we bop between Switzerland and Germany so often I can never tell which country I am in unless we happen to buy something. Basel had been expensive; $8 for a small bowl of miso soup in the Asian restaurant where we ate with Luki had seemed exorbitant (the main courses were similarly priced) but the bike shop experience the next day made David apoplectic. My front tire was losing air so we asked if it was possible to change the inner tube (which we supplied). My front wheel was whisked off, returned three minutes later with new tube installed and the bill presented … $30! So note to selves, when in Switzerland try not to buy anything! In fact, because of the expense, we met several people who lived in Germany and worked in Switzerland even if it involved a long commute. Many Swiss also shop in Germany or France for this reason.

Waldshut
Relatives?

The Rhine is very different from the lazy French rivers. Its lively and sparkles its way over the stones on its clean bed; it reminds me of Schubert’s “Trout” concerto. The much touristed Rhine Falls are impressive though the long push up the side of them to Schaffhausen is not. The town though is lovely.

Castle on the Rhine.

David writing

1. Our hostess in Mulhouse reminded me a bit of Sophia Loren; she was a once-classic Italian beauty somehow transposed to an industrial city to cook fabulous refined breakfasts using rare spices. Her broad, dark husband, from Puglia, was only wearing one gold chain, but he looked like he should have many more. They were both retired architects.

An old friend, a glossy magazine creator – writer, editor, advertising salesman and promoter, was visiting from Paris. He was a slight, thin, energetic man who’s hands were always touching someone on the shoulder, arm or back. Parisians speak rapidly but this man spoke doubly fast, cracking jokes and plays on words in every third sentence. We couldn’t follow. We went to the same restaurant as he and our hosts, and joined them for a dessert at his expense. A character beyond my previous experience. BTW, he said that everybody in Paris knows that President Macron is a homosexual and that his wife acts as his mother. (We’d heard this rumor but doubted it.)

2. The amazing trams (streetcars) of Basel run everywhere, every few minutes, chris-crossing each other, and it seems always full. After our previous day’s ordeal in the rain and slurried sand, and to visit the Art Museum and old town, we decided to skip sixty kilometers of cycling. The ticket office in the Swiss train station (there’s also a French one and a German one) is so well staffed that the wait is minimal. Our agent was courteous, helpful, and very knowledgeable.
Swiss trains are relatively slow and expensive, but are comfortable and on time. One of our train’s ticket checkers went out of his way to help us hang up our weighty bikes, and un-hang them. Many passengers were helpful in warning us of our upcoming stations, where we had to change trains, and finding the tracks for our continuations. Many people have also been helpful (in English or in my broken German) in finding our hotels, usually lost in mazes of twisty streets.

3. Do any French, Swiss or Germans work as servers in the bigger restaurants or man the large hotel desks? I would say not! We’ve had three Poles, a Bulgarian, an Austrian, a Filipino, and today a Nepalese tour guide who married a local girl.

4. North of the Rhine, from Basel to Waldhut, where we arrived by train, it’s Germany. But to the east, Switzerland makes incursions across the river, in spots where, at the time of the 16th century religious peace, Protestant princes ruled. Because the Rhine is sinuous, we follow first the south, Swiss, side of the Rhine, and then the north side, alternating between Switzerland and Germany, until we reach the European “Niagara Falls” at Schaffhausen.

Only view of the Alps; on the way to Schaffhausen.
The Rhine Falls

Along the Saone and the Doubs

David writing, 1st day


Our ride starts on my 77th birthday. Somewhat luckily, because my plane to Paris turned back to Dallas from Chicago, and because Tessa spent hours looking for the Dijon car return.

The first five kilometers follow major and minor streets and then we are among the Pinot Noir on a rough vineyard road.   Our hotel in Givrey-Chambertin is only 14 kilometers from Dijon, fortunately; given the rainiest year ever in Portland and my unexpected week-long trip back to the states, I’ve scarcely been in the saddle.

For my Birthday dinner, we go to Chez Lucien. The meal is beyond extraordinary: The burgundy-soaked beef jowl is the best ever, and the restaurant’s own Rosignol-Trapet wine, which was one of the three choices by the glass, was for me, the best wine ever. (I’ve tasted a lot of good wine.). By bike the next morning we rode back to Chez Lucien and ordered six bottles. Hopefully it will ship well.

Les Deux Chevres

Tessa writing, 1st day
The weather has turned tropical, unseasonably hot and humid. I drip my way into Les Deux Chevres in Givrey-Chambertin, a pretty inn clad in pale ochre Burgundy stone with a small parking lot full of Jaguars and Porsches, and wish the friendly girl giving us a tour of the ground floor would hurry up so I can jump into a shower.

The French meteo has been warning of storms the whole week but the next day is blue skied and after an ample breakfast cooked by the inn keeper we start cycling through the vineyards of the Cote d’ Or and the villages of the Grands Crus, Morey St. Denis, Vougeot etc. Its trellis fixing time and the vineyards are full of workers. One merry crew are joshing each other, “He’s a donkey!” shouts one roaring with laughter. I wonder where they are from as they speak English.

Chateau de Vougeot

In Nuits St. Georges we turn east leaving the vineyards.  After a quick visit to the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux we head towards St. Jean de Losne on the banks of the Saone.  The little town is familiar. In 1972 Bill and I emerged from the Canal du Burgogne in our newly purchased sailboat onto the river on our way south to the Mediterranean. This time I will be heading northeast.

Part of a series of flag stones that describe the history of the Abbey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Siesta outside the Abbey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Jean de Losne
Our unprofessional waitress in St. Jean de Losne

David writing, 2nd – 5th day
Our itinerary, after the 30 km cross-country from the vineyards, follows rivers upstream to the northeast, first the Saone, a major river that begins far in the north-east of France and joins the Rhone at Lyon. Then, after our second night in St.Jean de Losne, it follows a canal that runs south for twenty kilometers to the Doubs River (pronounced “Doue”) that flows from the east. The river is large, meandering and navigable, since a series of weirs tame each section of the river.  At each weir, the water drops about 10 feet, while an adjacent canal leads to a lock, or at times the canal bypasses a large loop in the river. We passed ten or twenty locks each day, and thus the altitude change from Burgundy to Montbéliard, where I am writing, is from 500 to 1000 feet. As you can see in the photos, the Doubs passes through flat lands, then through mountains, highest near Besancon, and then back to flat lands. Here in flat Montbéliard, Peugot has its headquarters and main factory.

View of bike path along a typical stretch of canal.
Weir with bypass lock on river Doubs.

It has been remarkable how many different types of food and restaurants we have had during these four days. On our second night, the service was the weirdest ever. First our middle-aged waitress, the daughter-in-law of the elderly owner, spilled a lemon covered with salad oil on my only pair of long pants (and laughed it off). Then she made several serving errors at other tables, laughing, then leaned through the window to an interior table to get salt and pepper shakers; then started laughing at and with clients and putting her arm around their shoulders.The third evening, the new owner who recently took over our inn in the tiny town of Ranchot, professionally served me a delicious whole trout, perfectly cooked, though Tessa thought her perch was only fair. After dinner we walked along the narrow canal in the moonlight, watching endless overlapping circles of ripples made by tiny fish feeding on insects.

In Besançon luncheon the next day featured most-everything in pink (and organic): pink water bottles, pink flowers, pink restroom, pink shrimp, pink grapefruit, and carrots galore.

The “pink” meal in Besancon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The waiter at the “pink” restaurant.

That evening we stayed at the only farm-inn (ferme-auberge), see below, on our trip. Everything but the flour and bread came from the couple’s farm and was prepared there, as Tessa details below. The bread came from a local bakery, and like all the bread we consumed for dinner and breakfast, since Dijon, it had a slightly brown flour leavened by a mixture of commercial and wild yeasts; it tasted delicious, and felt soft on the palate.

Montbéliard – well, all the restaurants were closed save one crèperie, mobbed with clients.   The mother cooked, the father washed the dishes, served the wine, and welcomed the clients, the 12 year old son and 8 year old daughter served.  We each had a galette, that is a very thin pancake of serassin wheat, formed into a magazine-sized square, with the rounded parts folded over, and filled in my case with gruyere cheese, ham, and fried egg, while Tessa’s contained Montbéliard sausage, comté cheese, and a special cheese only found in the region.

Tessa writing, 2nd – 5th day
Today we follow waterways on the “impeccable” (a favorite French word) bike paths; smooth tarmac with mown verges and no litter, they are a joy to ride. The Saone is a languid river wending its way through hay meadows, its surface occasionally roiled by large fish (carp?) that splash under the water lilies. The continuous avian opera of loudly trilling sopranos and contraltos is joined by the baritones and bassos of hidden amphibians; no need for iPod music in deep France. We arrive in Dole, a pretty town on a riverside hill dominated by a large cathedral. There is a confluence of waterways here and we have difficulty finding our way which includes crossing a rugby field twice but someone sets us right and we are soon rolling along under a magnificent avenue of sycamores next to the Doubs. This river has a different character to the Saone; cleaner and more urgent aided by the numerous weirs it tumbles over.

Town of Dole
Sculpture in main square of Dole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The avenue of sycamores outside of Dole.
Dejeuner sur l’herbe on the Doubs.

The next day dawns clear but the air is heavier. We have seen few cyclists but today is Saturday and as we near Besancon the bike path is more crowded, not only with the lean bronzed would-be Tour de France types who whiz by at speed but kids on skateboards and scooters, inline skaters, and walkers. Besancon is large, hot and steep. We sweat our way on foot up a small cobbled mountain only to find the cathedral closed. Overhead thunderheads are gathering so a quick lunch and back to the Doubs. The downpour that ensues a couple of hours later precipitates a large fly hatch and after a couple of them lodge in my throat I make a note to self: keep mouth closed when cycling through a fly hatch. Finally we reach our destination of La Baume les Dames but then David discovers that the Ferme-Auberge where we are staying is 2.7 km up a steep hill off a very busy national highway … I am NOT happy! After an hour of pushing our bikes we arrive, drenched, but a hot shower and a large meal of pork pie, veal chop and compté cheese (this area of France is big on protein) washed down with a pleasant local pinot restores my mood. We both sleep soundly.

On the way to Besancon.
Vauban’s fortress guarding the approaches to Besancon.
The Thoraise canal tunnel built in 1810.
The rain finally caught up with us.