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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.