Friday, June 23, 2017

On the road again, wherein we say Tschüss to Germany and hello again to Holland

Today was yet another (partial) day of train travel, and it went mostly very smoothly, except for the moment of panic when we realized that we were on the back half of a train that was about to split in two, and the front half was going to our destination – not helped by the fact that the announcements were only in German and Dutch. So it was another mad scramble with the bikes on the platform to move up a few cars... But all's well that ends well.

The train voyage took us to the German town of Emmerich am Rhein, maybe 10 km east of the Dutch boarder. We cycled mostly the D8 route along the Rhine, where it became the LF3 in Holland (and the Rhine became the Waal). The path took us through lots of rural countryside; we definitely were no longer in industrial Rhineland here! We even saw some spoonbills!
Yeah... those white things... take my word for it. 

The road signs in Holland are always good for a laugh too.

I think this means that cyclists are supposed to ride "on the effing shoulders!" 
The destination today was Nijmegen (which, a kind Dutchman on the train told us, is pronounced Nigh-meh-jen... easy for him to say). About 8 km before arriving, however, Sonia finally found a place to swim. And fortunately, there was a nearby pub, so both of us could indulge in our passions. 

But mostly, today was about the joy of being back on the road. My butt was happy about the 4 days off, but as we have come to know well by now, the real pleasure in these vacations comes from getting up every morning and heading into an unknown landscape; the journey truly is the destination. Even the moderate Dutch headwind, the strongest we've had to contend with on this trip so far, could not dampen our spirits. And while Germany was lovely, it was also nice to return to Holland, where we spent so many nice days in the saddle on our last cycling holiday.

We got to our Airbnb shortly after 4 pm, had showers and rested, then headed out for supper, where we found what is perhaps the first really good burger place we have encountered in all our travels in Europe. Didn't hurt that they had a decent beer list, and I was able to reacquaint myself with Mooie Nel IPA from Jopen brewery, which I remember fondly from our last trip. 

Mooie Nel and mooie Sonia. 
Tomorrow, we're continuing down the LF3, along the Meuse. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Cologne

Wow, another really hot day. Luckily, we were travelling to a place with the perfect antidote to the heat: Kölsch. (For you philistines, that's a style of beer that can be found only in Cologne – or at least it can only be called "Kölsch" if it's brewed in Köln; one might call it the Champagne of Germany.)

Our train from Heidelberg came in right on time. And we were placed at the correct end of the platform for the bicycle car; but of course, just before the train pulled in there was an announcement that the bike car would be at the end of the train rather than the front, so there was a bit of a mad dash to get to the other end of the platform just as the train came in. But other than that, the trip was uneventful.

When you emerge from the Cologne train station, you are greeted with this:
View of Köln from the train station. 

Needless to say, when we got there, around 11:30, it was a job to get out of the station (especially with pannier-laden bikes), because the tourist's natural instinct when confronted with such a spectacle is to stop and whip out the camera. So our path was initially blocked.

But we eventually escaped and made our way to the Airbnb, which was just a few blocks away. After settling in (and chatting with the cleaning lady and her daughter, who where just leaving and who were recent immigrants from Syria – lovely and amazing women who showed no outward signs of the incredible hardships they must have endured... but that's another story...) we set out to explore and do some shopping. I actually had a purpose here, since on the train, I realized that the reason one of my panniers seemed a little less full than usual was that I had left my raincoat behind somewhere along the way (likely Sankt Goar). Since there is some rain in the forecast for next week, I didn't want to be caught without one. Sonia was happy to have a shopping partner for once.

By mid-afternoon, the temperature in Cologne had climbed to 36C, about as hot as I have experienced in many a year. But if there's a place to endure such heat, it's this city. There are probably 30 bars/restaurants within a 200 metre radius of our apartment (I may be underestimating this significantly). The first one we came to was Peters Brauhaus, so naturally I had to try the Kölsch there. Sonia seemed to get a second wind for shopping and so left me to my "research." By the end of the day I had sampled 5 different brands (out of the 13-odd breweries around the city brewing this style). I was honestly quite surprised at how different the various brands were. And the nice thing is that it's mostly served in 200 ml glasses. I with North American bars served beer in this size.

Cold Kölsch with a hot date.
Owing to the heat, we had supper in the apartment fairly late and then went to look at the Cathedral, the other must-do on my checklist. What an amazing space. Especially after seeing pictures of the city after World War II. The only other churches I've been in that compare are Barcelona's Sagrada Familia (which I think may be even bigger in footprint) and the cathedral in St. Louis, which is probably half to 2/3's this size, but still huge by North American standards. In any case, my poor little iPhone camera was no match for a building this size.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral
Tomorrow, we take the train again, this time to Emmerich, near the border with Holland, where we will get back on the bikes again to start week 3 of the trip.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Heidelberg (Stairway to Heaven)

I'm glad we're taking the train to Cologne tomorrow, 'cause I wouldn't want to get on my bike tomorrow (other than the few kilometres to get to the train station). It was another long day – a great day – but I'm tired now, thanks. I think it's time for another beer, don't mind if I do. 

The forecast was for another hot day, so we decided to head up to the hills again, and this time, the smart money said we should just stay up there all afternoon. We started a little late, but were out the door by 9:30, destination: Königstuhl (king's chair, or king's seat), the hill on the city side of Heidelberg, opposite the Heiligenberg that we climbed yesterday. While yesterday's hike was up to 440 metres, today, we ascended to 567 metres, and believe me, my legs are feeling the extra 127 metres.

There are so many paths and trails up the mountain that we didn't really have any fixed route planned. So when we came across a sturdy stone staircase, we decided that it looked to be the most expedient way up the mountain. While that may be true, it is definitely not the easiest way. Indeed, I learned today that climbing stairs is not a terribly efficient way for the human body to ascend a slope. 

The stairway we encountered was called the Himmelsleiter (literally, "heaven's ladder," but I'm going to call it "stairway to heaven," which is more poetic and accurate. Sorry for the ear worm.).  As far as I can tell, it was built in the 19th century. The stairway ascends 260 metres vertically and 700 metres horizontally, which, according to my calculations, makes an average grade of 37%. Basically, after the first 5 minutes, we stopped for a rest every 50 steps, or about 10 metres. By the time we got half way, my shirt was so wet that I could literally wring the sweat out of it. We considered peeling off to take one of the many switchbacking side roads, but Sonia's a gamer, and so after a solid rest we decided to keep going. Thankfully, the slope eased off a little toward the top, and we also discovered that walking beside the steps was MUCH easier. Turns out, the achilles tendon is a pretty good spring. In the end, we climbed the whole thing. High-fives were definitely in order!

Only 200 vertical metres left to go!




Our initial goal was to get to a falconry centre at the top (with a website worthy of the 90s), which was advertising a show at 11:30. As we ascended, we figured there was no way we'd make it, but in the end, we made it just in time. Which was fortunate, because it was a wonderful show. I was thoroughly entertained, even though the whole thing was in German. There were 2 or 3 school groups there, and it was so nice to see a great educator doing what she does best. The kids were absolutely rapt (that's a pun, in case you were wondering).




After the show, we wandered around the summit a bit and then had lunch. The view from the top, west across the Rhine flatlands is spectacular. We spoke to an older women while we were having lunch, and she quipped that the Himmelsleiter might be better called Teufelsleiter (Devil's ladder). I had to agree. 

The view from Königstuhl
Then we trundled back down to the castle gardens, found a nice patch of lawn under a big tree and just hung out for a few hours, dozing and reading for the rest of the afternoon, before returning to the apartment for supper.  

Tomorrow, we're taking the early train to Cologne. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Heidelberg, Part the hot

I'm melting!

Today was a hot day. As I write this, it's 8:30 p.m. and the temperature has dipped to a cool 31C. Good thing we got most of our exercise in before noon. 

We were out of the apartment by 8:20 a.m., intent on hiking up the Heiligenberg, one of the hills overlooking Heidelberg.  The walk featured a stroll along the Philosophenweg (or philosophers' walk), where the city's early academics and philosophers would walk and talk. As we climbed, we came across several nice monuments and lookouts. 

View of the city from the Philosophenweg
But out goal was the historical monuments near the top. The first were the ruins of a small monastery (St. Stephen's), built in the 11th century, with much later tower alongside that was built partially from the ruins of the monastery. 

At the top were the ruins of another 11th century monastery, this one much larger – called St. Michael's – built on the site of a former Roman temple, the vestiges of which are still visible. There are also apparently traces of old Celtic fortifications dating back much earlier than this even, but we couldn't find these. 

St. Michael's monastery
On the slope between the two monasteries is the Thingstätte, an open-air amphitheatre built by the Nazis as part of their short-lived Thingspiel movement. This site was opened in June 1935, and apparently Joseph Goebbles spoke at the inauguration. There was no effort to hide this site, but I found it interesting that there were signs for the monasteries but no directions pointing explicitly to the Thingstätte, and only a few signs explaining its history in German only, whereas other panels explained the area's history extensively in both German and English. One can only assume that this monument is not something the region is particularly proud of, especially given Heidelberg's history as a former Nazi stronghold. 

The Thingstätte
Anyway, it was all quite fascinating. We considered walking further around the hillside, but as it was already getting warm, we decided to head back down into the city. In retrospect, it might have been better had we stayed in the woods a little longer. 

Back in the Altstadt, we found the Heiliggeistkirche open and so wandered in and had a look around. We also noted that there would be an organ concert later that afternoon, which we attended. The program included Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C minor, a Mendelssohn organ sonata, and a work by the organist. It wasn't the concert of the century (and several of the organ ranks were quite out of tune with each other), but it was fun to hear Bach in a German church for the first time.

The lovely but somewhat spare interior of the Heiliggeistkirche
Then it was home for supper. Sonia tried to drag me out to do some shopping, but my viking blood is just not suited to this heat, so I'm staying inside where it's relatively cool and calm. 

It's a similar forecast for tomorrow, and we still haven't decided on what we'll do to beat the heat. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Heidelberg, Part the 1st

We got off to a fairly early start this morning owing to the fact that our bedroom in the Airbnb did not have shutters, and in northern Europe around the summer solstice, the sun rises at something like 5:30. We were on our bikes headed for the train station by 9.

We got tickets to Heidelberg for ourselves and our bikes on the 10:14 train, with a transfer in Ludwigshafen, across the Rhine from Mannheim, to a local commuter train into Heidelberg central station. Good thing we got on when we did, because at the first stop in Mannheim, the train filled to the brim, and many people with bicycles weren't able to board. Luckily, it was only 3 stops in the sardine can.
Bikes on a train!
The ticket agent in Mainz suggested that if we wanted to reserve a spot for our bicycles on our next trip (to Cologne), we should do so earlier rather than later, so once we got into Heidelberg Hbf, we bought tickets on the direct train to Cologne on Thursday and reserved spots for our bikes. It will be an early start (7:55 a.m.), but at least we won't have to worry about whether there will be room for them on a regional train, and we will get into Cologne with lots of time to do some sight seeing (which, for me, means seeing the cathedral and drinking Kölsch, not necessarily in that order).

Once out of the station, we had a picnic lunch in a nearby park before setting off to look around a bit. Today was hot (and the forecast is for even hotter in the coming days).  Heidelberg is, very obviously, a university town. It's teeming with young students, most of whom apparently spend Monday afternoons zooming around on bicycles.

After walking our bikes down Hauptstraße (i.e., Main Street) for a few blocks, we decided to get off the main drag and visit the Neckar (the city's river), 'cause, y'know, we hadn't quite seen enough of Germany's rivers yet...

Then it was back into town for a gelato (one of Sonia's birthday treats). And can I just say here for the record that German coffee ice cream is just as mystifying as German coffee...
Birthday gelato for Sonia

At 3 p.m., we got into our Airbnb, a lovely little 2-room apartment (with a washing machine!) on a quiet street in the Altstade, a few blocks down from the university library. We started some laundry, settled in and then set went to find some groceries (home cooking for 3 whole days!).

After dinner, we took the funicular up to Heidelberg Castle, which is truly impressive. It's in ruins, but no so much so that you don't get a great idea of what the place must have been like 400 years ago. The 17th-century was very good to a certain class of people! Also, it's just one great photo op after another, especially with the evening light.

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle from the castle gardens
View of the city from the castle (with Heiliggeistkirche in the middle)
We walked back down the hill into town and into the main Marktplatz, which is dominated by the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), a space I hope to get inside before we leave. Here, Sonia had another birthday treat, a piece of almond tarte, and we had drinks in the square.

Sonia enjoying another birthday treat
As we strolled back home, one of those magical holiday moments occurred. Just as we were walking past another lovely church (Jesuitenkirche), we heard a very good choir (probably amateur) from down a side street, practicing with the windows open. Among other things, they were singing For Unto Us a Child is Born from Handel's Messiah. It seems a bit early in the year to be rehearsing Messiah, but it was a lovely treat to hear some fine singing. After listening for a while, we continued on, and I guess Monday night is choir night, because we came across another choir rehearsing – not quite as good as the first (but still quite good). They were singing Cantique de Jean Racine by Fauré – very familiar to Québec choral audiences.

So a full first day in Heidelberg. Tomorrow we will be up early to hike in the hills before it gets too hot!


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Mainz

Today was the first cycling on the Rhine that could rival the Moselle. Good thing it was lovely, because it was a pretty long day.

We got off to a fairly early start, knowing that the day would be quite warm. The first 10 km or so were disappointing, with the path mostly along the highway, like yesterday. But as the Rhine valley began to widen, the highway routed more inland, while the bike path stuck to the river, and we began to wind through some very beautiful countryside, with castles dotting the hillsides.
A castle in the Rhine and one above it.
We stopped in Bingen for the requisite mid-morning coffee and snack. It's another very pretty town, though on a Sunday morning, it was much quieter than Boppard yesterday. As we rode out, we could see the vestiges of the old town walls, still in relatively good shape.

Town walls in Bingen
As the valley widened even further, the path took us through some lovely rolling farmland and parks that reminded me quite a lot of Quebec, especially since there are some islands in the Rhine here, much like the St. Lawrence at Montreal.



Sonia reads up on controlled flooding in this part of the valley.

A field red with poppies.
After a long lunch break, we set off on the final 15 km or so and rolled into Mainz about 3:00. In all, we did a solid 62 km today (mostly into a slight headwind). A lovely but long day in the saddle. We settled into the Airbnb, had a shower and a rest and then went out explore Mainz and find our supper. The old town is quite lovely and very well-kept.

Mainz Cathedral
Mainz is famous for, among other things, being the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, and there is a museum in his honour not 200 metres from where we are staying. Alas it was closed by the time we got there. The city is also, as my friend Douglas reminds me, the home of the Alexander brass instrument workshop, famous for their horns and tubas.

The two nights we were in Cochem, there was a wine festival across the river from our apartment, with music going until midnight both nights. Last night in Sankt Goar, we fell asleep to the sound (dare I say "noise") of a rock concert at the Loreley Freilichtbühne, an outdoor amphitheatre that was right across the river and about 100 metres above our hotel. Tonight, we're being serenaded by a couple of quite good guitarists singing oldies from the 60s in the courtyard below. It's a refreshing change (though silence would be even more refreshing... and get off my lawn you young punks!)

Tomorrow morning, we're heading straight to the train station and from there, south to Heidelberg. So this will be all of Mainz for us.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Weee! Up the Rhine we go...

This morning, we officially said goodby to the Moselle, as we rode the D5 route to the end and hung a right down the D8. The Moselle was such a beautiful ride, and it will be a tough act to follow. Right where the two rivers meet (the Deutsches Eck, or German corner), there's a huge statue of the first German emperor, Wilhelm I, which was destroyed during World War II but eventually replaced in the 1990s).

Big statue!
Peter and Sonia at the Deutsches Eck. 
Right away, you can tell that the Rhine is a very different river than the Moselle. It's not that much wider, at least not in Koblenz, but it's clearly much more powerful. Where the Moselle strolls placidly between its enclosing hills, in no rush to get anywhere, the Rhine gallops down its valley, eager to empty into the sea. The ships steaming upstream have to work MUCH harder to make headway than those going down, which I imagine need only enough way to steer.

The part of Koblenz along the Rhine gives a much better impression than the section along the Moselle. The path is quite lovely, running as it does through some beautiful parkland. After that, we seemed to have to alternate between a picturesque but very bumpy path along the river (cobblestones, poorly maintained bike path, uneven paving stones) and very smooth riding alongside a highway.

Tree-lined bike path along the Rhine in Koblenz
Either way, however, we were treated to lots of castles on the hilltops in various states of disrepair. Eventually we came to the town of Boppart (or, as we jokingly it, Beauport), where we stopped for lunch at the fountain in the Markt square. It's a very pretty town, and there was lots going on on a Saturday afternoon. Alas, we have yet to see a Saturday market in Germany. Either it's not a tradition here, or we've just not been at the right place at the right time.

Rhine castle

Another Rhine castle
We did stock up on groceries before hitting the road again; we have learned from experience that finding open shops on a Sunday in Europe can be a very dicey affair. Tonight, we are in Sankt Goar, where we are ensconced in a small but nice hotel room with a balcony overlooking the Rhine and its truly impressive shipping traffic. Tomorrow, we are in Mainz, and on Monday morning, we take the train to Heidelberg, where we have booked an apartment for three nights.

View from our hotel balcony (and yet another Rhine castle)