Friday, June 21, 2019

Cycle tour 2019 wrap-up

After our last two European cycle trips, we mourned our return for weeks afterward, such was the sense of adventure’s end. But it’s a bit different with this trip: I think we both miss that feeling of freedom, but we were both more ready to come home this time. 

Which is not to say we enjoyed this trip any less. In fact, I would say that overall it was a better trip than the last one; on the whole, things went very smoothly. Though we seemed to have quite a few grey days, we didn’t get that much serious rain, and certainly we had far fewer hot days, which make for uncomfortable touring. But I think perhaps we felt that this trip had come to its natural terminus and done its job—namely to carry us away from our everyday lives and experience something so extraordinary that thoughts of work and home never had room to take hold. 

Part of why the trip was so successful in doing that was because we were better able—this being our fourth cycle tour—to really get into the journey from the outset. On the first tour, I remember it taking a solid week before I was able to truly relax; on the second, it was four or five days for sure; on this trip, I was able to dive in right away. I think I can count on three fingers the number of times that work even briefly entered my mind. 

We were both pleasantly surprised with France, which made up the lion’s share of this trip. Last year, I watched a video of a long-haul cyclist who commented that cycling in France is just so easy. Now that I’ve done some cycling there, I can better understand why he thought so. The cycle routes are reasonably well marked (though this varies among départements), and French drivers are quite courteous (not quite so courteous as those in Belgium and Holland, but still…), patient, and completely unfazed by encountering cyclists on the road. The French regional trains are quite good and very bike friendly. You don’t need a ticket for your bike, almost all of these trains have special bike cars equipped to accommodate bicycles, and the station platforms and train cars are on the same level, so there’s no struggling the get your bike up stairs; you just roll your bike onto the car. 

It was also really nice to be able to speak the local language and not feel a little bit ashamed at forcing someone to shift to your language. The French were almost unfailing charming with us and charmed by our Quebec accent. It was not uncommon for us to meet people who wanted to tell us about their recent trip to Quebec or even their plans to move here in the near future. And, as an anglophone, I must say that it was pretty neat to be immediately identified as a Quebecer by my accent, rather than as a mere anglophone. 

This trip did present some challenges that we had not encountered before, or at least not in such great measure. I refer in particular here to hills. We had a few hilly days on our last trip as we crossed Luxembourg. This trip featured a solid week of some fairly hilly terrain, but I feel like we handled them really well (the coolish weather helped, to be sure), and we will be less intimidated by hills in the future (though don’t expect to see us cycling the Alps anytime soon!). We also had to deal with some busier-than-usual roads, though fortunately not so very often; and again, I feel like our experiences on our previous trips helped us ride with more confidence and less anxiety than before. 

Both the Meuse valley and the Alsace were spectacular rides, each in their own ways.

The Meuse, especially as it flows through the Ardennes, where it is protected, is really lovely—the lack of industry makes for a pleasant change from so many other waterways we have travelled in Europe. The Verdun memorials were incredibly moving; I’m really glad I got a chance to see them and in some small way pay my respects to the soldiers who fought to preserve the freedoms we seem to be increasingly taking for granted today. 

The Alsace offers vista after spectacular vista from the foothills of the Vosges as you ride through exceedingly quaint towns and villages, often separated by just a few kilometres. And the wine is, of course, delicious. 

So all in all, a pretty wonderful trip. We’re already thinking about the next one!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Days 22 & 23: the road home

We woke up on Monday morning with another full day planned (y'know, to make a change). I had hoped to see Rosi and Rainer Egger, who made my sackbuts, but our schedules simply didn't align, so we had to settle for a friendly but regretful exchange of emails.

The plan was to take the train out to Radolfzell, on the western shore of Lake Constance (or, to be more precise, the Untersee or Lower Lake Constance) and cycle out to the town of Konstanz. After our solid workout the day before, we felt that we shouldn't try to get up too early, so we opted to take a slightly later train, which got us to Radolfzell at around noon.
Lounging on Lake Constance
Though the German train system enjoys a pretty good reputation, it really isn't that bike friendly, especially compared to France. You may or may not need a ticket for your bike (you don't in France on the regional trains); there often aren't elevators or even ramps up to the platforms, even in a big station like Basel; and you often have to climb up several steps to get into the train (in France, you just roll your bike over the gap between the platform and the train car). Because we got up a little later and were a little lazy over breakfast, we ended up a little shorter on time than I normally like, and after buying our tickets at the kiosk, we sprinted to the platforms, and got our bikes on the train with about a minute to spare.

German trains aren't just hostile to bikes though. Imagine a scenario in which a mother, travelling alone with an infant child in a stroller, must lift both child and stroller (and various other appurtenances) into the train before the doors close. We didn't have to imagine this scenario; it happened before our eyes. As we pulled up to a station, the doors opened and Sonia heard a woman yelling in German. She got up to see what was going on and had a one-year-old girl thrust into her arms as the mother went back to get the stroller. The doors began to close, so the mother stuck her leg out to stop them, then managed to get the stroller up the steps and onto the train just as the doors closed again and the train pulled away. I would have helped, except that all this happened so fast it was basically over by the time I had gotten out of my seat. Sonia and the woman (who fortunately spoke quite good English) just looked at each other in amazement at what happened. On a positive note, Sonia was quite happy to hold the very lovely and happy baby for a few minutes, and we enjoyed a pleasant half-hour of conversation with the woman before she got off at Singen.

Lake Constance
Radolfzell train station is right on the water, so we walked our bikes down to the shore, found a free bench and had our lunch before setting off for the 20-kilometre ride to Konstanz. We had been hoping the path would be more along the shore, but it tended to be a few hundred metres inland for most of the trip, though we did get a few nice views of the lake. We arrived in Konstanz about 2:45, had a little snack and wandered around for a bit before heading back. We had initially thought about perhaps cycling back to Radofzell via another, inland, route, or of staying in Konstanz and taking the train back from there (which would have involved a transfer), but in the end, we decided to retrace our steps. It was a lovely day for cycling and the path was quite good.


Back in Radolfzell, once again cutting it a little close, we arrived at the station but nowhere, other than up on the platforms themselves, could we find out which track our train would be arriving on. Finally Sonia went into the Deutsche Bahn information office and basically jumped the queue to find out that it was arriving on track 4. We again sprinted to the platform (down and up sets of stairs with our bikes) and got to the crowded platform just as the train was due to arrive. Fortunately, it was 10 minutes late, so we had a chance to cool down before boarding.

We got back to Basel at about 7:15, cycled to the apartment, had a quick shower and then it was off to my friend (and fellow sackbut player) Max's apartment for dinner. It was a nice treat to sit down to a dinner with friends for the first time in over three weeks.

The next morning, we arose bright and early to get everything organized for our flight. Catherine came by at about 9 to pick up the key and bid us farewell, and then we cycled the 7 kilometres to Basel-Mulhouse airport, which is even easier to get to by bicycle than Brussels airport.

Riding up to Basel-Mulhouse airport
Being old hands at this, we got our bikes prepared, bagged, and tagged and took them to the oversize baggage drop-off, only to find out that the "oversize" scanner was clearly too small to accept something as big as a bicycle. So we had to unwrap them so the handler could run a chemicals test on them by hand.

The flight was uneventful, and we even managed to get a free middle seat between us, so it was less cramped than usual too. We landed just a few minutes late, shortly after 3 pm, got through customs and had our bikes ready go by 4:30. We really are getting much better at this!

Heading home along the shores of the St. Lawrence
The last leg of our journey was the 30-kilometre ride from the airport home--the first time we have done this. I had done some research before hand, and there seemed to be a reasonably safe route out of the airport. It turns out that getting into and out of Trudeau International is actually quite good except for one little problem: you have to somehow cross the CN tracks and Autoroute 20, which lie between the airport and the river. You can do this either by cycling the very busy Dorval Circle (not for the faint of heart) or, as we eventually discovered, you can walk your bikes under the tracks at the Dorval train station (ramps and everything) and then there's a pedestrian/bike tunnel under Autoroute 20. It took us solid half-hour to find our way to Lakeshore Drive, but we did it. Then it was a very lovely ride along the river and the Lachine Canal, where we stopped to share a sandwich (which felt like a midnight snack to our stomachs), over to Île Sainte-Hélène, up onto the Jacques-Cartier Bridge and home. We had hoped to cross to the South Shore via the Saint-Lambert locks, but the drawbridge had just lifted as we got there, and the 45-minute wait wasn't in the cards for us, so we backtracked and took the bridge instead, adding another five kilometres to our trip. We rolled up to the house a little after 7, three-and-a-half weeks after leaving. For me, riding home from the airport, though pretty tiring, was the perfect way to end this trip. Total mileage on the bike: 883 km.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Day 21: Ideal weather for an ambitious day

Today started with a grey sky and drizzle, but it didn’t last long and the weather soon began to clear, foreshadowing the start of some truly lovey weather. We began the day with a walk in Basel—so much nicer when it isn’t raining—crossing the Rhine to Klein Basel, under the art museum and on to the German-side train station for some more information about our plans for tomorrow.
Water wheel at the Basel paper museum

Then we hopped on a tram back to the Marktplatz and transferred to take us down to the wonderful Basel paper museum, which we visited the last time we were here. This time, we just wanted to pop into the gift shop. Then we walked back to the apartment for a quick lunch and met up with Catherine, who was to lead us on a hike in the hills southwest of Basel above the French town of Leymen. The border between France and Switzerland here is rather tortuous, so we crossed back and forth several times along the way.

It was a 12-kilometre bike ride out to Leymen, and then we fortunately got a ride up to the trailhead. Then we climbed petty steadily for over an hour to reach a ridge overlooking Basel to the north and the Jura Mountains to the south—some pretty spectacular views on either side. As a reward for making it to the top, we stopped at an overlook and shared the little Linzertorte we had bought earlier.

Then we made our way back down to Leymen, via the Kloster Mariastein, a pilgrimage church, and an old ruined castle, the top of which offered an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding area. We made it back to Leymen about 7 pm, pretty tired and quite hungry. Luckily, the town boasts and excellent restaurant, so Sonia and I bid Catherine farewell and then had a lovely dinner before riding our bikes back to Basel. All told, I estimate we walked at least 20 kilometres and cycled 24. One of our fullest days so far. But the weather and the company was unfailingly excellent, which kept our spirits from flagging, even if our legs did protest at the indignity of the last cycling leg.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Rain on the Rhin

We woke up this morning to unsettled skies but only a chance of showers in the forecast during the day. We were on our way by 9:15, acutely aware that this was our last real day of adventuring. We may do a bit more cycling in our last few days before coming home, but we knew that by that afternoon, we would have reached our final destination: Basel. It’s hard to believe we started out in Brussels almost 3 weeks ago! The time has just flown by.

We backtracked this morning several kilometres because we wanted to do the first leg of our journey today along the Rhine-Rhône Canal and avoid some busy roads. We were on this canal for 8 or 9 kilometres until it reached its terminus at the Rhine, between the little towns of Niffer and Kembs. At this point, we found a picnic table for our morning refuelling stop.
The Canal du Rhin au Rhône

From Kembs, we took the Huningue Canal, an early 19th-century canal that is mostly unused now and whose locks have been mostly dismantled. But it does boast a lovely crushed gravel bike path used by the EV 6 and 15. Like the Canal de la Brûche, it has begun to rewild and is a beautiful ride. It also runs right through a natural reserve called La Petite Camargue, a series of ponds where aquaculture was once carried out. We had lunch along the canal, opposite the reserve and just a few kilometres east of Basel-Mulhouse airport, from which we will be flying home in a few days.
On the Canal de Hunningue

Dramatic skies over the Petite Camargue

Since we had some time before we had to be in Basel, we decided to go into the reserve itself and walk our bikes around. It made a nice change of scenery, and we saw some lovely birds, including a green woodpecker and a Eurasian jay. Then we pushed on with the final few kilometres of our journey. The Hunningue Canal ends (or rather begins) at the Rhine, and right at that point, you can see three countries. On the opposite shore, to your left, is Germany; to your right is Switzerland; and from your vantage point on the west bank of the Rhine you are still in France
Where three countries meet

We turned right, up the Rhine and soon crossed the border into Switzerland, at which point we texted my friend Catherine, whose apartment we are borrowing for a few days, to let her know of our impending arrival. After settling in and chatting with Catherine for a little while, we went to get some groceries, made supper, and then headed out to wander around Basel for a little bit, a town I was last in in 2009, when I bought my alto trombone and we spent 2 weeks in Switzerland, enjoying the marvellous train system.

Unfortunately, at this point, the skies had decided to open up, and by the time we returned to the apartment, we had received a worse soaking than anything we experienced on our bike trip.
Le Rhin in the rain

Friday, June 14, 2019

Day 19: Companionship and serendipity

It seems to happen every time on these trips: as we get closer to the end, I tend to get wistful. It’s strange because not so very long ago on this trip, I was so ready to come home. Even though everything was going well, a combination of too much sugar and too much caffeine was making me anxious, and I longed for the familiar. It also seems to be a trend that we have a dip in energy around the midway mark. Now that I’ve cut back on my sugar and caffeine intake, my mood has stabilized, and I’ve found the joy and sense of adventure in the trip again—just as it is winding down.
The first sign showing Bale (Basel), our final destination

As we were riding along today, I reflected to Sonia that we have really become seasoned cycle tourists now. Very little fazes us, and we are able to deal pretty well with the inevitable difficulties that arrive, rolling with the punches and appreciating the serendipity of missed opportunities that lead to other, different discoveries.

We left our hotel in (where was it now...) Guebwiller around 9 am, stopping for lunch provisions and then heading on our way under grey but thus far dry skies. We followed the EV 5 down to Cernay, where we came across a morning market perfectly situated to provide us with our mid-morning snack. We found a picnic table and had our brioche and tea just as it began to drizzle. One of the reasons I feel like we’ve become seasoned cycle tourists is that a little bit of rain doesn’t bother us at all now. We just put on our rain gear and carry on. As long as it’s not pouring, it’s really no problem.
Heading away from wine country 

At Cernay, we hung a left to start heading more or less east, down into the Rhine valley proper, following a lovely bike path along the Thur River. The countryside looks and smells much different, with various traditional crops growing and the aroma of livestock occasionally wafting by. We were trending downhill here and making great time. At the town of Pulversheim, we forked due east off the EV5, wanting to cut a few kilometres off our journey today. We rejoined it at Battenheim, where we had our picnic lunch and then stopped for coffee and a pastry at a nearby bakery. There we met a fellow cycle tourist who turned out to be a bit lost so with the help of our various maps, we showed him where we were and where he needed be. It turned out that to get back on track, he would need to take the same road as us, so we cycled together for 5 or 6 kilometres. Alistair Kirke (“with an E”) was from Scotland, just north of Glasgow, 75 years old, and had two “new” knees. He was also riding a folding Brompton bike with 14” wheels and a huge chainring. I think his pedalling cadence was about half of ours. I was seriously impressed. If I’m still cycle touring in 20 years, I’ll be really thrilled.
Rolling selfie with Sonia and Alistair

We arrived at our lovely little Airbnb in the little town of Ottmarsheim, the main point of interest of which is an 11th-century octagonal abbey church, at around 3. After settling in, we wandered around the town and went to look in the church but could not due to a rehearsal being held for a concert that evening. From what I could tell, it was part of a series of concerts celebrating the restoration of the church. We inquired and managed to get tickets. The concert featured a choir from Vienna, a girls choir from Colmar, and the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse, conducted by... wait for it... Jacques Lacombe, who was an assistant conductor of a different OSM under Charles Dutoit in the 1990s.
Abbey church in Ottmarsheim 

We went to the concert not really knowing what to expect, having no idea about the quality of the orchestra or the choirs. We were pleasantly surprised. The concert was quite eclectic, with repertoire ranging from Vivaldi to Pärt; the orchestra sounded excellent; and the choirs were very good, in particular the one from Vienna. It was also quite moving for Sonia, since they performed a number of works that she has done over the years with two mentors who passed away in the past year.

A full day indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Descendre pour mieux monter

Today was a day of literal and figurative ups and downs. But I must say that as my equanimity increases over the course of this vacation, I have been able to cope with the figurative downs better and better, while the literal downs are, of course, a lot of fun.

After a wonderfully refreshing and restorative night’s sleep, we awoke to a bright, brisk mountain morning and set off down the Fecht River valley from Munster at about 9 am. This part of the ride was really lovely, mostly on a well-maintained bike path. Since it was pretty much downhill, we made great time and were already in the vicinity of Colmar 45 minutes later. We made a slight detour to the little town of Logelbach, where a health food store sold that rarest of commodities in France: peanut butter with no additives. (On our first trip to France in the early 90s, peanut butter of any variety was unheard of, but now you can find it in most grocery stores; alas it all has added salt, sugar, and palm oil (or worse.))

Then we doubled back to Wintzenheim, where we had a mid-morning snack in the town square before rejoining the EV5. For some reason, the signage in the upper Rhine part of Alsace doesn’t seem to be as good as the lower Rhine. We missed a number of signs (or perhaps they simply weren’t there) and had to double back or make our own way back to the path using our GPS apps.

In any case, we were solidly back in the Vosges foothills and wine country, with its attendent hills to huff up and soar down. Some of these were quite long, but now that we have our climbing legs, we were able to tackle them if not easily, then at least pretty successfully. And the views they offered were unfailingly spectacular.

We walked our bikes through Eguisheim (the birthplace of Pope Leo XI... or maybe IX, I can’t recall), with its concentric streets and pretty central square. Then, just past Rouffach, I got a flat tire. I’m still not sure how it happened, but after checking our bearings, I noticed that my front tire was soft. I guess in 9 weeks of cycling, at least 1 flat tire is to be expected, and at least it was the front tire, which is a bit less of a hassle to change. In any case, we were due for a rest and some lunch, so we stopped at a bus shelter, where Sonia made sandwiches and I changed my inner tube. To be honest, the dry run I had changing Sonia’s a few weeks back proved to be good practice, and I managed to get back in rolling order within about a half-hour.

But when we saw a little roadside cafe about a kilometre after setting off again, we thought we deserved to sit down at a proper table in the shade and have a piece of pie.

The final stretch of the day was about 12 kilometres to the town of Guebviller and our hotel for the evening. We picnicked again for dinner and as I write this, a blues band is playing in the hotel  bar, but it’s an upbeat sort of blues, so there’s no need to cry.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Day 17: Rains, trains, and walking shoes

We woke up in Riquewihr to a grey, drizzly sky, but with the promise of clearing skies throughout the morning, so we took our time with breakfast and packing. Just we were getting ready to leave, the drizzle seemed to intensify a little, so we got out the extra rain gear and spent the next 10 minutes battening down the hatches. And as so often seems to happen, when we finally did get going, the rain had basically stopped.

But we did still get a bit of moisture over the next 45 minutes or so as we steered toward Colmar about 15 kilometres away. Riquewihr being somewhat off the Route des vignobles/Eurovelo 5, we had to cycle some somewhat busy roads to get back on track, which was not particularly pleasant in the wet weather. And in fact, EV5 doesn’t go though Colmar at all, so we had to do some zigzagging along other, less-well-marked routes to get into the city. Not the easiest place to get into by bike, which is maybe why EV5 doesn’t go there.
A wet road but clearing skies

We had hoped to arrive early enough to at least wander around the centre for an hour before taking the train to Munster, where we had booked a hotel room for the night, but because we had to consult our various navigation devices so often, it took us a solid hour and three-quarters to get to the train station, about 25 minutes before the train we wanted to take left, so all we saw of Colmar was the train station.

We hopped on the 12:10 train to Metzeral, getting of at Munster. After checking into the hotel and locking up our bikes, we walked into town and poked around a bit before finding the trailhead of a hike up into the hills north of the town. We had initially thought to do just a short hike, but the day had turned so beautiful that we decided to fork off on a longer one, which took us up and then back down south of the hotel (and Munster), where there was a supermarket conveniently located for us to pick up provisions for a picnic supper.

We got back to the hotel after walking a total of 4 hours. That, plus the 20 kilometres of biking this morning made Peter and Sonia pretty tired. After a short rest, we walked down to road to a little park to eat our dinner, observed intently by the resident ducks and a single lonely, plaintif goose trying to fit in.