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)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Auf Wiedersehen, Mosel

Our last day on the Moselle was weird and wonderful in many ways. In the early going, much of the cycle path was alongside the road, which made it a little less nice than being separate from the traffic. On the plus side, the path was uber-smooth. At one point, a detour occasioned by repairs to the path took us unexpectedly uphill, into the vineyards, before we rocketed down into the next town to pick up the path again.

But the Moselle is nothing if not ever picturesque, and we are now very much in castle country. There were several in ruins along the way, but quite a number in good repair too. We look forward to seeing more of these as we head up the Rhine tomorrow.

Burg Thurant overlooking the Moselle and the town of Alken.
The vineyards also never cease to amaze. Undoubtedly, over the some 2000 years that "civilized" people have lived in this region (presumably growing grapes for much of that time), they have surely attempted to grow grapes on just about every possible patch of land. Meaning that if you don't see a vineyard somewhere, that likely means it's because vines just don't grow (or produce good grapes) there. But gosh, some of the places they have planted seem inaccessible except by mountain goats.
Impossible vineyards
Rose bushes planted at the ends of rows (and a very high bridge!)
As we pedalled closer to Koblenz, we encountered more and more cyclists on the path, presumably people on day-trips from the city. As morning turned into early afternoon, we could feel that the land was becoming increasingly urbanized and industrial. But we did run into a lovely little rest stop that some young people had built some years ago.

Time for a mid-morning snack.
Koblenz is a bit of a disappointment, I must say. After a week in the rural Moselle countryside, the industrial city is a bit of a shock. We went into the Alt Stadt to look around, but unfortunately, it lacks much of the charm exuded by many of the old towns we have seen elsewhere in Europe. I gather that much of it was bombed by the Allies in WWII, so a large proportion of the buildings are relatively new.

I was somewhat expecting this. On our last trip, we very much preferred to be cycling through the countryside and staying in smaller towns. Hopefully, tomorrow, we will return to that, as we head south, up the Rhine to Sankt Goar tomorrow night and Mainz on Sunday. The schedule after that is a work in progress and has been changing daily thus far.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cochem

Today was a pretty lazy day by recent standards. We got up at the luxurious hour of 8:30, had breakfast, booked our next night in Koblenz, checked out of our marvellous apartment at Haus Birgit (seriously, if you're ever in Cochem, this place is wonderful), and moved a few doors down to Blanca's place, which is much smaller and more modest, but still very nice. We had a very pretty little terrace garden pretty much all to ourselves this afternoon.

Cochem Castle
After settling in, we crossed the bridge and walked up to Reichburg Cochem, which originally dates from a thousand years ago, but whose current form, a Gothic-style reconstruction, is only a few hundred years old.










Our tour guide shows a fake door.
The walk up in the heat was worth it for the views of Cochem and the Moselle; the guided tour was interesting and, presumably (judging by the reactions of the mostly German crowd) somewhat humorous. The tour guide actually cracked a few smiles. 

A lovely view from the castle.

After lunch and the much easier walk back down to town, we might have done some more hiking if it had been cooler; there are a number of good lookout points in the hills around the town. But it was getting quite warm and we decided that we should take it easy on what was supposed to be a rest day. So I found a little restaurant patio in the Markt square and had a beer while Sonia did some shopping.





Markt square and 18th-century fountain in Cochem





Then it was back to the apartment, with its garden terrace for snacks and refreshments. Sonia had heard about a nice swimming complex up the road, so of course she couldn't resist checking it out. After supper, we spent a few hours planning our next moves. Tomorrow is our last day on the Moselle. On Saturday, we start up the Rhine, and we're thinking we'll aim for Heidelberg, which seems to have decent train connections to both Strasbourg in the south and Cologne in the north.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Time for a rest

Sonia pedalling like a champ.
Today's cycling was about as varied as can be, ranging from smooth-as-a-baby's-bottom asphalt, to reasonably smooth paving stones, to said paving stones heaved up by tree roots every 5 metres, to steep (but relatively short) hills, to dirt roads. But of course, the Moselle was our constant companion. The hills we climbed repaid us with some nice and different views of the river and surrounding hills.

The Moselle from on high (this is actually from a bridge).
Crooked selfie. 
Don't judge...
Our mid-morning stop featured some excellent strudel and "cappuccino" (I just can't...) and when we finally stopped for lunch, after about 45 km, we had peanut butter and jam sandwiches (since northern Europeans eat ham and cheese for breakfast, we decided to have what we usually eat for breakfast for lunch), enhanced with chocolate spread and bananas. One of the benefits of cycle touring is that you can eat whatever you want...

It was a fairly hot day today, so we got an early start. As a result, we arrived in Cochem just before 2 p.m. I had heard it was a pretty town with a castle on a hill, so I was looking out for it as we approached.
On the road. 

Our first view of Cochem's hill-top castle.
The Airbnb we splurged for has turned out to be spectacular, and after five days on the road, we decided that we (and our bottoms) could do with a day off. Alas, the apartment is not free tomorrow. But our host has a friend just down the road who has a room free. It's not nearly as opulent, but it's close, less expensive, and nice enough. Tomorrow is the feast of Corpus Christi, so naturally, everything is closed here (!!!). Good thing we heard about it, so we stocked up on groceries. Showers are forecast for tomorrow afternoon, so we're going to use some different muscles and do some hiking in the hills around Cochem tomorrow morning. It will make for a nice change.


The view from our balcony.





In the groove

What a beautiful day of cycling. We awoke early and after a very good breakfast (and merely ordinary coffee), we were rolling by 9:10. And we were not alone. Even on a Tuesday morning, there were quite a few cyclists on the road, both locals out for a ride and fellow loaded down cycle tourists. But the view is still spectacular
Just another gorgeous day on the Moselle cycle path.
Vineyards perched on a hillside
The vineyards here are amazing. It's hard to understand how some of them can be worked, they're perched up so high and on such a steep slope. This is also clearly a country the has been inhabited for millennia. You encounter vestiges of the Romans all over the place.

Roman ruins.

















Around 11:30, we stopped for the obligatory (in our case) pastry break to recharge the fuel tanks before continuing on our way. At lunch, we met Cheryl and Chuck, a couple from Arizona with whom we had been playing a game of cycling leap frog, as we stopped and passed each other from time to time. They had much more experience than we with cycle tourism, and we gained a lot of insight about cycling in a few other countries (England and France, thumbs up; Portugal, thumbs down).


Fuel stop.
This evening, we have landed at the youth hostel in Traben (emphasis on the youth), which is perched up at the top of the down, a cruel surprise after 60 km. Tomorrow night, we're treating ourselves to a swanky Airbnb in Cochem, which we are told is very beautiful. It's another 60 km down the road, but it will be nice to cook a real meal for the first time in a week.