Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Matt und James's Deutch Fahrt - Postscript

What have we learnt from our trip?

1. Germans like eating pork, especially sausages, and drinking beer
2. It's best not to mention the war
3. It's a very beautiful country with friendly, if reserved, people
4. If you want to cycle, play by German rules (stick to cycle routes) or they get angry
5. Everything shuts on Sunday
6. Germans cycle a lot, but mainly to their local shops or on shiny racing bikes on Sundays

Wienerschnitzel (pork and chips to you and me) - loved by Germans

Some statistics:
1. Total distance cycled: 914.5 miles (1463.2 km)
2. Number of punctures: 6 - James 4 (on the same tyre, in one day!), Matthew 2
3. Injuries: James - sore knee tendons, Matthew - general decrepitude, including sore hip, hands, back and neck
4. Crimes committed: 2 - cycling on Autostrada, James blew up a bike shop's Luftpumpe

Bratwurst, the other German staple

All in all, it was hard work but enjoyable. Germany is beautiful and the people are friendly if you play by their rules. If pressed, though, I would have to say that my favourite place to cycle is France.

Now thinking about next year's cycle and whether USA coast to coast is viable...

Day 10 - Mon, June 25 (Lindau - Grafstal) - 87 miles

Went to bed with a very sore hip (very painful for walking and standing, but doesn't hurt at all on the bike for some reason), but woke up feeling fine.

Storms forecast today, but it started sunny and we cycled around the Bodensee through Lindau and across the Austrian border to Bregenz in the shadow of the mountains. Like Steve McQueen in the The Great Escape, we were able to see Switzerland in the distance, if only we could reach it...

Bodensee - Switzerland is in the background

We found the lakeside cycle path and continued alongside the lake and over the 'old' and 'new' Rhine. Only in Austria for an hour before we crossed into Switzerland, and we travelled through Rorschach and Arbon before heading inland into the countryside.

Turned grey, but didn't rain until 1pm, when we arrived for lunch at the Schloss in Hagenswill, the village where James's other half Erika went to school. The castle has a moat with huge carp in it and we had fantastic sausage and chips with gravy for lunch.

Schloss Hagenswil - serves great sausages

We continued on to the hamlet where Erika grew up on her father's cheese factory and through Bishofszell where we picked up the cycle route towards James's village of Grafstal.

With 15 miles still to go the rain started bucketing down and, after waiting in vain for it to stop, we decided to carry on - well, you can only get so wet. The longer route earlier and not being able to take shortcuts through the woods in the rain meant a longer day, but we finished the ride feeling remarkably fresh - to be honest I would have been perfectly happy to carry on cycling the next day...

Today's (final) route:

Bike route 307497 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 9 - Sun, June 24 (Landsberg - Lindau) - 90 miles

Should be a lovely day today, although we couldn't tell from the map how busy it would get as we set off from the beautiful Landsberg...

Pretty Landsberg - and Hitler agreed...

Sunny this morning and no wind as we followed lovely roads through fields and forests. The hills were much better than we expected (James is a natural pessimist anyway so things always turn out better than he imagines).

Changed routes again and realised that Germans are happy with cyclists as long as they want to either: a, Potter to the local shops; b, Follow wiggly cycle routes through woodland; or c, Take their shiny racing bikes out on country lanes on Sunday. Sadly we don't fit into any of those groups, wanting to get from A to B relatively quickly.

Bavarian cycling at its best

Lovely ride to Wangen and then a ridiculously long downhill towards the Bodensee, which we had earned without realising on the other side of the mountains.

The last hour was a little more tricky on winding back roads, one of which was being relaid, but we found the delightful hotel in a pretty hamlet and had another pork-based meal (it's all the Germans seem to eat, although I haven't seen any pigs yet). James heard cowbells this afternoon which made him feel at home.

Today's route, nearly there:

Bike route 307490 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 8 - Sat, June 23 (Landshut - Landsberg am Lech) - 84 miles

Hoping for an easier day and although we were lost to start with, we followed a lovely riverside route which kept us out of the wind. We found a bike shop to pump up the tyres, but managed to blow up their track pump and headed off before they discovered it (the mechanic fitted it, so it wasn't really our fault).

Sunny and warm, but not as hot as before. We had to change our route again to avoid the big roads, but made it for a lunch of pasta in Dachau (not an immediately appealing prospect, despite being a pretty town, as it housed the first Nazi concentration camp - they seem to crop up all over Germany).

Going through the countryside, many of the towns and villages had large and elaborate maypoles, which included signs for various trades (I think I can make out a teacher and a baker on this one). It obviously dates back to paganism, and blue and white are the Bavarian colours. British maypoles - with ribbons, morris men and dancing - seem rather meagre in comparison.

Maypole near Landsberg am Lech

The afternoon was as close to enjoyable as we got on the trip and the hills were much less up and down, and we were getting used to the wind in our faces - cycling without panniers, wind, rain and hills is going to feel extraordinarily easy when we get home.

Made it to Landsberg at 7.20 - a really beautiful medieval town and we'd booked into a sweet 'Bed und Bike' hotel. We discovered later that it (Landsberg, not the B&B we stayed in) was where Hitler was imprisoned - in some comfort - after leading the failed 'Beer Hall' Putsch. Oh, and wrote Mein Kampf....

Hitler in Landsberg Prison

And today's route:

Bike route 307481 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 7 - Fri, June 22 (Furth im Wald - Landshut) - 88 miles

Today was supposed to be a short ride of 73 miles. It started well and we left town onto an A road, but started to have cars and lorries beeping us and we realised that bikes weren't allowed so we had to leave the road and work out a new route. It meant a diversion over some pretty substantial hills, which really take it out of you.

James was also slowed down by sore tendons above his knees (the same problem I had least year, when I ended up straining my leg), added to that we were cycling into the wind most of the day which makes everything very hard work and slowed us down. The downhill after the hills made it almost worthwhile.

Bavarian countryside

The rain started so we stopped for wild boar and dumplings for lunch in a wonderful old bar. It was still raining, but we had to head off and had another diversion to avoid the dreaded Autostrada and I had a puncture.

As the day wore on we were really starting to feel the exertion of the morning's hills and the last 15 miles were very hard, plus it took ages to find the hotel. Landshut itself seemed rather dreary and we didn't bother going out.

But we ate really well (Wiener Schnitzel and potato, plus beer) and they were very friendly.

Today's route, sometimes the maps and figures don't seem to reflect how hard it was:

Bike route 307421 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 6 - Thurs, June 21 (Prague - Furth im Wald) - 103 miles

Another long day so we left early. By the way, please don't blame me for these distances as James chose the route - it's his 'dash for the border' so that he can be back on reassuringly-Germanic soil! Rain forecast and we had to cycle up the long hill out of Prague in drizzle.

The sun soon came out and it soon became hot. Made it to Plzen (where Pils beer originated) and had little choice but to have a McDonalds, which neither of us had eaten for years, but which filled a hole. Sad to see chains like that here too.

Grim and grimy heading out to Stod. The traffic was very bad and there were no cycle routes, plus the Czechs drive like nutters. Started to rain and the wind was blowing strongly into our faces. We were worried from the map by the hills before the German border, but they weren't as bad as we feared, although there was a long steady hill up and down.

Furth im Wald's brewery, home to Bavaria's Marianne Faithful lookalike

Furth im Wald is very pretty and they had a huge decorated maypole in the main square (as did most of the towns in the South). We were staying at a brewery which was run by a woman who looked like Marianne Faihful, who was perfectly friendly, but seemed rather fond of her own home-brew, and the likelihood of her being up in time for breakfast seemed remote. Walked round the town square and everywhere was dead apart from one rather trendy bar where we ate.

Today's route:

Bike route 307407 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 5 - Weds, June 20 (Bad Schandau - Prague) - 98 miles

Started early from Bad Schandau, knowing that it would be a long and hot day.

The Protestant Church in Bad Schandau

We continued on the Elbe cycleway and crossed the Czech border, which despite the same landscape was obviously a very different country with a lot less money. Already getting hot, with temperatures over 30 degrees, and we had to cycle over a couple of decent hills before lunch.

The road was increasingly busy after Milnick, but fortunately the route was shorter than we thought. The last 20 miles into Prague were difficult in the heat, but as so often with large cities it is in a bowl of hills so we were able to race down over the rather scary tramlines and cobbles to the Charles Bridge, where we had a well-earned beer, and found the lovely hotel easily.

Nearby was a restaurant which served Czech food (ghoulash and rabbit with dumplings!) - even with our hunger and need for calories we couldn't finish. We walked around Prague which hasn't changed much, apart from being a lot busier, since I was here 10 years ago. There were amazing, shifting clouds of insects by the river, rather like those amazing starling displays you see on Spring Watch.

Arriving in Prague after a long, hot day

Today's route:

Bike route 307379 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 4 - Tues, June 19 (Finsterwalde - Bad Schandau) - 81 miles

Left the hotel at 9.30 (despite getting up at 7.30 every morning it always seems to take ages to get breakfast, pack and leave). The dull cyclist from last night was on the front page of the local paper, apparently he had come to the town because he had a puncture - it must have been a slow news day.

Finsterwalde Market Square

It was hot and sunny for the first time and we had a lovely ride in the morning with lunch in Grossenhain, where we also saw a Soviet fighterjet monument at a former airfield.

Continued to Dresden - the city is in the process of being rebuilt, more than 60 years after the war. The city was virtually destroyed by British and American bombing raids in February 1945, which served little purpose other than destroying a beautiful city and killing tens of thousands of people, mainly refugees.

The cathedral was apparently a mound of rubble 43 feet high until the early nineties. It has now been completely 'restored' (you can see the only original stones they could salvage, they're the blackened ones!)

Dresden's re-built cathedral

At Dresden we joined the Elbe cycle route, which travels from the North Sea to the Czech Republic (where is seems to fizzle out). It was very busy with a huge range of people, from families and pensioners, to racers and tourers like us. The landscape became very dramatic as the river wove is way between sheer cliffs, with the particularly impressive Konigstein castle perched on a rocky outcrop.

At Bad Schandau James wanted to go to the spa, where there were a series of pools, both indoor and out as well as a salty one with dimmed lighting and new age music. There was also a sauna area which was clothes-free (not quite as bad as I thought, although don't think I'll be signing up) and included showers with settings ranging from 'shower' to 'forest', and a bucket full of cold water with a rope, which was very refreshing after the heat of the day!

Today's route:

Bike route 307363 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 3 - Mon, June 18 (Berlin - Finsterwalde) - 76 miles

First we had to find a bike shop, get James's tyre changed and buy new inner tubes as we had already patched the others twice. Of course we also found that I had a puncture, so that made it 5 in one day, which must be some sort of record (I had 1 on my trip last year).

Puncture repairs in Berlin

We headed out of the city on patchy cycle routes. But just after we left the city we had to take a track by the side of a dual carriageway which led to an hour-long journey of about 5 miles through cobbled back roads which were being relaid. It was incredibly tiring and dispiriting, and James was savaged by mosquitos when we stopped for a loo break. Eventually we got back onto our route, but we'd only managed 20 miles by 1pm which was another record, for low mileage...

Lunch was a petrol station sandwich by the road, but we were able to find our rhythm in the afternoon. We came across a Soviet war memorial guarded by two Soviet T34 tanks (both obviously recently restored) on plinths in the woods south of Berlin, which was a reminder of how hard the fighting must have been around here, despite its beauty.

T34 tanks guard a Russian WW2 cemetery south of Berlin

We managed to out-run a storm and got to Finsterwalde. The town is very quiet and sweet, with a huge central square, and we were booked into a delightful hotel. There was another cyclist staying there who had a bizarre German accent and seemed extremely dull, so James pretended he couldn't speak German, just in case. However that plan backfired when we were accosted by a Macedonian waiter in the restaurant who wanted to practice his English on us.

Today's route:

Bike route 307356 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 2 - Sun, June 17 (Wittenberge - Berlin) - 102 miles

We had a good night's sleep and a German breakfast of rolls, meats and cheese, with coffee, eggs and yoghurt (although we would have eaten anything). Got on the bikes rather tentatively after a long day in the saddle, but both felt fine (the wonders of rest and Ibuprofen!).

It was pretty obvious that we were cycling through Eastern Germany now - the homes were more much more modest, although perfectly charming, and there seemed to be lots of aging and abandoned industrial works. The countryside was lovely and we cycled over causeways through marshland. The roads were much better than we had heard, although many of the villages had kept their cobbles in their centres, which was charming for 100 metres, but would have been a nightmare for longer distances and would probably have wrecked the bikes.

Cobbled Street in East German Village

We carried on through woods alongside the Elbe. Just before lunch James noticed that his front tyre was going flat, but we had to find somewhere to eat before fixing it as everywhere seems to shut down on Sunday. We found an empty restaurant to have pork and potatoes for lunch and were able to fix the puncture.

20 miles later James had another puncture, followed by 2 more, all on the same tyre. It was an old tyre that James hadn't got round to changing, with threadbare tread, plus we could only hand pump the tyre, leaving it prone to re-puncture.

Eventually we managed to pump it harder and found the cycle route into Berlin that James had heard about, which headed into the centre past Spandau, whose prison housed ex-Nazis, including Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess.

It was a little winding, but avoided the traffic and we eventually made our way past the Tiergarten to the Brandenberg Gate. We stopped for a beer on Pottsdammer Strasse and found the hotel. Cleaned up, ate and went to bed.

Arriving in Berlin at Brandenburg Gate after puncture marathon

Here's today's route:

Bike route 307351 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 1 - Sat, June 16 (Hamburg - Wittenberge) - 102 miles

Woke at 6 after not much sleep to fields and blue skies rushing past the train. We were given breakfast in the cabin (the beds folded away to create a bench seat) and arrived in Hamburg to grey skies and drizzle, and the train was 40 minutes late.

But we quickly found our route out of the city. Initially it was pretty slow going and we had to stop for showers - and my traditional first-day puncture - but things picked up outside Hamburg and we made good progress through the very flat countryside. The local village architecture was barn-like with horses head details on the gable ends, rather as you would imagine an Anglo-Saxon long house (well, they did come from around here, so it makes sense!).

Heading out of Hamburg

There seemed to be cycle routes everywhere, although the Germans seemed very unhappy if you didn't use them (for example, if they were covered in glass, horse shit, very wet or kept switching sides of the road). The countryside itself was very beautiful, and virtually pancake flat, with open grassland and woodland, dotted with bird hides.

Despite the progress we didn't manage to have lunch until 3.15, only halfway through the 100 miles we needed to do, which we did at a little restaurant in the sun. Just as we finished a storm blew up very quickly and we had to wait 30 minutes under a barn as torrential rain and lightning surrounded us.

After the storm in the Elbe valley

We raced on as the roads dried and made very good progress, although the last 15 miles seemed to take forever, and we arrived, shattered, in Wittenberge at 8.20pm.

After showering and cleaning our clothes we walked into the town and realised that we had arrived into (former) East Germany without realising - there was only one restaurant in the whole town and nothing else open! But it was a good meal and we walked back to the hotel for a much needed rest.

Here's today's route:

Bike route 307339 - powered by Bikemap 

Day 0 - Friday, June 15 (Birmingham - Zurich - Hamburg)

James in the cosy cabin of the night train to Hamburg

Packed up my bike and headed to Birmingham airport to catch the flight to Zurich to meet James. But with a 2-and-a-half hour delay to the plane we were on the verge of postponing the trip by a day. However eventually made it and was just able to re-build the bike at the airport and catch a local train to the main station to catch our overnight sleeper train to Hamburg. The cabin was tiny, but rather cosy when we got used to it.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Monday, June 11th - D-Day minus 4

Well there's no time to get any fitter or faster, and all that's left to do is pack our kit and for me (Matthew) to get to Switzerland on Friday. That's easier said than done - I haven't put the rack or panniers on yet and the bike back hasn't been out of the loft for a year.

Just time for a couple of short rides this week just to get our legs turning over and then we're off!