Hot, hot, hot!


We’re in the final stretch of our time here in the Netherlands; we fly home on July 31st.  The Netherlands is now in its busiest tourist season, where every part of the country is on holiday.  The Dutch have three phases of vacation, based on region – and as of a few days ago, all three areas are on holiday.  There still has been no rain and it’s HOT, unusually hot for the Netherlands, with no relief in sight.  More about that later

Villa Augustus in Dordrecht — definitely the most charming place we’ve stayed in. The garden is a mixture of flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables. The main building used to be a water tower.

We had a stressful period earlier in the week that forced us to give up traveling the long-distance routes.  Finding accommodations was crazy making – difficult, expensive and insanely time-consuming.  We ultimately decided to skip the coast entirely and spend a couple days each in Delft and Rotterdam, followed by 3 days in Leiden.  While it’s not our dream itinerary, it was an enormous relief to have it finalized.

The main square in Delft

I’m writing this from Delft, where we have been for the last two days.  For the first time since we arrived in the Netherlands, we are surrounded by tourists, many of whom are Americans.  Since this is Delft, the Delft pottery motifs are everywhere – on napkins, toasters, you name it.  It is also the hometown of Johannes Vermeer, so images of his two most famous paintings, including ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ are plastered on everything.  The service people all seem tired of tourists, and too hot to pretend otherwise.  It’s not for us.  Today we rode to the coast and back on the unloaded tandem; a real busman’s holiday, but we loved it. We walked on the velvety soft sand and stuck our toes in the North Sea.

Napkin in hotel
Our bike on the train from Dordrecht to Delft. It was our first time taking the bike on a train in the Netherlands.
Amazingly, the train experience was a breeze. They even had an elevator large enough for the tandem.

I have no idea what we’ll do in Rotterdam for two days.  It’s forecast to be nearly 100 F.  The museums will undoubtedly be overrun with tourists shuffling around with their audio tours.  I’ll do some research.  Movies might be fun.  I did manage to reserve a one-bedroom air-conditioned apartment with access to a washing machine!  We didn’t do our laundry tonight in anticipation.

We’re just not good tourists.  We like to be on the road, to be flexible … the journey is what calls to us.  This is the first time we have toured in high season.  It will be our last. We didn’t understand how limiting it would be.

Houses along a canal in Delft

Meanwhile, we read the news … floods, heat waves, and fires in the US … headlines about a global heat wave, fires in Sweden and Greece.  It’s shocking.  Events that used to be unusual are commonplace.  It comes at us so quickly that we become numb to it.  I find myself unable to let it go.  It’s always there, by my side as I ride.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the flowers and the birds … I do.  But I am always conscious of the fragility of those things I most cherish.

A stretch of bike path
Cute road obstacles
A very silly selfie on a picnic bench

Change, the Only Constant


When l last wrote, we were both feeling tired and beat up and were re-evaluating our plan to complete the Ronde van de Nederland.  In the absence of a better idea, we continued on the route, with a commitment to get an earlier start and limit our days to 60 kilometers, all the while discussing our options.  An interesting thing happened: we got past our hump.  We woke up a couple days ago and realized that it no longer felt daunting; we were stronger, our bodies had recovered from the initial exhaustion of daily riding, and we were on track to complete the loop.

Or were we?  Our problem now appears to be accommodations. Not only is it high season for tourists coming to the Netherlands, but it is also vacation time for the Dutch.  This, on top of the many festivals scheduled for the end of July, make for a challenging time finding places to stay.  We’re scheduling further out than we typically do.  It’s taken hours – a real time suck.  So, we will more or less circumnavigate the country, while making changes as needed to ensure that we don’t find ourselves sleeping on a bench.  As I see it, we’re doing the Ronde in spirit!  We now have five of the six photos needed for our ‘certificate’; we anticipate getting the last one in the next couple days.  It’s a silly game.

A mini-church by the edge of a field. We’ve been seeing lots of these recently.

This route is interesting.  Parts of it are ‘better’ than others – prettier, more appealing, more cultural, but somehow, in total, it paints a picture and fills in the blanks.  The Netherlands is not Amsterdam, or Delft or Gouda.  It’s a country with cute towns and not so cute towns, and lots of agriculture and sheep and cows.  It’s a country of dikes and canals and flowers … and bikes and bikes and bikes.  We haven’t seen any of the tourist attractions this trip, but we’ve seen a lot of the country.

Workmen putting on a thatched roof
An enormous insect hotel

There were times when I wondered why I crossed an ocean to ride in the hot sun through fields of corn and potatoes. But then we find ourselves cycling through a magical forest, or through a bustling market in a little village, or being invited into someone’s garden for coffee and stroopwafels – and I remember why we crossed that ocean.  Jeff never has that question.  It is his dream to live in a place this cycling friendly.

On one of the many ferries we’ve taken

The Dutch cycle everywhere.  Most people ride the standard Dutch city bikes – although increasingly they are configured as e-bikes with a battery and motor.  They ride in shorts, and in fancy clothes, they ride to work, to stores, to anywhere.  They carry packages and people on their bikes.  When an American would get in a car, the Dutch get on a bike – young, old, fat, thin, fit, out of shape, and everything in between – Bicycles are their default mode of transportation.  They are so comfortable on them that at times it seems that the bike is an extension of their bodies.  Only the sport riders with racing bikes wear helmets.  Everyone else goes without, including children.  It is not uncommon to see a parent riding with an infant in a seat right in front of the handlebars … no helmet, of course.  In the U.S., someone would probably call Child Protective Services on that irresponsible parent! They even bring their dogs with them, in baskets and trailers.  It’s really something.

Another selfie, by popular demand

Last night we stayed in a business hotel in Roermond, a city with an old center and a new outlet mall that attracts Asian tourists.  Tonight, we’re in Ospel, a small village with not much character.  The only businesses we’ve seen here are the simple, somewhat tired café/hotel we’re staying in, a small grocery and a butcher.  Tomorrow is Eindhoven, the birthplace of Philips Electronics and now a design and technology hub.  There are a whole lot of pedal strokes between here and there.

google translate
Sometimes online translation works better than others!

What’s Next?

For some mysterious reason, we seem to have bumped up our mileage this trip.  Might it be the Ronde Van De Nederland imperative?  Did I not say that we were deadline driven?  In eleven days, we have cycled 682 km (422 miles, for the metrically challenged).  It took us seventeen days to do that during our 2015 German Tour and we’re not getting any younger.  We’re both achy and tired … and trying to figure out if this is great fun or a bit of a slog.  It’s not that we can’t do it, but rather that we might not want to do it.  Jeff is looking at the map as I write this.  For now, we’ll continue onto Arnhem as planned and re-evaluate from there.

A selfie taken on the road. Yes, we carry a selfie stick.

Tonight we are in a country hotel outside of Vorden – a small village known for its castles.  After hours of searching, we were stunned to find nowhere to stay in Vorden or most of the surrounding area.  Really?  Is this such a hot spot?  It’s not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide.  As it turns out, there’s an Arabian Horse Festival in a nearby town.  Who knew?  We were lucky to find the place we’re in tonight.  It’s a few kilometers outside of town, in farm country and appears to cater to bike tourists.  They fed us a vegetarian meal, washed our clothes and had screens on the windows. We couldn’t ask for more!

A quiet cycling path in the National Park in Drenthe
An active stork nest

The previous day was the one that wiped us out – 95 km (nearly 60 miles), with lots of cycling on challenging narrow, sandy paths.  A day later, our bodies are still grousing at us.  That ride took us to Enschede, a non-touristy city that doesn’t see many Americans.  In fact, we haven’t heard an American accent in over a week.  Americans go to Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam … not to the east side of the country.  One of the ‘Friends of Cyclists’ hosts commented that she had been hosting for 20 years, and we were the first Americans to stay in her house.

A Hundbedden – An ancient burial structure from the Neolithic period.

We had planned to go to Nijmegen after Arnhem, but once again are struggling with a place to stay – only four very expensive rooms available on a Monday night in a city of 175,000 people.  What gives?  You guessed it, a Festival!  Such is life when impromptu-touring during high season.

And then there’s the challenge of navigating.  The long-distance LF routes simplify navigation unless there’s a festival, or a detour, or a missing sign, or we missed a sign or … who knows why we’re somewhere other than the route we thought we were on.  It’s tough not knowing the language, and we are utterly hopeless in Dutch.  Most Dutch speak fluent English, which has allowed us to be lazy. The most basic words stump us.

Irrefutable proof that people steal LF signs. May the person who took this find themselves hopelessly lost in the pouring rain.

One of our less successful tactics has been to ignore things we don’t understand – like the big yellow detour signs that we pass.  We just continue on our way until we hit a barricade or a construction site.  After getting burned too many times, we no longer ignore them, but still continue on – because we can’t read the signs.  Our hope is that perhaps it’s a car-only detour that we can sneak by; sometimes that works.

What yellow signs?

After getting lost for the umpteenth time, it suddenly dawned on me that I could import the GPX tracking data for the LF routes into Google Maps. What a boon that has been.  It doesn’t prevent us from going awry, but it does make it easy to check whether we’re off the route and if so, to find our way back onto it.

So, for now, we head on.  I’ll report back once we figure out what’s next.





A Month Cycling in the Netherlands

Ronde Van Nederland

This post is a long time coming.  We’ve been in the Netherlands for over a week, and it is only today that I’ve been able to get the first posting out.  Blame it on exhaustion, technical problems and a little too much wine at night!  The next one should be easier.

We had a rough start, beginning at the Charlotte airport, where we arrived with all our luggage only to be told that we were ticketed from Atlanta to Amsterdam.  Our itinerary was from Charlotte, but our ticket was from Atlanta.  Who knew they were different entities?  Ninety nail-biting minutes later, we headed to our gate, corrected tickets in hand — ready to start our cycling adventure.

Whoa … not so fast!  Our transatlantic flight out of Philadelphia was late, very late.  First, the plane was somewhere other than our gate.  Then they were looking for pillows.  Then they were fixing a leak.  We finally boarded three hours late, and taxied out, only to break a towing pin, and return to the gate.  By this time, our confidence in this tired, retro-looking plane was beginning to waver.  That feeling was justified.  An hour into the flight, we had an engine problem necessitating an emergency landing in Bangor, Maine.  It was a long eighteen hours before our rescue plane arrived from JFK and we were finally on our way – stinky, sleep deprived and a day late.

Our view from a cafe the day we arrived. We were blissed out as we sat here drinking coffee. Perhaps a combination of the view, the weather and sleep deprivation.
Jeff building the bike outside of our hotel in Leiden.
Ready to roll

This is our second time in the Netherlands.  We were last here in 2014 when we spent a month cycling through Belgium and the Netherlands. Our loose plan this time is to circumnavigate the country clockwise.  The route is called Ronde Van Nederland (Tour of the Netherlands).  It’s a 1300-kilometer tour that follows long distance routes along varied landscapes.  Taking pictures of our bike at six prescribed locations will qualify us for a certificate and listing on the Ronde van Nederland website!  Not that we care much about certificates; neither of us is much for planning or goal setting, but it seems like a reasonable structure.  We’ve nabbed two of the photos and traveled 350 km so far.  We aren’t convinced that we’ll make it.  It was tight before we lost a day to the travel debacle, but we’ll see how the weather and our bodies hold up.  Either way is fine.

Our 1st Ronde Van Nederland picture: The lighthouse at Noordwijk
Our 2nd Ronde Van Nederland picture: The Stenen (Stone) Man near Harlingen

We woke up to rain this morning – the first we’ve seen since our arrival.  The Netherlands has been warm and dry for months.  It’s great for holiday-goers, not so good for plants. We learned yesterday that there were voluntary watering restrictions in place. Our host told us about it yesterday as she pointed to a section of wilted vegetation in her yard.

A garden that fell victim to the dry weather and watering restrictions.

In the past, we’ve stayed in hotels, but have decided to take advantage of an organization called Vrienden op de Fiets (Friends of Cyclists) as much as we can on this trip.  It’s a network of nearly 6,000 hosts who provide cyclists and hikers with a bed, breakfast and bike storage – all for €19 each a night.  They’re all different, but all interesting and mostly enjoyable.  I’m writing this post from Groningen, where we are staying with Mariane & Willem.  He’s a journalist, she works in education. It’s a gift to be welcomed into people’s homes, to see a little slice of their lives, and to sit down and speak with them.  It’s interesting how similar our worldviews are.

One of the more unusual Vrienden op de Fiets accommodations – It’s called a Bed Stay. Surprisingly, we slept well.

I have yet to meet a Dutch person with anything positive to say about Trump and am relieved that people can separate us as Americans from our current administration.  I had been worried about that when we embarked on this trip.  Europeans are generally more informed on American politics than most Americans are.

The quintessential Dutch windmill. This one seems to have been converted to a house.

We’ve been riding for six days now.  We’re both stiff and achy but holding up well.  The terrain is, of course, flat.  This is the Netherlands, after all.  As usual, it’s been windy – mostly ‘agin us.  If we have a gale force headwind, we must be going in the right direction.  Our route yesterday had us riding generally with the wind; how sweet that tailwind was.  Our favorite riding so far has been through the dunes by the Noordzee (North Sea) – a hauntingly beautiful natural coastline.  Our least favorite was probably the 32km Afsluitdijk dike – a long noisy slog with a mound of earth on one side, and cars whizzing by at 100+km/hr on the other.  It is, however, an amazing construction feat.

Route through the dunes by the North Sea
Our first ferry ride of the trip

We’re following the long distance (LF) routes as we cycle the perimeter of the country.  It makes for easy navigation, although we suspect that the occasional missing sign might have made it home as someone’s souvenir.  It’s always comforting to see that green and white sign ahead and know you’re on the route.  The Netherlands has an amazing network of bike paths – mostly on dedicated paths, occasionally shared with light car traffic.  Scooters share the paths in the cities, which can be disconcerting.  E-bikes are ubiquitous.  I want one.  With an e-bike, I might even be able to cycle in Asheville.  For now, I’ll settle for the Jeffrey motor – and yes, I’m pedaling!

A very tired Lissa. I think I actually fell asleep on the bench!
Jeff navigating the tandem through the very busy Alkmaar cheese market

We’re carrying a SPOT satellite tracking device.  If you’d like, you can Track us Now.  There is also a link on the sidebar with our progress to date.  I will try to update it most days.

Enough for now.  More to come.


Home Sweet Home

The bike packed up easily, which isn’t surprising. It’s always easier breaking it down than putting it together.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed that it makes it home safe and sound.  Travel bikes have a hard life.

We were quite the spectacle in front of the hotel with the bike in pieces.
We were quite the spectacle in front of the hotel with the bike in pieces.
All ready to go. We just hope that TSA stays out of it!
All ready to go. Let’s just hope TSA stays out of it!

After a long, but uneventful flight home, we landed in Asheville.  Bob, half of our fabulous house sitting team, picked us up at the airport and drove us home for a happy and raucous reunion with all the furry creatures, followed by a lovely home cooked meal, complete with wine and cut flowers from the garden.  It doesn’t get more perfect than that.  How sweet it is to be home — with a kitchen, a washing machine, different clothes and our very own bed with season appropriate covers! We are so very lucky.  What an incredible gift this has been.  Thank you all for your support!

Ciao! … or as they say in Germany, Tschüss!

Home with the kids ... in different clothes!!
Home with the kids … in different clothes!!
Bob and Karyn who took such good care of everyone and everything.
Bob and Karyn who took such good care of everyone and everything.
Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Winding down

We got off to a rough start on the Ems River. Our 9-1/2 hour train ride morphed into 12 hours — in the sweltering heat, with no air conditioning. Ten hours into the ride, the train made a stop, and then just sat … for nearly an hour.  There were periodic announcements, none of which we could understand. After one such announcement, people cheered, then just got up and exited the train. With the help of some passengers who spoke English, we were able to figure out that the train was cancelled and we had to quickly switch to another one — which of course, meant getting the bike and trailer up and down two sets of steps.

A temperature map from our train day.  Yowza!
A temperature map from our train day. Yowza!

It was complete mayhem, with throngs of people everywhere. The Germans don’t queue up politely like the British. It was a free for all. I ran to the track, frantically trying to find the train car, struggling to get close enough to see the writing on the cars. Meanwhile, Jeff was getting the bike and trailer to the track, carrying the bike up stairs, against a sea of people going down, none of whom would budge an inch to let him by. Stressful to say the least. But we did eventually get on the right train, and make it to Emden. I had a mini-meltdown after walking into our 100 degree room with no air conditioning (and its requisite down comforter), but calmed down in the hotel’s garden restaurant over a beer and dinner.

A sheep looking for shade from the blazing sun.
A sheep looking for shade from the blazing sun.

Change is always a theme, in life, for all of us.  But bike touring has a way of bringing it to the forefront of our awareness.  From adversity to pleasure, and back again.  Sometimes we lose it (e.g., my hot room meltdown), but mostly we learn to take it in stride.  We know that whatever it is, it will change — weather, wind, surface, terrain, fatigue.  It all comes and goes, quickly and over and over.

Fishing boats outside of Emden
Fishing boats outside of Emden

The Ems river route was a pleasure, particularly after the heat wave broke. The terrain was interesting and varied; starting at the North Sea, where it was decidedly maritime, with harbors, locks and dykes, transitioning to country lanes and forested paths. It was really quite beautiful. We were both sorry to see it end. But end it did. Thursday was our last day of cycling. We are in Münster now – a lively city, with a great feel and a lovely, shaded promenade circling the center where the city fortification used to be. Today we take the train to Mainz, and pack up the bike.

An old ship trapped in a canal in Papenburg.
An old ship trapped in a canal in Papenburg.

This journey feels so long. We started riding May 16th. Some of the experiences feel fresh; some of them seem so long ago, it’s hard to believe it was the same trip. The season has changed; birthday and anniversary come and gone. One thing that hasn’t changed is our wardrobe. I’m still wearing the same damn black pants and gray shirt! Bike touring is not for the fashion conscious.

A very cool old time manual time piece.  In addition to time, it tracks the sun, moon and planets.
A very cool old manual time piece. In addition to time, it tracks the sun, moon and planets.

I don’t have many pictures for this one.  We’re so engaged that we just forget to take them.

Leaving the Elbe

We finished our ride on the Elbe a couple days ago. It was an interesting trip, although I must confess that by the end we both found ourselves yearning for something other than the flat, open terrain and fields of wheat, barley, corn and rape seed that we’ve been cycling through for days. We were also ready for something other than the Soviet era concrete architecture that so defines parts of the former GDR. There were some interesting towns — Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, where Martin Luther first railed against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and a mecca of sorts for Protestants throughout the world. Then there was Riesa, the noodle capital of Germany … I kid you not. Tours of the state-of-the-art noodle factory were offered.

The motherloaed of bing cherries on the path.  Yumm!
The motherloaed of bing cherries on the path. Yumm!

On Tuesday we made it to Dresden. Now, that is a city! It’s beautiful, historic, relaxed, young, lively, cultured and artistic. It boggles the mind to think that seventy years ago, 3,900 tons of explosives were dropped on the city — an act considered by many to be a war crime. The bombs and ensuing firestorm left 25,00 dead, and the city in rubble. I still can’t wrap my head around how Dresden was able to rebuild the historic section of the city from such devastation. But they did, and it is glorious!

A famous and iconic photo of Dresden in 1945 after the bombing.
A famous and iconic photo of Dresden in 1945 after the bombing.
Dresden today
Dresden today

We took a day off the bike in Dresden, and spent it kicking around the city … just being. No museums, or attractions; just walking around, enjoying the energy and flavor of the city. We also took the time to figure out what next. We had about a week to work with before heading back to Mainz to pack up the bike. Dresden provided a perfect opportunity for planning. They have a great store called Globe Trotter. I can only describe it as an REI on steroids. Four floors of gear, gear, and more gear. There’s even a pool where prospective buyers can try out their kayaks before buying. Needless to say, they have maps of all the German bike routes. We settled in with cappuccinos and a pile of books, and got ‘er done! A half dozen rivers were on the table … the Wesar, the Neckar, the Lower Rhine, the Isar, the Danube and the Ems. We finally settled on the Ems River, in the far Northwest, by the Dutch border and the North Sea.

A restored building in Dresden. The black blocks are from the original; the white are new.
Jeff relaxing in Dresden
Jeff relaxing in Dresden

Our last day on the Elbe was spent cycling to Bad Schandau, the gateway to the Saxony Switzerland National Park, about 20 km from the Czech border. The river runs through a gorge, with amazing sandstone rock formations. On the top of a mountain plateau is a facility that housed WWII prisoners of war, and later was an East German re-education camp for those who strayed from the party line. Today it is a museum.  We planned on doing some hiking in the national park, but it was just too hot.  In less than two weeks, we’ve gone from cold, blustery, overcast days to a heat wave. Give me the cold weather any time!

Sandstone  formations on the way to Bad Schandau, and an amazing foot bridge.
Sandstone formations on the way to Bad Schandau, and an amazing foot bridge.

From Bad Schandau, we will take a nine and a half hour train ride to Emden for the final leg of this journey. This has been a long trip.  In the beginning, I rarely thought about home. Now I think about it often. I think we’ll both be ready to board that plane on July 13th.

East Germany

For the last six days we have been cycling through the former East Germany, and will stay in the East for the remainder of our time on the Elbe Radweg. It’s been interesting. Twenty five years post reunification, the differences are easy to spot … and as non German speaking tourists, we’re only catching the most obvious of them. The East is noticeably less affluent, particularly in rural areas. Dilapidated and abandoned buildings are a common sight. Most of the post-war architecture is plain and utilitarian, often cement block.

On a ferry.  This area has very cool ferries, powered solely by the river current.
On a ferry. This area has very cool ferries, powered solely by the river current.

And then there are the bike route surfaces. When you’re on a bike, things like grade and road surface become very important. In fact, those are our two most important route planning criteria. We like ‘em smooth and flat. For complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, our tires are narrower than they should be for this type of touring, making for dicey cycling on uneven, bumpy or loose surfaces … which we found plenty of on this route. It’s okay; it’s all part of the experience, but has caused us to reconsider continuing on the Elbe to Prague. From what we hear, some of the surfaces are in very rough shape over the Czech border. Cycling has its strengths and limitations.

A not so fun surface.  The strips were about a foot wide, with a lip.
A not so fun surface. The strips were about a foot wide, with a lip.
An even less fun surface; this one was shared with light car traffic.
An even less fun surface; this one was shared with light car traffic.
With Wilhelm, whom we rode with for awhile.
With Wilhelm, whom we rode with for awhile.

Most people we run into do not speak any English. Prior to 1990, East Germans were taught Russian in school. Surprisingly, many of the young people don’t seem to have learned much English either. We have not heard any native English speakers for at least 5 days. I’m sure that will change as we get closer to Dresden.

Since 1990, Germany has had a dedicated reunification tax that has channeled billions of dollars into East Germany to upgrade the infrastructure. From what I have heard, the allocation has favored large cities. It would appear that it will take longer to truly reunify Germany than the forty five years it was actually divided.

A covered bench, with an e-bike charging station.  E-bikes are big here.
A covered bench, with an e-bike charging station. E-bikes are big here.

The riding itself has been lovely. We’ve been mostly in rural or agricultural areas, with little or no traffic. The terrain is flat, open and expansive. The towns are further apart than has been the case for much of this trip … and strangely devoid of people. Sometimes we’ll ride through a small town, and not see a soul; it’s surreal. We are both feeling very peaceful and relaxed. The weather has been kind to us, despite some threatening skies, and discouraging forecasts. For a few days, we rode with grey skies and rain all around us, yet never got nailed. We were amazed. We gave in to our fears and took a rain day earlier in the week … only to have it not rain! I know there’s a lesson in there.

Good cloud meets bad cloud.
Good cloud meets bad cloud.
Ya think it's windy?
Ya think it’s windy?
A wild flower field
A wild flower field

We celebrated our 31st anniversary in Tangermünde, a beautiful, well preserved little town with three pairs of nesting storks!  Very cool.  They have enormous nests, perched on the top of tall, old, historic buildings.  We somehow wound up staying in a medieval themed hotel and eating in a similarly themed restaurant.  The hotel had a toilet that was supposed to look like a throne, but was actually more reminiscent of an outhouse.  And the restaurant gave us daggers to cut our veggies with!

A stork and her hungry little one.
A stork and her hungry little one.
The king and his throne.
The king and his throne.

The Other Side of Germany

After Jeff’s chemo, our plan was to take a train to Hamburg, and ride along the Elbe River to Dresden, or possibly Prague. A dicey weather forecast and a more careful study of the cycling maps gave us pause. Below Hamburg, the bike path goes through a large area known as the Elbe Biosphere. It’s a protected nature preserve, with limited amenities. Rain and no shelter can get ugly quickly. We started second guessing ourselves, spending hours exploring alternative options, checking train schedules, route descriptions and hotel availability, only to settle on our original plan. Better to be guided by curiosity than fear.

Where oh where shall we go?
Where oh where shall we go?

From our interpretation of the train schedule, there was a direct train from Essen to Hamburg that could accommodate bikes. Great.  We had taken a number of trains, and were beginning to feel more confident with the process.  So, we packed up, and headed back to the train station.  Our timing was tight, and there was a 25 person queue at the ticket office. We decided to divide and conquer: Jeff somehow managed to get the bike and trailer on the platform — up two flights of steps by himself — while I waited in line to buy tickets. I finally made it to the counter five minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, only to get the dreaded “That’s not possible” response from the agent. Not possible? Turns out that the IC trains require a reservation for a bike, which must be made at least a day in advance; no exceptions. Our alternative was a regional train, 3 changes and a departure on a distant track. Ugh. So, down one flight of steps, and up two with the beast and bags, one day post chemo. Jeff’s the man; that’s all I can say.

The first of three trains en route to Hamburg
The first of three trains en route to Hamburg

We were both totally unprepared for the teeming mass of humanity at the Hamburg train station. It was truly something to behold. Hamburg is undoubtedly a wonderful city. Everyone says so. But it’s not for us; not now. You can’t do everything, and our thing now is cycling. Hamburg, and most other large cities will have to wait for another time. On to the Elbe Biosphere!

Jeff and the beast at Hamburg Central Station
Jeff and the beast at Hamburg Central Station

It took a surprisingly short time for things to quiet down after leaving Hamburg. Before we knew it, we were cycling through beautiful terrain, with marsh lands and wide expansive views. Not surprisingly it was rife with birds. Really quite wonderful. In this region, the Elbe River was the dividing line between the former East and West Germany. We were on the east side, where you can still see the old guard towers along the river, a stark reminder of the cold war days. How could we have considered skipping this area?

East German guard tower by the Elbe River
East German guard tower by the Elbe River

60K of cycling brought us to Lauenburg. We’re in a maritime climate now; very different. It’s cold and blustery. People are wearing coats and the heat was on when we woke up. It was also raining pretty steadily, causing us to question the wisdom of the non-refundable reservation we had made for a hotel 60 km down the road. We waited it out, and lo and behold, the sun popped out.

It’s hard to describe the simple pleasure of cycling through the Biosphere. The birds continue to amaze us. Swallows repeatedly played with us, flying alongside the bike, then peeling off, over and over. Then they started crisscrossing us, a few feet in front of the bike. Again and again. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. It was nothing short of magical. The cuckoos have also reappeared. I must buy a cuckoo clock … as a constant reminder of this trip.

Checking the map
Checking the map

I am writing now from Gartow, a tiny town on the west side of the river. It has a hotel, two restaurants and a beautiful lake. Works for us!

Me playing around at a picnic spot
Me playing around at a picnic spot

The American Patient

After an easy train ride, and a short, but harrowing ride through Essen, we arrived at our out-of-the-way hotel. It was located in a fairly upscale residential community, an easy 10 minute walk to the University Clinic; not a happening spot, but perfect for our needs. Essen is not a tourist destination. It’s a city of half a million, but most Americans will never have heard of it.

On a lark we had a “Dinner in the Dark” the night we arrived. I had heard of the concept, but this was our first time experiencing it. We ate dinner completely in the dark, served by a blind waiter, who only knew a few words of English. And dark is really dark; totally black. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. We followed the waiter, my hands on his shoulders, Jeff’s on mine, to our table, where we had to feel around for our chairs, the table, the place setting. We could hear the other diners, all German. A set meal was served to us. Vegetarian; no other information. The soup was a breeze; we could both easily navigate a spoon and bowl. Water on one side, wine on the other. So far, so good. Salad, with a round of goat cheese on top, was more challenging. We started using our fingers for exploration. By the time the main course came, our fingers were our primary utensil. Forks would, more often than not, come up empty. At one point, I mentioned to Jeff that I was really hot, and felt like taking off my shirt. He reminded me that here I could. I swear, I didn’t!

Our “Dining in the Dark” restaurant
Jeff in front of the University Cancer Center
Jeff in front of the University Cancer Center

The next morning we headed off to the Essen University Cancer Center, or Tumorzentrum. Apparently they don’t get many American patients; we were the first for the woman who checked us in. Dr. Wilfried Eberhardt, a colleague of our oncologist at Wake Forest, had arranged everything for us, which was an enormous relief. He spent a lot of time with us, talked about options should Jeff’s cancer progress (which it generally does … we just prefer “if” to “when”), and personally ushered us through the entire process. In fact, he put Jeff’s IV line in, which was an absolute first for me. I have never seen anyone other than a nurse perform that kind of task. And he was good at it! No pain, no bruising. All in all, it was a wonderful experience. We felt pampered and cared for. Everyone was kind and helpful. We give our special thanks to both Dr. Eberhardt and our oncologist, Dr. Petty, for coordinating this.

Jeff & Dr. Eberhardt
Jeff & Dr. Eberhardt
In the treatment room
In the treatment room

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the care that Jeff has received. A terminal cancer diagnosis is tough stuff. We hear and read about people who have had terrible experiences, both with their doctors and their treatment. This has not been the case for us. We feel supported, respected and cared for by the team of doctors and nurses supporting Jeff … from the oncology center at Wake Forest, to the holistic and alternative practitioners that Jeff uses to augment his traditional treatment. We don’t know what component, or combination of components has allowed him to thrive this long, but we are filled with gratitude to everyone who has helped us along this path. Thank you.