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!
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.
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.
Where Are We?
We have been in Germany for twenty-one days now. We’ve stayed in nineteen different towns, with nineteen hotels, beds, pillows and bathrooms. We wake up in the dark, and try to remember where the bathroom is, and whether there are any toe stubbing or knee banging room elements. We feel around to flush the toilet (European toilets never have simple handles on the tank).
It’s all becoming a blur. I’m often hard pressed to tell you the name of the town we’re in, much less the hotel name, even less the room number.
We have each other, and the bike, and a credit card. We have our stuff, always packed up the same way, and we have our routines. After a ride, we shower, do laundry, wander around town, have dinner, and we’re down for the count. The next day we have breakfast, pack up, buy something for lunch, and head out on the bike again. We’ve traversed 850 km, along five rivers. It’s simple; it engages us completely and gives us great pleasure. We’re never bored, although we miss our animals something awful!
On the 15th Day they Rested
We’ve been staying out of trouble since our Nuremberg fiasco. Fortunately, getting out of Nuremberg was a lot easier than getting into it. It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep and a map will do.
For the next two days, our route ran primarily along the Rhine/Main/Danube Canal, through varied terrain – some industrial, but mostly quiet and rural. The canal is interesting. It connects the Danube to the Rhine, via the Main River, creating a navigable waterway from the Black Sea to the North Sea.
The signage along the canal route was less than optimal. We had dozens of navigation stops, and a few not very serious mis-steps along the way. We also had an almost constant head wind, which can be grueling, and oh so cold on a chilly day.
The canal ended in Bamberg, where the Regnitz and Main Rivers meet. Bamberg is one of those must see places in the tourist books. Architecturally beautiful, brimming with hotels, restaurants, sights, and of course, tourists. There were at least a half dozen walking tours starting out as we were leaving the city. Each guide holding a flag, and the entire group wearing headsets. That’s a new development we haven’t seen before. We even wound up being part of the tour, some local color – Radfahrers (bike tourists) doing it the “old fashioned” way, without battery power, as the tour guide noted, pointing to us, and highlighting our panniers and trailer. A few people snapped pictures. There we were, immortalized in someone’s vacation photos.
The strong head wind continued on our first day cycling the Main. By the time we made the 66 km to our destination city, Schweinfurt, we were utterly exhausted. It was our 14th day in a row riding, and we were beat. Time for a rest. We snagged an amazingly luxurious room for the price of a standard room and decided it was the perfect place for a whole lot of nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing … we each splurged on a two hour Thai massage, done side by side, by the tiniest women, who climb up on the table and give it their all. Now, that’s a rest day! Tomorrow we head out to Dettelbach, then Würzburg on Sunday.
The Trials and Tribulations of Nuremberg
The day started deceptively well. Our train ride from Koblenz to Nuremberg was a breeze — three trains and six hours of travel without a hitch. It was raining throughout much of the train ride. How lucky, we thought; we’d managed to use up a rain-day on train travel, rather than being forced to hole up in a hotel.
It was late afternoon, and raining lightly as we walked out of the train station in Nuremberg. The station was surrounded by hotels, which we foolishly decided to pass up. It was so busy and congested by the station. Let’s head out toward the bike path and find a hotel in a quieter area. We didn’t have a map of Nuremberg, and our iPhones were low on juice as we’d been using them to entertain ourselves on the train. You can probably see where this is going.
Immediately outside of the train station was a sign for the Danube/Main Canal. That sounded good. Our route ran along both the Regnitz River and the Danube/Main Canal. How fortuitous! So we followed the signs for 4 or 5 kilometers until they petered out. The rain started to pick up. We asked numerous people for directions, none of whom spoke English. We, of course, are hopeless in German. We repeatedly checked Google Maps, as we watched our phone batteries die a fast death. We finally made it to the canal, which had no bike path beside it, and was in a God forsaken industrial wasteland. We forged on, choosing roads that appeared to run more or less parallel to the canal, only to have them dead-end at gated industrial facilities, or take a circuitous route that lead to who knows where.
It was grim. We were bickering with each other … could of, would of, should of. It was raining, our feet were wet, we were hopelessly lost and it was getting late. We eventually stumbled upon a veterinarian’s office in the middle of nowhere, and got detailed directions from one of the clients who spoke English. Whew! Except that his directions routed us onto a limited access highway. Perhaps if it hadn’t been raining, or if we knew one iota of German, we would have realized it earlier, but we didn’t figure it out until it was too late and we were on the highway. We cycled along the shoulder, as fast as we could, looking for the first exit. Right before the exit, was a construction zone that took away the shoulder. Cars were whizzing by, so we ducked into the construction area, figuring we would get around it.
We were stopped by an enormous barricade of trash and construction materials. By this time, I had nothing left; I was a broken woman. Jeff sprang into action, unhitched the trailer and started looking for a way through it. It was a filthy, sloppy, slick, muddy mess, full of sharp objects. He instructed me; I complied. It wasn’t easy. We finally got the bike, trailer and the two of us past the blockade. Jeff was covered with sticky glue-like mud. Of course, our water bottles were empty, so he couldn’t even clean up.
We continued on, still hopelessly lost. The scenery started to look familiar, and we realized that we were passing buildings that we had passed an hour and a half earlier. Our hearts sank. Right then, in our darkest hour, Jeff saw a sign for an IBIS Budget Hotel 500 meters ahead. Hallelujah! We checked in; two filthy drowned rats on a tandem.
I will say it right now, the Nuremberg IBIS Budget Hotel is the most singularly strange hotel I have ever seen. It’s in the middle of a large corporate park, and is barely marked. There is no main entrance, only a small door in the back of the building, in a parking lot full of heavy equipment. Apparently it was once a shoe factory, and was re-purposed as a hotel 15 years ago. The rooms, all the same, are like futuristic pods – modern, stark, simplistic. The showerhead had blue and red LED lights that changed color while you showered. And it had a double bed that didn’t have a crack in the middle. It was perfect.
We cleaned up, did our laundry, and with the help of the hotel receptionist, had a pizza and bottle of wine delivered to the hotel. Life was good again.
I’m a bit behind on my postings. We had a doozy of a day yesterday, which I’ll try to get to tonight. For now, here’s one from a couple days ago. Some of you might be pleased to hear that I’ve finally awakened to the fact that my pictures were at least 10 times as big as they should have been. My apologies to anyone who struggled to open them. I will compress from now on.
Today is my 62nd birthday and I am filled with gratitude. I’m grateful to be here in Germany, cycling with Jeff, and for the lessons we’ve learned the last couple of years. I’m grateful for all the support we have gotten, and for those of you following this blog and cheering us along. I’m also grateful that Jeff washed my laundry today, a sweet birthday gift.
We’ve been winding our way along the Moselle for the last few days and finally reached the end – the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine Rivers. The Moselle was fun; beautiful scenery, impossibly charming towns, great wine, and a slow, relaxed pace. All in all, a blast.
Now on to the next adventure, which has been a few days in the planning. It’s a puzzle; we need to be in Essen in three weeks for Jeff’s chemo. If we head up the Rhine now, we’ll reach Essen too early. After days of looking at maps, train schedules and bike routes, we have a plan! We’ll take a train to Nuremberg, then ride 500 kilometers on the Regnitz and Main rivers back to the Rhine. If all goes well, we’ll make it to the Rhine with time to spare and perhaps sneak in a short tour of the Lahn river before reaching Essen. Tomorrow we brave the rail system with our beast of a bike.
To date, we’ve ridden 422 kilometers in ten consecutive days of riding. Not bad. We’re sore and ready for a rest day, but doing pretty well. Even our butts are hanging in. That, I attribute to our most beloved Brooks saddles.
Have I mentioned the German beds? We’ve never seen a double bed here. They’re all two single beds, pushed together, with a big crack in the middle. To top it off, they’re made up with two single down comforters … regardless of the season. 80 degrees? It’s down or nothing! Not much cuddling happening outside of the dead of winter. It’s no wonder Germany has one of the lowest birthrates in the world!
Heading down the Moselle
It rained for the first time today. Fortunately we got an early start and made it to Trier before the rains came. Fifty-five degrees and wet is not fun on a bike. We checked in early and spent the next few hours planning our route and booking rooms through the weekend. It’s not our style to plan that far ahead, but this is a popular place, and the hotels can get booked up, particularly on weekends. We’re not going to rush through this one; the Moselle is supposed to be a very special place.
Trier was as advertised; an ancient and fascinating city. It was founded by the Romans in the first century AD, and still has the very impressive Porta Nigra (Black Gates) to prove it. Unfortunately, it also has throngs of people pouring into the city to see its sites. The tour guides dress up in Roman garb, and the city hires buff actors in short Roman togas to shout from the Porta Nigra towers. While we recognize all that Trier has to offer, it’s just not for us. We’ve not been quick studies on this one. For years now, we’ve known that we’re happiest in small, less touristy towns, yet still feel compelled to make it to the “must see” destinations. That is about to change.
As is often the case with large cities, we struggled getting out of town. The route was congested, heavily trafficked, noisy, odorific, and poorly marked. To make matters worse, about 10K into the ride, the bike developed a clunking noise from the rear crank and refused to shift into the large chain ring. Ugh. Mechanical problems are one of the realities of bike touring. Nearly 20K into the ride, we made it back to the river, where our fortune changed. Jeff discovered the problem (my bottom bracket had come unscrewed), and handily fixed it. The ride changed from the least pleasant we had encountered so far, to the most pleasant. Just like that! The path ambled along the river and through vineyards, past quaint little villages. The sun was shining. Who could ask for more? By the time we made it to our charming winery/hotel in the tiny village of Trittenheim and settled in on the veranda with a glass of Riesling, the morning’s hardships were long forgotten.
May 18, 2015
I bought a cheap Asus Windows tablet for this bike trip. It would appear that cheap is the operative word. This morning, two weeks to the day of its purchase, it bit the dust. This, just 48 hours after sending out a mass email announcing my blog. Oh dear; I can’t do this on an iPhone.
Fortunately, we were still in Saarbrücken, where we could actually buy a replacement. So off we went to Germany’s version of Best Buy. I knew exactly what I wanted. It was the Microsoft Surface tablet, which I had, with great restraint and maturity, not purchased two weeks earlier.
All was going well. The sales person spoke English, they had the tablet in stock, and the price was good. Then came the bomb: It had a German keyboard. In fact, every computer in the store had a German keyboard. Now, this shouldn’t have come as a great surprise to me, but it did. I hadn’t paid attention to the keyboard until I couldn’t find the ‘Y’. It turns out that German keyboards are QWERTZ, not QWERTY, and they have extra keys, and some of the keys are in different places. How bad could it be? I bought it.
I thought it might be handy to have a German keyboard. At least I wouldn’t have to go digging around for umlauts. Silly me; 45 years of touch typing is hard to undo. So, I reconfigured it as an English keyboard. The keys are mostly in the right place, but lots of them have the wrong labels. It’s confusing, to say the least.
With our technology crisis sorted out, we packed up and headed downstream on the Saar. The first 50K section, from Saarbrücken to Merzig was surprisingly industrial, but not at all unpleasant. Along the way we passed the Völklingen Ironworks, an amazing old abandoned steel factory. It’s a huge hulking structure, reminiscent of a Borg ship (for you Trekkies out there) – forbidding, yet strangely beautiful, as Jeff described it. Our pictures don’t do it justice, so here’s a link to some web photos. We were surprised to discover that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just like the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. Go figure. That’s the thing about bike touring: You can’t help but get off the beaten path and you never know what you’ll find.
May 19, 2015
A cold front came through today, so we bundled up in many layers of high tech fabric and continued down the Saar. This next section was absolutely gorgeous! Lush, green, quiet, peaceful, with almost no highway noise. What a treat. We even encountered some hills, one of which measured 15%. We didn’t have to walk it, so we must be getting stronger.
Our ride ended in Saarburg, a beautiful little town, with a castle and waterfall, that is not significant enough to be listed in the Lonely Planet guide. We often find that our favorite spots aren’t in the guide books.
Tomorrow we head off for Trier, which is billed as the oldest city in Germany.
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley
May 16, 2015
First off, I must apologize to the town of Bingen for unfairly calling it a dump. While it’s not going to win the Rhine’s most charming town award, it’s a perfectly fine town. Our problem is that we missed most of it! Yup; we discovered it as we were heading out. Sometimes, you just don’t venture very far when you’re tired, cold, hungry and on a bike.
Today was spent riding through the Rhine gorge. Above the river are impossibly steep vineyards, and alongside the river, on both sides, are very active train tracks. And I mean active; we saw dozens of trains, both passenger and freight. The river, too, is transporting oodles of people and freight — barges, cruise ships, day cruises. It’s a busy place, yet picturesque; a working river that has maintained its charm.
Then there are the castles. Every time we rounded a bend, there was another one perched on the top of a hill. Some are crumbling, most are well preserved, and some are active tourist attractions with cafes and umbrellas. There was no amount of charm that could entice us to even consider climbing up to one of them. It’s the flat lands for us.
The tiredness is starting to set in. Jeff is still only a few days post chemo, and I, of course, am not trained. The repeated days on the bike, and hours spent outside, all day take a toll. We’ll be cruising in a few weeks, but for now, we ache all over.
We spent the night in Boppard, another lovely town on the Romantic Rhine. After the previous night’s hotel debacle, I opted for a very civilized river front hotel. I don’t know how Jeff goes bike camping. I crave comfort after a day of cycling. A shower, dinner, wine, clean sheets. Ahhhhhh.
Tomorrow should be an easy one. We’ll ride a short 20KM to Koblenz, then take a train to Saarbrücken, which is on the Saar River, right by the French border. The current plan, always subject to change, is to cycle along the Saar and Mosel rivers, back to Koblenz, then continue north on the Rhine until it becomes too industrialized for our tastes. I’ve got a hankering to make it to the Netherlands this trip; we’ll see.
May 17th, 2015
The cycling today was short, but delightful — sunny, quieter than yesterday, and equally as lovely. Before we knew it, we were in Koblenz, where things got more complicated.
I’m just going to say it now: Our tandem and trailer combination is a beast in cities. It’s fine riding around the countryside, but trying to navigate it in traffic, crowds or on public transportation is not for the faint of heart. It’s enormous, heavy, unwieldy, and wants to fall over, or jack-knife at the slightest provocation. Today we had to jump through hoops and resort to stairs when the tandem was too big to fit into bike specific elevators. And then there’s the crazy dash onto the train, with the tandem and trailer separated, dodging throngs of people as we search for the bike car. Jeff got a good laugh out of my blood curdling scream “NOOOOOOOOO!” when I thought the train doors were closing on us before we could make it in.
But all’s well that ends well. We made it to Saarbrücken and even had dinner in a Mexican restaurant. European Mexican restaurants are always a crap shoot, well actually, worse than a crap shoot. As usual, this one wasn’t very authentic, but it tasted good and had lots of vegetables. No complaints here. We’re ready to get on the road. Saarbrücken is way too big and crowded for us.
On the Road
It’s supposed to begin with training, except that didn’t happen for me. I’ve done nothing, zippo, nein! What was I thinking? I used to ride a thousand miles in preparation for one of these trips, and I was a lot younger then. It’s a good thing it’s flat. It’s a good thing that Jeff’s been training. Mostly, it’s a good thing we’re on a tandem. I know I’ll be able to keep up with him!
It looks like we’re bringing a lot — 4 suitcases and 2 -carry-ons– but it’s actually quite minimalist. Most of it is bike, trailer and tools. Everything else easily fits in a single suitcase. You’ll notice that we’ll be wearing the same clothes in all our pictures. It’s all we’ve got! High tech clothing and a commitment to daily hand washing is the only thing that gets us by
We landed in Frankfurt, bleary eyed, and took a short 20 minute train ride to Mainz, which will be our starting and ending location. Mainz isn’t a big tourist attraction, although it does have the Gutenberg Museum. We’re staying in a nice hotel, across from the train station, in a somewhat gritty section of town. Having left Holland 10 months ago, it all feels very familiar. We look forward to getting into the daily routine of cycling.
It was a rough start. The bike didn’t go together happily, Jeff was sick as a dog from his chemo a couple days ago, and getting out of Mainz was no fun. It’s noisy, congested and industrial; perhaps not our best choice of launching cities. We made it 40K to Bingen, a dumpy town on the Rhine, with a castle and not much else. Our decision to go for the cheap room has made us vow to give up on that cost containment strategy. Jeff had to be rescued from his shower when the automatic lights left him in a pitch black bathroom with scalding water.
The next section of the Rhine, from Bingen to Koblenz is reputed to be some of the finest cycling in Germany.