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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
The Busy Rhine
So much for plans; ours got dashed by both whim and weather in no time at all.
We had a lovely ride from Bad Ems, finishing up the Lahn River in the aptly named town of Lahnstein. A short distance up the Rhine from there is Koblenz, where we landed a hotel with a sweet riverside view. Perfect! And there, parked right in front of our hotel, was a KD Rhine River day cruising boat. Now, I’ve been aching to see the Rhine Gorge by boat. As they say, Carpe Diem! … and so we did.
We arranged to spend a 2nd night in Koblenz, and spent a full day cruising up and down the Rhine gorge. The Rhine is a fast moving river. From Koblenz to Rüdesheim upstream takes over 6 hours, the return downstream trip takes just 4. It was beautiful, scenic and wonderfully peaceful; quieter than the bike path which runs alongside a busy road much of the way. We have now most definitely seen the Rhine Gorge, twice by boat and once by bike. I think I’ve finally gotten my fill of it.
Koblenz is nice; another lively university town, with plenty of tourists, but by no means driven by tourism. I could have spent more time there, but that’s not our style. Onward it is.
The Rhine valley becomes more congested as it continues north. Just looking at the map is a bit frightening. It’s one large city after the next. Surprisingly, the ride from Koblenz was pretty nice. There was some industry and traffic, but much of it was quiet and scenic. It was hot, very hot … which made for tough riding. And Jeff got bitten by a cranky Jack Russell terrier. It broke his skin and hurt, but I think he was more insulted than anything else. For the rest of the ride, he would periodically blurt out “He bit me!” Almost in disbelief that any dog wouldn’t recognize him for the dog lover that he is. Perhaps it was a language problem.
No sooner did we check into our hotel in Bonn, than the sky opened up – lightning, thunder, rain coming down in sheets. I imagined us cycling on an open path without shelter and thanked our lucky stars. It continued raining the next day, so we got another forced rest day. That’s okay; these old achy bones could use it. Yesterday was the half way mark; one month down, one to go.
After a relaxing day in Bonn, we took a short 38k ride to Cologne, or Köln, as it’s spelled in Germany. Köln is a big city — over a million people, half of whom were on the otherwise lovely riverside bike route as we entered the city. It was harrowing! Jeff navigated the throngs of bicycles, skaters, kamikaze children and Sunday strollers with aplomb, but I nevertheless had a tight chest the whole way in. I’m sure there are lovely sections of Köln, but we never got out of the gritty area around the train station and cathedral.
The enormous gothic cathedral is one of the few large buildings that didn’t sustain significant damage in the war. Apparently, it was so large that it was used it as reference point during raids. We were fortunate to go through it at a quiet time. It gets, on average, an astonishing 20,000 visitors a day!
Today we take a train to Essen, where Jeff will have his chemotherapy tomorrow morning. We just don’t have the heart for more cycling in this congestion.
From the Main to the Lahn
I am woefully behind on my postings. The days are so full and tiring. I sit down at night to write and can barely keep my eyes open. I have also just realized that we haven’t taken a single picture of either of us in days. We’ll try to do better.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Main River, even with the persistent head-winds. Not every kilometer of it was picture perfect, but the whole package was wonderful. We went through some lovely little towns; Lohr and Wertheim, in particular, stand out.
Despite our leisurely pace and easy days, we made it back to Frankfurt, with nine days to spare before Jeff’s chemo in Essen. We need to stay close to Essen, so decided to follow the road less traveled, the Lahn River route. And this time we’re going with the wind! It’s tough getting the timing right when planning bike travel. Weather, terrain, mechanical failures, conditioning, illness … or just a change of mind … can throw a curve ball into any plan.
The Main cycle path took us right into Frankfurt, which was less stressful than I had been anticipating. From Frankfurt we took a train to Marburg, our starting point for the Lahn route. Now Marburg, that is one cute city. They even have a Gummy store … everything gummy, from bears, to pizzas. I kid you not. It’s a lively college town, with a great medieval section, perched on the top of a hill. We stayed in a hotel below the old town, right across from a public elevator that went up many, many stories before opening out into the old town. Very cool.
We thought the Lahn would take us four days to ride, but we’ve pretty much finished it in three. The Lahn was interesting. Pretty terrain, more hills (which translated into more climbing on the route), and much less touristed than the other routes we’ve done. In fact, Marburg was the only town mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide. We spent a night in Limburg, a pretty town with a lovely old cathedral that had been bombed in 1945 and substantially restored. It’s becoming a familiar sight in churches and various tourist attractions: A section with pictures showing the building pre WWII, then in rubble after being bombed. Some of the less fortunate cities we go through have almost no medieval buildings standing.
I’m in Bad Ems this morning as I write this. It’s one of those old bath (bad) towns, with tired old grand buildings from a bygone era when its natural thermal bath healing spas were popular. We’ve seen this kind of towns for years. As soon as I hear Bad in a town’s name, I expect a place just like this. I like them.
While riding the bike paths, we find that we keep seeing the same cyclists over and over. It’s a bit of a “tortoise and the hare” scenario. We’re pretty fast, particularly on flat terrain. Tandems are made for the flatlands. But we stop a lot. A whole lot. We’ll often pass the same group half a dozen times in a day. After a while, we almost feel like friends. We wave at each other, and sometimes get to talking. It’s great fun. It’s amazing who you see on a bike here. All ages and shapes, some on e-bikes, some carting around their dogs in baskets or trailers, little children riding amazingly long distances. I just marvel at it.
We still have six days before we need to be in Essen. After much deliberation, we’ve decided to continue north on the Rhine, starting in Koblenz, where we left it for the Moselle. If it’s too congested, we’ll come up with a plan B.
These last two pictures are for a special little boy, Seth, who is convinced that Jeff is Spiderman! We spotted them many miles apart; who knows why.
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!
Back to Wine Country
We’ve been battling strong headwinds since leaving Schweinfurt. It’s generally calm in the morning, and picks up as the day progresses. There was one point where it practically knocked us over! Before starting this route, we read somewhere that people in the know ride it west to east, due to the prevailing winds. Perhaps we should have heeded that guidance.
The last couple days of cycling have been beautiful. The landscape is lush, with wildflowers, farms, and vineyards, sometimes as far as the eye can see. This is Franken Wine country. The wines here are highly regarded and said to have the most complex flavors of any of the German wines. Interestingly, they are rarely exported out of the country, and generally don’t make it out of the region.
Würzburg was fun. We met up with our friend, Glenda, who was half of our house sitting team last year while we were cycling in Holland. The city was hopping: It was a lovely, sunny day, Würzburg’s soccer team had just advanced to the next division (a cause for much celebration and drunkenness), and there was a large wine and food event in the marktplatz. We kicked around, wandering through alleys, squares and cathedrals … and ate and drank with the throngs at the festival. Not surprisingly, we were kept up most of the night listening to the revelers.
Rain was forecast for Monday morning. I hate riding in the rain. In fact, I have an irrational fear of it. We decided to check out late, and let it pass before heading on. The rain was uncooperative, stalling until we were ready to leave. We set out in light rain, only to discover 10 minutes into the ride, that we still had the hotel key. So we turned around, and wound up checking right back into the same hotel! Good call; it rained off and on until 5 in the evening. I would have been one cranky Lissa.
Würzburg is a fine place to be on a rainy day. We did the tourist thing, and were overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the Residence Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage site. (No photography allowed) What really floored us were the photographs at the end of the tour, showing the palace, and the city of Würzburg in 1945, after it was bombed by the British. The city was destroyed. It’s hard to believe that Würzburg was able to restore so much of its old grandeur. The beautiful cathedrals we had seen had all been restored — beautifully done with a mix of old and new. Needless to say, there wasn’t an original stained glass window to be found in any of them.
This is our second time cycling in Germany; the first was 18 years ago. Back then, I would often walk through old graveyards. I saw generations of men lost in the two world wars … father, son, grandfather … faded pictures of boy soldiers in uniform. It was heart breaking. On this trip, I’ve walked through a number of cemeteries, and have been surprised to see mostly modern graves, with few remnants of the world wars. Then I learned why. In Germany, grave sites are leased, and re-used if no one is willing or available to renew the lease when it expires. I even saw a crew of men, with jackhammers, removing a tomb stone of a couple. He died in 1944, she in the 70’s. A view of history lost forever.
After two days in the city we’re ready for small towns, picnic lunches and quiet riverside pedaling. Onward to Lohr Am Main.