GERMANY, 31st March – 6th April 2017
From Belgium we briefly passed through the southern corner of Holland as we were heading east for Cologne in Germany. Here we wanted to catch the Rhine river and follow it south all the way down to Basel in Switzerland. This route was not the straightest way south east, but it was flat and because of our recent knee issues we wanted to give ourselves a gentle beginning of the trip instead of battling through the Ardennes in Belgium and Luxembourg. Chris had cycled the Rhine several times, but for me it was the first time I even realised that this important and historical waterway flowing through the central part of Europe existed, and I was very keen to see it and experience the journey along it.
The ride through Germany to the Rhine at Cologne felt long but luckily we could follow another river, the Ruhr, some of the way which gave us lovely natural surroundings and as the weather was still absolutely amazing we even went for the first refreshing swim of the year and the trip. When we had to leave the river and cycle across the farmland we found some entertainment and fascination getting up close to a wind turbine and lying down to look up at the enormous blades that effortless circled around with a repetitively, powerful “WHUSH” high above our heads.
But the most exciting moment was when Chris saw Batman walk in front of him on a small gravel road. I know, it is not what you would expect to happen, but with Chris’s fantasy anything is possible – or at least any daydream to spice up a day of monotonous cycling. And who would have known that a black horse actually could look that much like Batman?
Late in the afternoon Cologne finally grew from suburbs and parks to wide green alleys full of shops and busy cafes with train tracks occasionally crossing over our heads on old, steel constructions as we cycled towards the heart of the city. I recognised the relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere I had experienced and loved at previous visits to Berlin and was glad to find that it was more of a general German thing. We went through a big park that was full of young students sitting in groups drinking beers, having barbeques and playing games and we both immediately fell into memories of our own student days and the bliss and rush of joy of the first sunny Friday where, accompanied by some alcohol and your friends, you for a moment could escape the serious schedule of lectures and exams and just enjoy life. Really, those moments were somehow what studying was all about, and because we knew that, we felt like we could easily jump right back into that moment that these people now enjoyed. But then we looked at ourselves and realised we were not like those people anymore. We didn’t have studies to escape from, we didn’t know where to go and buy our six pack, we didn’t have a group of friends to sit with and we could no longer feel the difference between a Monday and a Friday. Instead we had to keep cycling to find a place to camp that night.
So we continued on and arrived in front of the old cathedral that rose up so high that it felt unreal. I couldn’t understand how humans had ever been able to create a whole so big and so detailed – and even harder to understand that it was done in the time before computer programmes to design it and cranes to lift up the materials. It was mind blowing and I could understand why a faith in God and such supernatural powers was enhanced by a building like this.
Behind the cathedral another impressive sight awaited me as I for the first time saw the Rhine and the lively activity that evolved on and around it. Long, heavy boats went in both directions transporting containers, sand and other materials and the Dutch, German and Belgium flags on them indicated the long journeys they undertook. The banks were lively with people out for a stroll, a bike ride or just hanging out on the long promenade. Several bridges spanned the wide river and the characteristic L-shaped crane buildings (the best thing about Cologne, if you ask me) leaned out over our heads. It was great mixture of industry, history, culture and everyday life and I already liked the Rhine a lot. A river seems to give a fresh breath of air to a landscape and a city. It cuts them open and forces on them a wide, empty space with room for your thoughts as well as a flowing connection to that which is out of sight. This particular river would now lead us to all that which was still out of sight for the next several hundred kilometres down through Europe.
The next morning we arrived in Bonn where we had a date with Vivek, a friend of Chris from their university days. I never had any idea what Bonn would be like, and I was pleasantly surprised as we cycled into the centre and I again felt the same relaxed atmosphere as in Cologne. As we sat on one of the central squares and waited for Vivek a woman approached us. Her name was Monika, and she just had to let us know that we had come to Bonn on a very special day. Only a few days of the year the Japanese cherry trees in Heerstrasse and Breitestrasse were in bloom, and to our greatest luck they had just sprung out yesterday. Usually there would be a whole festival made out of this event, tourist buses would come and the crowds would flood the narrow streets, and in Monika’s opinion ruin the beauty of the whole thing for the sake of making money. But this year the locals had protested and there would be no festival, and Monika could now cycle peacefully through the pink streets on a little detour to and from work for a couple of days. She was an enthusiastic, talkative and cheerful woman, she seemed so happy to be living where she did and she told us about numerous things to see both in Bonn and along the Rhine.
I was afraid that I was not paying as much attention to Monika as Dea was, and I hoped that I did not seem rude as I looked all around the large square for my old friend Vivek who was due to arrive at any moment. It was just as Monika wished us well and walked way that Vivek appeared, right on cue, and he came brandishing gifts. As a resident of Leuven (near Brussels) he had driven a long way to meet with us, and he’d brought with him a pack of genuine Belgian waffles to gift to us. It was a fitting reminder of the waffle-hunt I’d undertaken during my earlier visit to Belgium in 2013, and therefore also a testament to the committed way in which Vivek has followed the online story of my travels over the years. In fact he is pretty much the only old university friend of mine who has followed my blogs, which is surprising because to be completely honest we weren’t exactly friends. In fact Vivek was a little older than me, and he was the warden for my block of student halls during the first year of my studies, a year that involved one hell of a lot more alcohol and silly pranks than it did studying, I can tell you! I fear I may have been something of a ringleader in all of this, and Vivek had been the man with the unfortunate task of keeping us all in line.
“Good to see you again, Chris,” Vivek said with a smile. “How long has it been, ten years I think? Last time I saw you was when you were on another madcap adventure.”
Indeed I was. A year after somehow graduating university, on my first hitch-hiking trip abroad, I’d stopped by Brussels and stayed with Vivek, where he’d recently taken on work. He took me out to dinner that time and I repayed him by breaking his shower, as I recall.
“You must let me buy you a coffee or an ice-cream,” he now said as we stood reunited in Bonn. I thought maybe I was the one who owed him something, what with the broken shower, and that time when I turned all the notices on the notice board upside down (it seemed funny at the time), and that time when I orchestrated the stealing of all of second-floor kitchen’s furniture, but then Vivek added, “consider it in return for all the hours of entertainment from your blog,” and I thought it a fair deal.
Following Monika’s advice we all walked together to Heerstrasse and there, as promised, was a little street lined with beautiful pink cherry trees in full bloom. They arched over the street all the way along and it was ever so lovely. By luck we found a seat outside of a cafe and sat down. On the menu there was cherry tea and sweet cherry tea and cherry juice and cherry smoothies. I saw what they were doing here but how long did Monika say these trees were in bloom for? A few days of the year? A questionable business model. We ordered some drinks and we got down to reminiscing about old times.
“Vivek was the warden for my halls in the first year of university,” I explained to Dea, “And me and my friends weren’t always the best behaved.”
“Oh, you weren’t that much trouble, really,” he said.
“Vivek, I set fire to the kitchen!”
There had been talk of Vivek bringing his bike and cycling for a while along the Rhine with us, but his bike had apparently not been in working condition and he’d left it at home. I wasn’t going to let him off that easily, though, not after he’d driven all this way to be part of our trip, and I suggested he rent a bike from somewhere. To my delight he agreed, and went off to get one from a rental place near the train station. So it was the three of us that cycled off together along the first stretch of the ‘Romantic Rhine’ (nothing could be more romantic, in my opinion, than having your old university warden riding between you). He was dressed in smart shoes and trousers, but he was of course more than capable of keeping up with us, at least for ten kilometres or so. Along the way we talked more, about serious things like relationships and families, and about other things, like his fitbit.
“It’s quite good,” he said, pointing at his wrist. “It can even tell what you’re doing. It knows if you are running or cycling or whatever, so at the end it will say ‘you’ve been running for half an hour’”
“That’s useful. Does it ever get it wrong sometimes?”
“Yes. It does. Actually, it seems to think I’m mowing the lawn at the moment.”
I wasn’t about to invest in a fitbit myself, I didn’t need a watch to tell me I’d been mowing the lawn for the past seven years. We took a break together on a bench and then Vivek turned to cycle back and begin his journey home as we resumed ours south. It had been great to meet and catch up again, and I considered the whole thing to have been a resounding success, if only because I’d managed to avoid breaking any of his possessions this time.
Dea and I continued south beside the big river and soon came to an area with a beach volleyball court and football goals, which allowed us to get down to some serious gaming. The volleyball match was an epic, played on a court of real sand that allowed for some intense diving on my part. But my theatrics weren’t enough, and Dea won 9-11, 13-11, 11-9. We moved on to the football, where I was destined to have my revenge in a penalty shootout. The goals were full size, real big full size football goals. “The goals are too big!” Dea said, then put two of her kicks wide.
The Rhine was a wonderful place to cycle, with a flat path to guide us through increasingly hilly and beautiful terrain. There were no places for camping, however, and to find somewhere we rode up into the hills at the end of the day. After a long climb we miraculously found a huge flat forest on the hilltop that was perfect for camping. As we sat outside and ate dinner we spotted two wild boar, who came over pretty close to investigate us before scampering away into the darkness.
Chris was right, cycling along the Rhine was pure pleasure and these were happy days in the sunshine of the early spring that grew warmer and warmer, with easy cycling on the flat well marked cycle routes and stunning scenery. It was that perfect.
It was also a good place to play the Spotting Things Game as there were many new and different things to see on the river like ‘Car on boat’ and ‘Single person kayak’ and on the popular bike paths like ‘Child in bike trailer’. As we passed Koblenz I had a good lead on Chris and was quite confident that I would win that day. My confidence grew when I spotted the ‘Tandem’ I needed far away on the other side of the river and we both agreed that it was a great spot. Chris seemed to have lost a little of his usual never-dying motivation, but not for long. The ‘Vineyards’ he remembered from his previous trips along this stretch of the river finally appeared drawing lines and patterns on the hillsides and soon after he spotted a big cat staring out of the window from a car right in front of us. ‘Cat’ was the Bonus Swap Spot, so even though it didn’t give him a point, he swapped his ‘Argo boat’, a ship we had been following in the morning before the game had begun, but had not seen since as it went ahead of us, for my ‘Someone walking a dog on a bike’ which was much more likely to see. He thus made it impossible for me to get more than nine points and I also still had to be very lucky to spot a ‘Recumbent’, whereas he now just needed to spot an ‘Empty beer bottle’ to make it a draw at eight-eight. I began to get nervous.
Although half of my mind was apprehensive of the development of the game I was still able to appreciate the amazing scenery we went through. The hills rose on both sides of the wide waters of the river that with a lazy and yet powerful winding movement cut through the hills. It was laying there like a fat, diva snake soaking up and reflecting the glistening sunshine. The hillsides were covered in forest with a light green tone of the new leaves coming in bloom occasionally dotted with white like greying hair from the flowers of the fruit trees. Up on the hilltops one spectacular, old castle after another would appear and we stopped again and again and again to take it into our minds and cameras.
As the sun sank under the hilltops on our right side we arrived in Boppard, the town we had decided upon for finding a place to camp. Again there were nowhere flat down by the river so we climbed up and out of the town. As we stood on a parking area next to a small natural area that we thought would do for the night a fast sports car drove up to us. A tanned, sporty, good looking couple with bright white smiles came out and over to us, asking where we were going. They were excited about our story and gave us directions to a place up on the hill top where we could camp where no one would care. Then Hardy, the man, exclaimed: “You go there, put up your tent and wait for me, and I will give you an invitation for pizza!”. It was a command, an order we could not object to, especially not after Martina explained that what he meant was that he would bring us pizza up at the camp site.
We went up there, and it was a wonderful spot amongst more blossoming orchards and with views over the Rhine, the hills and castles on the other side and the lights of the town Boppard below us. There was also a fire place that had been used before, not only for camp fires but also, of course, for drinking beers and on the ground was left, yes you already guessed it, an empty beer bottle, that one thing Chris needed to spot to make a draw in our game. I threw myself on the ground in frustration as he with a cautious, but cheeky smile pointed at that crucial item on the ground. Oh, I had been so, so, so close to winning, I had been so confident and it had felt so great, especially because Chris was having a lead on me in the total scores of the trip. And then within a second it was all lost (although Chris said something silly thing about a draw also being a kind of victory), and it was not the first time something like this had happened. I whined about it, feeling things being so unfair, until I could hear what a sour loser I sounded like and then instead I tried to pretend I had just been joking.
Although we could not hide the tent anywhere we decided to put it up in the dusk and then we sat on a wooden fence and looked down at the lights of Boppard and the Rhine as the sky turned from pink to purple to dark blue and black waiting for our pizza delivery. On the opposite hilltop we could see two castles and Hardy and Martina had told us that they were called The Enemy Brothers, because two brothers had come into a fight over a woman and had positioned themselves in each their castle. Or something like that. From Monika in Bonn, we had also heard the story about the cliffs of Lorely further up the river. Here a young woman had drowned herself because she could not be with the man she loved and since then several boats had crashed at this point as the sailors were distracted by her ghostly singing. Or something like that. The details of these stories were not clearly logical, but the point of the stories was. Love is a powerful force that entails both that euphoric, other worldly happiness, but also a destructive, dark madness. And most of all, love is at the core of the stories about our lives and the stories that stands long after the lives they tell about. This part of the river was called the Romantic Rhine and as I leaned into Chris’s embrace and let my face rest upon his so our cheeks gently touched and I felt his breath on my skin he whispered “This is pretty romantic isn’t it?” And it was. Although I think the name may also refer to the romantic period in modern literature and arts where artists were highly inspired by the myths, history and nature of the place.
When the lights of Hardy’s sports car cut through the dark it did not spoil the special evening, but enhanced it with his spontaneity, care and passionate behaviour. He had brought three very tasty pizzas and some drinks and over the meal he told us about how he loved to meet and help people like us, how he was about to retire from his career in the military (which explained his firm, and almost commanding way of arranging our dinner as well as his bad hearing) to begin following his dreams about travelling and how he and Martina were long distance runners, a discipline undertaken mostly by people with “fire in their eyes” as he said. Surely Hardy had a warm and energetic fire burning in him and Chris and I positioned ourselves as listeners appreciating the insight into yet another lively spirit we were given. He lit up the evening, also with a very, very bright torch he brought and gave to us as a present, and when he said goodbye and good luck, went back to his car and drove off we stood back in the quiet darkness and asked each other “Did that really just happen?”
We got up early the next morning to take the tent down before people began to come out for their morning walks on the hill. It was another beautiful day and we watched the sunrise over the hills behind the Enemy Brother Castles before we threw ourselves and our bikes down the steep hill and were back on the river banks. We cycled merrily on, racing the boats on the river and when a sandy beach appeared on the bank we stopped for a refreshing dip in the cold waters and Chris recreated the view of the opposite bank in a picturesque sand sculpture. The ride along the Rhine had become one of those bubbles of happiness life occasionally embrace you in. It feels amazing and you know it cannot last forever.
In Bingen the wifi threw us back into real life and at the same time the fairy-tale scenery abruptly flattened out and we now found ourselves cycling behind green, endless dikes that hid the river from our vision. Although there was no motorized traffic along the dikes, just lots of grass and trees and a few other cyclists, it soon became not just boring but also disorientating as I easily lost sense of time and place and the days turned into an intangible blur. The monotonous ride was only disrupted by riding through river towns like Mainz and Worms that with their large industrial suburbs didn’t give as charming an impression as the towns further down the river.
The landscape along the Rhine was now flat, but in the horizon hills were rising and I began to long for the challenge of the Alps that were awaiting ahead.
Cologne – Bonn – Boppard – Koblenz
691 kilometres cycled
Click below for more photos in the Flickr album #10: Riding by the Rhine