We thoroughly enjoyed our day of rest in Cologne, and it was with some trepidation that we signed up to an 8-day Rhine traverse (out of necessity) towards Munich. Originally this part of the journey was going to take 12 days, but when revisiting our itinerary we realised that we would never make it to Vienna (our only hard and fast rendezvous in Europe) and have enough time to indulge in the beer halls of Munich and sing our lungs out on a Sound of Music tour in Salzburg. So the 8-day plan was hatched, and consisted of 100, 80, 100, 100, 100, 100, 80, and 80 Km days. This totally destroyed the mythical hope that we had of starting off on 60Km days, progressing to 80, and then getting comfortable with 100km days.
The Rhine cycle path is brilliant and could not be more picturesque (except for the parts that are not at all picturesque). To our left the river flowed at an alarming rate, almost as if it were in flood. This continuous torrent of water carried an enormous amount of river traffic, which was either ploughing headlong in to the torrent and making tough work of it, or gliding past elegantly. To our right trains thundered past (thankfully not too often) carrying goods of all imaginable types, from all imaginable parts of the globe. Beyond the train tracks the valley presents itself in a number of guises; the most impressive is without a doubt the steep, sheer rock faces that plummet from a great height to the valley floor, usually adorned with some magnificent castle. There are also countless vineyards (which are presumably presided over, and owned by the family supping their wine from the castle terraces), less steep hills, picture postcard towns and the none too salubrious power stations and chemical plants (but I am trying my best to forget them). This wonderful way of life continued on for two very pleasant days, until we reached the outskirts of Mainz.
The next three days were interesting and provided us with the first real insight into some of the challenges we will face cycle touring.
On approaching Mainz we noticed a campsite that had the same name (but was clearly not in the same suburb) as the one that we intended to stay at; the time was 14:30 and too early for us to stop for the day. When we finally made it into the centre of Mainz the time had ticked by to 16:30 and we were left with the unenviable dilemma of trying to determine which way to go. This was made ever more difficult due to the city council thinking it was a great idea to erect three signs all pointing to the suburb we wanted to go to… in completely different directions. By this time we had no real choice but to make a choice and hope for the best. Hoping for the best lasted less than 5 minutes as we were directed in another altogether different direction due to a typically frustrating diversion. Knowing we had made the wrong choice we asked a kind girl who pointed us in the correct direction of the suburb, and we were off. When we got to the suburb where the campsite was meant to be it was nowhere to be seen. That is when a nice man told us that there was no campsite; the campsite was back where we were four hours previously. Worst of all we had cycled about 20km in the wrong direction, it was now 18:30. This is when we decided to suck it up and try our hand at free camping. A quick supermarket stop followed and we were on our way to Neider-Olm, which on the map looked like it was sufficiently out in the middle of nowhere. On arrival it was determined quickly that it was not in the middle of nowhere, and subsequently there was nowhere to easily free camp; so we cracked on, in the rough direction of the Rhine. This decision led us to without a doubt the world’s steepest road, if it was any steeper it would have been at 90% gradient. After the best part of 20 minutes stubborn toil we made it to the top, only to be greeted with another hill, vineyards that were clearly out of bounds for camping because of all the tractors racing around, and a very fine view of Frankfurt; Frankfurt FFS, we were well and truly off of the Rhine path now. We could not believe it. It was now 20:00. We trundled on with ever more apprehension and identified a number of unsuitable places to camp, first a fly tipping area, second a supposedly disused train track, and third a broken fence leading to a sewage plant. If this was not bad enough the final straw in the mocking came with the sight of a Delorean parked up… if only there was some way to crank it up to 88 miles/hour we could have jumped back to 14:30 and been living the dream. Thankfully a hotel presented itself at an obviously extortionate cost, which we gladly paid and went to bed to fight another day.
Surprisingly, the previous day’s assault on our muscles and mental state had not left us badly damaged and the full Turkish breakfast that Nuri prepared enabled us to believe that we could certainly face the new day. It also helped that the sun was out baking the tarmac for us. As we pedalled off, waving madly at our newfound friends the day took a particularly nasty turn. I now believe that the weather has a mind of its own and if cycle tourists, particularly cycle tourists freshly full of themselves are showing too much joy and happiness it is time to throw some bad weather their way. So it rained, and it poured, and when it was sick of that it rained some more. Don’t get me wrong, we know it is going to be tough, but this was ridiculous. As per usual, Katie and I had put off buying some important gear and were thus left floundering around in our “waterproof” shorts, socks, and shoes. To be fair my shoes had been sporting an almighty hole in them since being trodden on by a prop forward at Rugby training a couple of years back; suffice to say at the end of the day we were not at our best.
As we approached Pforzheim the following day the rain had abated to some extent and we were back to the bravado of “she’ll be right, we can camp in the wild tonight”… the problem here lay in the fact we had no food, limited water (ironic really), and had decided not to stop at what turned out to be the last supermarket, as there is “always another supermarket in Germany”. As we plodded on into the thick, forest covered hills around Wurm we were starting to realise our errors in planning and judgement, which were highlighted even more when we passed a pub advertising pizza and pasta (we looked in and it was warm, cosy and people were being served huge platefuls of food). Stopping in the town of Wurm we asked a few locals if there were any supermarkets, or campsites; the answer was no (in the no uncertain terms sort of way that makes you feel like a complete idiot). Our second night of trying to brave the wild elements was not turning out as planned and the only thing we could think of was the pizza and pasta. It was then that Katie remembered something that she had read on another blog… “we just went and asked the local pub if we could camp in their back garden”, and so this is exactly what I did; and to say it was a success is a complete understatement. The landlord and his team of tireless workers could not have been more helpful. Alex (who speaks about 1000 languages) was the lead hand in getting the deal done, and his trusty sidekick Gabriala made us feel right at home. Beer flowed, pizza was consumed with gay abandon the like the world had never seen, and when it was time for bed we were pointed in the direction of the garden where we had erected our beloved tent (prior to consuming the beer). The next morning it was not surprising to either of us that it was raining heavily, what did surprise us was that in the night at some point Gabriella had kindly left out a flask of hot tea for us and a very kind note. Again, as so often happens, the genuine kindness of people who start out as strangers and end as friends is quite remarkable, and to think we were worried about sleeping in the wild…
Having left Wurm in the ever-present inclement weather we had a very pleasant cycle through an absolutely fantastic gorge, despite the rain. Due to the weather there was a lot of mist hovering in the temperate rainforest like trees and it gave it an air of something out of a Tolkien tome. Like I said, an absolutely fantastic location.
At some point during the day, with the last few experiences under the proverbial belt we decided that tonight was the night that we brave the proper outdoors. Given the large swathes of forest that covered the 1:1,000,000 scale map we have it seemed like a no brainer, and it would have been a no brainer had we been on the correct road and not arrived at our location three hours too early for pitching under the cover of darkness. What ensued was nothing short of absurd.
First, being on the wrong road is hardly surprising given the accuracy of our map, the fact we did not recognise this is also hardly surprising. There were trees, and lots of them… they just happened to be of the farmed apple tree variety. Second, arriving three hours too early and trying to look inconspicuous whilst travelling by bicycle is impossible. Fact! We tried to kill the time by cooking our dinner next to a picnic table, big mistake. This draws a crowd of curious onlookers like nothing else; they were certainly not passing by, or at least if they were they were doing it 4 or 5 times to make sure they got a good look at these aliens who could not speak the mother tongue. Once the cooking and cleaning and packing away had finished it was just the two of us, or at least that is what we thought. We got on our bikes (still 1.5 hours too early to be arriving) and cycled around some back roads to look for suitably dark, veiled locations. What we found was that locals in this part of the world like nothing more on a Friday evening than walking aimlessly around (if they are not driving a tractor) inspecting their apple trees and occasionally firing rounds out of shot guns (we are not too sure what they were shooting at). This alarmed us no end.
Finally we went back to the main road deflated and decided it was time to cycle on until something presented itself. Within minutes we had madly scooted off the road and made ourselves hidden behind a huge pile of firewood near the edge of a large grove of apple trees. And there we stayed, perfectly silent, sitting in the damp, long grass, not daring to move, and barely breathing. We had done it; we had found a location. We sat for well over an hour, in which time we saw absolutely no one, certainly no crazy locals with their shotguns to frighten us off. What we did see though was fantastic. In the complete silence of the evening a deer appeared no less than 15 metres from where we were to graze on the grass in the peace and quiet. It was at that point we decided we were probably safe to start setting up the tent. To our surprise, putting up the tent in the dark was not as bad as we thought, and neither was the free night we spent under the protection of a pile of wood and an apple tree. As you can imagine though, at 05:30 we were up and gone, leaving nothing but the imprint of our ever-trusty tent.
We are already looking back on those few days with great fondness, and having survived Munich and all its trappings we are now resting up in Salzburg before pushing on to Vienna and the one promised rendezvous.