Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lake Constance or Bodensee*

The 210 km cycle route around Lake Constance is one of the most popular cycling routes in Germany. It is fairly easy to see why. The route is basically flat and consists in the main of dedicated cycle paths away from traffic. From the apple orchards of the northern shore you have superb views of the Alps to the south. There are hotels, guest houses, B&Bs galore. Many farms in Thurgau (Thurgovia) on the southern Swiss side of the lake and also just to the north in Germany offer families the chance to sleep in the straw. It is a lot less prickly than it sounds. All of the towns and villages around the lake offer good swimming and boating facilities. The food in restaurants is well cooked, comes in immense portions and at least in Germany is reasonably priced. If your pins give out on you there are lake steamers and trains to carry you on. If you fancy a bit of culture: Bregenz, at the eastern Austrian end of the lake has an annual festival between the middle of July and the end of August, the high point of which is opera on a floating stage just off the prom. At the other end of the lake the village of Stein am Rhein is a masterpiece of painted houses and mediaeval twiddly bits and the Rhine Falls in Schaffhausen are not that far away. Fans of engineering and good design should not miss the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen. You and your bike can take the cable car from Bregenz and then either do the Diretissimo back to Bregenz or wander off along quiet roads into and out of the Allgäu (Germany) before descending into Bregenz at breakneck speed.

Alteration: 29 June 2012: We have written a jolly little book about the cycle routes around the lake called “Mainly in High Gear - A cycling guide around Lake Constance” which is now only available as an e-book from Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/173312) and from your local Amazon website.

*I can never understand why the lake is called the Bodensee (Lower Lake or Bottom Lake) in German. I suppose one could argue that it is at the bottom of a map of Germany, but the Swiss use the same name and the lake is at the top of their country on a map. The other thought is that the lake is in a depression, but then all lakes are in depressions. Ah well, just accept it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Meetings and memories

Weeks of raw grey days, enlivened by short sharp thunderstorms finally gave way to temperatures in the comfort zone for cycling, around 15 °C. We took the chance for a short expedition, on the Bromptons, over the fields to Weinheim, a neighbouring small town, on the mainline railway, at the foot of the Odenwald hills. It’s a distance of about 8 km, mostly on tarmac. We approached Weinheim, as so often by bike, via the rather unappetising commercial zone, full of depots and truck parks, before reaching the residential bungalows with their struggling spring flowers and magnolias seemingly frozen in bud burst. We made for the station to buy the Saturday edition of one of the British ‘heavies’, a treasure to savour on our return. En route a car drove slowly past, with the window down. We expected perhaps, at best, a question about the bikes; at worst, abuse of the ‘get off and milk it’ variety; but no, it was my German teacher from the Viernheim night school whom I had last seen about 15 years earlier. We grinned, waved, said Hello and she was gone, leaving me amazed that heavily disguised by advancing age, sunglasses and helmet I was still recognisable. At the station we encountered a new interpretation of the Bromptons, 2 metres apart parallel in their parked positions: Tandems, I suppose, said a passerby?
Then we headed out of town roughly northwards, parallel to the Bergstrasse, an ancient routeway along the foot of the Odenwald hills, and the inspiration for our ‘mega’ publishing organisation. The Odenwald, a straight-edged line of hills were still mostly dark with leafless trees and occasional greener fields. On the plains we encountered two youngsters on unicycles, a recent special offer by one of the discount stores here. They were having a great time, riding fast off making circles and stepping off quickly from time to time. At a picnic bench, surrounded by apple orchards, still in bud a young family, small child in trailer, parents well wrapped in winter cycling togs, were having lunch. From their panniers they appeared to be touring, undeterred by the cool damp Spring. In front, over one of the bridges across a drainage channel, that slices in a straight line from the edge of the hills to the distant Rhine, there appeared a real tandem, that bore its riders away to the south. Above us wheeled hawks, hoping for mice on the channel banks and in the distance a couple of gliders circled lazily in the thermals after being catapulted aloft from the small airfield by Weinheim. Our route now turned into the forest that lies between Viernheim and Lorsch, an old monastic settlement to the north. Here it was, last year that we encountered a frightened riderless horse, clattering at speed along the field way. At that point we leapt from our bikes into the fenceless field without injuring ourselves. Shortly afterwards we encountered the limping horseman who had been thrown off shortly before. All parties being without mobile phones we could only report that the horse was heading back to the stables and assure ourselves that no real damage was done to anyone.
The forest, some 15 km long and 8 km wide with its myriad gravelled and unpaved tracks is a superb green lung for the people of Viernheim and the whole region. However, it was not always so. For the monks of Lorsch it was a hunting area, where dukes and kings also came for rest and recreation. Then anyone poaching game would have had an unpleasant end. For bona fide travellers using the ancient north/south track was not without its dangers as footpads and murderers sometimes lurked in the dark depths, as the memorial stone to BusMichael testifies. In more recent times large chunks of the woods were used by US forces as training areas and weapon storage in underground bunkers. Now these too have been reopened to the public and we cycled past the remains of giant fences, the wire in rusting rolls at intervals. Within these areas plants and animals have flourished largely undisturbed for 60 years, an unexpected plus point for military occupation. Viernheim is almost encircled by Autobahns, fortunately either in cuttings or bounded by soundwalls. Our route now took us over small bridges across two of these, through the Scots pines and the mix of oaks and beeches, glades of heathland interspersed in the area of ice-age sand dunes, which the forest covers. Just before reaching one of our landmarks, the Tank Road, a wide potholed route that follows the old railway line between Viernheim and Lampertheim we came across a group of youthful cyclists, clad in pinks and yellows and struggling a little to make headway over the chunky gravel. They seemed fairly cheerful, despite the occasional shriek as gravity almost prevailed and continued on their way, spurred by Mum, Dad or even Oma or Opa - here folks celebrate their 80th birthdays quite often on bikes! The Tank Road is very useful as a means of orientation for non-locals like ourselves since one tree or one crossroads in the forest looks much like any other! With 25 km ‘on the clock’ and lunch not taken we decided to take a few left turns to bring us home in good time. We reached the next landmark, the Kaefertal Waterworks after a brisk ride. Here another important act in Mannheim’s more recent history took place as US forces reached it in April 1945. By a stroke of fate the telephone was still connected with the civil powers in Mannheim. A German-speaking doctor with the US troops was able to negotiate a surrender without further bloodshed. On, over a small rise provided by a sand dune, encountering the usual mix of Nordic walkers, joggers, dog walkers and slow cyclists one finds near settlements, we pedalled the last kilometres home via the dog clubs, nests of pigeon fanciers and the like. After 30 km it was time to make tea, prepare a sandwich and settle down with the paper.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Viernheim her cyclists

Viernheim is basically flat and there is little ice and snow in winter, so it is a good place to cycle. The old town is criss-crossed by narrow streets and there is almost only on street parking. The newer suburbs have a blanket 30 kph speed limit. These features coupled with a number of cycleways means it is safe to cycle here. Both young and old cycle extensively. A bicycle is the quickest way of getting about within the town. Old people carry on cycling well past the age when in other parts of the world they would have hung up their bicycle clips. This does mean, however that there are many elderly cyclists about.
The standard Viernheim bike for the elderly is a ladies’ sit-up-and-beg model. Three speed gears are fairly common, though a goodly minority, normally the older bikes, have one speed only. Ninety-nine percent have a square wire basket on the rear carrier and a goodly number have a clip to carry a crutch or a walking stick. The bike owners have difficulty walking, but they have no trouble riding a bike. The wire basket is often used to carry a watering can. Grave gardening is a major big time sport in Viernheim and it is felt necessary to water every day in summer. (The soil is 99% river sand, so I am afraid that the majority of the water just runs straight through and ends up in the groundwater a couples of metre or so below the surface.)
The bikes are much used for shopping when the wire basket is loaded with two full carrier bags or with 12 litres of mineral water and two more carrier bags are hung on the handlebars. If it is raining then the sensible Viernheimer cycles with an umbrella up in the air and quite often with a dog on a lead attached to the other wrist. How one then controls a bike is a mystery to us. This could be the reason for the crutches, but also for a couple of idiosyncrasies that can often be seen on the streets of Viernheim, especially carried out by the female members of society. We call them the Viernheim Stop and the Viernheim Turn. The Viernheim Stop: The cyclists approach a problem zone and pedal ever slowly until they jump off the pedals and land with both feet on the floor straddling the bike. The Viernheim Turn: The cyclists perform a Viernheim Stop and then without looking round push their bikes left across the line of the oncoming traffic. Once in the position across the road they mount their bicycle again and cycle on. Somehow it would appear that elderly Viernheimers have only learned to cycle in a straight line.
Shortly after my wife arrived in Viernheim she was crossing the town centre pedestrian zone on foot when somebody behind her called out “Hello!”. As she knew very few people in Viernheim at the time, she assumed that the person behind her was calling to somebody else and carried on walking. She was amazed when she was almost run over by a lady cyclist. She remonstrated with the lady and asked why she had not used her bell. “…because it’s too aggressive”, came the reply. So Viernheim cyclists are prepared to run the risk of running someone over, rather than being thought aggressive.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Way of St James

Small German towns often have a vibrant cultural and social life. Our small town, Viernheim (under 30 000 inhabitants), has a night school and a Catholic Family Education Centre offering courses and lectures on wide range of topics. There are concerts in the winter in several of the churches. Obviously the walking and the ski clubs have a number of slide show cum lectures on popular and also unknown mountain areas. However something that never fails to amaze us are the activities of a local climbing, canoeing and camping shop: Christian’s Outdoor Center. Christian organises a series of lectures in winter which do not only cover the usual rambles in the Alps or cycling along disused railway lines in Canada, but such topics as humour in mountain climbing and exhibitions of historic books on the Alps. (BTW Contrary to popular British received wisdom, German can be a very funny language. We have dined out on several occasions on the story of the American proposal of marriage on Mount McKinley, that we heard one night in his shop.)
Last Thursday 6. April 2006 Christian organised a information fair on the Camino de Santiago or Way of St James, the main part of which runs from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Obviously the pilgrims in earlier times did not hop in car or on a train to get to the Pyrenees. They walked all the way. There are connecting routes across western Europe. Christian thus invited local people who have experience on these routes to set up a poster display. A number of them had walked and/or cycled from Viernheim or nearby to Santiago de Compostella, which is at least 3000 km.
One spoke of the spiritual aspects of the journey, starting with the decision what to pack. In her words the trip taught her its first lesson before she started, in deciding what was really necessary.
Another walker covered 25 km a day for 100 days from Heppenheim to Santiago via the Mediterranean coast, across the Basque country and then along the Atlantic coast.
Another followed the Silver Route from Seville to Santiago pulling a trolley with his belongings.
Another couple spent their holidays over several years walking part of the major route from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostella. As did the cyclist there who cycled and walked with his wife and friends all the way from Viernheim. We did discuss with him the cyclist’s problem with the Way of St James. What do you do with the bike after you have ridden to Santiago? The railways in the north of Spain will only accept bicycles if they are partially taken to bits and popped in a bag. Our fellow cyclist at the event said that they had put the bikes as they were on the trains and argued. The trouble is our Spanish is not that good. We could see three solutions:
Fly back and pay the extra for the bike.
Take a folder and there are then no problems on the trains.
There are long distance buses from Santiago de Compostella to the rest of Spain and presumably Hendaya/Hendaye that will take bicycles without having to unfold or disassemble them, but the buses need to be booked in advance.
There was also a Viernheimer who is organising a bus trip to the classic section of the Camino in late spring.
We also discovered, although we had actually come across this before, that there are two 130 km long Jakobswege (Ways of St. James) in Rheinland Pfalz west of Speyer. These strike us as good routes to follow with vineyards, hills, views across the Rhine Plain, decent wine and beer, hearty food and plenty of history from the Celts to present day technology. The Tourist Office in Speyer (touristinformation@stadtspeyer.de) can organise a week’s walking holiday (B&B plus a daily picnic) for around 300 € per person sharing a room.
We met an acquaintance who was due to set off for St Jean Pied de Port the next day to walk to Burgos and will be fighting her way through the rain at present. Personally we are not so taken with the Way of St James. It strikes us there are lots of routes much nearer to hand that offer one the chance to reflect on the meaning of life without having to use so much fossil fuel to have a philosophical moment.

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