Friday, September 25, 2009

Weathering summer storms: II Around the Bodensee

Our next round with St Peter and the weather gods was planned for mid-June to coincide with the visit of two friends, one from Scotland and the other from USA. Both were willing to experience the fabled Forsyth biking trip and as we set off towards Lake Constance the sun was shining and the forecast, changeable but not dire.
Day 1 Once aboard the train towards Radolfzell, the clouds began to gather and we soon noticed the first fat, glistening drops on the carriage windows. Our holiday spirits were not greatly dampened and we set off in a dry period from Radolfzell catching glimpses of the Gnadensee arm of Lake Constance to our right. Despite a picnic in the train our stomachs reacted to the early start and we stopped for a round of Pommes (chips or fries, according to nationality) at a wayside cafe. Fortunately the large umbrella shielded us from the worst of the heavy rainstorm, as one of the locals nearby managed to down three large Weizen beers over the next half hour. The black cloud remained stationary overhead, a phenomenon with which we were to become familiar over the next few days. Meteorologists explain that low pressure systems which often whistle rapidly through much of Germany get trapped against the rising Alps just south of the Lake and often linger and linger. However we got back on the bikes and pedalled the few remaining kilometres to our overnight resting place in Mindelsee, just uphill away from the Lake. Keeny, beany students of geology will recall the various Ice Age periods from oldest to youngest: Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Wurm. The glaciers scooped out the hollow for the Mindelsee (lake) and also produced the drumlins, rounded hillocks of clay and rocks of the local landscape. We stayed in a delightfully rustic Landgasthaus on the edge of a wildlife park. Brown bears, big birds of prey, totally trusting deer free to roam in a huge enclosure and a group of acrobatic goats, including a few ‘teenagers’ trying their chances with the chief billy goat, all made for an enjoyable wander through the park in a dry spell.
Day 2 We had heard downpours and thunder in the night but our bikes were dry in a nearby barn and we set off through the drumlins, up and down towards a sunlit Lake Constance. Along the Lake riding in shirts and shorts, we headed towards the city of Konstanz where a ‘frontierless Flea Market’ was in progress. Street music, 1000s of people pushing bikes or walking carrying treasures such as African masks, doll’s houses, baby clothes and that LP from the 50’s that they had always wanted. We could have sold all 4 bikes many times (2 Bromptons, 2 Dahons) but people shied away when value was discussed! We pressed on down to the lake and the Konzilgebäude (a historic warehouse), just in time to shelter from the first downpour of the day. We took coffee or hot chocolate, listening to jazz in a neighbouring beer garden until the rain slackened, then cycled out along the shore, past wonderful houses and gardens to the car ferry across to Meersburg, just visible in the murk ahead. Meersburg is a wealthy, picturesque little centre of wine growing, where the fine houses of the vintners perch in the upper town above the crowded lake shore shops and cafes. Tearing ourselves away and again in sunshine we cycled along towards Hagnau and a restaurant we remembered. Tischlein deck Dich (Little table set yourself) was still there, though bigger but we all enjoyed our lunches, outside under sunshades, against the strong sun. Then after a short steep climb through the vineyards we gently wandered along to our overnight stop in Friedrichshafen. Just on the edge of town we paused at the Schlosskirche, now fully restored after wartime destruction which the other party members hadn’t visited before. Before dinner we discovered that the lake promenade with its various memorials to Graf Zeppellin was in the grip of a gigantic Volksfest. There were dancers and food stalls not just from Europe but from America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent as well. Everyone was having a jolly time, trying out delicacies and goggling at the costumes. Outside the Zeppellin museum we took shelter from a rainstorm which had turned the whole western Lake pitch black. No night for a romantic cruise on the Bodensee! Back at the hotel (Gasthof Rebstock) the food was tasty and plentiful as usual and we all tucked in, washing it down with beer or wine as inclined. And so to bed..
Day 3 Hm, rain showers dogged us as we cycled into town on a back road discovered the evening before. Jackets on we set off on what should have been a lovely ride past all our favourite little resorts like Langenargen, Kressbronn and Wasserburg to Lindau, which really does deserve its reputation as a crown jewel. I lost count of how many times we stopped to shelter under the eaves of barns, huddled under immense trees (there was no thunder and lightning) or steamed gently under overhead heaters at lunch at a farm restaurant. All the locals assured us that it would be fine by the afternoon, tomorrow or sometime later. However we had seen the forecasts for the next few days.... The minor low pressure system the meteorologists were discussing as we left home had turned into a major problem, rotating slowly anticlockwise over the eastern Alps and causing flooding, transport interruptions and even deaths in parts of Austria and Switzerland. In addition snow was forecast in the mountains and temperatures for the next day would start in single figures Celsius. We were all grateful to reach our lodgings and pleased to find we had been allotted a small apartment, nicely modernised looking out over quiet courtyards. Despite the rain we rediscovered all Lindau’s delightful nooks and crannies before finishing the evening in a great restaurant: Alte Post, with tasteful decor and an excellent choice of food.
Day 4 It was pouring down relentlessly in the morning, skies dark grey without even a lightening where the sun should be so we put on a few extra layers and all available foul weather gear and set off to the quay. We saw absolutely no point in a 40 km slog in a cold downpour along the Lake into Bregenz and round to Arbon. We took the ship instead, occasionally venturing on deck but mostly keeping snug in the restaurant, thankful that the lake steamers take bikes as well as riders. After docking, the rain was just a heavy drizzle so we rode the 8 km into Arbon and had a hot lunch in a cafe, where various other cyclists were also taking refuge. Exhausted by our efforts, most of the party had a snooze in the afternoon in our ‘billet’, which we shared with a huge collection of teddies and fluffy animals. We had a bit of a wet trudge round the town in the evening but eventually found a local pub, with reasonable food though the waitress was so shy and softly spoken that communication was difficult. However one of us left ‘the bag’ with money, passport etc. behind, hanging on the chair back - the pub manager chased us up the road and round the corner to return it - before its loss was noticed. Panic over before it had begun and thank you honest citizens of Switzerland!
Day 5 The roads were still wet as we left Arbon but the weathermen, who had been absolutely correct up to now had promised improvement, no rain and even sunshine. As we bowled through the fields alongside the railway the cloud thinned more and more, layers of clothing were shed until the sun finally reappeared. Both the landscape and the party members began to smile once again, lunch could be taken outside and even an ice cream contemplated. Through Romanshorn and on to Kreuzlingen, opposite Konstanz on the Swiss side of the Lake then across the intensively farmed delta flats to the hills above Ermatingen. It was worth the almost vertical climb up to the country house once occupied by Napoleon III to view the furnishings and fittings, sturdy wooden cabinets used by Napoleon I in his Egyptian campaign and other trappings of a bygone age. What was even more interesting to most of us was the discovery that the entire family, over several generations had been dedicated garden designers, plantsmen and -women leaving superb gardens in Europe and America to posterity. Later we took the train along the Untersee and Hoch Rhein to Diesenhofen and then cycled on to our B&B in Gailingen, just across the border. This little town is almost an enclave of Germany more or less surrounded by Switzerland, with the advantage to us of being in Euroland where accommodation prices are reasonable. Our rooms were delightful, looking onto the garden with distant views of Switzerland and the hills in Thürgau. Most of us had pushed our laden bikes up the steep hill from the town. We had a jolly evening meal down the hill, sharing our table with a young man recovering slowly from a stroke. His mother and several other young supporters were visiting, having travelled hours by car. We were very impressed by the whole group and the effort they were determined to make. A special clinic in Gailingen offers hope and continuing research into treatment of stroke, especially in young people.
Day 6 Wall to wall sunshine on our final day of cycling. A beautiful long gentle downhill section into Büsingen, another anomalous German enclave. It has a curious history involving murder, kidnapping and goodness knows what else, with two postcodes one Swiss and one German, where the inhabitants pay German income tax and Swiss purchase tax, where two telephone boxes, one Swisscom, one Deutsche Telekom stand side by side in the main street and which for many years had different time to the rest of Germany. Along the silent, fast flowing dark green Rhine into busy Schaffhausen, where the bridges are bedecked with geraniums and downstream to the Rhine Falls. All that rain had done its job, the Falls were as loud and spectacular as one could hope for. On the north bank of the river you can get close to the Falls for free, whereas on the south bank the view is blocked by an hotel and access only by an expensive series of steps and platforms. These were closed and being rebuilt in summer 2009. We retraced our way to Schaffhausen and then took the south bank through small villages and fields, with a little climbing here and there to a bridge just downstream of Stein-am-Rhein, one of the prettiest towns we know. On the long descent into the town one of the party was suddenly attacked by insects, causing her to leap from her bike and roll over in a convenient meadow. Fortunately inspection in a nearby ‘restroom’ did reveal a few bites which were quickly treated and the incident forgotten. After marvelling at the painted houses depicting local history and people, it was finally time for those ice creams, sitting in the sun whilst the cold, wet days slipped away. We met the young man and his friends again that evening, enjoying hearing their banter and wishing them all the best in what will be undoubtedly a long uphill struggle.
Day 7 Back to Mannheim by train and a pleasant cycle ride home, another tour through summer storms completed without great problems, returning to a sunlit house and garden.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wet legs?

We have written in the past about the inability of cyclists to agree jointly on any topic even for the greater good of the cycling community. For example one good way of causing a riot such that the Justices of the Peace need to called out, is to mention the topic of cycle helmets at any British or German cycle club meeting. One is thus loath to criticise any other group in the cycling community, but there are times when one needs to roll one's eyes in the direction of the heavens and stifle some mild oath. We recently received a copy of the "American Bicyclist" the League of American Bicyclists' bimonthly magazine and I was struck by number of bicycles pictured without mudguards or fenders as our US friends call them. We also read the literature put out by Ground Effect, a New Zealand manufacturer of clothes for the mountain biking community - excellent reasonably priced gear and a very amusing website/newsletter. (We have bought the odd item from Ground Effect.) It is seen in some circles as "dorky" to cycle with mudguards. Dorky, I gather, is a major insult. Just in case I may have given the wrong impression Ground Effect itself does not have any opinions one way or the other about dorky-ness of cycling accessoires. Some of their reviewers are given to these opinions. A lot of folks would rather have wet and muddy legs and the black stripe up the back than run the risk of looking sensible. Very odd! As my dear mother-in-law used to say of fashionable but uncomfortable garments "Pride is painful".
If you wish to go out and use the bike as an outdoor fitness machine on sunny days it is fine to cycle without any protection, however if you are going to commute and not just to the pub, then protective fittings are a big advantage. It is noticeable that in the two countries where people cycle extensively as a means of transport: The Netherlands and Denmark people cycle on bicycles with mudguards in normal clothing and with stands so that one can leave the bicycle standing up without having to find a convenient wall to prop the bike up. I know the lads in the Tour de France don't have mudguards or stands, but these guys are being paid to get wet through and have a team of mechanics to hold their bikes.
Rant over, just don't get me started on rucksack wearing on touring bicycles.

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