I book car transfer to Budapest Airport. I elect to get to the airport many hours (5) before boarding time. Yes, I’m nervous about this. I get into the correct terminal, but cannot find the Aeroflot ticket counter.
I learn that Aeroflot does not open a ticket counter until two hours before the flight. So, I have to babysit my bike for a few hours. I find a comfortable spot and hang out with Allen from Ghana, Africa. He has many hours wait for his flight to Madrid. We get to know each other. He is currently living in Ecuador.
Trapped in Moscow
So, here I sit in Moscow airport. Trapped there by my own lack of planning. As it turns out, there is no problem to change planes in Moscow. Without the required transit visa, it is not possible to leave the secured area of the airport.
I did make a trip to the Russian Embassy in Budapest to try to secure this visa. It turns out the application must be filed from the Russian Embassy in my home country. So serious advance planning is required to visit Russia.
The closest I get is to watch the planes come and go through the window within the airport. I do get to observe Russians at work. They behave in a rather stone faced way when hit with something outside their duties.
For instance, as I was getting off the plane, I was interested in getting the help of a flight attendant. I had a few postcards with Hungarian stamps that should have been mailed before I left Hungary. I figure the attendants will be back in Hungary in a day or so, maybe I could get them to do me a favor and mail them for me. I waited to be one of the last to leave the plane. I explained my proposition to a flight attendant. She replied that she was married. Um? Married? OK, so I figure she just misinterpreted my request. I pulled out the cards and showed them to her. Harmless postcards to my family and friends? She eventually agreed to mail them for me. It will be interesting to see if that actually occurs.
I come across another passenger from California, Mayma who just got off the same flight. She has the same problem as I, no transit visa with many hours before her next flight. She was pretty sure it was possible to get a transit visa in the airport if you can just get to the right people. She had found something on a website to support her position.
We worked together on this. Asking lots of people along the way to customs. So to be fair, it was about midnight Moscow time, we did not speak Russian. Many times we asked folks questions they could not answer. In most places this would invoke a shrug with a statement that begins, “I would like to help you but I really don’t know…”. In Moscow the more typical response is a stone faced stare as if the fact that a question had been asked was not acknowledged.
Mayma and I were undaunted by this. We were at times backing up through a checkpoint so that we could search for more useful people. On our third pass through the checkpoint, we actually got the staff to laugh at us. So, it is possible to get Russians out of the stone face mode. Laughing at Americans is good bait.
We joke about our predicament. When they make the movie about this, there will of course be a car chase, then we get arrested and falsely claim to be friends of Putin. There’s a narrow escape and a spectacular get away. Yeah that’s how James Bond would spend a day in Moscow.
Eventually we conclude that there is no way out of this airport. Not at this time of night anyway. Mayma cancels her hotel reservation in Red Square. We find that the airport restaurants are no longer serving food, though we can still get a beer and do so.
The one hotel in this part of the airport has no vacancy. They point out that there are rooms in the other (inaccessible) part. There are capsules, like little pods available for sleeping at about $10/hr. There’s no way Mayma is going for that. Something about not changing linens and ick factor. Things are not looking good for us. As we drink our beer, Mayma announces dibs on the restaurant couch. It has a pillow! I think she’s joking, but we really don’t have many options.
As we slowly finish our beers we share our life stories. Mayma has done many impressive things in her life. She at one time started and maintained a thriving stationery business in New York, back when people actually sent paper invitations. She has had multiple blogs and knows how to make them get favorably recognized by search engines. She is now a team leader at Facebook. They had to court her twice before she finally gave in and took the job.
Without knowing what to do, we go back to the only hotel and ask if there is any vacancy. Amazingly the answer is yes. There are two rooms available, where only 90 minutes earlier there was nothing. A new hour is like a new day here. We go to our rooms. I get a good night sleep. It’s not cheap, but worth it.
Cutting Room Floor
Here is a bunch of stuff that I find worth documenting, but may be a little esoteric.
Moscow airport cost of living is like San Francisco, but without the really good beer. Tim, your not in Eastern Europe anymore.
Crows in Eastern Europe and also in Moscow are two toned. They have black wings but grey bodies. I have not seen any all black crows since before Vienna.
Crossing the border from Austria to Slovakia is exciting for a few reasons. I don’t have any experience with the language. I have never been in this country. All the signs are meaningless except for the pictures and numbers. I begin to understand what it is like to be illiterate.
The good news is that the cost of living (and traveling) is far less in Slovakia and Hungary. Also, I find ways of communicating beyond my own language skills.
Leaving the Palace Hostel Schlossherberge, I meet Zora. He is originally from Georgia. He speaks Russian, and German, probably English as well, though we speak in German. He asks many questions about my bike. I enjoy explaining the many advantages. He is originally from Georgia. I assume he is not talking about the state north of Florida.
My plan for the day is to make it across the border into Slovakia. Schloß Herberge is up in the hills behind Vienna. So I will have a good downhill run to the river, and then a tailwind for a good part of the 95km trip to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia.
It is a cool morning start, 6 degC (43 degF). I wear three layers for the decent to the river. I peel one off when I get warmed up and running along the river.
Out in the country beyond Vienna, I meet a cyclist, Mike. We make our introductions in German but quickly switch to English. Mike works for Deloitte in Vienna. He speaks English with almost no accent. I learn that Mike has just this year learned to ride a bike. He is on a day trip from Vienna to Hainburg Austria. A distance of about 50km. It is the longest bike ride he has ever done. We stop for lunch at a castle in the countryside. Mike bought lunch for us both.
Mike has a high level position at Deloitte. He also has a lot of experience in digital security. He has some good stories of demonstrating weaknesses in a system, by simply breaking into them. I think the dark glasses fit his profession.
We meet up with two cyclists from San Francisco, Erin and Brian. We group into a peloton of four riders for the last ten kilometers into Hainburg, Austria. There we say goodbyes to Mike. He will catch a train back to Vienna. The three San Franciscans continue on toward Slovakia.
Erin and Brian are on their first day of a journey from Vienna to Budapest. They have lined up a package deal with a tour group and have their hotels planned out. Their baggage is transported by truck.
As we get close to Bratislava, we split up. Erin and Brian have prearranged hotel accommodations. I check Booking.com to see what is available. I am surprised to find the hotels are significantly less expensive here. I find a place close to the river in the middle of town for less than fifty euros. Nice deal! The place is called Botel Pressburg. Odd name, I think. But OK, I don’t really know the local language at all here.
I follow the GPS coordinates to find the hotel. It takes me to a ship docked semi permanently there. The sign on the ship says Botel Pressburg. In that moment I realize I have booked a room on board a ship. The place is actually surprisingly elegant for the price. I am wondering if I should just roll my muddy bike down the ramp, when I see two other cyclists do just that.
The place has a secure location for my bike, and a very spacious room with a private bath. I am surprised to find that there are at least four Botels here in Bratislava.
At breakfast, Victor and Lena joined me. They are the two cyclists that I saw come down the ramp the evening before. We spoke in English and shared stories of our travels. They are also cycling down the Danube. They had a good story of a flat tire in the rain where they broke the tire iron trying to get the tire off of the rim. It became immediately clear that they would not be able to make it to the hotel where they had already booked a room. Little emergencies make for good stories.
I also learned from them that Germans do not like riding in the road with the cars. Lena recalled being upset when they were forced into this situation. This surprised me. I find European drivers are extremely respectful toward cyclists. I have no trouble with this even on fairly major roadways. I figure these cyclists have never ridden on US roads.
Their original plan was to end their journey in Vienna. They got to Vienna with some time to spare so they continued on to Bratislava. Victor is an electrical engineer. Lena has just finished her studies in law and has plans to become a judge in Germany.
In earlier posts, I have made a point of how inexpensive beer was in Germany and Austria. I didn’t realize then that beer is yet less expensive as one moves further east. In addition there are some quirks in the branding. For instance, there is a long standing dispute over the name Budweiser. In Eastern Europe, Anheiser is not permitted to use the name. The Budweiser here in Slovakia is made by a Check company. More detail below.
The price list gives beer prices in euros/ half liter. This converts directly to USD/pint because both the euro and the half liter are about 10% more than the dollar and pint respectively. This is the price of beer from the tap served at a beer garden in Slovakia. I can find bottled beer in a supermarket in Hungary for about $0.50/pint. When was the last time you paid $1-2/pint ? Consider another commodity. I am paying $30-50 / night for first class hotel rooms in large cities in Slovakia and Hungary. OK, so they are not big name hotels like Hyatt or such. But they are not dingy places either. Similarly food is not expensive.
While studying the beer at this local beer garden, I ran into a local Slovakian cyclist named Fero. We did not share a common language. So we used a translation app that I have on my iPhone. It is called Speak & Translate.
The app enabled us to take turns speaking a sentence or two in our native language, then after a moment, it would do its best to translate and say the statement in the other language. The app also created text and could accept text as input.
This worked surprisingly well for two important reasons. We both enjoyed each other’s company, and we had no alternative means of communication. The app is otherwise somewhat tedious. Heike and I made good use of it in Germany. More typically people do not want to be bothered. A shared interest in good communication is essential.
It helped a lot that I could read Fera’s facial expressions to gauge how well he understood the resulting translation. It was not always perfectly clear. I’m sure he was also reading my face.
I found Fera to be both curious and level headed. We spoke about a number of things. For instance, he observed that where cultures mix together, there is conflict and sometimes bad things can happen. In these cases, it is so critical to keep a calm head. We both agreed that the mix of cultures is important.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Fera about good places to stay. Though he was headed west, and I was headed east; he insisted on guiding me to the best towns to the east, by bike. This took him about ten kilometers out of his way. I stayed in a town with a natural hot spring. Good medicine for overused muscles. I really appreciated Fera’s guidance.
Somewhere along the way I crossed the border into Hungary, another EU country. Here the Danube is the International border. Slovakia is on the North Side and Hungary to the south. Whenever I cross the river, I have to keep in mind that the currency changes. I switch back and forth a few times. The official currency of Hungary is the Forint, not the Euro. However I found a grocery store near the border which will happily take either currency.
In Hungary many of the merchants speak German, though the average guy on the street does not. It creates a barrier that is sometimes uncomfortable for me. It’s difficult to explain why. I feel sort of discourteous when someone says something and I can only return silence, or say something that will not be understood. I will need to get over this soon.
Lately, when I hear someone speak a language I understand, I want to start up a conversation. I overheard an Austrian couple in the hot spring and chatted. I found a couple of German cyclists on The Cycleway , Peter and Petra from Berlin. Peter had many questions about my odd looking bicycle. It was a pleasure to chat.
Perhaps it is unfair to lump Hungary and Slovakia together. From my naive perspective, I do so anyway.
In general, I find that the drivers here are as respectful to cyclists as anywhere else in Western Europe. The Danube Cycleway is not as well marked, but there is an App that makes this a non-issue for anyone with a smart phone. The road surfaces are not as well maintained as in the west, but certainly no problem for a bike with 35mm tires.
I find abandoned buildings in places. I find shops on Apple Maps that no longer exist. I do not see evidence of crime, though I think people here are more cautious to lock things down. My reference point is San Francisco, where I have lived for ten years and have had four or five bikes stolen. I do not see any stripped bikes chained to a lamppost here.
The cost of living is remarkably low, compared with Western Europe. Yet the quality of service is quite good. Also, the technology is not at all backward.
I remember last year in rural Indiana, my brother surprised a liquor store clerk by using his iPhone to pay for beer. The clerk wasn’t even aware that it was possible. Here in Hungary, the Apple Pay technology is everywhere, and the clerks are not surprised. Along these same lines, the room I slept in last night had LED illumination. The buses and cars seem to be modern.
Technology spreads without boundaries. When cheaper and better solutions become known, they move quickly across borders. It is not like the days of the Iron Curtain. For instance, Apple Pay, Lime scooters are in every large city I have been in. Uber is only in some cities. Essen, Munich, Vienna yes. Linz, Überlingen, no.
I do notice that there are working phone booths east of VIenna. Also, I do not see any electric cars, though they are also quite rare in Western Europe, compared to California. I’m guessing the hard winter may make them less practical.
I hosted a Belgian couple that had just finished cycling through South America. They explained that it was common to hear the locals describe the next country on their itinerary as being not up to the same quality as they experience here in this country.
It is a national pride that exists here in Europe as well. I remember hearing that the roads in Slovakia and Hungary are not maintained at all well. This is true. The roads here are almost as bad as California roads.
I arrived in Esztergom, Hungary. It is only about 25 miles from Budapest by the shortest possible route. Here I did not follow the river, but took a hilly route to Budapest. It saved me some time. I also got to see a lot more undeveloped space than I am used to seeing in Western Europe. I traveled 25 miles along a somewhat major road without seeing a town, or even a building.
It was good to get back to the Danube as I approached Budapest from the North. My mode of travel these days is dependent on local services. I like pulling into a restaurant along the cycleway to have a good meal. My first meal back on the river was Hekk. The Germans call it Hecht. I believe this is pike, a large freshwater predator fish. It tasted just fine with French fries and a beer.
Pulling into Budapest came with a gloomy mood for me. I’m not really sure why exactly. It is true that my European trip was coming to a close, and that my daily routine was about to change radically. I think a partner would have been helpful to have in this moment.
I had much to do to prepare all my stuff for the plane to Bangkok. The boxes and tools and supplies I used to box my bike the last time, are all discarded back in Amsterdam. I have to recreate that setup from scratch. I have to do this in a city where I don’t speak the native language and don’t know where to find things.
I have given myself ample time for this scavenger hunt. I did find it helpful to have a photo at the ready to show to the store clerk. It beats waving your hands in the air with or without the sound effects. It took me a few days to find everything. I think I’m in good shape. I also got some expert coaching from Les CycloMigrateurs, my role models.
Dealing with the Aeroflot is also much different than most airlines. For instance, with a bicycle one must call the airline and describe the package dimension and weight and wait 24hrs to see if the airline approves. I went through three iterations on this process. There are no exact guidelines on what will be accepted. I think I got a pretty good deal in the end. It takes time.
After spending a few days here in Budapest, I have found locals with good command of either English or German. English is more common.
I had a good conversation in a local pub with Miklos, a digital artist. By his own description he is a sell out. There was a time that he was supported by the Hungarian government to do his work. Now he is an employee of an online gambling site. His animated cartoon images are used to entice new membership.
He was troubled a little over what his art is being used for. But he likes the pay and feels confident that the gambling industry will survive a recession. I would not call Miklos an optimist. He feels that Hungary is teetering on the brink of collapse. He said that Hungarians are half Balkan. Which I took to mean, they are deeply suspicious. He confessed that when we first met, he thought I might be from the CIA. OK, yes, deeply suspicious.
He was very concerned over the latest developments with the PKK in Syria. I shared with him this concern. He said in the past, the US was a most preferred ally to have. We are quickly losing this reputation in the world.
On the brighter side, I restarted my use of Tinder. I will stay in Budapest for over a week, so it is possible to make this work. There I found Madeline. I went to dinner with Madeline, a Hungarian Native. She is nearly my age and likes to stay fit. She is independent and lives alone. She holds a degree from a Hungarian University, and has a full-time job in communication. I told her I was interested in finding a partner for traveling the world. She sent me a text this morning that she misses me.
Tomorrow we will go on a second date. Her English is far from perfect. We frequently get help from the Speak & Translate App. She would like to learn better English.
It has been a good trip, though I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on this first pass. I had breakfast with three American tourists from Alaska. They had spent some time In Czech Republic.
They visited the town of Cesky Krumlov. There they found a castle with a moat that had brown bears in the moat. They also went to the Bone Church in a different town. It is called the Bone Church because the bones of the monks that were buried there were exhumed and used to create elaborate decorations (chandeliers and the like).
OK so, I was sure they were pulling my leg until they showed me photos. Yup, Grizzly Bears in the moat. Please don’t tell Donald about this.
I would like to continue the journey on to the Black Sea. I am leaving a large part of the route unexplored. It would be great to come back and finish the journey. Maybe I can find a partner that knows the culture and some of the languages.
In this blog I continue east along the Danube. Along the way, I get a message from my brother Eric that he is planning a trip to Munich with his son, Toshi. Caught in the dilemma of diverting my course, or holding to the plan; I resolve to continue with the plan to Linz, Austria. Park my bike there for a few days while I take a train to meet my Brother in Munich, and then return by train to Linz to continue the trek.
In the map you can see the international borders in tan, Germany in the west, Austria in the east and Check Republic in the north. I spent three days off the bike. It was well worth it.
I have covered a bit of ground since the last blog ten days ago. I am becoming increasingly aware of deadlines. I must get to Budapest in time to pack up my bike, fly it to Bangkok, then return to Chicago for the family reunion at my mothers place on her 93rd birthday. That, and summer is over. It is getting colder. Some mornings it is 4C (39F) at 8AM.
While this is not at all a bad temperature for cycling, it requires some motivation to get started. Once I am running at speed and warmed up, I don’t feel cold at all. Even if it is raining and my clothes are wet, the body generates enough heat just keeping the bike moving. My rule of thumb: if you feel cold, ride faster. If you can’t keep that fast a pace, put on another layer of clothing. I’m carrying layers I have not had to use yet.
As it gets colder, I am not using my tent as much. I can stay warm enough at night. I have trouble with breaking camp on a cold morning. It is much easier to get organized in a warm hotel room, then launch into the cold air and quickly warm up.
I found this charming structure set up in a park near the cycleway. It was right on the river. It was not part of a campground. It seemed to me that the locals had erected the place for cyclists to use. The nearby fire ring indicated that folks would occasionally overnight here. I would have done so myself except I had more miles to go that day.
I was racing a rainstorm that was headed east, coming up behind me. I could see the dark clouds coming. I remember from my days of Race Across America, one could sometimes out run a storm. This requires keeping a speed of about 35kph, which sounds like a lot. But the tailwind helps. These days I don’t keep speeds like that, but it was fun to race and lose just the same.
The big dump of rain hit me just as I was coming into the villiage of Pondorf. I found a farm supply store there and ducked into an open storage shed to get out of the driving rain. I was discovered there by an employee who was speaking loud and too fast for me to comprehend.
I explained that German is not my better language and that I can understand only if he speaks slowly and simply. We then got into a useful dialogue. I found out that there are no hotels or hostels in this villiage. The next town is about 8km east and would be the closest accommodation of any kind. I asked to use the toilet.
When I came out of the toilet, I was shown to the general manager’s office to meet Bernard. He took me in to his office to show me his recumbent (Liegerad). He rides this to work everyday. He also owns a Bacchetta Corsa. He has a dream of doing Race Across America. We got into a good discussion in both English and German. He is about my age, a marathoner with impressive finish times (~2.5 hours).
I think it would be fun to go down to Oceanside and see Bernard’s team start. He explained a plan to ride the course, not during the race itself. I told him to beware of the California desert, and don’t give up.
Bernard gave me some good advice on places to stay. By the time we were done talking the rain had stopped. It was really good luck for me to have picked his storage shed to duck into for cover.
On my way to the next town I find two French cyclists Jacque and Joseline. They have apparently gotten the full dump of rain that I missed while talking with Bernard. It has now been at least a month since I have spoken any French. We stumble through greetings and some simple questions about origin and ride plans. I am surprised to find while searching for French words, German words pop up, which I dismiss in mid sentence.
It turns out I meet these two more than once over the next few days. They apparently are using tents in spite of the rain. The photos here show them drying out their tent before folding it up. I am impressed with their tenacity.
East of Ulm, I am traveling in Bavaria Germany. Here Oktoberfest has started. This is a big thing in Munich. Out here in the surrounding community there are smaller local festivals with the same name.
It was in Regensburg, I found the temporary fairgrounds were erected on the Danube Cycleway. It was a comical thing riding my muddy touring bike through a carnival setting. Germans are typically more organized. OK, maybe I missed the detour sign.
Signs are important. Especially warning signs. I encounter one regarding airplanes and take out my translation app to help out.
I found this sign posted alongside the Danube Cycleway.
Just as I am figuring out that it is a warning about an airplane runway where walking and riding is forbidden, I hear an engine coming up behind me. I turn around in time to see a single engine Piper about 20 meters off the ground coming nearly straight at me.
He is on final approach. He flys directly overhead and lands about 100 meters beyond me in the grass field. OK, a near miss. Now what!?!! I can’t figure out how I managed to wander into this situation.
I see no more air traffic coming. I investigate to find I have not made a mistake. The Danube Cycleway is at the edge of a grass landing strip. I find other cyclists on this path. I sure hope the pilots all understand to land in the grass not on the cyclists.
Decision to meet in Munich
A day or so before reaching Austria, I decide it would be good to meet Rick and Toshi (my brother and his son) in Munich. Thanks to Heike for pointing out that this would be an important part of my trip, not to be missed.
The thing is, a big diversion in my course would not be easy to accommodate. It would be possible for me to leave my bike where it is on the course and take a train to meet Rick in Munich on Sunday Sept 29. I push eastward toward Austria.
Passau is a big German town near the border. I take a moment to have a beer and give thanks for a great time had.
Crossing to border into Austria is a very popular part of the Danube Cycleway. I discover that upper Austria is a rural place. There is no train service of any kind until you get to Linz. There are few bridges that span the Danube. The popular way to get across is by ferry. There are many restaurants along the cycleway that are specifically set up to serve the cyclists.
I stop at one such place and order lunch. A large tour group comes rolling in. They are speaking English. One cyclist is wearing a Ragbrai jersey. Ragbrai is a famous ride which goes across the state of Iowa every year. I chat some of them up. They are the Iowa city cyclists. A fun group headed west unfortunately. I am headed the other way.
I head out and meet Richard, a cyclist from Melbourne, Australia. We get to talking. He is not carrying much. We keep a good pace together with one other cyclist from Australia.I learn that he has an agreement with a tour group which arranges to carry most of his stuff on a barge. They meet once a day and provide a place to sleep.
Swapping stories, I find he knows of Glenn Druery, a racing partner of mine from Sydney. Small world.
There is a cottage industry of ferries set up to move cyclists across the Danube. This is a charming on demand operation. One simply stands the bike near the loading ramp and someone appears to run the ferry across. It costs less than the price of a beer.
Linz is an industrial city on the Danube. I do not think this place is at all charming. I would not stop here except, it does have a major train station. I need this to make a smooth run to Munich. Here I find an inexpensive hotel which is willing to keep my bike for three days while I go to Munich.
OK, Linz has a very different vibe than upper Austria. Maybe I shouldn’t be so negative. It is home to a Thermo Fisher plant and some kool urban art painted onto a freight train.
Popping back into Germany was a breath of fresh air. It is here where my brother worked for SuedDeutcher Zeitung back in the 80’s. He has maintained friends with Werner and Sigurd there. We stayed at Sigrun’s home in the northern part of town.
Munich is the capital city of Bavaria. Much of it was destroyed during World War II. For many Germans this is an important city in Germany, and it shows. There is so much to see there, we could only scratch the surface.
We spent a lot of time in the German Science Museum. There are many exhibits on how modern technology works, (E.g. GPS, Aircraft, Astronomy). We also got a tour of Marianplatz which was my brother’s home while he worked there. Many of the old buildings are untouched. It is the new ones that have changed most. We got around mostly with electric powered rental scooters, and rental bikes.
Of course if you wind up in Munich near the end of September, one is obligated to go to Oktoberfest. We did. There is only one size beer sold there. It’s one liter, that’s more than two pints. We hung out long enough to sample the scene, then returned to a more civilized downtown Munich.
Back to Austria
Vienna (Wien) is the capital of Austria. It is the largest city in this country. I was here once before when I was 17 years old. Just graduated from High School, my father took my brother and I on our first trip to Europe. A very cool tradition.
Things I remember of that trip are not all very clear. I do remember my dad making a big deal about Vienna, the eastern most point on our voyage. I remember he made a big deal about Sachertort mit Schlag (sugar cake with whipped cream).
It’s always a good thing to make some goals larger than life. So to remember that, I went out and found this elusive delicacy.
To be completely honest. The presentation and expectations are wonderful. The praise stops there. Maybe my palette has not been properly educated.
I don’t mean to be negative on Vienna. I really haven’t spent enough time to get to know the city. On my next pass this way, maybe I should give it a second chance. At the moment, I need to keep it moving.
The forecast for today was rain. I took the day off to see Vienna and catch up on my blog. At least the blog is up to date.
Doing some quick calculations on rate of travel and time remaining, I find that I average between 60 and 70 km/day, based on markers placed on the Danube. Thus I am not including some kilometers I spend getting lost. I will need time to negotiate visas and pack up my bike for air travel, once I get to Budapest.
All in all I think I’m on a good track. Though I have some challenges ahead. I still have to get through Slovakia, then part way through Hungary. I don’t speak the languages there. I will need to set up visas for Russia and Thailand. So the plan is: I will get to Budapest on Oct 14 and fly to Moscow on Oct 19. I will fly to Bangkok the next day.
Danube marker Oct 3
An earlier version of this blog was published with an error. Bernard is the recumbent rider I met in Pondorf. The original version had his name incorrect.
Abensberg, Germany September 24, 2019 Odometer: 2289 miles
From the last post, I had broken a shift cable and was waiting for the bike shop to open.
In Schwetzingen, the bike shop opened on Monday morning. It was a bustling place. The mechanic offered that I use one of the stands in the shop and fix the problem myself. I was able to get part way through it when the mechanic joined me to finish it up. I was happy to have him working with me.
The control of the Rohloff Speedhub is unlike anything I have ever worked with. Most shifters use a single cable with a spring return. The Rohloff uses two cables. Pulling one cable advances to higher gear. The other for lower gears. While one is pulling in the other is letting out. The two cables move simultaneously like a belt drive.
This design makes it easy to reverse the direction of the twist grip. The way my bars are set up, my hand sits upside down from a normal bike handle bar. So, we reversed the cables to make the shifting back to the normal sense. Now I will not have to think about shifting so much.
Heading south from Karlsruhe, I stopped for a picnic lunch at a table on a wooded path. I was joined by another recumbent rider, Karsten. He was riding a HP Velotechnik as well. His was a trike.
Though I have not seen many HP Velotechnik bikes here in Germany, Karsten insists that there is an active group of cyclists touring Germany on this kind of bike or trike.
Coming south to the town of Donaueschingen, the start of the Danube river, it was necessary to cross through the Black Forest again. Between the towns of Gengenbach and Sankt Georgen is a thousand meter climb, some of it at a very steep grade (~19%). This was my second time crossing. Komoot chose the exact same roads as it did for me in August. This time I knew what lay ahead.
I had excellent weather for the climb. It was 14 C (57 F) with a gentle tail wind. There were almost no cars on this road on a weekday morning. When I got to the top, I was not so exhausted as last time. Better temperature? Better training? Who knows? I felt good cresting the pass, knowing it would be mostly downhill or flat for the rest of the ride to Donaueschingen.
Once I got to Donaueschingen, I turned off Komoot and simply followed the signs that guided me along the Danube River, mostly. The path goes through countryside small villages and major cities. It appears that the route is designed to show off the best parts of the country.
About twenty kilometers downstream from Donaueschingen, is the start of the Naturepark Obere Donau. A most beautiful part of the journey. This fifty kilometers is mostly through the forest. It is punctuated by magnificent castles, forts and farms. Any of which would make an excellent fairytale setting. Also, it has the ring of authenticity. There are no gift shops, no admission fees, no advertisements.
I stayed at a farm that had been converted to a hotel and restaurant. An adjacent barn had horses and goats. The place was also still a working farm. The sign at the hotel reception indicated that the Innkeeper was out in the stalls and would return soon.
While waiting, I ate a wonderful dinner of wild pig, and homemade noodles, during which the chickens were running around near my table. Maybe one of them would lay an egg for my breakfast?
A newcomer to Germany might have the idea that yes, there are many castles, and cathedrals here. Maybe it would be possible to stay for a month and visit all of them. It is not possible to do this. There are too many. Nearly every town has a castle, fort, or cathedral. It would take a lifetime to see them all.
Traveling in Germany is quite affordable. It is easy to find a comfortable private room with its own bath and maybe a kitchen for sixty euros or less. Beer is about $3/ pint for a local brew served in a restaurant or bar.
Typically German beer is sold in a standard bottle. The idea is that once the beer is consumed, it can be cleaned relabeled and reused. It is evident in the photo that the glass is worn at the shoulder. This bottle has been through a few cycles. Because the bottle is standardized, it is not important that the bottle is returned to the original vendor. This bottle may have contained beer from several different breweries in its lifetime.
Heading further downstream from the NaturePark, I find the Danube is still too small for commercial traffic. But it is used for hydroelectric power generation.
Along the way, I booked a room in a private home. There I met Andrew, who was preparing for a big race the next day. The event is called a slalom race. Here pylons are placed on a flat track. Contestants will complete a tortuous ten kilometers without touching a pylon. A winning car must have good cornering ability and high horsepower to weight ratio.
The homeowner, Michael was a race car fanatic as well. Before long we were in his garage oogling the project he calls his ‘Shoebox’, a turbocharged Lotus 7. He was proud of the fact that he modified and installed the BMW turbocharger himself. He told a story of out running a Ferrari on a section of the German autobahn which was particularly curvy. My understanding is the Ferrari was far more powerful and could easily win on a straight course. The Ferrari was also heavier and not nearly as nimble. The Shoebox did well in the corners and stayed well out in front overall.
That evening we had a home cooked meal of Mau Taschen. These are very much like ravioli. It was explained to me that here in Germany they are also known as ‘God Cheaters’. It is customary that at certain times it is not acceptable to eat meat. In a ravioli, one could hide the meat, so God doesn’t notice. Clever idea.
Rainer, the hotel owner Gasthaus Pfafflinger In Neuburg, Germany
I have now covered a few hundred kilometers of the Danube. As I move downstream I find the Danube Cycleway is only part of a complex network of cycleways. The signs get complicated. It happens at times that I lose the path, but it doesn’t worry me. Finding the Danube is not difficult. Following the Danube will eventually lead back to the cycleway. On one such departure, I found the Airbus Helicopter plant. Also I see that there are kilometer markers along the Danube, just as I found on the Rhein. The numbers decrease as I head downstream. Does this mean I am ~2500km from the Black Sea? Probably.
I have found that hotels here in Germany are not so much a corporate entity that you might find in the US. So many places, are small businesses. Some do such an excellent job at making me feel at home.
Late in the day, I found Gasthaus Pfafflinger in Neuburg, Germany. I walked into the bar and asked, where is the reception desk for the hotel? Rainer answered, here it is, me. I am what you seek. He poured me a beer and there at the bar we filled out the paperwork together. He upgraded my room. The beer was free.
Rainer noticed from the paperwork that I was born in New York and live in San Francisco. He had spent some time in his life in both places. We got into a good discussion about cycling and the Warmshowers philosophy of paying it forward. I told him I would really enjoy teaming up with him on this journey. He demurred, saying that he had this hotel to run.
Before the evening was over I got personally introduced to many of his staff. It became clear to me that they were looking out for my best interests. During the evening there was much drinking going on without careful accounting of who was buying exactly.
In the end, it was all sorted out. My bill came to only 11 euros. I believe the clerk was making sure that I didn’t get stuck with more than my share. I tipped her well and then had to explain that this is an American way of showing gratitude for being treated well. I hope my German was good enough to get this point across.
The next morning, Rainer and I traded email addresses and hugged goodbye. I headed out into the rain.
With the rain also came a good tailwind. I was happy with the trade off. I also noticed that my bike on the wet gravel trail throws up a lot of gritty mud. It became clear to me the benefit of fenders. After fifty kilometers the lower part of my bike became caked with something similar to wet cement. The topside remained relatively clean. Best of all the bike functioned perfectly throughout. Shifting, brakes, etc. no problem. Also my hotelier pointed out that no one would steal a bike that is so mud covered.
Today is my birthday. I celebrate by spending the day in a Café bringing my blog up to date and enjoying German chocolate cake, a favorite in my childhood.
Sept 15, Schwetingen, Germany. Odometer: 1850 miles
Following the plan to head south along the Rhine into the Black Forest, I find it is relatively easy to make one hundred kilometers per day. The road is flat and navigation is not difficult. The scenery is also quite nice.
In Düsseldorf I had to find a dentist to fix a crown that had come loose. I was impressed with how easy this was to do. Without an appointment, and no dental insurance that would be relevant, I immediately got an appointment. The dentist looked at the issue and agreed to reattach my crown for fifty euros. With the receptionist, we spoke German. With the dentist, we spoke in English. The whole thing took ninety minutes or less and was handled quite professionally.
Heading south from Cologne, A cyclist zipped by me on the cycle way. I gave in to my racing instinct, and sped up to catch him. Staying within a meter of his back wheel, I could reduce my wind resistance and keep a faster pace than I could on my own. The rider was on a carbon frame racing bike with no luggage except a small pack on his back. We rode together for quite a ways when I came around him and we introduced ourselves.
His name is Christian. He started from his home in Holland that morning. He is headed to the Italian Alps to meet some cyclist friends. He travels two hundred and fifty kilometers a day on average. This average he can keep for several days without any problem.
Christian spoke German and English very well. I assume he also spoke Dutch. He grew up in a town not far from Woudenberg. His easy going style reminded me of our departed friend, Steve Purcell.
I followed Christian to his hotel just south of Koblenz. We ate and drank well. There we shared a table with a German couple from Munich, on vacation exploring the wine regions of Germany. I explained that I was fortunate to find Christian, as I probably would not have made as much distance without his help.
The next morning we left together, the plan was to make it to Speyer. When we left the Rhine in Bingen, the road became hilly and I was no longer able to match Christian’s speed with my much heavier bike. We parted ways.
I turned to Komoot to find me a way back to the Rhine. It took me through many miles of vineyards in the German countryside. I checked into a hotel in small town south of Mainz. It became obvious that small towns have cheaper hotel rooms than large cities. There I met another cyclist. A German named Markus.
He was on a five day trip, traveling by mountain bike. His English was pretty good, but I tried to keep the conversation in German. We wandered through the town of Nieder-Olm. We found a restaurant which was set up by local farmers. Markus explained that after harvest season, the farmers try to make extra income with this kind of restaurant. The menu is limited to typical dishes from the region made from locally harvested food. The food was good. We also went to a wine bar nearby which served small glasses of local wine so that it is easy to sample many different wines. Markus had a more discerning taste than I. I thought all the wines were pretty good.
The next day I found Franka, a German woman who had just finished high school and was on an extended trip by bicycle. Her English was excellent. We spoke almost entirely in English. She rode an ancient Motobecane which she bought for about fifty euros and restored it herself. She worked in a bike shop for a few months and learned lots of skills. She laughed that even with the experience, she will sometimes still puncture a new inner tube when installing it.
Franka was familiar with Komoot and was amazed as I over its ability to sometimes find tiny paths through the woods. She taught me how to read the cycle way signs and navigate without Komoot or maps. She also was a WarmShowers member. She thought it was a great organization.
Franka had an interest in philosophy. She told me about Das Kapital, a famous book written by Karl Marx which is still quite relevant today. She was able to describe the concepts in some depth, all in English.
We got into Manheim, a big industrial city. This far upstream on the Rhein, the river is fragmented into many smaller rivers. In a city of Manheim there are lots of bridges, lots of traffic. It really became complicated to navigate using only the cycleway signs. However, Franka was able to find a cycleway that crossed the bridges we needed. It took some trial and error, but she remained confident and succeeded. I was impressed.
Franka planned to head south to Spain. Our paths split in Manheim. We said our goodbyes there with a challenge. I said I would probably get to Budapest before she got to Spain. We exchanged email addresses.
Heading south out of Manheim back into the German countryside, I noticed that my shifter was getting progressively harder to use. Then the cable snapped. At that point my bike became a single speed bike. Normally I carry enough spare parts to fix a problem like this. However, the Rohloff system is new to me. I was uncertain about what to do.
I booked a nearby hotel. I rode the bike for three miles to the hotel. Fortunately there was a bike shop close to the hotel. I spoke to the owner as he was closing up shop late Saturday afternoon. He did not have a mechanic on duty. But he gave me a shift cable and said the mechanic would be available on Monday morning.
I emailed Dana. He replied that I could probably fix it myself, but I would need some tools I am not carrying with me. So here I am in Schwetzingen for an extra day. It’s not a bad place to get stuck. I have time to catch up on my blog.
In the previous update, I explained that Henry had set up a blind date (sort of) with his sister Heike in Borken. Ok so I had a really good time learning German with Romy’s help in Überlingen, So I headed a considerable distance north to take advantage of a chance to live with, and cycle with a patient German woman that does not speak English. I look upon this as an extension of the process already started with Romy. Thank you Henry. I have a feeling this will be worthy distraction for me.
Getting to Essen by train required only two trains. I changed trains in Basel, Switzerland. From Basel to Essen we took an ICE train (Germany’s high speed line). This was a good experiment for me. It was a bit of a struggle to get the bike into the space given. The conductor was pretty low key about the whole thing. Eventually we made it work.
I was somehow under the impression that there are two different towns named Basel, one in Germany and one In Switzerland, and I was to change trains in Basel, Germany. It became clear that I had left Germany when we rolled past an operating nuclear power plant. Henry explained that Germany has shut down all nuclear power in response to Fukushima. I checked with Henry by email. He confirmed that I was in Switzerland.
When I got off the train in Switzerland, no one wanted to see my passport, even though I was leaving the EU. Nor did anyone want to see my passport on reentering Germany with my next connection to Essen. Perhaps this is because I never left the train station.
When I get to Essen, it is raining, so I checked into a hotel near the train station, showered, and headed to the hotel bar for a light meal and beer. There, I met Tommy, a bus driver from East Germany who regularly drives a bus from Dresden to Essen. Tommy and I can hold a basic conversation about the rules for transporting a bicycle on a bus.
Tommy said ‘Die Welt is wirchlich ein Dorf’. In English: The world is actually a village.
Tobias dropped by our conversation. He speaks English quite well, but I suggest it would be best if we all spoke German. The high speed German that developed between Tobias and Tommy, I cannot follow at all. I simply look for words that get repeated often and get the translation from my iPhone. Fledermaus translates to bat. OK, they are talking about flying bats or something.
This was not completely useless. But for me, it is not nearly as good as schlaging through a one on one conversation with someone in slow German. It’s too slow for the purpose of light conversation when other options exist.
I happen to catch Tobias at breakfast the next morning. We have a good conversation in English about the differences in R&D culture between United States and Germany. This confirms much of what I had learned from Paul and Henry. For instance, when you tell a German something he does not believe, he will efficiently say, ‘No, that’s shit.’, and then be willing to say why, or listen to a rebuttal. In the same circumstance Americans will say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about that later’ when they really mean to say ‘You’re wrong or off track’. In most cases, it’s not really an invitation for further discussion.
Tobias also says that if you are given one final wish before being put to death, tell them you want to learn the Finnish language. It will take a lifetime.
Ride to Borken
After learning how the streetcars work, and running some errands in Essen, it was time to take the thirty mile ride to Heike’s place in Borken.
It rains for about an hour, and quite hard at times during the ride from Essen. I arrive around 3pm already mostly dry. Heike is working alone in the office in her home. She still has more work to do and invites me to shower and make myself at home, which I do.
My typical routine is to take a shower with my riding clothes on. In the shower, I peel the clothes off and wash and rinse them at the same time I wash myself. It works, not as well as a washing machine, but I can cycle my riding clothes this way a few times before they need a real washing machine. All my clothes are made from quick drying fabrics. So they line dry fairly quickly, if they are wrung out beforehand.
When Heike emerged from her work, she was not upset to find I have taken over a corner of her condo. She also pointed out that she has a washing machine and dryer which I am welcome to use. I tried to explain that I have a system that is sustainable and will work in almost any environment. I think my German was still too clumsy to get my point across.
She explained that her brother Jürgen will drop off an eBike that she will use for the ride to Muenster the following day.
We communicate in two languages. Heike speaks some English. She also speaks Italian, which we do not use. We both have iPhones to find words we are missing. Though more typically we can fill holes in our language just by talking about the hole and looking for synonyms. I find a really good mode is for me to listen to the German, then try to say it back in English. Heike then confirms whether I have it right or not.
The opportunity to learn here amazes me. We frequently tell jokes and stories about our past, mostly in German. We can talk about fairly deep things, like meditation and flow, who we are and why we think that is. Heike loves the Peanuts characters. She finds similarities between herself and Peppermint Patty. She also likes Italian culture quite a bit.
The communication in German is not fast yet. We take the time to do a good job. I really value this opportunity. When Heike needed to get the point across quickly, she used English. She knows I prefer to use German.
Jürgen showed up with the eBike and reviews its operation with us. Heike prepared dinner for the three of us. We had a good meal time discussion. Jürgen can speak English fairly well.
After dinner, Jürgen left and Heike and I worked on the course both to and from the city of Muenster. It is about 40 miles each way. The plan was to ride there on Friday and stay with Heike’s friend Gabi on Friday night. The ride back was planned for Sunday. A full charge on the eBike would have enough range for one leg, as long as the rider was prudent with how extensively the motor was used. I planned to use my touring bike but without the full complement of gear. With the lighter bike, I should be able to keep up with the eBike.
It rained quite hard Thursday night and early Friday morning. The air was cool, about 10C in the morning (50F). The sky was cloudy but the rain had stopped. We did a test ride to a cafe for breakfast. We decided it was all systems go. Off to Muenster!
It’s about forty miles from Borken to Muenster. The route is mostly flat with gently rolling hills in the countryside. We planned the outbound route through Coesfeld and Nottuln. Heike adapted to the eBike with ease.
The pace was slow enough so that we could talk, mostly in German. The places we rode through carried memories from her childhood. She took horse riding lessons and bought her first horse from a farmer. She remembered having to bring her dog to a veterinarian.
In Muenster, we arrived at the home of Gabi, Heike’s best friend of many years. Gabi lives in a nice home with her husband Ralph and their two children Paul and Jacob. Gabi and Ralph spoke English fairly well. Still we used German for the most part.
Heike and I rode to the center of Muenster by bike. Muenster is considered to be a very bike friendly city. Indeed it was. There were sophisticated parking garages for bikes only. We parked our bikes there for the entire evening at a cost of 0.40 Euro each.
I saw a very unique tricycle which could be split into two parts, one of which was a wheel chair. Together they formed a hand cycle with electric assist. The owner was happy to demonstrate how the two parts were easily coupled into one unit. We spoke to the owner at some length. This was all in high speed German, which Heike told me about afterwards. It turns out that the tricycle was provided by the government, though it took some convincing to get this approved. As the owner nimbly rode off in what I considered to be a one of a kind thing. I saw a second bike of the same design riding in the street.
After a good meal at an Italian restaurant called Maca’ do, we returned to Gabi and Ralph’s place for good discussions in both English and German. Ralph could also speak a dialect of German called Schwabish. This he knew from his childhood. We sampled beer from many places in Europe. The best ones were from Scotland where they somehow use peet in the making.
We spent the night there. Heike says I talk in my sleep but not in German. We stayed for a late breakfast then left for the ride back to Borken.
On the way back we took a different route which included a long bike path that followed a canal. There were some barges, along with personal motor boats and even some crewing teams doing their training. I told Heike about a time my brother and I swam across a river in Germany when we were teenagers. She asked me if I wanted to swim this canal. So I did. It was a good moment for me.
Tim swims across the canal.
We got back to Borken in the afternoon. A letter was waiting there for me. Joël and Irène had sent me a sticker from Brittany. The sticker made it to Romy and Henry’s place in Überlingen after I had left for Borken. Romy express mailed the letter to Heike’s place. Through my friendly network here in Europe, I was happy to receive the sticker and place it on my bike.
I was still waiting for one more thing. Dana had arranged through HP Velotechnik to send me a replacement for my broken kickstand. We guessed it would arrive in the morning mail. It did.
Up until this point my travel has been a sporadic path inspired mostly by an interest in meeting up with old friends. I must say that it has been most enjoyable, but at this point I have changed my strategy for the two months I have remaining on my EU tourist visa. The plan is follow the Rhein upstream into the Black Forest. There I will find the source of the Danube, then follow the Danube east through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romainia. See how far I can get. I will my time and make new friends along the way.
On Tuesday morning, I said farewell to Heike and rode south to meet the Rhein and follow the plan.
In the classic cyclist style, I took three trains from Brittany to Strasbourg. One stop was in Paris. I had a few hours to pedal around there. I stopped in on the Notre Dam Cathedral. Of course it was closed for renovations after the devastating fire earlier this year. It was reassuring to see that none-the-less it looked pretty good from the exterior. I also stopped and had a meal in an outdoor cafe. I managed to have a conversation in French with a woman there. I think it is useful to stumble with a language you barely know. You learn it much faster. Trying to figure out the word you don’t know can turn into a game of charades. This is fun if you have a patient audience. She noticed that the tail flag on my bike is a Gay Pride flag. I was surprised to find it could be recognized even in France.
Norte Dame under renovation. Notice the extensive scaffolding in the rear.
I got to Strasbourg after sunset. Fortunately my Warmshowers host was close to the train station.
On my way in to Strasbourg, Nico and I traded emails. So he knew when my train would arrive. At 9:30pm he was out in front of his apartment when I rolled up to his place. He is a very helpful and considerate guy. Much like my own place in San Francisco, Nico has a small flat with a good view of the city. We walked to the main Cathedral and watched a light show projected against the outside wall of the cathedral, very similar to the one I saw in Rennes. Nico showed me that in the center of town there is a system of locks for small boats to navigate the tributary that flows there. It was clear that these locks are both ancient and functional.
Before we went to sleep, Nico asked when I wanted to wake up the next day. He then made sure breakfast was ready when I awoke. Definitely a classy host. As good as any hotelier I’ve encountered in Europe so far. He also speaks four languages.
The next morning I headed east over the Rhein and out into the Black Forest of Germany. A different language, a new chapter. I’ve had more formal training in the German language. So for me it works better, though I still stumble quite a lot. This was my first time in the Black Forest. The course I chose followed the Kinzig upstream. I think the Kinzig is a tributary to the Rhein.
In Germany there is a good systems of bike paths which follow next to the roads for motorists, there are also roads for cyclists that do not follow next to anything. I learned that these roads are essentially roads for agricultural equipment to get out into the fields. There is a network of them out in the country side, well maintained and with good signs. Komoot found these roads preferentially. Which I really appreciated.
In the western part of the Black Forest it is mostly flat farm land with some very nice villages occasionally. Here the Kinzig is a slow moving stream. When riding along the Kinzig I meet occasional cyclists and occasionally some farm equipment. I see storks in the fields. They appear to be stalking prey. I guess that they typically find mice.
The first night I slept in a hotel in Gengenbach, a beautifully restored villiage with a stone wall surrounding it.
On my second day, I met two cyclists at lunch. We had a good fun getting each other’s understanding in German only. The weak link was me of course, but I have fun trying to understand and answer questions. I expect the husband actually spoke English pretty well, because he would occasionally bail me out.
When we agreed that it was time to go, I told them that I had not paid my bill yet. They just smiled and said it had already been paid. Danke!
About halfway to Überlingen, the road gets steep. Before the hill started in Hornberg, I saw a sign that indicated 19% grade which I disregarded. I’d been riding a flat route following the Kinzig. This 19% grade doesn’t apply to me. I was wrong.
I took a left turn and started following the Schwanenbach instead. It went through some very beautiful wooded mountains. The road was continuously climbing. The Schwannenbach was a much smaller creek, much faster moving.
Fortunately it was not a continuous 19% grade, but there were definitely a few 200 meter sections of that road that could well have been 19%. Anyway, I was very glad to see the top. I rolled downhill into Sankt Georgen, ate an entire pizza and drank a liter of pils. I slept very well in a nearby hotel that night.
I awoke Thursday morning with a plan to ride 100km to Überlingen. My good friends Henry and Romy were expecting me. Henry Klemm and I worked together for Applied Biosystems about 20 years ago. Henry had a team of engineers in Überlingen. I worked in Foster City, California. We would make frequent trips in both directions. A while back I contacted Henry about visiting him in Überlingen. He said he would round up the guys for a get together (Stammtisch in German). Anyway, I told Henry I would make it there by Thursday afternoon. Fortunately it was mostly downhill to the Lake of Constance. I made it there without any issues.
Überlingen is a very nice town directly on the Lake of Constance. Henry and Romy are wonderful hosts. My plan was to stay with them through the weekend. It’s Tuesday night now as I write this and they haven’t kicked me out yet. Here are the details:
The Klemm Family
Henry and Romy are wonderful hosts. Henry turned over his home office to be my room. Romy prepares wonderful meals. She drives me to the store for various supplies, train tickets, and bike parts. She does my laundry. I’ve been here nearly a week already. I do hope I leave before I wear out my welcome, because I want to be invited back again.
It is an environment filled with love and respect. Their only daughter, Jeanine is married with a five year old boy named Benno and a husband named Marco. They bought a home in Überlingen. Benno has a tree house in the back yard. Jeanine and Marco are building a stone wall for a garden in the front yard.
On the weekend, Henry, Romy and I go for a bike ride through the area. During the week, Henry takes his bike to work. Romy has more time off and so we go for rides weather permitting.
I spend much of my time with Romy. The fact that she speaks no English is a benefit to my learning German. You see Henry’s English is very good. So if Henry and I get into a bind in German, we immediately switch to English. When I’m speaking with Romy, we cannot switch. I am forced to figure it out using the smart phone or asking for slower simpler wording. We work well together. She is very patient with me. I also had some time talking with Benno. He is very creative and patient. We have fun using the translator on my smart phone.
Tim and Romy in Meersburg
I told Henry I really need a cycling partner that speaks only German. With this, I could build from the foundation that Romy has started. He called up his sister Heike Klemm in Borken to set this up. It is kind of like a blind date except Heike already has a boy friend. We will travel from Borken to Muenster and back. A total distance of about 120 Km. I look forward to meeting Heike on Thursday. I think we will work well together. We have been talking by phone and texting. She is patient with me like Romy.
Romy loves animals of all types. When she meets a dog in public, she will frequently pet the dog or give it a treat. She feeds the birds regularly. She will even leave a lump of jam in a dish at the breakfast table for the bees to eat.
Henry takes Benno under his wing. They do projects together like building a sailboat or performing a science experiment. Benno likes to play with fire. Henry thinks this is fine as long as it’s properly supervised.
It has been twenty years since I have been with these guys all together. The company we worked for is long gone, we all have different jobs. Jürgen, Henry, and I all have moved to different homes not far from our old ones. Jürgen and I have retired. Me to ride my bike. Jürgen is sailing his sailboat (Laser) out on the lake and has a good tan to show for it. He also bought an RV and travels through Europe with his wife Ursula. Michael is consulting with many companies and knows a lot of impressive people in science. Henry is working with an automotive engineering group in Illinois. He also does some consulting on the side. He has a side interest in trading currency and the like.
We spent 3 hours talking about old stories and new ones. We might have continued longer, but the restaurant was closing for the night.
Offline I met with Paul Hing at the Galgen Holtzle, a bar in Überlingen. Sorry Paul, I forgot to take a picture. Paul originally came from Applied Biosystems in California. He was part of our cycling group which would meet every Saturday in the San Francisco Bay Area and ride the hills. He started a company near Überlingen and moved there about 20 years back. He sold the company to Miltenyi Biotec, but still holds the position of CTO there. Paul dreams about retiring and building a tree house to live in somewhere near Seattle. One might think this is just a crazy dream. However, Paul has already bought the land. It has ten large cedar trees, any one of which would make a good candidate for his tree house.
Paul heads up a team of engineers and scientists at Miltenyi. He has a lot of experience with building teams. We had a good discussion about the differences in culture between US and German culture in the engineering environment. I later discussed this with Henry who also has a lot of experience. I came away with the idea that both cultures are hard working and productive. The German culture is more skeptical. This simply means that the German engineer is less willing to take things on faith.
Überlingen is a classy German city with a population of more than twenty thousand. It sits directly on the Lake of Constance The lake is one of the largest fresh water lakes in Europe. The lakeshore touches Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. It attracts sport boats of many types, wind surfers, and scuba divers. Yes, the water is remarkably clear and remarkably deep. It has a natural hot spring in Überlingen, and possibly other places.
While I was in Überlingen, I swam in the lake, visited the hot spring, took many bike rides to nearby towns with Romy and Henry. One thing they wanted to point out was the work of Peter Lenk. This artist created many sculptures. Many are on display in Überlingen and neighboring towns.
Peter Lenk has a very satirical style. The political and social satire becomes very clear in his work.
The remarkable thing is these sculptures are prominently displayed in the city centers, not in a corner of some museum. Here I detect an openness to discord in German culture that we don’t have in the US.
German Rock and Roll
In a nearby town, Meersburg I think. There was a festival going with traditional German music.
The one fixed date in my schedule was to be present at the start of Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). This is an out and back course from Paris to Brest then back to Paris. It is 600km (375mi) each way. I did not participate this time, but I did follow the course from the start until Fougères. Michelle Santilhano was originally planning to do PBP but missed some cutoff date for a qualifier and so was unable to officially register. We decided to meet at the start line and ride part of the course unofficially.
It was my plan to ride it slowly, stop often, and get a full night sleep each night. I did not have any time constraints. With my fully loaded touring bike, and level of training, I would not be able to keep pace with the PBP participants even if I wanted to. Michelle, with her lighter bike and better training, probably could.
We left the starting line in Rambouillet 5 hours before the official 90 hour start. Thus, we would not be caught in the complex swarm of bikes at the start line, and we would get to see the lead riders come by after they’ve sorted themselves into the fastest pelotons. This offered some unique perspectives for me.
On the first day we made it to the first time station in Mortange-au-Perche. After the lead riders passed us late in the day, we were dropping further back in the field, we would see progressively slower riders. In the evening we stayed in a hotel room with a window overlooking the course. It was fascinating to watch the chaotic flow of cyclists on the street below. I knew they would be riding through the night on courage and caffeine getting their first short nap after sunrise, or giving up unable or unwilling to make the time cutoffs.
On the second day we made it nearly to Villaines-la-Juhel, the second time station. At this rate it would take us about two weeks to do the whole course, which was not our plan. Early in the second day we saw several returning riders, about one a minute on average. This was not the lead pack returning from Brest. I conclude these are the DNFs (did not finish). DNF is a general category for those that decided to give up or did not make the time cut offs. I guess that with 13,000 riders, there can be many DNFs.
We met our friend Deb Banks at a cafe before Mortange-au-Perche. She was headed back to Paris with a story of a valiant attempt. She had broken her hip just months before the start of PBP. She gave it everything she had and made it to the first time station. Her new goal was to visit the Cathedral at Chartes before returning to the start line near Paris
Late in the second day we saw the first pelotons returning from Brest. They appeared fatigued but still riding strong. Though the rules only give credit for finishing the race without recognizing who finished first, PBP still becomes a race to finish first. The riders at the front of the pack all recognize this.
Stopping for morning coffee, we meet Deb Banks and swap stories.
In the town of Gorron, near the third time station, Fougères. We stopped to get a fresh melon to eat. We found a group of recumbent (velocouche) enthusiasts. They were cheering on the PBP participants and watching the real time results on the website for their own rider’s progress. The discussion proceeded, some in English some in French. I casually asked if they knew ‘Les CycloMigrateurs’. There was a resounding affirmative response.
OK, it turns out my friends Irene and Joël are famous amongst recumbent riders in this region. I suddenly felt quite fortunate to be headed to their place as guests. It was fun explaining that they had stayed at my place in San Francisco, and that now I was following in their foot steps, traveling the world indefinitely.
Amongst the hot tips that cyclists share about PBP, a big one is the Crepes place about 10km east of Fougères. This place has been in operation since I started doing PBP in 2003 and probably much earlier than that. The idea is that Paul and his wife (name?) make crepes all night and all day for the duration of PBP. They give them out free with the your promise that you will send a post card from your home. We stopped in for a crepe. We explained that we were not participating. We got the crepe anyway. Good people.
The address to send your postcard
Komoot Frequently Delivers amazing routes
Once we got to Fougères, we left the PBP course and started using a course generated by Komoot, my digital dominatrix. The idea was to take a relatively direct route to Joël and Irene’s place near Rennes. It did generate a good route, but along the way we were directed to a path in the Forest of Liffré. The map shows a legitimate traffic circle. When we found this circle, It was like something from a lost civilization. I had a good belly laugh over this place in the woods. It would be a great candidate for stealth camping.
Upon arriving at the home of Joël and Irène, we were treated to some very fine hosting. They have an amazing place. It has many advanced ideas for organic (Bio) living. For instance, they process the grey water from their home through their garden, then into a frog pond. And that’s not all. The main bathroom uses a dry toilet which works remarkably well.
The house is in a quiet village, Noyal-sur-Vilaine. Down the road is a small organic dairy farm where they buy all their milk unpasteurized. Michele made quick friends with Alexandra, the woman from the farm. She also named all the young cows.
The table scraps from the evening meal are offered to Edmund, the wild hedge hog that lives in the hedges I suppose. Edmund repays the gesture by eating all the slugs in the garden. A good symbiotic relationship.
Joël and Irène planned a big day for us. The following day we drove out to the coast to see Mont San Michelle, one of the seven wonders of the world. It is a huge Cathedral built on a large rock out in the ocean near the border of Brittany and Normandy. It has been modified over the centuries. The first building was completed in 740AD. The tides at Normandy are large enough so that at low tide, the island that the Cathedral is standing on is actually no longer an island.
Joël and Irène gave us a grand tour of the place bottom to top. They pointed out that when the tide comes in, the water front moves so fast that one cannot out run it.
Tim and Michelle take a tour guided by Joel and Irene.
Mont San Michelle at low tide appears to be land locked
The same day we also attended a rock concert in the park and a light show projected onto a large public building in the center of Rennes. This is something I have not seen in the US, but it has become quite popular in France. Each performance is designed specifically for the building it uses. The features of the building are specifically incorporated into the light show.
Bretagne Sans Michele
Early the next morning, Michele departed for a monastery in Taizé. I stayed with Irène and Joël for a few days more. One of the joys of travel is to live with and experience life with the local residents. I got the full experience there.
Irène’s grandchildren came to visit for a week before school starts. Hugo is 5 and Eva is 7, I think. It was fun interacting with them. Perhaps I am the first adult they have ever met that does not speak French very well. Frequently they would say something to me in French which I was unable to parse. I would respond in French that I do not know French well. Eventually they felt comfortable enough to try out some English with me.
We attended a large party at the home of Noel and Evelynne in the Domagné countryside. I estimate there were 30-50 people there. Some came all the way from Paris for this party. There was a sound stage set up which was well used by many in the crowd. We were lucky to have Yves, a good friend and professional chef. He produced Quiches and Flam Kuchen, amongst many other specialities.
I played my first game of Pétanque. This is similar to Italian Bocce, but does not require a court to play. A patch of gravel worked well for us.
In this large group where many are meeting for the first time, there was an easygoing feel. People found it easy to be themselves, with little concern about how they may be judged. This left a good impression on me. J’aime Bretagne!
I had some time to plan my travels. Now I have only about two months left on my EU tourist visa. Joël and Irène provided some good ideas and tips for travel. I decided it would be best to travel by train to Strasbourg and cycle there after along the Danube to the Black Sea. This is a popular route for cyclists.
On my last night in Brittany, Irène made a special Crepes Flambé with Grand Mariners, fireworks of the tasty kind. The next morning Joël drove me to the train station in Rennes. Irène gave me some cookies and Grand Mariners to enjoy on the long ride to Strasbourg.
Antwerp, Belgium: August 14, 2019 Odometer 956 mi.
(Note to reader: In this section there are two people, both named Wouter. One lives in Amsterdam, the other in Antwerp.)
After much preparation, I had all my belongings loaded into two large cardboard boxes, and a carry on bag. This was merely routine for Wouter and Hein as they have done this dozens of times. For me it was tedious and full of uncertainty. I had never disassembled the new bike before. Though Dana had gone over it once with me in the shop, I still had to make one call to Dana during the process.
Cherissa and I drove all the equipment to the airport in ‘Moby’, the great white goat transport wagon. Wouter and Hein took BART and met us there (Moby had not enough seats). This was the easy part.
When we finally arrived in Amsterdam, Wouter and Hein got in the fast passport control, as they are EU citizens. When I finally caught up with them at baggage claim, they already had all their bags. Hein pointed out that one of my two boxes was already there, and that they would meet me on the other side of customs for a beer.
I waited for about an hour for my last box. Wouter and Hein texted me that they must catch a train to Antwerp, so no beer unfortunately. I filed a claim for lost luggage and caught a Taxi to Sam and Wouter’s place in Amsterdam.
It took three days for KLM to bring my bike to Sam and Wouter’s place. Fortunately, Sam and Wouter are very generous hosts and told me I could stay as long as needed. They introduced me to their new addition to the family.
Fritz is a Turkish rescue dog that is brimming with love. He spent 4 years in a Turkish shelter for dogs, and now lives with Sam and Wouter. He shows his appreciation by quietly pressing his shoulder to your hip at every opportunity. Considering his past, he is remarkably Zen like. His steady reassuring way helped me stay calm about my missing bike.
Friday afternoon we visited the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. They are restoring Night Watch, a famous Rembrandt. We were also impressed by the Angry Swan. It’s amazing that they can get this animal to pose like this.
On Saturday the four of us drove south to the town of Beers. Wouter’s mother, Sophia and stepdad, Emil have a home there. It was Sophia’s birthday. We had some car trouble on the way, so we showed up a little late. There was a big garden party already in progress in the backyard.
Sophia and Emil’s backyard garden with fig tree and fish pond
We made our entrance, fashionably late. I think this was Fritz’s first time there, yet the new surroundings and lots of people did not phase him. He jumped directly in the fish pond as if it was there for that purpose. It immediately got everyone’s attention.
Wouter and Sam were clearly surprised and embarrassed. Fritz did a doggy paddle to the far end and climbed out onto the slate patio. Immediately someone appeared with a towel to dry off the dog.
Fritz got the party rolling well. Soon the pizza oven was up to temperature. Emil was well equipped to create some amazing pizzas for many hours. The party finally ended at 4am the next morning shortly after the last pizza came out of the oven. The adults all spoke fluent English and I enjoyed getting to know many of them. Emil is a mechanic for the Dutch Airforce. He had many stories to tell. Many of the children practiced their English skills for me.
We spent the night at Sophia and Emil’s place then on the return trip to Amsterdam, we stopped in the town of Woudenberg. Woudenberg is a small town in the Bible Belt region of Holland. It was Sunday. Most of the stores were closed. We stopped for a bite to eat and went to a nearby historic monument, called Pyramide. This was built by one of Napoleon’s contemporaries. Apparently, the General had some time to kill so he had his men build this pyramid of sod, to keep them busy.
Preserving the sod monument requires considerable work which was on-going. We had fun making videos while we were there.
Late Monday night the bike finally was delivered. I finished assembling and testing it on Tuesday morning.
As I was leaving, Wouter pointed out that the forecast was for heavy rain for the next few days. With the delay, there is no chance of making it to Paris by Friday. I decided to address both issues by riding the bike to the train station in Amsterdam and taking a train to Antwerp.
Jump to Antwerp
Wouter and Hein live together in a large house in Antwerp. There are three floors and a basement. The top most floor is set up as an apartment with its own kitchen. It’s a great place with a wonderful garden in the back yard. They have lots of room for Warmshowers guests.
While I was there we had three other Warmshowers members join us. Wouter and Hein made dinner and breakfast for us. It was great to be part of the discussions which ranged from metaphysics, bicycles, and how to properly swear in Flemish and Dutch.
Hannah and Arie are students from Holland. They are traveling together, returning from Paris. They will start their undergraduate studies in Holland soon. Christian has dual citizenship (Canada, Holland). He has been cycling through the winter here in Holland and Belgium. He plans to continue touring as long as the money lasts.
Christian had many helpful insights on touring, including stealth camping in Europe. His rules differ considerably from the lesson I got from Gunner in California. Christian prefers to disappear from view, using bushes or a tarp. He waits until dusk to set up camp and breaks camp at dawn. He never camps on private land without the owner’s permission. Hannah and Arie also have had some experience with stealth camping.
I was fascinated with Hannah’s bike. It belongs in a museum. She explained that the bike she intended was stolen shortly before the tour. This was a bike that she borrowed and pressed into service as a last resort. We all applauded her courage. The bike had a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub which was frozen in the highest gear. So she would walk the bike up the steeper hills she encountered. The brand name of ‘Juncker’ would probably present a challenge if it were ever marketed in the US.
Wouter’s tour of Antwerp
It is really nice to get a tour of a city from someone who lives there. The insider’s perspective cannot be replaced by a professional presentation polished smooth by repetition. Wouter did well here. We could easily get from place to place on bicycles. From the top of the Antwerp harbor building, we got a good look at the city which is home to one of the world’s largest and most active ports.
Wouter brought me to a church in Antwerp where he once had an apartment that was somehow connected to the church. The photograph shows the church yard which was the view from the back window of his apartment. Wouter had the benefit of the church music several times a day. He said that when he lived there, the locals would use the church yard for barbecues and picnics after hours, with permission from the church.
Wouter explains that many of the old buildings in Antwerp were going to be destroyed and replaced by modern apartments back in the 60’s. Fortunately wisdom prevailed. There are many streets of well preserved buildings of history. Wouter also told me a story about how some of the priceless artwork was rescued from a burning church, by the neighborhood prostitutes during the war. I learned that Antwerp also has a red light district similar to Amsterdam. Though Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world, this is not really advertised to the casual tourist. August 15 is Mother’s Day in Antwerp. This holiday is connected with the church, as it also commemorates Mary’s ascension into heaven. There were many tourists in and around The Cathedral. Wouter and I got free entrance to the place as a result.
After a good tour, we met up with Hein at the Dragon for drinks and dinner at a nearby restaurant. We were joined by Anime (sp?), a long time friend of Wouter and Hein. We stayed out late. I got to test out my bike lights in city traffic on the way home. We got in about midnight. I set my alarm for an early start to the train station in the morning.
Jump to Paris
I use the term ‘Jump’ to make clear that I am riding the train, not cycling. Wouter and Hein tease me endlessly of being The poseur, because I’m claiming to tour Europe with my bike and not really pedaling it much. It’s a good natured ribbing, and I play into it by pointing out I have to wake early for my ‘training’ session tomorrow.
I woke and headed out to find that Wouter and Hein were also awake and preparing our breakfast at 6:20am. I was honored by this warm send off. The delay was well worth it. I made my first train with no trouble.
Because I wished to travel without disassembling my bike, I could not use the big TGV international trains. My travel to Paris required taking regional trains with many connections. The ones I used looked newer and less decorated than the one in the photo. They also ran on time unfortunately. I just missed the connection in Amiens, FR. I needed more time to perfect my technique of bouncing the bike down the stairs to the Voie (track). It only cost me 2 hours delay, and now I have a new skill.
The last few hundred miles ride down the California coast has confirmed my connection to cycle touring. I’m getting stronger while losing weight slowly. I have also learned a bit about where to stay. Hiker/Biker sites are available in many, but not all State Parks. This is where many cyclists are sharing a single campsite. They do not require a reservation. Cyclists or Hikers arrive and share a single site. This is not at all preplanned. This is the core of the cycle touring world, as I understand it.
The people you meet here are what connects me to this mode of travel. I’ve met a Ph.D. Student and his three year old daughter traveling by tandem on a ten mile overnight. Another father daughter tandem team, Charles and Gabby, I spent several days with. Traveling over hundreds of miles together. This is their annual trek down the coast. They knew which are the best campgrounds. They had friends in Sea Ranch, CA who fed and entertained us then put us up for a night. I definitely benefitted from their hot tub.
Traveling together over several days creates a bond, these bonds form networks. Here some of the travelers are northbound, some are southbound. As a loosely formed group, we southbounders can travel together over days and hundreds of miles. We can get to know each other. A group can add or subtract members as we do not all travel at the same speed, or stay at the same place. Reunions are good. We compare notes on where we’ve stayed. Get a wider knowledge.
Of the northbounders, I only get a glimpse. We interact only at one meeting. We can exchange knowledge on what lies ahead. Smoke from a distant Oregon fire was of concern to the northbounders. I had seen some of it, but not much to worry about.
I met Steve, a high school teacher from Portland. I was explaining my plan of meeting up with two Belgians near the end of the trip, but that they were a day or so behind us, which I had determined by emails we were sending. Steve was certain he had met them earlier on, as they had told him of their plans to meet me. As the Belgians got closer, I got a few updates from southbounders that had seen them.
Steve leaning on an exhibit at the mountain bike museum in Fairfax
I got to the final campground at Samuel P. Taylor State Park on August 3, and realized that I had arrived there a day earlier than I had agreed to meet the Belgians. They were not behind, I was ahead. Oops! Ok, this is an easy problem to correct.
The next morning I dropped my panniers in the bear locker of the campground with a note that said I would be back to collect it latter that day. My plan was to escort Steve out to the Golden Gate Bridge, then return to S P Taylor to stay a second night and meet the Belgians. It all worked.
Wouter and Hein are now my guests, staying at my place in San Francisco. When they return to Europe on August 8th, I plan to be on the same plane, starting my European tour. So, we joke that they are training me to be European. When I asked how long this would take, they pointed out that the British worked on this for many decades without having much luck.
I am very lucky to find these two. They have been touring Europe and Asia for decades. No kidding, dozens of trips. Though they both have full time jobs in Belgium, they can go on extended tours of months at a stretch. In one case it was one year continuously. Things like the details of prepping a bike for air travel is all second nature.
They are careful to point out differences in European travel. For instance, campgrounds in Europe do not have picnic tables. It would be best to carry a folding camp chair, because of this. Or, in Europe there are not meals with all ingredients in one box, like American mac & cheese, or a can of chili. It would be best if I could travel with them in Europe for a while and learn more. Unfortunately, they will need to go back to their jobs.
When we got close to the Golden Gate Bridge, it became clear that it would be a foggy crossing. This is not dangerous, just not very memorable. I pointed out that they could get a better crossing by taking a ferry from Sausalito. For these two, the thought of not crossing the bridge was not to be considered.
I get it that when your friends ask, ‘Did you cross the Golden Gate?’. The answer had better be yes, even if it was kind of a dull crossing. The following day, we did a walking tour of San Francisco that was more fun and less fog.
In the afternoon, we met up with my cycling buddies at The Zeitgeist pub in SOMA. Beer, tall tales of past victories, and failures, some good natured ribbing, as well as some commiserating on the issues of dealing with an aging body. Jim Kern said something I really liked. ‘The process of aging is not for wimps. Get with the challenge or just go home’.
It was a good welcome home and send off for me. It has been a long time since we all got together. I have nothing further to write, and I have to finish packing up my stuff for the flight to Amsterdam tomorrow…
Beer at the Zeitgeist in San Fran. Clockwise from the lower left: Wouter, Tim, Chris Eisenbarth, Graham Pollock, Jim Kern, Hein