Zurich to Paris

September 5, 2021

The total distance from Zurich to Paris is almost 800km by the route I took. This included a visit to Überlingen, Germany and the home of my good friends Henry and Romy.

It’s a flat 85km ride across Switzerland to the border with Germany, then a ferry ride across the lake to Meersburg. A few kilometers further and I was in Ueberlingen, an easy one day trip. Flat rides are fast.

The border crossing by bike was a non-event. I fully expected to have my vaccination status checked, coming into the EU and all. I rode across the border and no one even noticed me doing it.

The route from Zurich to Überlingen am Bodensee

Romy and Henry live near the shore of Bodensee (Lake of Constance). Ueberlingen is a resort town and also was the home of Perkin-Elmer in Germany where Henry and I worked many years ago.

They have a new dog since I’ve seen them two years ago, a good looking and well behaved chocolate Labrador named Mila, just eight months old.

Henry and Romy are good hosts. Like last time, Henry gave me his office with a single bed and an adjacent bathroom to use as my own. Romy prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner with a smile.

Henry and I have a shared interest in investing. He is far more analytical than I, so I am always keen to see what tools he is using. Much of it he puts together himself. He’s an engineer after all.

We are of different minds when it comes to issues like vaccination, and climate change. I guess normally people would carefully avoid these topics, but Henry and I just jump right in.

What I appreciate most is that Henry is smart and we can have a good debate. We don’t argue the facts. We look them up. It leaves me with a better appreciation of the opposing argument. This is something you don’t get if you only speak to people you agree with.

Still, I feel like Henry and I are hammering away at each other’s position with wooden mallets on tool steel. Opinions are hard to change.

Henry’s position stands on the fact that mRNA based vaccines are new, and the long term effects are unknown. We get into long discussions on how many people are actually injured by the virus. It turns out that Germany has handled the pandemic quite well.

Germany flattened the curve far better than the US, and also much of Europe. Henry is not quick to congratulate his government’s response however. He sees it as overbearing and destructive to the economy.

Romy does not speak English and so my German was put to the test here. Frequently Henry would chime in with the needed translation. I clearly need more practice. She introduces me to her friends as ‘Der Weltenbummler’.

But Romy shows real joy in my being there, that transcends language. When the day came to say goodbye, she packed me a big lunch for the road then walked me out to the garage and saw me off with tears in her eyes. I told her I would come back again sometime.

The Klemm family is doing well. I visited the home of their daughter, Jeanine and her husband, Markus. The grandson Benno is now nine and has taken an interest in robotics.

When I was there, Benno burst in the door with a plan to set up a lemonade stand with some friends in the neighborhood. He had a plan written out for his mom to make 4 liters of lemonade and 3 dozen muffins. Clearly a good engineering candidate.

I would’ve liked to visit Henry’s sister, Heike this time. But we could not make it work. She lives in North Germany, near Essen. It gives me another reason to come back to Germany.

My concern was making it to Paris to meet my friends Scott and Gillian on Tuesday Sept 7, and also miss the rain forecasted in Paris on Saturday, Sept 4. Though I am set up to ride in the rain, and have done so a few times on this trip, I like riding on sunny days. Rainy days are good for catching up on my blog or visiting museums.

On toward Paris

Heading north from Ueberlingen through the Black Forest and across the Rhein river into Strasbourg, France
There is a gradual climb in the Black Forest, then a precipitous drop into Hornberg, Germany. Thereafter the course is quite flat into Paris.

The climb up from Bodensee through the Black Forest is gentle and I make good progress under overcast skies. There is a huge descent in this direction. When I did this route two years ago, it was a huge climb, as I was going in the opposite direction.

I wanted to get down into the flatlands before it started raining. Steep gravel roads can be difficult in the rain. I just made it into Hornberg when a light rain started falling. Success!

Though it was only 3pm and more daylight left, I decided to stop for the day in a small village on the Kinzig river. My goal of making it to Paris before the rain on Saturday was at risk. But it was raining now and my rain jacket was starting to have zipper issues. A tall German beer made the decision easier to make.

Arrived in France

National border runs straight down the middle of the Rhein river in Strasbourg

Crossing from Germany into France is all within the EU. The dominant language changes, but it’s all one currency. No one stops me to ask questions, as expected. I do notice one difference as I head deeper into France. The restaurants ask to see a ‘Pass Sanitare’.

Pass Sanitare

A Pass Sanitare is a QR code that says you have either been vaccinated, tested recently, or recovered from Covid. Showing my CDC certificate doesn’t work here. Well OK, I am a cyclist not using trains, nor buses. I am eating outdoors in sidewalk cafes or parks. I can skate by without a Pass Sanitare for a while. As I head into major cities, this becomes harder.

There is an email process for getting a Pass Sanitare where I send an image of my CDC certificate and Passport. I am still waiting for any reply on this.

I was getting worried, until I found a pharmacy clerk that spoke English in the town of Bar-Le-Duc. He scanned my documents and filled out the forms on line for me. It took less than five minutes. He printed out a one page document and said “That’s all you need.” He was right. I photographed the QR code and show that whenever needed. It’s a cool system.

In Paris it is used everywhere. Sidewalk cafes, Bateau Moche, even the Eiffel Tower. I noticed a train load of passengers boarding a regional train (not a subway). They scanned the QR code of every passenger as they came onto the platform. It’s a big job when there are fifty passengers, but with three people scanning it does not create a huge backlog.

OK but I’m getting ahead of my story

Following the la Marne to Paris

Canals are marvelous things. I remember my dad explaining this to me as a boy. They are built to enable ships to move across land. The current in the canal is imperceptible, but not zero. Think of it as a set of stairs. Each stair is flat. Between each stair there is a few meters of elevation difference. There is also a lock (escluse in French).

The lock serves to lift (or drop) the boats a few meters to the next stair in an orderly fashion. Yet there are no pumps or power sources to lift the boats. It all works on gravity. There is an upstream gate and a down stream gate surrounding a space (the lock) which is large enough to contain a ship.

Ships travel up the canal in sequence like this: With the downstream gate open, the ship can move into the lock. The downstream gate closes behind the ship. Slowly the upstream gate is opened to allow water to flood the lock. The incoming water lifts the ship to the elevation of the next stair. When the upstream gate opens completely the ship is free to travel the next stair. Ships traveling down the canal have a similar sequence. They use the same locks.

These locks take about five minutes to execute this sequence. They are unmanned and totally automated. The ships captain can start the sequence by pulling a rope hanging over the canal about 100m upstream and downstream of the lock. There is a lock every kilometer or more depending on how much elevation is to be gained.

La Marne is a 40 or 50m wide canal running 400km from Strasbourg to Paris. It connects the Rhein with the Seine and is a small part of a system of canals that spans Europe.
A network of canals spanning Europe, including canals crossing Switzerland.
Operating the lock part 1
Operating the lock part 2

So, I hoped you enjoyed my explanation of how a canal worked. Maybe someone can figure out this puzzle:

The canal is all gravity driven. Water moves from the higher elevation source to the lower elevation sink. So one would imagine if I left Strasbourg going up the canal (gaining elevation). I would continue to do so for the entire run all the way to Paris. This is not the case. The second half of the journey to Paris is going down the canal (losing elevation). How could this be possible?

Stories from along the canal

So the ride from Strasbourg to Paris goes through Alsace and Lorraine, regions. This is a first time for me. Nearly all of my experience in France has been west of Paris. The people here are wonderful, just like all the people I meet in France.

I make a stop for lunch at the Papar Hasard, a restaurant and bar in Lorraine. I am surprised to find that they have Galette saucisse on the menu, a speciality of Bretagne. I get talking with the owner who is from Bretagne originally.

She likes my story of traveling the world. I almost have her talked into joining me on the spot, except she has this restaurant to run. She gets me to promise to have an oyster and smell the ocean when I get to Bretagne.

Bar-Le-Duc

In Bar-Le-Duc, I pull off of the canal and cruise the town for some lunch. Just by sheer luck, this place is an important place in the history of bicycles. It is where the Michaux brothers (Ernest, and Pierre) invented the High-Wheeler in the mid 1800’s. The town commemorates this with a large monument, and the town also holds an annual bike race, with teams competing from many nations within Europe. There are even some from Asia.

While sitting at a sidewalk table out in front of the bakery, eating my lunch, I had several conversations with the locals, including the shop owner herself. The conversations were challenging in a fun way. Half in French, half in English. We would pull out a translator when necessary.

I was telling one guy that I am retired and touring for my own entertainment. We talked about bike racing a bit. When I mentioned that I had done the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) event, he insisted on buying me a pastry named after the event. In fact the shop owner overheard us and insisted on paying for part of the gift.

Then, minutes later a cyclist rode up and stopped at my table. William wanted to know about my bike and my travels. He told me about the monument to the Michaux brothers.

We started talking about PBP. He told me stuff I didn’t know. For instance in the 50’s, the event was held as a race. There were professional cyclists competing. Eventually this was discontinued because such a long non-stop race is not healthy for professionals.

William and I rode off together to go see the monument to the Michaux inventors. Cool moments!

One thing I noticed following the canal is there are places you get that are far from services, like a hotel. There was one day where my system kinda fell apart.

I use my smart phone to navigate and find services. To navigate, I do not need cell signal. Komoot downloads all the maps I need ahead of time. I just need GPS, which is always there. But near the end of the day, I usually start scouting for a place to buy food and sleep. Campground or hotel, it can all be found on-line. Unless there is no signal.

Komoot says there is a big town coming up but it is out of range for today. I scout around in some small towns and talk to the locals. I get suggestions for towns that are closer but well off my path. I am not interested in that. I’m stuck.

I start looking for good places to pitch my tent. A public park would be perfect except, I don’t know what the rules are. I figure the best thing would be to find a spot where I am not seen. I could stash my bike in the bushes.

While I am setting up my tent under a bridge, I am discovered by a young girl walking her dog. The dog is barking wildly and she is surprised to see me there. She hurries along and we do not speak at all.

My first bivouac in Europe

The next morning, I wake up before 7am, pack my stuff, and leave. I got away with it.

A similar situation comes up a few nights later. I am feeling a little more confident and I find a good spot with a place to take a bath.

My second bivouac in Europe

The next morning I find it had rained during the night. My clothesline was loaded with wet clothes. That and my fly tarp had to be put away wet.

Then as I was organizing it all. I am discovered by a man walking his dog. He asked me if I had slept there the night before. He spoke French mostly, but I could gather his meaning. I admit to it. He walks off with his dog, but returns a few minutes later. He asks me if I would come to his house for breakfast. I accept.

During breakfast, I ask him to tell me about this place in French on video. I will get someone to explain it to me later. I discover that he is the Mayor of this community that encompasses three villages.

His name is Jean-Paul Regnier. The commune is Val-d’Ornain

Caught in the act by the authorities
According to the local paper, he was re-elected mayor in 2020

After this surprising breakfast, I rode onward, looking for someplace where I could replace my rain jacket, dry out my stuff, get a better cellphone connection, etc. I also needed to fix some minor bike mechanical stuff. What I needed was a good old American shopping mall (almost ashamed to admit it).

As luck would have it, I found one in Nancy, France. Unfortunately it was Sunday and the stores were all closed. But the hotels were open for business. I stayed the night, and the following night.

The next morning I went to Decathlon, a major sporting good store. It had a bike mechanic, and a selection of rain jackets on sale. It turns out Eric, my bike mechanic is also a recumbent (velo couche) enthusiast. Though there were other bikes in queue, he immediately put mine on the work stand and told me it would be done at 4pm.

There was also an Orange dealer, the leading cell service provider in France. Everything I needed all within walking distance of my hotel. I was in the mood to celebrate my good luck and walked over to a good restaurant for a meal. I was refused for lack of a Pass Sanitare. Can’t have everything go your way…

One evening as I was setting up my tent at a campground, I met Denis and Brigitte. A cycling couple from France. Denis is a forest ranger, Brigitte is a primary school teacher. She spoke English quite well and was happy to help translate for me.

They live near the Black Forest, but across the border in France. They go out on an extended cycling tour every year and had useful information for me. For instance, pitching a tent for a one night sleep out is called a bivouac. This is legal in France, as long as it is for one night only. The next night you can also camp out but it must be in another location. Good to know!

Arrived in Paris

Just off the bike, my unshaven face still caked with salt

It was a stretch for me to make it by Friday Sept 3. I had to pull a few 100km days back to back. It wasn’t too hard. The course was pretty flat. The rain I was hoping to avoid on Saturday did occur, though not much.

Anyway, I’m here waiting to sync up with my friends Gillian and Scott from Portland, OR. I get to take a week off the bike before our next adventure cycling out to Bretagne and beyond.

Note to the reader

I am aware that the order these stories appear in may not be exactly chronological. The stories are true, but the order is probably wrong in at least one case.