Today we took the train from Strasbourg, France to Mainz, Germany. We rode 7.75 km.
We woke up early, packed the bikes and rode a few blocks to the train station. Getting the bike to the platform was easy. We rolled right into the station and there was an elevator to the platform. We were able to leave all the bags on the bikes and simply roll them into the elevator, one-by-one. Once we were up on the platform, Mila and Jette ran back down to get breakfast and snacks for later. Fully provisioned, we made our way down the platform. The train was already there,standing empty but the doors were locked. After half an hour or so, they powered up the train and unlocked the doors. Thankfully it was one of the commuter trains where the floor of the train is level with the platform, so when the unlocked the doors, once again we simply rolled the bikes on, fully loaded. So nice!
Up the elevator
On the platform
The first train of the day
Bike on the train
Apples and Math
About twenty minutes later we rolled the bikes off in Appenweier. The plan was to go to the ticket agent there and buy tickets for Mainz for us and the bikes. The train pulled away and we were left standing on an empty platform. There was no station, no ticket agent. Just the empty platform of a suburban commuter station. Thankfully there was a ticket machine. Using the ticket machine we were able to find the trains to Mainz and purchase tickets for ourselves. The only problem was the bikes. The schedule said that reservations were required to transport bicycles on that route, but the ticket machine did not let us make reservations, nor did it tell us how we might do so. With no other options, we decided to simply do it, and ask for forgiveness not reservations!
More math while we wait for the next train
As we stood waiting on the platform, we realized that the tickets said “Platform 1” and the platform we were waiting on had a sign saying “9.”Odd. There were no other platforms in sight. This appeared to be a one platform station. Adjacent to the ticket machine Mila found a display which showed a map of the station. Cleary there were other platforms out of view. We hopped on our bikes, rode down the sidewalk, around a corner, along a street under an overpass and back up on the other side where there there two more platforms. (Still no station or ticket agents). Whew! That was a close one. Our train arrived and once again it was a regional commuter. We rolled the bikes on to a busy train and they just fit. There was some contortionist action necessary but we were on. A few stops later, off again and another train. This time it was a regional express. Almost empty. We had to unload the bikes this time, but there was plenty of room for bikes and bags, and it was pretty easy to split them across two cars. It was a comfortable ride and we looked out the window to changing scenery. Flatlands and corn fields were being replaced with rolling hills, vineyards, and large, modern windmills. The conductor announced Mainz as the next stop. A rushed dance of bikes and bags and we were standing on the Mainz platform with the train pulling away.
Comfy regional express train
Two elevators later we rolled out of the station and into traffic of the city. We made our way across town to the Gutenberg Museum. Yes, that Gutenberg. You know, the German dude with the printing press and the bible who effectively ended the Middle Ages, ushered in modernity, and utterly transformed the world? Yeah, him. OK, perhaps it wasn’t him alone, but he was a pivotal figure and his printing innovations helped to user in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Protestant Reformation.
Waco and Jette in Mainz
Our bikes parked at the Guterberg Museum
Printing demonstration at the Gutenberg Museum
It was a very nice museum with a large vault room housing original Gutenberg Bibles and a large collection of pre-Gutenberg hand written books of incalculable value, presses of various types and four floors of exhibits to put it all in context. Photography was not allowed, except for the printing demonstration.
After the museum it was time for fuel (a.k.a. “food”). Across the plaza from the museum were a number of restaurants. Jette went straight for Taco Kidd, the first “mexican” food we had seen for some time. The folks there were super nice and fixed Jette up with a bean and cheese burrito. It wasn’t Tex-Mex but it was good.
Jette enjoying a bean and cheese burrito
Mila and I opted for one of the plaza cafes where she had beef tips (yes, you read that right, Mila ate beef tips! When in Rome…) and I had a really delicious salad. The only photo I shot of Mila has her with her eyes closed, so I’ll post this one of our smokey neighbors on the patio. It is still shocking how many people in Europe still smoke, and smoke constantly. You can’t see it in this photo, but all of these guys were smoking non-stop. D-i-s-g-u-s-t-i-n-g but typical. Despite the smokies, it was a nice dinner.
As the sun was getting low, it was starting to get chilly. In fact some of the trees think it is already Fall.
Our bikes and fall leaves
After dinner we rode across the river to our campsite. We crossed and rode along the biggest and busiest road we have seen for a long time, and then up and over a big bridge. The noise from the traffic was jarring. After the quiet country roads, canal paths and forest trails, the noise, foul air and general chaos of the city traffic was a shock to the senses.
Looking across to our campsite
Crossing the bridge
The campsite was right across the river, with a great view of the city. The location made up for a grumpy proprietor who seemed more interested in smoking and drinking on the patio than assisting guests. While we were setting up camp, we met Alan from Alaska, a super nice guy who had just arrived in Europe and was beginning a bike tour of his own. His plan was to ride up the Rhine to Rotterdam and then South West along the cost of France and possibly Spain. We spent probably an hour or more talking that evening and then again in the morning. He’s cycled the continental US East-West from coast to coat and North-South from border to border. He’s even cycled through Alpine, Texas ;-). Alan, if you read this, we wish you safe travels and tailwinds!
We haven’t had a pop quiz for a while, so here you go kiddos:
POP QUIZ! Western History is typically divided into three main periods: Antiquity, ____________, and the Modern Period.
Today we rode 37.27 km from Boofzheim to (and around) Strasbourg.
We awoke to a chilly morning. The temperature was in the low 40’s Fahrenheit. I tossed and turned all night in my very light sleeping bag, not because I was too cold but because it felt like it wasn’t breathing and I was very cool and clammy all night. The sleeping bag is very lightweight REI Travel Sack. It is only rated down to 55 degrees. The bag Mila has been using is rated to 45 degrees. They are both very lightweight summer bags as we were originally expecting to have finished our trip by about now. We’ll see how our luck fares with the Fall weather coming on. Jette’s bag is a very warm sleeping bag that I bought from a climber when I was in the mountains of Northern Pakistan near the Hunza Valley more than 20 years ago, so she’ll be toasty warm regardless!
Good chilly morning!
We packed up camp and headed to the local grocery store, which happened to be a huge “Super U” for breakfast and food for the road.
Super U bakery
Breakfast of Champions! (not champignons, LOL)
After breakfast it was back to the canal path.
Back on the path
Strasbourg here we come!
Along the canal
As we got close to Strasbourg, we began to really see boats on the canal. We passed more WWII fortifications. As we came into town the path was below the level of the water and the canal was lined with trees. In the age before automobiles when the canal commerce was in full swing, I can imagine that this served as quite a dramatic entrance to the city.
Big boats on the canal
Stopping to feed the swans
A very pretty section of the canal
More WWII fortifications
The canal beside the highway as we enter Strasbourg
Once in town, we went straight to the Gare Centrale (central train station) to enquire about tickets to Mainz. Mila waited outside with our bikes and Jette and I went into the station to talk to a ticket agent. We had to take a number and wait half an hour or so. Although she printed us some timetables and route options. the ticket agent seemed unsure about the German train options. She insisted that there were no direct trains or express trains that would take bicycles, even from Strasbourg to Frankfurt. The routes she was suggesting had 3 or 4 o5 transfers. Not fun with loaded bicycles. She did say that buying tickets for the German part of the journey would be cheaper if we bought them in Germany. We left without buying tickets to find some food.
Parking at the train station
We stopped at a donner kebab restaurant not far from the station and refueled. While we were eating, I searched for a hotel on my phone. We found a couple of options nearby. The first was fully booked but the second one had a room. We unloaded bikes got settled into the room. There was a teapot, what a luxury! Mila and Jette took advantage of the internet connection and I went back to the train station. We had decided to buy a ticket to one of the first German towns on the route and then explore our options from there. I rode to the train station, asked the information desk about the rules for bikes on trains and bought tickets to Appenweier, a German town just East of Strasbourg. The tickets were only about 16 Euros for all three of us on a regional commuter train, not tickets or reservations necessary for the bikes.
With tickets in hand and it was time to go explore the town. We headed to the Strasbourg Cathedral. It is truly an amazing building. It is an impossibly tall and striking example of high Gothic architecture. The scale, the ornate detail, and the excellent condition of the exterior boggle the mind. As you approach it through the narrow streets of the city and catch your first glimpse of it towering over the rooftops, it seems impossibly large and impossibly detailed.
At 142 metres (466 feet), it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (227 years), when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai’s Church, Hamburg. Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages.
Described by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel”, and by Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God”, the cathedral is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine. Sandstone from the Vosges used in construction gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue.
There is no doubt that, in its time, it must have struck awe and fear and wonder in the minds of the people and communicated quite clearly the power of the church.
Architecture aside, our friends Helen and Patrick were married there, and their daughters Eva and Elise were christened there, so that added a nice personal touch to our visit.
On Helen’s recommendation, we searched for their favorite cookie store and carousel in the neighborhood, so it was an evening of treats.
As the sun got low in the sky we decided it was time to find some dinner. We wandered the side streets of the neighborhood but ended up back at a touristy place on the plaza in front of the cathedral. Not our typical choice, but it was getting late and cold and we didn’t want to spend any more time looking for other options. It turned out to be delicious and the waiter was quite a friendly character who bantered with us in English and got Jette to order in French. It was also the first day of school for the local medical school and the new students were being hazed in public. There were groups of them in nothing but white lab coats, covered in shaving cream (or some kind of foam) singing bawdy songs to passers by or doing other silly things. There was also a big group of young people with signs saying FREE HUGS! I got a hug.
Medical student hazing
Dinner in front of the cathedral
After dinner, we rode back to the hotel and enjoyed hot baths (sorry no photos!) in the hotel room. The simple pleasures are always the best!
Today we rode 53.5 km from Neuf Briasch to Boofzheim. We almost made it to Strasbourg! We are so close.
Since we slept in the Hobbit Hole last night, packing the bags and bikes was a pretty quick affair this morning.
Packed and ready to roll
We hit the road at about 10:20 and following the route signs, somehow did about a 5 or 6 km loop before we got on the right path headed North. We didn’t have any problems at all with the signs in Switzerland or Germany, but for some reason the French signs seem a bit tricky. Its not a function of not being able to read them (we can), but rather the placement of the signs, the number of different routes indicated, and je ne sais quoi. While on our loop we met a nice Canadian couple on a tandem and chatted for a few minutes. It wasn’t long before we were on the right path.
Headed North again
It was more cornfields and small villages, and then we were on a long, straight path along the Rhone au Rhin Canal once again.
We stopped for lunch at a village with a patisserie. It was the only thing we could find, and it was quite good. We each ate a sandwich and took some pain au chocolate to go for fuel along the way.
One of the highlights of the day for Jette was finding and exploring an old, spider-filled bunker from World War II. This area is full of the old concrete fortifications which formed the Maginot Line. This was a good opportunity for a quick talk about the history of WWII.
World War Two bunker
It is difficult to see, but next to Jette’s leg in the photo above is the gun slot out of which soldiers would presumably look and shoot. There was a narrow trail through the brush and down a small slope to the back where there were two openings into the bunker. Each had a “drop” of about 4 feet down into the bunker. I’m assuming this was so soldiers could have a good amount of cover for themselves if engaging enemies from the rear entrances. We scampered around and I helped Jette down the drop and into the entrance. Jette slid easily past the old iron door which was stuck partially open. I really had to squeeze through.
Sliding down to the back of the bunker
Helping Jette down
Jette slips easily through the narrow doorway
I squeeze through
Into the dark
Oh, hello spiders.
Lots of black spiders on the walls and ceiling
G.I. Jette. Smooth operator.
After exploring the bunker, it was back on the canal path.
Back on the canal path
We rode for a while and stopped in the village of Sundhouse for some refreshments. We were hoping for a snack, but the only thing open was a bar, so drinks it was.
Choosing a tea
Refreshed and ready to roll
The weather was cool and the path was flat. We passed the time talking and looking for fish in the water. We saw some big ones, probably 60 cm long.
The Rhone au Rhin Canal
Looking for fish
The first hints of Fall are not just in the air, but on the ground. Some of the trees are already dropping their leaves and the edges of the path are lined with coppery red leaves.
As we approach the area around Boofzheim, we reach the section of the canal that is still in use and navigable. We see our first boats on the canal.
We also decide that it is time to call it a day and find a place to sleep. We leave the canal path and head into the town of Boofzheim to a campground.
Headed for camp
Getting ready to pitch the tent
Tent pitched, it’s time for miniature golf.
Surprisingly, the internet connection is strong enough for a quick (and rare) Facetime session with a friend.
The campground is close enough to Strasbourg and just enough off the route that they don’t get many cyclists. We are welcomed as something of an oddity, particularly as Americans. Tonight the campground restaurant is having a special dinner of a spécialité d’Alsace – the tarte flambée. I had two gratinée.
We were late in getting packed this morning. It was just past 11:00 when we left the campground and went into Neuf Brisach. Mila wasn’t feeling well and I think we were all a bit tired and grumpy.
Crossing into Neuf Brisach
It struck us as exceedingly quiet and a bit rough around the edges. There were few shops or restaurants and even fewer open. We rode around town for a bit and then stopped at the grocery store and assembled a lunch.
Lunch on a bench
We talked about today’s ride and where we might find a campground. Both the guidebooks and Google maps presented few options between here and Strasbourg, some 69km away. Even hotels seem few and far between on this particular stretch. With the late start and everyone feeling tired, we were hoping for a short 25 km day, but looking at the map that just didn’t seem feasible. After lunch we went to find tea and coffee and I spent quite a bit of time on my phone searching for possible accommodation along the way.
Before we knew it, it was 2:00 and Mila’s head was still throbbing. We decided that this would officially be a rest day and headed back to camp. Much to Jette’s delight, instead of pitching the tent and setting up camp, we rented one of the little “Hobbit Holes” as we call them:
Our own Hobbit Hole
I can’t capture it in photographs, but somehow these tiny, little cabins are really roomy inside. It is a very efficient use of space. There is a full size bed, a bunk bed, a nice size table with bench and stools, a mini fridge, microwave, coffee maker, little coset area and a good amount of floor space so you don’t feel like you are tripping over each other. Very cozy and functional. We’re not in Holland, but this place is gezellig!
Full size bed
And of course, a bunk bed!
Hopefully the Hobbit Hole will work its magic and we’ll all feel better in the morning. We still haven’t decided on a final destination, but if we get an early enough start we’ll have a little more flexibility to figure that out as we go.
Today we rode 43.69 km from Kembs to Neuf Brisach.
We started the day with a delicious breakfast at the B&B. Bread, butter, museli, homemade marmalade, and egg. One of the marmalades was made from wild rose hips. Yum.
Breakfast at the B&B
Chocolate chip and red wine muffins
After breakfast we rode back to the canal trail and headed North. It wasn’t long before we got to the Le Corbusier Sluice Gates. As an architect, Mila had to stop and snap some photos.
Le Corbusier Sluice Gate
Somewhere around there we missed a turn.
Missed a turn
Oh yeah, there were more swamp rats, and bigger ones too!
More swamp rats
It was some time before we realized that we were off our route. We’ve found the signage quite confusing at times as there are a number of routes which all intersect right in this area. Rather than go back to correct our mistake we simply shifted to another northbound route. With other routes to the East and West, we ended up heading North through more cornfields and small villages right in the middle.
See the yellow line that runs through the “b” in Hombourg? We ended up following that instead of the red line through the forests to the West.
The corn fields seemed endless. There were so many we started cracking cornfield jokes just to pass the time. They were corny, so I won’t repeat them.
Hey! More cornfields!
Entering a village
We passed through a number of small villages, all of which were very quiet with few or no people visible. None of them had much in way of retail or services, at least not visible to us on the streets we used. One of the villages had a patisserie boulangerie but it was closed. A couple of them had a single restaurant, but they were closed, I suppose it’s because it was Saturday. We didn’t see any grocery stores or connivence stores. Although it had few shops and none were open, this village did feature this:
Farm fresh eggs in a vending machine!
Look! It’s not corn!
Pretty views. As city kids we have no idea what this crop is. Do you?
As we passed through one village, the clouds came in and the temperature dropped. Mila and Jette put their jackets on.
This place wins the ‘House of the Day’ award for the nice garden and howling elk painted on the wall.
We finally found a village with a restaurant that was open. This little kebab/pizza joint. Jette had a salad with fries. Mila and I had chicken donner with salad and fries. I think we found the best items on the very limited menu.
The salad is hidden under the funky stuff 😉
Fueled up and back on the bikes, we rode though more fields.
Pretty clouds and views
And more villages.
The last little village before Neuf Brisach.
Around here we went off planned route and switched to a more direct route to a campground on the outskirts of Neuf Brisach. On the way we finally saw a supermarket, a huge supermarket that was open, and made a stop for provisions. I waited outside with the bikes and it was almost 45 minutes before Mila and Jette made it out of the store. They said it was like a crazy cross between WalMart and Costco, but smaller and much more chaotic.
Big crazy supermarket
Another kilometer or so and we arrived at Camping Vauban. We found a very nice spot for the tent and got to work unpacking and setting up camp.
Getting ready to pitch the tent
Inflating the sleeping pads
The campground is quite cute. They’ve built a variety of whimsical cabin and tent structures and there are beautiful flowers everywhere.
That’s our tent back there
Jette found a pedal car for rent, and one Euro later, she was at the wheel…
Our young driver
Then it was time for some math workbooks. She’s studying metric measurements. What better place for that, right?!
Then it was dinner time.
Dinner at camp
Somehow a bread and butter fight broke out.
Bread and butter fight
Thankfully no one was injured. We didn’t have napkins but we did have plenty of soft bread to wipe the butter from our faces.
Math and blogging
Showers and laundry and it was off to bed just as the sun went down. I tried to complete this blog post, but the connection was so slow I could only upload the first few photos. It’s now morning and we’ve just had a breakfast of leftover fruit and bread and butter. The internet connection is faster now so I’m trying to get this posted before we hit the road again.
It rained off and on throughout the night but our tent stayed mostly dry. Jette’s sleeping bag was up against the seam on one of the tent walls and water wicked through. She woke up with one side of her sleeping bag pretty wet.
It was a weird night for me. I got really creeped out and didn’t sleep much. At 1:11 am I awoke to the sound of men chanting. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but it was not too far away. There was rushing water behind our tent, so the white noise drowned out the details, but they seemed to be chanting something and shouting a sort of a cheer. It almost sounded like a weird Maori Haka. There was an aggressiveness to it. Things would get quiet for a while and then I would hear them again. This went on for more than an hour. At some point I finally slept. Weird.
Oh I forgot to mention. After breakfast this morning, there was dancing.
The morning dance
The sun is out and the dark rain clouds are melting away. I we need to pack up and hit the road. The plan for today is to briefly explore Neuf Briasch and then get back on the road. It is a very interesting city. Take a look at this:
Work begun in 1698, to plans drawn by Vauban, a military engineer at the service of Louis XIV. Vauban died in 1707 and this, his last work, was completed by Louis de Cormontaigne. The city’s layout was that of an ‘ideal city’, as was popular at the time, with a regular square grid street pattern inside an octagonal fortification. Generous space was given to a central square across the four blocks at the middle, flanked by an impressive church. Individual blocks were offered for private development, either as affluent houses in private gardens, or as properties for commercial rent. Simpler housing was provided in long tenement blocks, built inside each curtain wall, which also had the effect of shielding the better houses from the risk of cannon fire…
Today was a short 23 km from Basel to Kembs, France.
First thing this morning I found a bike shop and got the broken spoke on my rear wheel replaced. The shop, Cenci Velo, was kind enough to do the work while I waited. Thanks guys!
While I was out getting my spoke replaced, Jette and Mila packed our bags at the hotel. When I returned, we checked out, left our luggage at the hotel and had a quick breakfast. Then we hopped on our unloaded bikes (wow, they sure felt light!) and explored the Old City of Basel.
We then went down one of the main shopping streets. I went into a fantastic book store and bought a couple of books. Mila and Jette went into a pharmacy to get some gauze and ointment for her scraped knee. Instead, the pharmacist dressed the wound for Jette and wrapped it with an elastic bandage.
Getting treated in a pharmacy
We all popped back into the bookstore so Jette could get a new mechanical pencil and eraser to replace her broken/lost set.
A new mechanical pencil and eraser
After that it was back to the hotel to pick up our bags and pack the bikes, then we hit the road. We rode out of Basel on the Rhine Route past the massive Novartis corporate/industrial campus. It is like a city unto itself.
Passing the massive Novartis campus on the edge of Basel
The rest of the day’s cycling would be along the canal path.
Along the canal path
Along the canal
Lunch and the canal
Yummy bread and butter
Canal path and field
Planetary distance and scale
More canal trail
We stopped to learn about the fish that live in the canal. There are 12 main species of fish today. In the 1980’s pollution in the Rhine killed off many of the fish and had a big impact on the biodiversity of the canal. In recent years the pollution has lessened and the fish have made a comeback, with a different species mix.
Learning about the fish in the canal
Looking from France into Germany
Village left, canal right
As we came into Kembs we saw people along the canal banks looking at something in the water. As we closer we thought they were beavers, but they were not…
Swamp rats? Otters? Who knows?
Can you tell what they are?
Who are these guys?
They are coypu a.k.a “river rats.” Whatever they are when Jette saw them she said, “Awww…they’re adorable!” and fed them an apple she found on the ground.
Jette and the swimming rodents
Meanwhile I tried swapped SIM cards in my phone, trying to find one that would work. The German card wouldn’t, even though I could throw a rock into Germany. With the Swiss one, I got a text message suggesting that I upgrade to a roaming data package for France, but when I clicked on the link in the message I got an error saying that I didn’t have a roaming data plan! It was a Swisscomm catch-22.
I was hoping for access to Google Maps so I could search for campgrounds close by. Jette was tired and we were all ready for a shorter rest day. A man came out of the house we were parked in front of and in my rusty French I asked him if there was any camping nearby. He said that he wasn’t aware of anything but that we could pitch our tent in his yard if we wanted. It was very kind, but I thanked him profusely and declined. I did’t say it to him, but we were as interested in the potential of a shower and internet connection as much as we were a place to pitch the tent.
I found a spot where apparently the phone “thought” I was close enough to Germany and got a connection. The closest campgrounds were too far and there were no hotels in Kembs. Jette and I rode back to an information map and sign we had passed and found a listing of local B&B’s. There were three, all on the same street. We turned off the canal path and rode into town. Compared to most of of the towns and villages we’ve been thorough on this trip it seemed a bit plain and even rough around the edges.
Kembs – a rather plain village
We quickly found the street we were looking for and two of the B&B’s. The first was a gasthaus style pub-hotel. There was a note taped to the door saying that it was closed until next week. The next one looked more promising, but it too had a note taped to the door. It said that there were two rooms available and gave a phone number to call. The door was locked. I tried my phone, but couldn’t get service with any of the the three SIM cards (German, Swiss, Dutch). I was hoping that one of them would let me buy a roaming package, but no luck. So, we got on our bikes and went in search of the third B&B which was supposedly on the same street. We rode down to where we thought we should find it based on the house number, but there was a roundabout and the street changed names. So, it was back to the second one. We knocked on the door. No answer. There was a restaurant across the street so Jette and I went in and asked if they had a phone we could use. Somehow they understood my French and kindly obliged. I stumbled through a conversation with the man on the other end of the line and a few minutes later we were back across the street and entering the magical oasis of Au Relais de la Pose aux Chevaux.
Au Relais de la Pose aux Chevaux – B&B in Kembs
The driveway entrance
Built in 1739 the building used to be a mail relay station (thus the name Relay of the Mail by Horses). We were warmly greeted by the owner and shown into the beautiful garden and then into the home.
The driveway and shed
Mila with a portrait of Jette
An interior wall showing the original construction methods from 1739.
Hundreds of years of wear and character
As you can see, it is a beautiful, charming place and a fine setting for handstands and cartwheels.
It is almost midnight, so I am off to bed. Goodnight.