Sunday, August 13, 2017

Getting Back in Motion



When last we wrote, our travels had come to a grinding halt thanks to an ankle Jeff sprained at our hotel in a small town on the Rhine, Nierstein.  For five days he mostly hobbled short distances using some borrowed crutches, his ankle supported by a fairly impressive-looking brace.  Some of that hobbling and hopping was to the table outside our room, where Louise provided some wonderful chef's salads and we could eat a dozen feet from where the accident occurred.  Oh, the memories.

By day 6 we were successful in walking a mile and a half to the post office and back, which showed us that it was time to do a little more walking as part of the effort to heal.  We had discovered a great deal on DB, Deutsche Bahn, the German train system.  Each state has an all-day pass good for unlimited travel within that state.  We were in Rhineland-Palatine, and a train line ran from here 125 km down the Rhine to Koblenz, where another line ran right alongside the Moselle River another 100+ km, all the while staying within Rhineland-Palatine.  So on day 7 we ambled over to the train station and plunked 29 euros, about $33, into a machine.  Out came our ticket for two.  Such a deal! 

Except for the first few km, we had cycled the whole route we were about to do in 2015.  Clearly, the best way to see these two wonderful rivers is from a bike, as a visit to our blog entry from that trip would show.  But we still got to see quite a bit, and had the opportunity to reminisce about the sights we had seen then in slow motion as they now whizzed past our train window at anything but slow motion.

So, what did we see?  A LOT of castles and quaint small towns set in a pair of deep valleys.  Here are a few of the more successful photos.  The first four are on the Rhine, the last two on the Moselle.









After turning around in a town on the Moselle, we came back through Koblenz but hopped off and walked to a restaurant where we met up with our new Swiss friends Yannick and Romaine and their two children.  They were going to be going through town at lunchtime anyway, and it worked perfectly, even the timing -- we arrived two minutes before they did, and were able to get action shots of them arriving with their bikes in tandem mode.



After our pizza lunch it was off to a nearby playground.  For little Ilias and Layna, life doesn't get much better than this!  For us, far from our own 5 grandkids, it was fun to be vicarious grandparents if only for a short time.  As they left to ride another 20 km down the Rhine, Ilias led the group out and Layna played sweep.  It was cute to see her signaling a left turn just before they disappeared.



That was such a successful outing, we did another a few days later.  Once again we got a day pass for the train, but this time got off in Bingen, the start of the truly spectacular part of the Rhine.  The map on the right shows fewer than half the castles in this stretch of a little over 40 km / 25 miles.  The boat is a definite improvement over the train, although the first pair of photos might not seem that way since the shot from the train of Burg Ehrenfels came out pretty good.  But the next castle, the famous "Mouse Tower," has no train photo since all we could see was bushes and trees with momentary flashes of the white tower as the train went by.  We think a bike remains the absolute best way to see this area, but the boat was a close second, hampered only by the fact that it too whizzes by things, so you can't spend much time setting up that shot, as you can when you're on a bike and can stop pretty much anywhere you wish.




Here are a few more of the castles and towns on the Rhine, with the added advantage of being able to move about on the boat and get shots on both banks of the river.






We hopped off in Boppard,  skipping a few more castles between it and Koblenz, in order to rise above it all on the Sesselbahn, or chairlift.  Jeff was now using hiking poles, not crutches, and we managed the 1 km walk through Boppard just fine, plus a bit more up at the summit.  It's an exciting ride, and a terrific view of the Rhine as it bends over 180 degrees right across from where we were.  The view is so wide even our wide-angle lens couldn't capture it all, so you will have to mentally combine the last two photos to get the wide view.






Even with the telephoto, the boats were so large they looked like toys in a creek.


Back on the chairlift, after every dozen seats there was a pole for attaching mountain bikes.  We watched the riders, all of whom were wearing body armor.  Since we particularly fancy crashing into rocks and trees (the whole reason for all that armor), that's not exactly our kind of biking, so we took the lift back down.  That nonetheless produced its own supply of adrenaline.




Meanwhile, our friends Nico and Marga in Holland sent the suitcases to us from their resting place in their garage.  We had hoped to bike to the suitcases, but the sprain had forced Plan B upon us.  We disassembled Little Red and reassembled the full collection of stuff we brought with us to Europe.  We did manage to mail some of our bicycle guides (2 kg worth!) home to Seattle.  We sent some of the things we didn't need until we go to England back to Nico and Marga in an even larger box.  And then we stared at what was left:  three suitcases, two backpacks and our bicycle rack trunk.  We're going to get all that on and off a bunch of trains???

Luckily we spotted a brochure at the train station.  A FedEx-like company called Hermes will ship an item up to 25 kg and no larger in any dimension than 85 cm to anyplace in Germany for under 15 euros.  Our two suitcases fit the bill (barely -- each was 24.9 kg with all the bits and pieces of Little Red stuffed into them), and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hannover, a city where we had to change trains anyway, was willing to accept them and hold them a few days.  Hooray, for under 30 euros we can have a much more pleasant journey north!

It was finally time to leave our little city of Nierstein after 11 days of recuperation.  It proved to be a pleasant enough town, and it even has one claim to fame -- at the bend in the river in the photo below, General Patton's army crossed the Rhine in March 1945, a few days after the seizure of the bridge at Remagen.  The war was over in Nierstein that day, and in all of Germany just six weeks later.


We had spent 5 of our recovery days in the hotel where Jeff had his injury, and 6 in a Best Western hotel that was absolutely wonderful -- spacious, comfortable, very green outside.  It was almost sad to leave it.  But we were delighted to leave it with only a small portion of the luggage, shown here before we headed to Hermes to ship it out. When we finally did head off to the train station, all we had were the two small backpacks, the rack trunk, and the carry-on sized suitcase.



When friends Rainer and Brigitte heard about our need for recuperation time, they suggested we do some of it at their home in Göttingen.  We discovered we could get there with only one change of trains, and then from there to Holland with one change of trains in Hannover.  We were now ready for the trip, and it went very smoothly thanks to the lightened load of luggage.

The visit went very well, with long walks every day to get us back in shape, plus a guided tour of town from Rainer.  In the center of town, for example, was this wonderful half-timbered charmer with wood carvings of Adam and Eve and various medieval characters on the upper floors, and more recent murals of hamburgers and beefsteaks on the ground floor.  Nearby is Gänseliesel, a goose girl who awaits a kiss from those who have received a Ph.D. from the University just as soon as they have received their diplomas, and then put those diplomas in a nice dry spot.





Among the highlights were parts of the University of Göttingen, where Rainer was a professor of Sociology for many years.  It is an illustrious university.  The only university in the world with more Nobel laureates than Göttingen among its faculty and students is MIT.  Among them are scientists so well known we don't even need first names to know who they are:  Einstein, Planck, Fermi, Gauss, Heisenberg.   In literature they include Heinrich Heine, Günter Grass, and brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.  In German politics no name looms larger than Otto van Bismarck, who was such an unruly student here that at one point he was barred from the city, and in response rented this house Rainer took us to, which lies a few meters beyond the old city walls which defined the city limits.


Like most European universities (and unlike most American ones), the campus is not a distinct piece of land filled with university structures and facilities, but rather is a collection of building scattered through parts of the city, with "city" and "university" sometimes indistinguishable.

Nonetheless Rainer did bring us to one of the oldest buildings and told us an interesting story about the University's founding.  It was the 1730s, and George II, King of England and Elector of Hannover, wanted to stimulate the economies of two of his Hannoverian cities, Celle and Göttingen.  One would get a prison and one would get a university.  Celle had first choice, and chose the prison!  It's still there in Celle, but it's also still waiting for its first Nobel laureate.


Our three days with Rainer and Brigitte went by rapidly, and it was now time to get to the Netherlands.  We took a train to Hannover and rejoined our luggage, put it safely in our room and took off for a walking tour of town.  Jeff's ankle is definitely getting stronger.  The walk was a quick look at the town and we don't even recall what these two buildings are, they just seemed darned interesting and worth another look on some subsequent trip when we can spend a few days here and see the place properly.  And this is no idle threat -- this area is one we are seriously considering either for next year or the year after.



And what about taking the train with all those suitcases?  Aha!  We had found a train that started in Hannover and went straight to Amsterdam.  Since it started there, we could be (and were) on the platform when it arrived 15 minutes prior to departure.  Plenty of time to hoist the heavy bags up two steps into the train, and then to grab some of the limited places in our car large enough for the two big ones.  It worked like a charm.  We did have to change trains in Amsterdam to go to our final destination of Alkmaar, but we managed, although we had to stand with our luggage in the area for bicycles, using a few odd spaces between the bikes for our luggage.  At least it was a short trip, only 36 minutes.

We did get Little Red reassembled in Alkmaar, and we did hop on for our first bike ride in 16 days, but that's a story for our next blog entry.  We'll have stories and photos about our five days in North Holland on our own and our 8 days together with friends Nico and Marga, exploring Texel Island and still more of North Holland.  Check back in 2 weeks, and we'll hopefully have that one written by then.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Down the Rhine, from Strasbourg to an Unplanned Stop

We left Strasbourg by heading north on the French side of the Rhine.  On the edge of town we rode into a forest and some 2 km down a long straight road that we suspected was the former grand entrance to a chateau our guidebook had mentioned, hiding unseen in the woods nearby.


We crossed to the German side and entered the town of Rastatt, where Ludvig Wilhelm of Baden wasn't about to hide the palace he had built in 1705, inspired no doubt by Versailles.


Begun just a few years later, the Schloss Karlsruhe was even grander.  Here it is from the south and then the north, where the tower is.  It was home to the Grand Dukes of Baden until 1918, and now houses a museum.  Karlsruhe is that rare entity in Germany, a city with a geometric plan.  32 streets radiate out from the palace, though only a handful run further than a kilometer, and the rest of the city is only vaguely on a rectangular grid.  Besides the Schloss there is also a botanical garden, where we admired two kinds of kale and some Swiss chard, items we wish we were seeing instead on our dinner plates.  They really don't serve many green vegetables in the restaurants here.  The last photo is of an office building adjacent to the botanical garden, with a most unusual botanical display.


 

We spent an extra day in Karlsruhe in a wonderful apartment hotel where we treated ourselves to two evenings of home-cooking and a "rest day" that was, for us, relatively restful:  21 km of riding without the panniers to and from the Turmbergbahn, or Tower Hill Railroad.  It's been running since 1888 and is Germany's oldest funicular railway.  The maximum gradient is 36 degrees.  It lifted us up about 100 m (over 300') above the town of Durlach, following which we climbed another few dozen meters to the top of the tower.  As anticipated the views were rewarding.  First, down.  Then to the NNE, showing the line of hills that define the east edge of the Rhine valley, then to the SSW looking more-or-less towards Basel.  The Rhine valley is generally 10-15 km of flat to very gently rolling land before coming to anything worth calling a hill on both sides of the river, from Basel all the way to Mainz. 








We have been seeing more and more industry as we've gotten further down the Rhine.  Here to the SW is a large factory for Bosch and other industry beyond it, and to the NW the nuclear reactors near Worms, perhaps 45 km as the crow flies, but almost 60 km as the bike wiggled down the bike trails past it the next day.



Time to descend from our perch.  The funicular cars are linked so that the one descending helps lift the ascending car, but we had a full load and the car going up was running empty, so it doesn't always balance out. 


The next day we crossed the Rhine and began riding north on the west bank.  A few km before this the French border turned away from the river, so it is Germany on both banks now.  There is an official route on both sides of the river, so the main determinant of which side to ride is which cities we wanted to visit.  Speyer was on the west bank, it sounded interesting, so there you have it -- we'll ride on the west bank, thank you very much.



On our way into town we pulled up to a fairly ordinary stoplight.  As we waited, all of a sudden Louise got excited.  Jeff!  What is THAT!!!  Well, it wasn't moving, nor was the second plane we saw moments later.  We eventually discovered that we were a block away from the Technical Museum of Speyer, which owns 70 airplanes, a Russian space shuttle, a submarine and various other technical doo-dads.
















More to our taste was the cathedral of Speyer, whose construction started almost 1000 years ago, though the actual date is unknown.  By 1061 it was sufficiently complete to be consecrated.  Of course we headed for the desk to buy tickets to climb the tower.  But before climbing up to the top of the church spires, visitors are first taken partway up to an enormous room, the Emperor's Hall, filled with enormous frescoes that were added to the church walls in the mid-19th century.  Fairly recently they were moved to this hall for preservation, and for the added purpose of returning the cathedral to its stark Romanesque form.  We include one of them, depicting Bernard of Clairvaux arriving at the cathedral in 1146 as part of his campaign to raise funds and troops for the Second Crusade.  In the mid-1800s, this was still considered to have been a good thing.



Our guide then hiked down the 6 or 7 stories worth of stairs, for the umpteenth time that day, to bring up the next group.  Meanwhile we continued upward to the top, about 200 feet above the city.  The first view is east across the top of the cathedral and toward the Rhine, the second the opposite way, past an ancient town gate.  In the distance are the hills defining the western edge of the wide Rhine valley, as mentioned earlier.  Other buildings even closer to the cathedral can be seen in the last two photos, such as the Stadthaus that is bedecked with red flowers.





Our guidebook very clearly indicated we should head north from Speyer, but we had been in touch with our German friends Rainer and Brigitte, whose son we visited a few weeks ago in Regensburg.  Now it was time to meet up with Rainer and Brigitte themselves.  They booked an apartment in a wine village called Rhodt unter Rietburg.  It's on the Weinstrasse, or Wine Street (though we would probably say "Wine Route") that parallels the Rhine but lies 5-15 km to the west, at the base of that ridge seen just a few photos up the page. 

After making the lodging reservation our friends then tried to get a train reservation but could only get one that got them into Speyer at 5:30 pm.  So we headed off ahead to do the 33 km in mid-day.  It was a little challenging since it was off the map in our guidebook and we did not have a paper map.  Instead, we downloaded screen shots of bike maps from opencyclemap.org onto the mini iPad, and stopped a lot for Jeff to memorize the next few km of twists and turns.  There are bike routes the entire way, but they involve taking a less-than-direct route utilizing back roads.  Here, for example, is one of the farm roads we took, with the hills ahead of us and one of the local cyclists heading the other way.


Every so often there would be a sign with an icon of a bike and an arrow showing you which way to turn.  At major junctions of routes there would be signs showing you the official bike route to the towns in question.  Since we knew from our own maps which towns we wanted to route through, these made it possible to figure out our way without too much confusion.  We also began to realize that the extra sign hanging at the bottom with a grape cluster motif was the designation for the entire route we were following.


Rhodt was a charming town, and our lodging outstanding.  Like many others in town, our hosts ran a vineyard and offered lodging.  We enjoyed a bottle of their wines each evening.  They were both delicious and they were both 4 to 6 euros a bottle.  Don't know how they do it!

Here are a few shots:  the view of the lush yard with vineyard beyond from our bedroom window;  the view of the courtyard of our complex; a view up the street and one down the street;  and a typical winery, with the date written over the archway (in this instance 1719).






As you can see, there are grape vines everywhere in this town!  We even found a few that were starting to turn color, but up in the fields they are almost universally still bright green.  With Rainer and Brigitte leading us, we headed out the next day to visit two destinations uphill from town.  The first is called Villa Ludwigshöhe, built in the 1840s as a summer home by King Ludvig I of Bavaria, grandfather of "Mad King" Ludvig II of Castle Neuschwanstein fame.  Above it is the Rietburg castle ruins.  The castle is 800 years old, but has been in ruins almost half that time, since its destruction in the Thirty Years War.


Hills mean climbing, so climb we did, though some unregenerate tourists were driving to the Villa and taking the chair lift up to the Rietburg.  However you got there, you could enjoy a typical German beer garden at the top, complete with fantastic views.




We actually  opted out of the dining terrace and had a picnic lunch nearby.  Before leaving, though, let's take one more look to the north, where you can see Hambach Castle, with the city of Neustadt behind it and a few more wine villages in front.  It is roughly the same age as Rietburg but also fell into ruins, only to be rescued and rebuilt in the 1840s and again more recently.  Our last photo from up high is of Rhodt taken from the Villa, halfway back to town.















And then the first of two unfortunate events occurred.  It was the next day, and the four of us were biking down a farm road like hundreds of others we have ridden.  Unlike most, it had some recently plowed fields next to it, perhaps getting ready for a second planting.  Tractors had been coming in and out of the fields, and in one particular spot had brought quite a bit of clay-rich mud with them, onto the trail.  Adding to the impending event was a rain storm that morning which we had waited out during lunch.  Can you see where this is headed . . . ?   Unfortunately, we didn't.  As we rode toward this glob of mud on the road a short ways ahead of Brigitte and Rainer, Jeff realized just a bit too late that it was not a light coating of dirt such as we had ridden over numerous times, but rather 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) of mud.  Mud which was now the consistency of new cow pies.  He tried to slow down, but it was too late, and faster than you could say "Holy Cow Pies" we were down, HARD.

We did not take photos, so you will have to picture us, well covered in mud, our panniers well dipped into it, our tires so coated they almost couldn't rotate.  The bike it turns out was OK.  Brigitte, who fell a little more gracefully as she avoided us, was OK, and Rainer totally fine since he learned from the rest of us and stopped in time.

Louise was a little banged up, but surprisingly little considering how suddenly we had gone from 20 kph to zero, and from vertical to horizontal.  Jeff had some abrasions on his knee that cyclists refer to as "road rash," but they quickly healed.  The biggest problem was his shoulder, which was pretty painful.  We spent 15 minutes getting enough mud off the tires to be able to ride, and off everything else to be minimally presentable.  Jeff found he had enough strength and range of motion in the shoulder for us to resume riding, so we did make it the remaining 10 km to our destination.

When we reached our Pension the innkeeper found us a hose, and both bike and baggage got a good spritzing.  Thank heavens for waterproof Ortlieb panniers.  The innkeeper also raised the angst level with a suggestion Jeff had dislocated his shoulder, but a quick Google search up in our room made that seem most unlikely.  With Tylenol on arrival and Tylenol PM at bedtime, Jeff was able to get a decent night's sleep, and the next morning Louise shared the prescription lidocaine patches she had gotten for her back.  With another Tylenol on the inside and the patch on the outside, Jeff and his shoulder were doing OK and we were ready to ride again.

This was where Rainer and Brigitte headed off in another direction to ride the Main River.  As we waved goodbye, we wondered when we would see them again.  This was the third summer in a row.  Will we get together in a year?  Will it be two, or even more?



You've probably heard the expression, "as one door closes another one opens," and that's what happened next.  A Swiss couple also staying at the Pension were getting ready to ride with their two kids.  The parents' bikes had a sign on the back of each one saying "tandem," but the bikes were clearly not tandems  .  .  .  but what was that metal device on the back of each bike?  Yannick and Romaine were happy to show us.




Each day the family rides 30-40 km, usually starting out with four bikes.  If the kids get tired or there is a stretch of the route that becomes a road with traffic, they can switch to tandem mode.  We asked Romaine if she can tell if the kid behind her is pedaling.  "Oh, yes!  It's like a little motor back there!"

As we talked further, we mentioned our fall the day before and Jeff's sore shoulder.  Yannick volunteered that he was a Physical Therapist, and would Jeff like to have him take a look?  Yes, Jeff would definitely like that.  He pressed here and there while Jeff winced and squirmed, but came up with the same conclusion Jeff already had:  a bruised and very sore muscle at the top of the shoulder.  Something that would probably heal well, and not over too long a time period.  He gave Jeff advice on stretches to do to help keep it loose.

We got going first, and headed to the city of Worms, famous for the Diet of Worms.  This diet had nothing to do with food.  Before the unification of Germany in 1871, it was composed of numerous kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities and the like.  When the Holy Roman Emperor wanted to have all the relevant rulers discuss an issue important to all of them, he called a diet, or assembly.  The one called in Worms in 1521 had one and only one topic: Luther, whose 95 Theses had been posted 3 1/2 years before.

Luther attended after being given a pledge of safe conduct against arrest.  He was asked to recant his teachings.  He said he could not.  Then he quietly but quickly left town before they changed their minds about the Stay Out of Jail Free card, the way they had a century before in Konstanz with Jan Hus.  In 1868 the good folks of Worms erected a monument to Luther and many of his allies, across the street from where he made his courageous stand.


  Back on the trail, who did we run into but Yannick and Romaine and their kids.  Yannick was fixing a flat.  Oh, we have lots of experience with that, and Jeff was able to teach Yannick a clever way of getting a tire back on a rim without using tools.  Yannick then got out his pump and worked up a sweat.  Jeff pulled out his pressure gauge and informed Yannick he was still well short of his inflation target.  We lent him our pump.  Voila!  Easy to use, and it was up at the desired pressure fairly quickly.  Yannick said they would be stopping at a bike store soon to buy one similar to ours.

When biking in a country whose language is not your own, there are usually a number of words you see on signs that you don't know at first.  The temptation is to think they're not important, otherwise you'd know them.  On of these words is "Umleitung."  Learn it if you're planning on biking in Germany or Austria.  It means "detour."  And today was such a day.  Our bike book showed a route near the Rhine.  The Unleitung signs said otherwise, so much so that we found ourselves off the bike maps we had with us.  But we eventually got to our destination, just in 40 km, not the anticipated 33.

We got almost to our destination, we should say, for 500 m -- a third of a mile -- from our hotel, the heavens opened.  Luckily there was a gas station/convenience store with a wide overhang to the roof, and we stayed bored but dry for the hour it took to pass through.  As we got back on the bike route we saw creeks emptying into the Rhine with red clay mud from the downpour.  Luckily, this is the closest we've gotten to getting significantly rained upon so far this summer.



But our luck had run out in a different direction.  Do you see the step in the photo on the right?  Jeff didn't, and put the middle of his foot right on the edge, and watched it twist to the right as he fell.  A quantity of yelling followed, mostly directed at the heavens.  The next day we took a taxi 20 km into Mainz to the University Hospital orthopedic ER, where it was diagnosed with some new German words Jeff has now memorized:  verstauchter Knöchel, or sprained ankle.  The innkeeper claims no one has ever failed to see that step before, but he did manage to find a pair of crutches Jeff could borrow, and he has been fairly solicitous to us.  But here we are in the small town of Nierstein a week later, as we deal with the consequences.

The doctors came up with a diagnosis and a prescription for an ankle brace, but not much more, such as some indication of how severe a sprain it was.  Louise picked up the brace the next day, and we were a little taken aback by the price of € 239.50, since it appeared to have only about € 9.50 worth of material.  But after having used it for several days, Jeff has come to believe it was worth the design work that went into it, as it has provided a secure yet comfortable support for his right foot.


We let a few folks know about the halt to our trip, among them Yannick and Romaine.  It turns out they were in Mainz, not far away, and taking a few days off from biking because of a spate of rain we were having.  The two of us hadn't paid it as much attention since we were not getting up each day asking the usual question, will it be a good day for biking.  In any event, they arranged to travel to our little town to have dinner with us at our hotel.  It was really fun to see them again, and learn a little more about their family.  Afterwards, Yannick volunteered to examine Jeff's latest injury.  He liked the color of the ankle: not blue.  He found that the area of pain was not extensive, leading him to conclude that, as sprains go, it was not too severe a one.  Most importantly, he spent ten minutes getting Jeff to walk correctly, without a limp, so that the correct muscle memory returns more quickly.    The next day, with some help from the borrowed crutches, we did a 2 km walk.



So what has happened with our plans for the summer?  At first we thought we would have to retire Little Red until our return to Seattle.  But with Yannick's optimism and Jeff's belief that he is getting better quickly, we've decided not to quit, just to scale back. 

Our friends Brigitte and Rainer wrote when they heard our news, and suggested we could heal at their house as well as anywhere, and so we shall.  So much for a year or two until we see them again! 

Our Dutch friends Nico and Marga had been holding our suitcases.  They promptly shipped them to us here in Nierstein Germany, and they arrived in two days.  We are happy to report that Little Red is now resting in pieces, in our suitcase.  He will go with us on the train. 

On August 14 we have had plans to meet Nico and Marga in North Holland for a stay in a self-catering 2BR apartment and a whole bunch of tandeming.  A whole bunch might get trimmed back to just "a bunch," but we hope and plan to do it.  We'll spend the coming ten days walking and otherwise exercising to get back in shape, then around August 10 or 11 get back on the tandem somewhere in Holland, at first without luggage on day rides from a hotel, then short hops up to our meeting point with Nico and Marga.

We hope we're not being overly optimistic, and if we are we can always keep Little Red in his suitcases.  But he's itching to get out, and we're itching to get riding.  So wish us well!