Sunday, July 17, 2016

From the Netherlands to the Mouth of the Elbe Across Northern Germany

In 20 days since arriving in the Netherlands, we've done 600 km, shown in blue on the map.  It was now time to do another 300 km to the mouth of the Elbe River (in red), following which we will take the Elbe another 1,000 km to Prague (in green).

In planning our trip last winter, we pictured this section as the least touristic part of the journey, a bridge to be crossed between two more important sections, and that's indeed how it played out.  But it was an exceedingly easy bridge to cross thanks to tailwinds. 

This trip has to this point been a cyclist's dream so far as the wind is concerned.  We have basically had tailwinds almost every single day of this trip.  From Rotterdam up to the small town of Schagen, where we turned away from the North Sea coast, we had partial tailwinds of 10-15 kph every day.  In our last blog we described virtually perfect tailwinds of up to 30 kph for three days across the top of the Netherlands.  We covered the 300 km of today's blog entry in 5 days of riding, every one of them with tailwinds almost perfectly behind us and at 15-25 kph each day.  It just doesn't get better than that!

We also solved one of our equipment problems by buying a new handlebar bag.  Like our paniers, it is made by Ortlieb, renowned for their high quality and water-tightness.  It comes with a waterproof map case that snaps onto the bag.  Here is the view from the handlebars and how it looks on the bike.  While we still don't like to bike in the rain, we're no longer worried about damaging the electronic devices like the iPad, Kindle and digital camera that we've been carrying in the handlebar bag.

This leg began with a sad good-bye to Groningen and its exuberant Dutch architecture.  This was our second 2-day visit to this lively university town, and we suspect there will be another one day.  A day later we crossed the border into Germany on this tiny footbridge, the same one we used to enter the Netherlands for the first time 3 years ago.

As in Holland, our route was a mix of quiet country roads and dike trails.  Fewer trails than in Holland, and not always quite as smooth, but the roads and trails were still great by almost any standard.

In Holland we rarely think about whether a hotel has a safe place for our bike.  Since so many Dutch folks travel by bike, hotels that don't cater to them will not last very long.  Germany also has a lively group of bike tourists, but we're not as dominant so it's not a given that our bike will have a safe and dry resting spot at night.  One way of knowing that a hotel is bike-friendly in Germany and some other countries is approval by Germany's largest bike club, signified by a decal they can put in their window, and more importantly by a web listing in  We've now used a few, and they have come through for us.

It appears that a system similar to the Dutch knoopunt network is in the process of implementation in parts of Lower Saxony, the German state we crossed in this leg, but we were not able to find corresponding maps online or in map shops.  Perhaps in a year or two the system will be better developed.  However, the Germans do have a great system of marking bike-friendly routes with green and white signs such as these.  We asked our innkeeper about the sign to Amerika, and he explained that so many people emigrated from this part of his town that it was renamed for their destination.

We had two large rivers to cross.  The Ems crossing went easily on this small ferry, and we got a good look at some of Germany's many, many windmills from the boat.  Luckily they're all facing west into that wind that will blow us eastward toward the Elbe.

The second river was the Weser, and we narrowly avoided a bad situation crossing it.  We had a great route worked out for a ride along the North Sea followed by the ferry across the Weser into Bremerhaven.  The night before, Jeff checked the ferry site to see what the ferry times were.  Scrolling across the screen (in German, of course) was the message:  'No Ferries.  One of our Dumkopf  boat captains screwed up and smashed into the dock across from Bremerhaven, and it's now kaput.' 

Well it didn't exactly phrase it that way, but that was the meaning.  So no North Sea coast for now, we took a longer route inland and took the next closest ferry, 30 km up the Weser.  It meant we had an 86 km day, our longest yet, but at least that tail wind was behind us for about 2/3 of the day. and only a side wind the rest.  Had we simply shown up at the incapacitated ferry dock downstream, we would have had ourselves a 100+ km day.  We've done "metric centuries" before, but not in a few years, and we're not keen to do one again anytime soon.  We're not sure we missed much by not going along the North Sea.  We biked 20 km alongside a bay off the North Sea, and this was the view almost the entire way.  Since there is ALWAYS a big dike keeping the North Sea from coming any further south, you don't necessarily see much unless you park the bike and climb up the dike.

One serendipity was biking past a factory that makes those giant windmills.  They are so tall, you really don't get a sense of how large the blades are.  Here we could see them fairly close at hand, and the housings that the blades fit into.  Very impressive up close.

For the first time, we stayed in a hostel, the Hafenhostel Bremerhaven.  It was in a building that was used as housing for U.S. Army occupation forces after WW II.  It was very nicely remodeled into a hostel about 6 years ago, and is so well kept up we thought it was just opened.  It had a kitchen we could use, so we headed across the street to the 24-hour supermarket and had ourselves two days of home cooking.

Except that a new disaster struck.  On a Sunday morning (all disasters happen on weekends, don't they?) a hazelnut took on one of Jeff's molars, and the molar lost.  Jeff's muesli was suddenly crunchy granola.  Someone at the front desk offered to track down a dentist first thing Monday morning, and Jeff sent messages to his dentist in Seattle via email and Facebook.  Thanks to the 9-hour time difference, it was quite a while before said dentist awoke, but when he did he found the message and he provided Jeff with a key piece of information:  the machine he uses to make crowns, "Cerec," is made in Germany.  It's basically a 3-D printer for teeth, or more precisely dental crowns.

We gave the receptionist this info and on Monday she said she had a dentist for us in a town we were headed to 40 km away.  When we got there, however, it turns out that this dentist did not have the Cerec machine, and would have needed Jeff to hang around for 4-5 days if he wanted her to make him a dental crown.  However she was able to find us a dentist with the new technology in a town we would be going through several days later.  Since Jeff could still chew just fine with all the other teeth in his mouth, we made plans to see this new dentist on Thursday afternoon.  We'll tell you how it went when we get there in our next blog entry.

Before leaving Bremerhaven we did get to walk down to the harbor, which was nicely developed, and featured a lighthouse inspired by Turkish minarets.

We followed the North Sea coast to our destination at the mouth of the Elbe, Cuxhaven, but there was very little sea to be seen.  The bike route was always on the inside of the dike.  You could occasionally ride up to the top of the dike and look out at the lighthouses in and alongside the sea, but there was only (occasionally) a walking trail on top of the dike itself.  There was sometimes a trail on the North Sea side of the dike, but it was always of lower riding quality, so we stuck with the nice one on the land side, where we got this picture of another tandem couple coming down the bike route.  It was actually a road, but we were only passed by a few cars, maybe one per hour each direction.

At last we reached Cuxhaven and the Kubelbake,, or "ball beacon," a wooden structure built (and rebuilt often, after storms) ages ago to mark the exit from the Elbe to the North Sea with its distinctive design in an era before there were lighthouses.  This also marks the northernmost point of our journey, just shy of 54 degrees North latitude.  To put that in perspective, it's further north than Edmonton Alberta, and waaaaay north of the entire island of Newfoundland.  Sunset was at 9:50 pm and it's already two and a half weeks beyond the summer solstice.  At Christmas time the days will be under 7 1/2 hours long.

Cuxhaven is a major beach resort town, with 2-seater "beach baskets" scattered along the North Sea beachfront and even along part of the Elbe waterfront.  Some are owned and have doors that fold down to lock them, while the vast majority are available for rent by the hour or day. 

Like the rest of Holland's and Germany's North Sea coast, the transition from land to sea is far from abrupt.  You can walk out hundreds of meters/yards at low tide and even well before and after.  Signs at the shore tell the story.  Our photos were taken about an hour before low tide, which was at 1:05 pm.  "Tide Flat Walking Time" starts 2 1/2 hours before low tide.  "Bathing time" doesn't start until 1 1/2 hours before high tide.  No one was enforcing these times, but given the way the water looked when we were there, we have a hard time imagining any swimming even at high tide.

The mudflats are so shallow, one can actually walk 12 km out to the island of Neuwerk -- at low tide only, of course.  There is a second jumping-off spot that shortens the distance to "only" 10 km.  We read one person's description, which involved occasional points in the trip where he was up to his knees and stepping carefully to avoid shrimp and crabs.  There are rescue cages along the way for those who misjudge the timing, where you can either wait for the next low tide or pay a stiff "fare" for a rescue boat.  If that's too much adventure but you nonetheless want something a little more exciting than a boat trip out there, you can go by Wattwagen,  or 'mudflat wagon.'  We checked out the price for you: about  €40 (~$45) r/t per person.

After spending some time (and money) wandering the gift shops and walking along the dike, we spent one more night in Cuxhaven before we officially start up the Elbe on that nice bike path.  Our next blog entry will take you to Hamburg and maybe beyond -- let's see what happens when we head up there.

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