Monday, July 10, 2017

From the Bodensee to Basel -- Tandeming Down the High Rhine

"Omnia Gallia," says Ceasar, "est divisa in tres partes."  The Rhine, however, is divided into six parts plus the Bodensee (Lake Constance), into and from which it flows.

In our last blog entry we travelled 50 km down the "Alpine Rhine," about a third of the ~150 km in that section.  We then rode most of the way around the Bodensee, 180 out of 200 km.  By contrast, a water molecule lucky enough to travel in a straight line from the mouth of the Rhine at the SE end of the Bodensee to the outlet at Koblenz would only go about 50 km.

Today's blog entry will take you the full length of the "High Rhine," 185 km from Koblenz to Basel.  Our plan after Basel is to continue on through the "Upper Rhine," "Middle Rhine" and probably a little of the "Lower Rhine" to Cologne.  Still later, when we are in the Netherlands, we will do some riding on the "Delta Rhine," the section we've had the most experience with up 'til now.

The High Rhine flows roughly west to east, with those green lines showing you the official bike routes on both sides of the river.  You would think the Rhine would be the border between Germany and Switzerland, as rivers often are, but it's not quite so simple.  There are several pieces of Switzerland on the north bank of the Rhine, the largest of which are around Schaffhausen and Basel.  None of Germany lies on the south bank, but there is one little bizarre island of German territory completely surrounded by a part of Switzerland on the north bank, the German city of Büsingen!  90% of the citizens voted years ago to join Switzerland, but it never happened because there was no comparable piece of territory Switzerland was willing to give up to make it a "fair trade."

Consequently, there is a treaty between Germany and Switzerland solely devoted to issues such as whose currency is legal tender there -- in this case, both the German euro and the Swiss franc.  But Büsingen is officially in the Swiss customs union along with Liechtenstein, and the franc is more common.  There are even two post offices, one Swiss and one German.  As is so often the case when comparing these two on prices, you want to go to the German one for the better price on a letter to any third country.

Which brings us to our three big surprises about Switzerland.  First, it's often referred to as CH.  Such as the "CHF," the Swiss franc.  Or Swiss internet addresses, which end in ".ch".  It stands for the Confoederatio Helvetica, Latin for the Swiss Confederation.  That way none of the four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch) can feel slighted, since each language spells "Switzerland" differently.

Our second surprise was the price of things.  They're expensive.  Hotels that are in the €90-110 range ($105-125 at today's rates) in Germany or Austria are usually CHF 170-200 ($180-210) for similar quality, except that if the half dozen hotel breakfasts we had are any indication, they have inferior breakfast buffets to the German and Austrian hotels.   Even when there were Swiss and German hotels across the border from each other along the Rhine, the Swiss hotels were substantially more expensive, 10 times out of 10.

Food was similar.  We visit supermarkets at least once a week either for lunch or dinner picnics, so we have a good sense of prices.  German supermarket prices are no higher than those in the U.S., and for fresh produce almost always cheaper.  The Swiss prices we saw were 30-50% higher than that.  One cosmetic product Louise bought for €3 in Koblenz Germany was CHF 6.50, exactly twice as much, for the identical product at a Swiss store in Basel.

Our final surprise was that, at least along this border, Germany was a clear winner in attractiveness.  The buildings are better maintained and more colorfully painted.  Run-down places are quite rare in all the parts of Germany we've seen other than parts of the former East Germany, but much less rare in this part of Switzerland.  Since we have not seen all that much of Switzerland, and only seen this one little corner, it's way to early to generalize between the two countries.  And it would be going much too far to say that we didn't like what we saw of Switzerland, only that it suffers by comparison to the parts of Germany that it borders.

OK, enough chatter.  You're mainly here for the pictures, right?  We'll start with one of those picnic lunch stops on the Rhine not far from Konstanz, then move on to an island in the Rhine that is part ancient cloister, part nature sanctuary.

Just below the island is the first of several interesting cities, Stein am Rhein, watched over by the castle known as Burg Hohenklingen, built in the 1200s but renovated around 1900.

The town itself is well-renowned for its architecture, as it is chock-a-block full of half-timbering (Fachwerk), frescoes and oriel windows, a type of bay window that does not reach the ground but is supported by brackets from the wall below.  At least one of those frescoes appeared to be quite new.

The route was not entirely along the river, and we occasionally got the opportunity to work on our climbing muscles and see the countryside from a less watery perspective.

Our cycling guidebook recommended a stop to see Diessenhofen on the south bank and its wooden bridge, built exactly 200 years ago.  A store in town had a scale model of the walled city as it was in 1643, and a reproduction of an old print as well.  We pushed the bike up two steep blocks to see the town gate, now in permanent "open" position.  It was a worthwhile detour.

Our next major stop was Schaffhaussen.  It's on the north bank but part of Switzerland, as the statue of William Tell in the main town square makes clear.  It has some excellent fresco art in the Altstadt, particularly the Haus zum Ritter.  The most famous building in Schaffhausen is its largest, the Fortress Munot, seen on the distant hill from a window in our hotel.  The last two photos show you how well the fortress looked over the Rhine to the south and the city to its west.

Schaffhausen became a wealthy place in the late Middle Ages, as trade picked up and merchants needed to have goods transported past the Rhine Falls, which are just a few kilometers below the city.  Merchants in the city were most happy to assist, for a fee.

We arrived in town early and parked our panniers at the hotel for a ride along the river to see them -- the falls that is, not the merchants.  The river was still mostly flat, though rapid.  Then, a first line of rapids began.  Then heavier rapids, and finally a railroad bridge beyond which a steady strong mist arose.  We were there.

This is the largest waterfall on the European continent, though Iceland holds the claim to the biggest "in Europe."  It's still small compared to Niagara Falls: not quite half as tall, about 1/6th the width of the combined falls at Niagara, and about 1/6th the volume. It's also not the straight drop that Niagara largely is.  Nonetheless, it's still an exciting place, especially we suspect for those folks who take the boats that keep dropping off and picking up folks from an island right in the middle of the roaring water.  We locked up the bike and spent almost an hour walking about, camera and binoculars in hand.

The plan was to bike down the other side of the falls the next day to compare the views, but fate had different plans for us.  As we prepared to leave, Louise picked up one of the panniers that Jeff normally carries to and from our rooms, and wrenched her back.  We were already a little apprehensive about the day since there was a chance of rain, particularly in Schaffhausen, and the first half of the ride looked like it might be the hilliest part of our whole summer.  A quick check on the computer -- isn't the internet amazing -- showed us a way to skip most of the hills and over half the distance by taking a train.  Louise said she could do that much, so off we went to buy our train tickets.  It was about $13 for the 30 km trip, but that had to be multiplied by 4: Jeff, Louise, front half of the tandem, rear half of the tandem (since it's so long).  Ouch, over $50 to go 30 km.  But Louise managed the reduced, less challenging distance, so that's a win.

And we did get to see the falls again, although from the same north side we'd already visited, as the train passed by, raindrops on its windows.  The rain stopped soon after, we saw the north side bike trail next to our train car, and pretty soon we were crossing the Rhine on a tall train bridge at our destination, Eglisau.  Once off the train and back on the bike, we admired the train bridge from the main bridge in town.

We also admired the waterfront in Eglisau and the town church next to a park where we had a picnic lunch. 

With only 19 km to ride, we stopped mid-way to check out yet another city the guide book said to go visit, Kaiserstuhl Switzerland.  Looking across the river we noticed an old tower at the top of the hill.  So with Louise cautiously walking and Jeff pushing the bike up the hill, we made it there and discovered that it was open, and without the usual fee of a few euros or Swiss francs.  Well, we almost never pass up a chance to climb a tower, so that's the view from the top.

On the way to our next city of interest, Waldshut, we captured this view of the Rhine as it brushes by the south edge of the Black Forest.  In Waldshut we could look through the eastern town gate and see the western one a few blocks away.  In the busy square in between we discovered that the locals have given special attention to a much-neglected architectural detail, the soffit.  Several were quite artistic indeed, with the one on the red Sparbank (Savings Bank) winning the contest in our judgment.

Out in the middle of nowhere in particular we looked over to see a factory for a company called Sedus, which makes office furniture.  We joked that it looked much more like a factory that makes Lego blocks.  Further on we came to the twin cities of Laufenberg Switzerland and Laufenberg Germany, both with attractive waterfronts.  But what's with the skinny yellow place in the middle of the first riverside photo?  Is that a house that's one room wide???  And we've heard of drive through banks, but have you ever heard of or seen a drive-through City Hall?  They've got one here, though of course it's called the Rathaus. 

We're getting close to Basel, so time for one last photo of the Rhine showing no trace of human activity.  We may have a hard time finding another such scene in the remaining 900 km to the North Sea.

When we first thought about doing this section of the Rhine, the only point of interest we had heard of was the Rhine Falls.  We have been pleasantly surprised at how much there has been to see that is largely off the standard tourist radar.  One last town before Basel continued the trend: Bad Säckingen.  Its big claim to fame is the longest wooden bridge in Europe, and it is an interesting and attractive one.  It even has a shrine part way across.  There used to be border control at the ends of the bridge, but since the treaty of Schengen and Switzerland's decision to join the Schengen Zone, that's a thing of the past.  Thank goodness for that.  In getting from Liechtenstein to Basel we have crossed the Swiss border 15 times going in or going out!

The guidebook also advised checking out the Minster of Saint Fridolin, which we duly did.  It had some excellent ceiling frescoes, including some trompe l'oeil ones, and a very strange statue of Saint Sebastian.  The arrows he has been shot with aren't the odd part -- that's the standard iconography for his martyrdom -- but why exactly is a cupid holding yet more arrows?

We've spent a lot of time visiting places that are quite, quite old, hundreds of years old.  Our next stop was almost two thousand years old, the remains of a place called Augusta Raurica.  These are various archaeological finds in the Basel suburb of Augst.  We stopped to visit two of them.  The first was one of the service tunnels for the Roman baths.  We saw tunnels very similar to this in Trier two years ago, where the ruins are far more extensive.  The second and more impressive ruin is the theater and a little bit of a temple that once faced it.  That was indeed impressive.

And then -- Basel, where the High Rhine becomes the Upper Rhine.  Basel is Switzerland's only seaport thanks to the "improvements" that have been done to the Rhine over the past two centuries.  We'll have more to say about that when we move further north in our next blog.  It's also the home to a huge concentration of pharmaceutical companies, with big office buildings and office complexes for many of the world's largest drug companies.  That's the Hoffman-LaRoche headquarters in the first photo, for example.  But there is still a lot of old in Basel, such as this fragment of the city wall we stumbled onto on the south edge of town, the Minster in the middle of the Altstadt, and the well-known 12th century Spalentor at the north edge of the Altstadt.

We spent three nights here, in large part because we found that rarity, a Swiss hotel we could easily afford.  It was the Ibis Budget Hotel Basel, and it cost less than $100/night, though it was a bit . . . basic.  However, it had one other thing that many hotels we had looked into did not have, and that was air conditioning.  And the temperature went over 90 F (33 C) each of those three days.  It was a lucky find.

With temperatures like that, we were not highly motivated to get out and about, but did find some time to do a little sightseeing in the old city.  The most remarkable building has to be the city hall or Rathaus, sumptuously painted both on the outside and in the inner courtyard.

And then there was the Minster and it's beckoning towers.  Before entering we noted the statue of one of the Holy Roman Emperors holding the Minster in miniature, of St. George and the Dragon, and of some odd little creatures holding up the columns.

We paid our Swiss francs and started climbing.  And climbing.  At last we reached a viewing platform high above most of Basel, where we took a photo of the Rhine.

Ah, but there was another door and yet another stair to climb.  Oh my, look at the view now!

But that wasn't the highest point either!  Yet one more twisty, narrow staircase brought us seemingly to the top of Basel.  It certainly was the top of the Minster.

While up there we saw two types of creatures.  One of course was the collection of gargoyles.  The other was a steady stream of people floating down the Rhine who seemed to be holding a variety of colorful pillows.  It was a remarkable sight, a flow of people in clusters gently gliding by, a dozen every two or three minutes.  What's the deal?

The next day we came down to the Rhine in the center of town and got a closer look at these floating pillow people.  Near as we could figure out, they were folks who purchased a dry bag such as kayakers and canoeists use for spare dry clothes, and they put some shoes and maybe a few items of clothing in them, closed them up with as much air as possible, then used them as flotation devices.  When they get downstream they either walk back upstream -- we saw quite a few people doing just that -- or maybe take a tram to go home or to go do it again.  And then there's the guy who was making a cell phone call while drifting down the river, and the woman who played fetch with a tennis ball with her dog as both glided past us.  What a hoot!

We'll close today's blog entry with our air-conditioned visit to the Kunstmuseum Basel, the largest art museum in Switzerland.  Remember St. George and the Dragon on the walls of the Minster?  Basel seems to have a St. George "thing," as there are two more portraits of him in the museum, first from the 13th and then from the 14th century.

Next is a poignant portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of his wife and two eldest children.  Holbein became renowned as the court painter to Henry VIII, and indeed as one of the finest portrait painters of all time.

Next is Jan Breughel the Elder showing John the Baptist preaching to a crowd that appears to standing on the Rhine, or at least some river in northern Europe.

We'll close with their three Van Gogh's.  The self-portrait seemed familiar from art books, but we don't recall ever seeing the other two.  The landscape is a view of Paris from Montmartre in Spring.  The woman at the piano is Marguerite Gachet, daughter of Van Gogh's doctor (whose own portrait in the Musée d'Orsay is one of Van Gogh's best-known works).

The Rhine turns north at Basel, and so must we.  We'll share with you what we see on the Upper Rhine in our next blog.

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