Saturday, June 27, 2015

Starting Our 2015 Adventures in Europe and Maine

Each year we try to come up with a theme for our annual bike tour.  Two years ago it was Europe and last year, the Coast of Maine.  Since those were two of our best tours yet, it was fairly easy to decide on “the best of the past two years” as this year’s plan.

Figuring out where in Europe was easy.  In 2013 we landed in Europe, expecting to bike along the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers between Budapest and the mouth of the Rhine.  We rode the 250 km between Vienna and Budapest but then had to abandon the rest of that route due to serious floods in Austria and Germany.  We threw out the rest of our plans and took a train to the Netherlands, which was untroubled by water just then.  What we found was that its reputation as a great place to bike was more than deserved.  We had a fabulous time.

So this year we have headed to Bamberg on the Main to start 10 weeks of biking across Europe along the Main, Rhine, Moselle and Meuse (Maas in Dutch) Rivers.  If all goes well we will have cycled 1500+ km through Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium en route to Holland, almost all on bicycle paths and quiet roads.  And by following these scenic rivers we will have an almost-flat route, through some of the most historic parts of those countries.  To end the European half of this year’s adventure, we've booked an apartment for one week in Leiden, the Dutch city we most enjoyed two years ago.  Besides enjoying its own attractions, we hope to take day rides on our tandem from Leiden to Haarlem, The Hague, Delft and/or Gouda, all of which are 25 km or less from Leiden.

As for Maine, it was easy to plan that as well.  The first 4 weeks are in our 2 favorite cabins from last year, 2 weeks in each, then a week each in 2 new cabins.  We’ll then close out the trip with 2 weeks wandering through New England’s famous fall foliage en route to a weekend with daughter Lisa and family in Tewksbury, MA, where our grandson is participating in a taekwando event.  So keep following us for the next 4 months as vicarious fellow-travellers and you’ll see how it all pans out!

Since we’re now 4 days out from Bamberg, we can tell you that it has been as good or better than we expected, at least so far.  Hang in there a few more paragraphs and we’ll start showing you some of the sights.

As prelude to our bike adventure, we first spent a week in upstate NY with two of our grandkids, then four days in NYC.  When we offered last Fall to watch the kids so Lisa and Ray could have a romantic trip by themselves, they accepted almost before we finished speaking.  We can report that they had a fabulous week on the beach in the Turks and Caicos, and we got to know grandkids Elise and Issei like  we never had before.  On the weekdays they were busy with school and swim practice, but on Saturday we had a fun trip to the Corning Glass Museum where Elise got to play with fire and make this gorgeous pendant.  Issei got behind a giant lens that made it look like we had bottled him!  He also got chosen, to the dismay of every other child and perhaps a few adults  in the room, as the one kid from the audience who got to break different kinds of glass (ordinary, laminated and safety) in the Glass-Breaking Demonstration.  Then on Sunday we headed to some nearby stables for their riding lessons.  Wow, busy kids.

Then it was off to NYC for us and the kids.  Cornell has a bus right from campus to mid-Manhattan.  We dropped off our bags at the airbnb place we would call home for the next 4 nights.  It's on the 22nd floor, on W 95th St., and that’s Central Park a block away in this view from the balcony.  Less than a mile away was the hotel Lisa had booked for their family, and we made the hand-off right after dinner, when Mom and Dad arrived, well-tanned, from the airport.  One more day together, in Central Park, then they headed back to Ithaca and we geared up for the next event.

Fifty years earlier, Jeff graduated from Regis High School on E 84th St.  It was now time to see folks he hadn't seen since then.  Fortunately, the reunion committee made up name cards with our 1965 yearbook photos on them.  Out of the 80 grads who made it (about 60% of the living alums), Jeff probably recognized only 3 or 4 without having to look at the name cards!  Golly, what a bunch of old men (it was an all-boys school then and now)!  It was great to reconnect with so many people who had been a daily part of his life for four years, oh so long ago, and we both made some new connections with  fellow-alums and spouses and partners that we hope we will be able to follow up with in the coming years.

We had one more NYC adventure before heading to the airport ourselves.  Louise’s brother Richard lives in the city and in fact accepted delivery of the suitcases containing our tandem earlier that week, so we wouldn't have to lug them from Seattle to Ithaca to NYC.  Richard joined us for a visit to the new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, at the foot of the High Line (the old elevated railway that has become one of NY’s most popular destinations after being turned into an elevated park).  The museum just opened there, and to celebrate brought out some of “their best stuff," such as Charles Demuth's My Egypt, Joseph Stella's Brooklyn Bridge, this unsettling piece by George Toomey called The Subway, and John Sloane's "Ashcan School" masterpiece, Backyards, Greenwich Village.

The building is also quite a place for watching and being watched by others.

Hey, we were in the Big Apple, so we decided to squeeze in one more event before heading to JFK for our evening departure: a revisit to the American Museum of Natural History.  It's hard to overdo this wonderful museum.  We focused on halls of North American wildlife and on human evolution, as you can see.

Now we were in travel mode.  We mailed off one box of clothes back to Seattle and a suitcase full of other clothes to our first destination in Maine (we each have a 2-page checklist of every item of clothes or electronics we will use in Europe and/or Maine, with 4 possible ways of traveling with us or to us).  We lugged two panniers and two small bags to a subway stop near Richard’s, then Jeff and Richard brought the two large, 50-lb. suitcases containing the tandem and a few more clothes from Richard’s apartment  to where Louise was waiting with the rest.  Then it was the two of us and all that luggage, in rush hour, on the subway to JFK.  Let's just say, we survived.

What a relief to arrive in Bamberg.  That's all the luggage that somehow made it by NY subway, airport light rail, airplane, German subway, German train, and taxi.  It was, moreover, the best-named starting point for any of our bike trips to date: The Tandem Hotel!  Between the comfort of the hotel itself and the comfort of knowing the tandem had finally reached The Tandem, we slept well.  OK, having been awake all night on our red-eye flight might have had something to do with that also.

We chose Bamberg as our starting point because it is near the start of the Main Radweg, i.e. the Main River bike route, and was relatively easy to get to by train from Frankfurt, where our flight landed us.  It had the good fortune to have little industry 75 years ago, so was largely ignored by American and British bombers in WW II.  We walked over to the cathedral, famous for two tombs.  Up in the nave, at the other end of the church from where the photo was taken, is the only grave of a Pope in northern Europe, Clement II.  He was bishop here just before becoming Pope, and lasted less than a year.  At the back of the church is the tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and his wife, Empress Cunigunde, decorated with scenes from their lives.  Not sure who the fellow is in the last photo, perhaps the sculptor, who took 14 years to carve this work!  As cathedrals go, this is a very old one, begun in 1002 then rebuilt in 1111.  The rebuilt version was already 60 years old when the first stone was laid for Notre Dame in Paris, by comparison.

A number of cities in Germany were ruled by so-called Prince-Bishops from the Middle Ages until the early 1800's, Bamberg among them.  Except that in the case of Bamberg, there was a self-governing city as well, on the right bank of the Regnitz River across from the Prince-Bishop's palace on the left bank.  Where to put the Rathaus, the city hall?  Why, on a tiny island in the middle of the river!  Of course the city is no longer divided, and red roofs crowd both sides of the river.  The palace is still there, now a library and archives, as well as the Prince-Bishop's garden.

Our second full day in Bamberg was largely occupied by a continued effort to reset our time-challenged brains, by reassembling our tandem, and by sending the now empty suitcases to Holland.  The Tandem Hotel is an official Bett+Bike establishment, meaning it has been endorsed as "bike-friendly" by Germany's largest bike club.  Consequently, we had a large, clean area in a garage where we could attach part number 17 to part number 18, and so on, until the jumble of metal in our two suitcases resembled an honest-to-goodness tandem bike.  We breathed a sigh of relief when we found no parts missing and saw no pieces left over.  Tandem friends in Seattle told us that German post offices act as agencies for DHL, the big FedEx-equivalent in Europe, and a 1 km walk to the PO proved them right.  For $27 we were able to send the two empty suitcases, the smaller one nested into the larger, to an Airbnb host we will be staying with in August (with their advance agreement, of course).

Whew, now to start biking!  It's taken awhile to crank out this first blog of the season, so today we'll just take you on our first day's ride and on to our first destination.  Right from our hotel, we were on the Regnitz River Radweg, or bike trail, which joined the Main Radweg in a few km.  It was mostly a bike and pedestrian trail following but never entirely next to a road, but as we came to small towns it often fed us into the former main street of town.  With such sleepy little places, this was never problem.  We saw the river a bit less than we expected, sometimes just quick glimpses at a break in the vegetation, but it was all still beautiful.

We stopped at one baroque jewel of a pilgrimage church, and found ourselves fascinated by the graffiti from dozens and dozens of delinquent little pilgrims, going back as far as 1798!  Most of the small towns were undistinguished but oh-so-tidy, but a few were stunners, with ancient towers and half-timbered homes and stores.

60 km from Bamberg we reached our day's destination, Schweinfurt.  Nearby is a city named Ochsenfurt, which means the same as Oxford: a place where ox once crossed the river.  The Schweinfurters are ambivalent about their own town name.  On one hand they're quick to tell you pigs never crossed the Main River here, yet a colorful pig is the town emblem.  A bigger problem than pigs is the fact that it was the home to the largest and best manufacturers of ball bearings in Germany in the first part of the 20th century, so the town was hit hard, multiple times, by WW II bombing.  It had some interesting old alleys and a little piece of the old town wall, but mostly it's uninspired post-war simplicity.  They did however have a lively oom-pah-pah band performing gratis on the edge of the farmers market in the town square, where your photographer's eye was caught by the pile of Spitzkohl, "pointy cabbage," in the foreground.

Well, that seems like a good point to halt.  We'll carry on down the Main Radweg in our next entry.