Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Cycling from Central Germany to Denmark

In our first two blog entries this summer we took you about 1200 km from Nuremberg to Göttingen, following the Regnitz, Main, Rhine, Lahn and Eder Rivers (and skipping a short section of the Fulda, which we rode last summer).  We had a two-day home-stay visit in Göttingen with friends Rainer and Brigitte, whom we have managed to get together with every summer since meeting them in 2015.  Having seen many of the highlights of their home town and region on prior visits, this time we simply relaxed with them, got a few chores done, and as always enjoyed some rare home cooking courtesy of Brigitte.

Today we'll cover the next 700 km to Denmark, plus a quick visit by train to the Netherlands and back to do some riding with our Dutch friends Nico and Marga (more about that shortly).  The first 350 km in Germany was along the Weser River, in orange on the map to the left.  We did this section in the reverse direction just last summer and you're welcome to read (or re-read) our blog about it at http://redtandem.blogspot.com/2018/07/germany-part-3-tandeming-weser-from.html.  We did a pretty thorough examination of the region and its historical sights last time, so this time we mainly luxuriated in the quiet rusticity of the valley.  And few things say "rustic" better than cows, so here are three cow photos.  This first is one standing guard over one of the many ferries that cross the river, followed by a bovine group hug, apparently.  The last one was a very determined cow who not only knows that the grass is greener on the other side, but is absolutely determined to do something about that!

The Weser does not have much in the way of dramatic scenery.  Perhaps the most scenic is the area near Bad Karlshafen.  If you look closely behind the ship you can see the group of canoes seen also in the second photo when they got a bit closer, and on the left the bicycle route we came down.

While we saw a dozen or more bike tourists every day, there were rarely large numbers of them.  The long line of them in the first photo below was probably an organized tour group, the only one we saw so far as we know.  But independent riders like us with their packed panniers as well as day riders were there pretty much wherever we went.  Cycling is very popular in Germany, especially on its wonderful routes along rivers like this one.

Well, not everywhere.

And that's a good thing, because sometimes certain amenities don't show up when and where you'd like them to, and you need to commune with some bushes or trees or hay bales without a steady stream of cyclists gliding by.

One thing we did differently this year was to pack bathing suits, specifically to try out some hot spring spas.  We visited one on the Main early in the trip, and in Bad Oeynhausen we checked out the Bali Therme.  We were reluctant to bring the camera into a wet environment and to worry about security, so we only have one photo, taken through the window from the cafe that abuts it, but perhaps it gives an idea of what both were like:  extensive (this is only a small part of the pool complex), relatively shallow, tepid in temperature (most pools were around 32 C (89F), plus or minus a degree), salty and therefore bouyant, and OOOOH so relaxing!

When we first planned this trip, we were sorry to see that there was no time to include our beloved Netherlands in the plan.  But our Dutch friends Nico and Marga asked us what was the closest we would get to their country.  Well, we said, probably Minden on the Weser, and by the way there's a train from there that goes to Hengelo in the Netherlands.  There were two more challenges:  we have had an ambitious plan with not much slack, and the meeting would have to be on a weekend since Marga still works Mondays through Thursdays.  But the stars all aligned, we found ourselves ahead of schedule, and we did indeed hop a train one Thursday for the 2 1/2 hour trip west while Nico and Marga drove east after work on a Thursday.  We met up for three days of tandem biking and card games, using Nico's braille-marked deck of cards.

This was an area we had only seen once, briefly, and our friends not at all.  Our Dutch hotel supplies visitors with a a choice of bike route maps, so each day we took off in a new direction.  A few of the trails were not paved, but the rubber side of the bikes stayed down and we had some great rides in this untouristic part of Holland.  We're so glad it worked out once again to see friends along the way, here as in Göttingen, and to get a quick fix of Dutch culture while we were at it.  So glad Nico and Marga made the time for us, as Rainer and Brigitte had a week earlier.

We also saw a relatively new type of bike trail for the Netherlands, a Fietssnelweg, or 'bicycle expressway.'  The government is now building a number of these where it can find routes that are fairly direct, especially in more urban areas where commuters don't really want to wander about on the way to work.  In that sense this route was not typical, but it follows a train line so has few cross streets and provides a very direct route into and out of Hengelo.  If we spend more time next summer in the Netherlands, as we hope to, we will be looking for many more of these to explore.

By the way, our visit to the Netherlands coincided with a terrible heat wave.  On the day we reached Hengelo it hit 40 degrees Celsius, 104 Fahrenheit, both in Hengelo and elsewhere in the country.  It was a new national record, one the Dutch didn't really want, but hey, global warming is not a polite guest.  We did have lodging in an air-conditioned hotel, but our 6 km ride from the train station to the hotel was a challenge, and the next two days were only a few degrees cooler.  At least it was a very dry heat, not nearly as unbearable as some we remember from our childhoods on the East Coast of the US.

Back on the Weser we spent our next-to-last night in the town of Nienburg, a town on almost no one's tourism list, but charming nonetheless.  The bike trail is right next to the Weser, and this lower section of the river has a fair bit of boat traffic.  Here you can see upstream and downstream barges getting ready to pass each other, and a pair of cabin cruisers are also right around the corner.

The town is home to the National Asparagus Museum, a sight we just didn't work into our plans, but we did pass the charming Asparagus Statue at one end of town, and some nice Fachwerk (half-timbered) buildings in the center of town, right around the corner from the main shopping and dining street.  Like so many towns in Germany now, cars are shunted away from the blocks in the center of town to make way for outdoor dining and relaxed, safe shopping.

Up to this point, our ride has consistently followed rivers and bike routes devoted to those waterways.  We now set out on a new adventure, following roads across the landscape between the Weser and Elbe Rivers.  It was easier and more attractive than we ever expected.

We were following a highway, though as it turned out not a particularly busy one.  Leaving town we were on wide sidewalks marked in reddish bricks for bikes and grey bricks for pedestrians.  In a few short sections after we were out of the town proper there wasn't enough room for a bike path separate from the road, so a protected bike path was created.  A few short stretches also had sections of path that were a bit bumpy from tree roots or frost damage, but we were well warned of "bikepath defects."  All that said, 95 % of the two days we spent on paths like this were on paths separated by a meter or two from the traffic, then intermittently by up to ten meters as the path gently swung away from the road for a while.  ALL of the paths that were not marked with those warning signs were smooth asphalt.

In two days of riding we reached Stade, a Hanseatic city connected to the Elbe River by river and canal.  Like all Hanseatic cities, it became wealthy from trade, and from that wealth also turned into a charming place to visit.

We had now done the section of our trip marked in gray on the map far above, and at Stade began the last leg of our journey to Denmark along the North Sea, marked in purple on the map.  We crossed one last river coming into the Elbe from the west at low tide, then passed a building next to the river with a large collection of swallow nests.  The babies would wait and wait, then mom or dad would show up for a second or two, hovering at the entrance just long enough to disgorge some tasty morsel in junior's beak, and off again.  With considerable patience, we finally captured one of these fast food feats in action.

The Elbe at this point is really an enormous tidal estuary that our ferry took half an hour to cross.  The tide was still so low that one of the navigation buoys was simply lying down on the mud.

We were now in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, an area that has suffered much from storms coming in off the North Sea;.  Within the past century it has built and rebuilt dikes to keep the sea at bay, and some areas of land today are polders, reclaimed land behind dikes that is kept dry by the more or less constant pumping out of water.  Just as in Holland, some are actually below sea level.  The consequence for us is that we were frequently following the sea shore with only rare glimpses of the sea when our route happened to climb to the top of a dike.  Mostly, like these seaside houses, there was no sea to see.

And when we did get to the top of the dike, sometimes there was nothing out there but mud!

And what can you do with these vast mudflats? Why, go Wattlaufen, "mudflat walking."  While on top of a dike in  Brunsbüttel we spotted some Wattlaufer who appeared to practicing a new sport, Wattschwimmen.  Gosh, what fun!

One night we stayed in a hotel that peeked over the dike and we got rewarded with a view of a cruise ship shimmering in the dusk, as it glided down the Elbe from Hamburg to the North Sea.  Did anyone on that massive ship see us as we looked out at them?

At Brunsbüttel we boarded yet another ferry for a short ride across the Kiel Canal, the busiest artificial waterway in the world.  It was certainly busy while we were there.  It's built at sea level, but has locks to keep water from rushing one way or the other through the canal as the tide rises and falls at different times at each end, since the west portal is on the North Sea and the east one on the Baltic.  There are four lock chambers at each entrance, two older and smaller ones, two larger.  A fifth one is now in the works, larger still.  In the second photo, a ship that locked through earlier is headed toward the Baltic.  In the third photo, the red and grey-hulled boats are waiting to exit to the North Sea in the first large lock, and the white ship is heading east to the Baltic in the adjacent large lock.

There is not a lot of "civilization" along the way, once you cross the Kiel Canal.  Most often we were behind the dike, but occasionally on the water/mud side.  As we have frequently encountered in the Netherlands and Germany along the North Sea, vegetation control is by sheep, and the dikes are divided in sections every kilometer or two by fences.  Here, the sheep are mostly prevented by gates from using the bike route to escape.  At least with the tandem, we automatically have one person to hold the gate while the other person pushes or pulls the bike through.  But it is frustrating to keep breaking your rhythm of cycling every few minutes and dismounting.  We were much happier not being along the water for that reason.

Our route also spent a bit of time away from the dikes, passing through farmland where sometimes the wind seemed to be the main crop.  In another area we were quite obviously in a polder, a field that was underneath the North Sea until sometime in the last 2 or 3 centuries when a dike went up and the land was drained.

Our route was designed to keep us on low-traffic roads so we rarely went through the few small towns that were hiding nearby, though we did skirt a few and stopped in one to photograph this wonderful thatched home.

On one day we rode 60 km with only one inhabited place along the way, a small city that is largely a seaside resort community now, to reach the biggest coastal draw in this region, Sankt Peter-Ording.  This was a bustling place filled with tourists, but calling it a seaside resort is generous since it is set well back from the North Sea.  We found a hotel in the very heart of town and walked two blocks to the start of the boardwalk that goes out to the sea.  Ten minutes later we looked back some 650 m (1/2 mile).  We're still crossing the salt marsh.  In the next photo looking forward, we still have a ways to go across the marsh before we cross the natural sand dunes.  The third photo was taken from the end of the boardwalk, 1.6 km / 1 mile from where it left town.  And we're now just at the back end of the wide beach, which you can then see in the fourth photo.  So much for "seaside."  It's a 2-kilometer hike to even wet your toes.

Those wicker seats, called "beach baskets" in German, are a common feature in German beach towns on the North Sea, thanks to their frequent windy conditions.  We had supper in a beach restaurant on stilts (from which we took that photo), and got to experience one inside the restaurant.

There is an odd custom in Germany that we have often seen but overlooked so far in our blog, but St. Peter had accommodated it in a fashion than suggested this would be a good place to document it.  Stores will engrave the name of a couple on a lock, and the couple then finds some public place, usually a bridge, where they attach the lock and throw away the key, symbolizing their permanent attachment.  The photo to the right is a typical one, engraved "always me, always you, always us."  The one below is a very cute variant, with a date in 2013 that is no doubt a wedding date, and two additions over the intervening years.  Unfortunately, these locks are also now permanently attached to something, and in the case of bridges, that has become a problem.  Some cities have had to cut out large sections of railing because all those locks were making the bridge too heavy!  Crowding might become an issue here, but not weight.

At the end of the next day's 52 km, none of it in towns or cities, we reached the port city of Husum.  It still has some active port businesses a bit closer to the North Sea, which is only 3 km away, but the historic port is now entirely touristic.  And quaint.  

We decided to spend two nights, partly to rest, partly to avoid some predicted rain (that amounted to almost nothing, in fact), and mainly to plan.  But, having stopped, we checked out the town, including an old farm building moved here as a museum; a store that was probably a warehouse when it went up in the 1600s; the city's fanciful water tower; the manor house of a local nobleman; and of course the harbor.

Wind has not been a big issue for us, until now.  We've had a mix of tail winds and head winds and side winds, none strong enough to affect our progress to any great extent.  For the past few days, in fact, we've had strong partial tailwinds out of the SW, pushing us up toward Denmark.  But each day they've gotten stronger and stronger, and are now peaking at 20 miles per hour (9 meters per second).  They're also shifting to W or WSW, and the route we have planned on taking heads north and a little west from Husum.  It also is in remote parts of the coast, where little or no vegetation is going to slow it down.  And then there are the predictions that gusts could double those numbers.  Ooooh.  What to do?  Twenty years ago we were literally knocked off our tandem by a sudden gust from the side, and we have no desire to repeat the experience.

So we changed our plans.  Instead of going due north for the next three days, we are going to go NE, with SW and WSW winds predicted for the next several days.  We can't do this for too long or we'll be in Copenhagen two weeks too soon, but for safety's sake we're going to not fight the winds for right now and hope things moderate in the coming week.

And so our final day in Germany came sooner than we expected.  We rode another one of those wonderful paths alongside a highway that went almost arrow-straight from Husum on the North Sea to Flensburg on the Baltic, with a steady tailwind and, as it turned out, no scary gusts of wind.  The town was charming, with a number of courtyards running off the main pedestrian street, reminiscent of ones we saw last September in Edinburgh. Unlike Edinburgh, many of them had shops, cafes and restaurants.

 The next morning we biked down to the harbor.  It's still slowly sinking in, we're now on the Baltic.  Our bike route followed the water around a bend and there was our first glimpse of Denmark, with a thick forest preserve along the shore.  5 km from our hotel we came to a small bridge.  For hundreds of years, this is where you had to pull out your passport.  Since the Schengen Zone phased out most border control in 2001, we just walked our bike across.  We are now in Denmark!

We are now also roughly at the latitude of Ketchikan, Alaska.  We'll have much to say about Denmark and life in this northern place where the sun is still setting after 9 pm in August in our next blog.