Greetings from St. Goar, on the mighty Rhein River!
Before we begin this entry, we need to make a mega kudos to our good friend Christoph, who has helped us develop this blog and is managing our photos and route map (and everything else website related) from Austria so that we can maximize our time exploring. We met Christoph last year through the Outdoor Club, and we can’t wait until we can reconnect with him in his home country. We can’t say how much we appreciate everything he has already done for us!
We have now been cycling along this historic river for two days. The Rhein River flows from Switzerland to the Netherlands, and we are cycling the German section into France. Currently we are in the 60 kilometre stretch that is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and have decided to take a break from camping and enjoy the luxuries of youth hostels (German: jungendherbegen), also known as bed, shower and internet.
Our journey to the Rhein felt epic. We left the flat Netherlands to embark on the uplands of Middle Germany. We were shocked at the contrast between the two countries, both culturally and topographically. Germany so far is much more urban and industrial, and much more hilly! As cyclists we were spoiled in the Netherlands with their seemingly infinite bike infrastructure; although the country still has many bike lanes and paths, Germany seems far more tailored to the automobile (which makes sense since Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and Audi come from here). A major trump card for Germany is their delicious bakeries. We are becoming bakery connoisseurs as we have made a morning baked good part of our daily routine… we consider this conglomeration of sugar, butter and flour as our high octane fuel to help us pump out the kilometres!
Our initial image of Germany was a tainted one, thanks to the dirty town of Düren. We somewhat unintentionally ended up there, attempting to avoid the mountains between Aachen and the Rhein. Warning to all: never go to Düren. Garbage, motorcycle racing, stench, angry looks. The city was so opposite to our lovely Dutch experience that we needed to find solace in McDonalds grease, which we inhaled as the sun was setting since we still needed to find a campsite. Oh, Düren.
The Rhein has wonderfully revamped our opinion of Germany. The river is boarded by steep mountains on either side which often have magnificent castles perched upon them, above quaint and colourful villages. This area has been a hot spot of (recorded) human history for the past 2500 years. The Romans set up camp along the river to fend off the Barbarian tribes and further their empire. The Romans also introduced grapes to this area, and the Rhein Valley has thus become globally recognized for its Riesling (very delicious). We are very impressed by how steep the terraced vineyards are and have enjoyed seeing some of them being harvested (all by hand, due to the 40 degree slope).
After the Romans, many other groups have occupied this area: the Celts, the Huns, the Franks, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Prussians. As we cycle up the river, we can understand the strategic importance of this region. For example, near the end of World War II, the retreating Germans tried to use the river as a natural line of defence and thus destroyed all the bridges. However, they did not destroy one bridge and because of this the Americans were able to secure a stronghold on the east side of the river. We cycled past the remains of this bridge, which today serves as a Peace Museum. Presently, this area remains crucial and has six highways: busy rail and roadway on either side, an active cycle path and the river full of barges and other boats.
Because of all the conflicts along the Rhein, many of the buildings have been lost. However, others have thankfully been preserved. We feel like we are in a fairytale as we pass castles and explore old walled cities. Seeing 800 year old buildings (churches, city halls, restaurants, etc.) is almost becoming normal. We have even seen fortifications with twelve foot thick walls! Indeed, everything here teems with history, but impressively remains active in the modern world.
Speaking of being active, we are feeling much more comfortable on the bicycles. We are averaging about 70 kilometres a day, and this feels very leisurely. Our bums aren’t complaining anymore, our legs are feeling quite toned already, and despite our insane caloric consumption we think we have shed a few pounds! Our bikes (who we have named Nootka and Temagami) are thus far good machines. Temagami, Caitlin’s bike, is being a little temperamental… with two flats and a leaky valve, a loose rear derailer cable, a broken rearview mirror and overacting to a dirty chain… but Caitlin’s not really holding this against her, as she can relate to being a little high maintenance :).
The weather so far has been great for us. We have had some rain, but we are in general enjoying the fall weather. The forests surrounding the Rhein are changing colour and the temperatures are perfect for cycling and sleeping. The cooler weather also helps with our smell, although we are still quite stinky. The bugs are gone, and so are a lot of the tourists (although the Rhein is still quite busy with sight-seers, usually of the senior citizen variety). We are also enjoying eating wild apples we find along the cycle paths and have like watching farmers harvest their fields. In general, we couldn’t think of a better time to cycle this area of the world!
Well, we are off! Our goals for today include exploring fortresses, gawking at castles, reading our Rhein history book, finding a delicious bakery, having a friendly conversation with a stranger, and finding a picture-perfect location to pitch our tent. What a life!
With lots of love,
Alec & Caitlin