Saturday, 26 June 2010

Via Danubia

Ingolstadt – Linz

Over the last week or so we have been following the scenic Danube cycle path through Southern Germany and into Austria. This is an extremely popular cycle path running from the source of the Danube in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest, all the way to Vienna, and then onwards to the Black Sea, although after Vienna cyclists have to share the roads with cars. Germany has been a real luxury in that respect, as the last 700km of our tour have almost all been on bike paths. ||

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Through Germany, the Danube cycle route runs mainly through fields and small villages, interspersed by quaint towns such as Ingolstadt, Regensburg and Passau. We stopped off for a small ferry ride at Weltenburg, the oldest beer brewery in the world, which has been running for almost 1000 years. All along the bike path there are beer gardens and cafes to tempt the cyclist, as well as many guest houses and campsites. We had a rest day at Passau, the last German town before the Austrian border. The dome in Passau is beautiful, and the whole town had a relaxed feel about it, with countless ferries passing by on the river. We have posted our photos from Germany here.

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Crossing into Austria brought an immediate change in scenery, as we were passing through thickly forested hills. Here, the cycle path runs right alongside the Danube, winding its way through the hills, while the path itself is nice and flat to cycle on. Instead of bridges, there are many small ferries that take cyclists across the river. Stopping off in Linz, we enjoyed the free Wifi internet connection that is available in the city, and had some Austrian coffee at a pretty café. Today we are planning to visit the Ars Electronica Center, a technology museum.

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The Danube route has been quite a sociable time for us as we have met many other cyclists. Most are of the older generation and are on a short tour between Ulm or Passau and Vienna, but a few were on bigger tours. We met a French couple in their late 60s, Gabriel and Colette, who were on their way back home after cycling to Romania to raise awareness for blood donation. They gave us many tips, including one that involves getting yourself invited into a Romanian house on a Saturday night, as that is apparently “sauna night” and can be very entertaining!

One memorable encounter was with Paul, who we met at a campsite in Regensburg. He is also in his late 60s and has been cycle touring for the last 50 years or so, whilst working as a science teacher in schools around the world. A wealth of knowledge, he really has been everywhere, including cycling the length of Africa and exploring the Australian outback by bike. At the same campsite we also met David, who is enjoying the end of his year-long trip cycling through Europe and is on his way back to London.

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All in all, our time following the Danube has been quite easy so far (there are even inner tube dispensers en route!), and we are only 250km from Vienna. We are really looking forward to it, as Freddie’s family is coming out to visit us there. After Vienna we will be ready for the next, more adventurous section through Slowakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Rising Waters

Ulm – Ingolstadt

There it was again, that unmistakeable sensation of floating on water. My heart sunk, I knew it was serious and we had to act swiftly; “Freddie get up, the water has come in, we need to get out of here fast”. Freddie sat bolt upright in the tent, my torch light glaring in her face revealing a look of confusion and disbelief.

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It was our eighth day in a row of rain. Riding into Donauwörth we were desperate to find camp quickly and settle into Boris, our tent, with the hope that tomorrow would be a better day. Particularly as we had just spent the afternoon in various police stations and town halls trying to retrieve our lost wallet and the €300 that were contained within it (we had managed to cycle off after a supermarket stop, leaving the wallet on the rear pannier of one of our bikes). We arrived at the “official camp site” of the city which turned out to be a patch of grass in front of the Canoe Club right beside the Danube river.

Freddie went inside to enquire about camping logistics. A canoe club party was in full swing, and all of the elderly participants looked worse for wear. It seemed that they were taking turns looking after the campsite, and today it was the turn of a red-faced man who seemed slightly drunk and not exactly a professional campsite manager.

The man was quick to advise of a dry area that would be perfect for a nights stay, and guaranteed to keep our tent dry, indicating towards an open basement under the stilt section of the club house. Immediately the alarm bells rang as there was a mere metre in elevation between the river and the proposed pitch. We raised concerns about the recent amount of rain and the slightly swollen river, only to be dismissed with a laugh: “Flooding, no - not a chance anything will happen tonight.”

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We attempted to justify the decision to stay as we were tired, hungry and wet, this was an offer of a “dry bed”, seemingly too good to refuse. With some lingering doubts, we set up camp, trying to reassure ourselves, “they wouldn’t let us stay if there was any risk”, and “they know the area better than us”.

In the evening the swirling and gurgling sound of the river grew a little stronger. But we were now settled and it wasn’t raining, so we felt fairly confident it would be ok. Even if the water level did continue to rise at the current rate it would take well into the next day to reach our camp. We crawled into our tent, pulled the zipper and attempted to find some sleep. The canoe club crowd had gone home, so we were on our own, being the only guests at the campsite.

I got up a few hours after bedding down for a quick recon. The river was still swollen, a little higher but not threatening, I went back to bed, confident that all would be fine. I soon feel into a deeper sleep. At some point Freddie rolled over onto her side. There was a very subtle sensation of my sleeping mat rising ever so slightly. In my subconscious state I was confused as to why I had never noticed such a sensation before, but I soon dismissed it as a mere hallucination.

I’m not sure how much time had passed but the next time Freddie rolled over there it was again, a distinct feeling of being on a water bed, of moving water under the tent. I slapped my hand on the tent floor. How much water was beneath us? Why weren’t we wet? Were we floating on the Danube? Panic set in, I called to Freddie in a voice that was struggling for calm but laden with fear.
Freddie stared at me for a few seconds before the seriousness of the situation kicked in.
 
Opening the outer fly revealed our valuables floating around us like a holy procession on the river Ganges. Crap.., the laptop, the camera, our passports! We scrambled and grabbed our belongings, dumping them on the highest driest land we could find. We splashed about in our best briefs, wading through water up to our shins.

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Luckily our decision to buy Ortlieb’s waterproof panniers had saved the day and all our valuables were safe and dry, only a few clothes were wet. Once we had all our possessions on high land we evaluated the scene. The river, though much higher had not yet reached our campsite. We soon discovered a faulty water outlet valve in the basement was responsible for letting the water in.

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It was 3am in the morning. We packed up with the water closing in around us, and cycled 70km to our next destination, Ingolstadt, laughing with relief that we were ok and seriously re-assessing our campsite selection process.||

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Strangers and friends

Metz – Ulm

“A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.” - Will Rogers

The last week has been a very sociable one for us. Last Monday we left Metz to cycle through the countryside for a couple of days towards Strasbourg. When we pulled into a tiny village to sit down on the local park bench and have a little rest, a passing car stopped and the couple inside asked us to come and drink something at their house.|| We followed them to the house and they invited us inside.

The drinks were supplemented by homemade bread, salami and cheese. When a bakery van passed the house, more food was purchased including a delicious Brioche, which we had for dessert along with our coffees. The couple whose names we never found out were retired farmers in their seventies, who had owned a farm in the village for 50 years. They were a lot of fun and we spent the whole lunch laughing and talking, so we felt very energised when we left.

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A little while later we stopped in another village, this time at a bus stop, as this was the best place with a bench in the shade. We were having yoghurt when a man on his bike pulled up. He introduced himself as the Maire and welcomed us to his village. We had a nice chat in French and German before we left.

That night we stayed at a campsite where we were the only guests. It really still seems to be the low season in France.

After a couple of days in a rural area we arrived at Strasbourg on Wednesday. In the afternoon we met up with Claire-Marie, who we had met through the Warmshowers website. She and her boyfriend had cycled from France to Mongolia last year. We went to a café and then Claire-Marie showed us around Strasbourg, which has a beautiful old town with charming, well preserved buildings and a lot of cafés and restaurants.

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Catherine, who we stayed with in Metz, had told us that her daughter lives in Strasbourg, and she actually called her to ask if we could stay with her. Charlotte was just about to finish her studies and then move to Germany. Together we went to visit a performance on Strasbourg’s main square of Gotan Project, a group of Paris-based Tango DJs. Later, Charlotte and her flatmate invited some friends and neighbours back to the flat, and we had homemade lasagne and a sociable evening.

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We left Strasbourg early on Thursday to cross the border into Germany. We knew there was a big climb ahead of us, as we were entering the Black Forest. However, we weren’t prepared for the 35°C heat! It was quite a steep 800m climb and very hot, and we really felt every one of the 45kg of bikes and luggage we each had to get up the hill. We soaked our T-Shirts in a stream to make the heat more bearable, and Guy invented the “ice cap”, which is a cap full of cold water that is then slapped on Freddie’s head.

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We camped in Herrenwies, up in the Black Forest. The next day we had a beautiful ride through thick forest, which was mostly downhill apart from one 400m climb. The temperature was much cooler, with a few showers. We camped in Nagold on the Eastern edge of the Black Forest, and then next morning it took us a good half hour to get out of the small town, as the only way out was through a busy tunnel, which was only for cars and closed to cyclists and pedestrians. With the help of some locals we found a way across, which involved cycling up on a hill high above the town, and then descending again, just to get over the tunnel.

We had a short day of 30km and arrived in Ehningen near Stuttgart mid-morning. Ehningen is where our good friends Sandra and Alex live, so we visited them and their children, Laura and Phillip. Laura is one and a half, and Phillip only 7 weeks old. We spent the afternoon catching up and going out for ice cream, and Sandra and Alex fed us hungry cyclists with a yummy barbeque and then put us up in a fancy local hotel. Needless to say we slept very well, and after a shared breakfast we were on our way again.

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In the UK and France, we are used to cycling on the roads, but in Germany there are many cycle paths. When you cycle on the road and cars toot at you, it normally means there is a cycle path somewhere parallel, which you can’t necessarily see from the road, but which you should try to find as the drivers don’t expect to see cyclist on “their” road. Sometimes the cycle paths are great, but often they are more designed for local travel and you have to stop and start a lot to find the next section, which is often not signposted.

When we crossed the Swabian Alb to get to Ulm, we found out the hard way that sometimes what looks like a cycle path is not a cycle path at all. We had a 300m climb ahead of us and, coming out of Bad Urach, we took the “cycle path” to the right of the main road. We started to climb, going past residential houses, but after a while it started to look more like a dead-end road than like a cycle path. Enquiring with some locals revealed that there seemed to be a path through the forest to the next town, but this was not recommended as it would be very muddy. There was also a steep path going up to the main road. We somehow managed to miss the path going up to the main road and went into the forest. Knowing this was not the right way, we were still too stubborn to turn back as we had already cycled quite a few kilometres uphill and didn’t want to go down again. At first we were on a 4WD track, which was a little muddy but otherwise fine. Then it turned into a hiking path. It was still ok. Then the path became completely overgrown. It obviously hadn’t been used for years. We could still hear the main road above and to the left, so we pushed on hoping there would be a way through. We had to take some of our panniers off the bikes now and shuttle them over a particularly slippery section, pushing the bikes up the hill and through the overgrowth. After two hours, and having covered only 2km with a 300m vertical climb, we finally found the way back to the main road. We have never been so happy to see tarmac!

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The next morning, a lady at our campsite donated a pack of chocolate cookies to us, and we powered it all the way downhill to Ulm, where we were meeting our good friend Gudrun at 2pm in front of the Ulm Minster. The Minster was very impressive, featuring the highest church tower in the world and having taken 500 years to build. Gudrun had driven to Ulm from Bregenz in Austria, as we hadn’t seen each other for 7 years while she was living in California. She was returning to the US the next morning, and we spent the afternoon at a café in the city centre to catch up and make plans for the future.

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The other reason we were excited to reach Ulm is that we are joining the Danube cycle path here. This cycle path is very popular in Europe, and leads all the way from the source of the Danube in Donaueschingen (Germany) to the Black Sea for over 2,800km. We will be following the Danube through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. But first we are taking one or two days off in Ulm to celebrate Guy’s birthday.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

1000km Photo

We took a photo when we reached our first 1000km. We were riding on a cycle path coming out of the Black Forest in Germany.

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Sunday, 6 June 2010

Into the Wild

Le Cateau-Cambrésis to Metz

After leaving Le Cateau-Cambrésis, we headed further South-East and cycled through a beautiful, hilly forest area for a couple of days, crossing into Belgium and then back into France. We had researched some campsites in advance and felt so good on the bikes that we covered our 60-75km per day quite easily, usually reaching camp in the early afternoon.||

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One day, we arrived in Mouzon and followed the signs to the campsite, only to end up at a dead end. We enquired and were soon informed the campsite had recently been transformed into an Aquatic centre. The next campsite was too far away to reach that night, so we headed for the hills to try out wild camping for the first time.

Unconvincingly hanging around an old 4WD track that looked like a good entry point to the woods, we made a run for it as soon as the traffic cleared. We hoped to not be seen so we would not be disturbed during our overnight stay.

After scoping out an area to lay the tent we settled for a lovely pitch higher up the hill with fantastic views of the valley below. Though a little more exposed to the passing traffic we couldn’t resist the views.

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As we still had a good 3 hours to kill until sunset we cooked up dinner and watched the sun go down. Just on dusk we set up the tent, had a quick baby wipe bath and feeling a little anxious that we might be watched from the odd passing car we pounced inside, soon to realise the hill was on quite an angle. As a result we spent most of the night sliding down to the bottom of the tent and scrambling back up, which was good in a way as it took our minds off the creaking and cracking of the forest around us.

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At 5am we were up, taking down the tent and admiring the views one last time, happy that we had survived our first wild camp experience albeit a little weary from a restless sleep.

We then cycled through the French countryside for the next 2 days. We didn’t see a single supermarket for the whole time, but luckily we found one bakery, which saved us from starvation when we bought up almost everything in the shop to the delight of the shop owner.

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This area of France has seen a lot of wartime fighting, and there are many war memorials and bunkers dotting the area, from the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Hundred Year’s War and several others. Every village has a memorial for its fallen soldiers, and there are many war cemeteries dedicated to the different nationalities that have fought here. For a while we cycled through the eerie forests of the Verdun area, past battlefields and villages that were destroyed in the First World War.

We emerged to arrive in Metz, a beautiful city that surpassed our expectations in every way. After 8 days of cycling continuously, we needed a rest day, and Metz was the perfect place for it. Through the Warmshowers website we had arranged to stay with Cathérine and Mathieu, a lovely couple that made us feel very welcome in their home. Cathérine loves bike touring, and it seems to run in her family, as her brothers and sisters, as well as children, nephews and nieces all seem to have an interest in their annual family bike tour, which takes place in a different country every time. Cathérine took us to the brand new Centre Pompidou, which has just opened in Metz and is a short bike ride from her home. She cooked us a delicious dinner, which we ate in the garden, enjoying the beautiful weather.

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The next morning, Cathérine and Mathieu had to leave to visit her parents, and we said goodbye to move on to a Hostel in the centre of Metz. We have spent the last 2 days here, doing the washing, planning our route ahead, catching up on emails and enjoying the cafés and parks that Metz has to offer. Tomorrow morning we will head off towards Strasbourg, and in a few days time we are already crossing into Germany.

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