Hanging out in Heidelberg and galloping through France
The penultimate instalment brings surprising support for Hitler, your heroes finally becoming soaked through and all the delights of the land of liberté, eglatetré and fraternité that is France.
So this is the beginning of the end. I’m sat in Lille in northern France, enjoying a coffee in the warren of cobbled streets, chic boutiques and brasseries that were an enjoyable surprise to discover in the heart of what I’d been led to believe was a grim industrial town.
From here we have only one day to cycle to Dunkirk to return home to the White Cliffs of Dover and a hearty portion of fish and chips. It’s a peculiar feeling to be so close to home, but still so far. But there’s an edge of excitement to us both that we’ll soon be back in blighty.
Heidelberg — twee beauty and breaking apart echo chambers
So I’d left off with Iain and I arriving into the smart university town of Heidelberg, which is something like the Oxford of Germany. You could boil this down to it being expensive, a bit twee and full of tourists, with a general whiff of elitism about the place. But it is undeniably very beautiful in a manicured quiet fashion.
We had woken up that morning by the banks of the river Neckar in a field strewn with rotting grass, and had to see off some geese that arrived outside our tent (geese being the hardest bastards in the animal kingdom, we approached this task with caution and threw out plenty of bread crumbs in tribute).
As said in the last entry, this added a distinct hint of manky old barn to our already not inconsiderable personal scent, and this odouriferous start to the day put us at odds with the well-heeled streets of the quaint medieval town.
But we checked into our hostel, did our best not to stink out the room and enjoyed showers in the way that only men who have sweated and not washed for several days can.
Steffi’s Hostel is in a old tobacco factory and has a kind of hipstery neo-industrial vibe to the place. It sits in a dusty wide lot surrounded by other 19th century brick industrial buildings laid out on grid iron street pattern with smart restaurants and coffee shops the flavour de jour. Though, Brooklyn it ain’t, there is an inescapable vibe of intellectual [read monied] restraint, rather than anything too loose and artistic.
The weather had turned roastingly hot and so we mostly spent our time walking as slowly as we could around the town, hugging the shady side of the streets.
We befriended our room-mate, Herman (a stereotype of a name if there ever was one), a German man who was a veteran cycle tourist himself, having completed a 6000 kilometre tour a few years back.
This may sound like a more epic voyage than ours, but we’d argue that it’s not distance alone that makes an adventure, it’s the attitude with which you approach it. We feel our cavalier free-booting touring style lends itself to more interesting trip than any clinical kilometre-eating approach would.
Anyway, Herman acted as our guide, taking us around the town and up to the impressive red stone castle that looms over the valley. It’s now mostly a heap of gothic ruins, after being demolished by what must have been an epic quantity of gunpowder during the Thirty Years War.
Reaching the castle esplanade you are rewarded with a sweeping view to the west where the Neckar joins the great Rhine Rift Valley. The town spreads out across a vast plain merging with several others, Herman explained this area was one of the great industrial centres of Germany, with most of the chemical production in Europe happening in the urban area that oozes out around this section of the river Rhine.
And the spiderwebs of roads and copses of industrial chimneys that reached out to the distant hills attested to this proud claim. But immediately below us was the pretty narrow stretch of pitch roofs and church spires that comprise old Heidelberg, which hosts Germany’s oldest university, that played an crucial role in the Reformation and the development of Humanism.
Though, most of the medieval town was destroyed in the chaotic religious wars that slighted much of Germany in the mid 17th century, so most of the “old town” dates from the Baroque era at the oldest.
Needless to say the pastel coloured walls, fine churches and collegiate architecture makes it a picturesque little town, but this draws coachloads of tourists, so the demographic of the street is an odd one with herds of gormless pensioners following a mic’ed up guide, or cocksure young students rushing about between their studies.
We made a group of hostel friends, who we roused into heading out to a bar.
The most notable of these individuals would have to be the mildly racist Chinese-Canadian air-hostess, who after professing her admiration for Trump and Putin loudly said (in a bar in Germany, surrounded by Germans) that Hitler was a great man. I could not figure how much of what she said was shock-jockery to please her evidently wry sense of humour, or how much was a genuinely held belief.
Enjoyably she had become great friends with a full-blown bleeding-heart liberal, Micheal, who was from the famously liberal town of Portland on the US’s west coast. They had been on an all day hike together and I wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall to see these two improbable friends arguing nonsense as they ambled through the forests.
When I joked about this, Micheal made the salient point that not talking to those we politically disagree with is at the root of many of our current divisions as we enter into our ever more safe self-satisfying echo chambers. And whilst calling Hitler a great man is a bit extreme, ultimately you’ll win no arguments by writing someone off as bone headed and not engaging with them.
This plays into the Brexit dichotomy as much as anything else, and Iain and I are as good an example of this as anyone, I’d suppose.
Needless to say it was an evening of beer fuelled lively conversation, and if nothing else, the cross section of people from around the globe sharing views was a great reminder of why hostels can be such an enjoyable way to travel.
The Saar valley — getting soaked amidst epic industrial decay
We crossed the industrial and urban Rhine plain in a light commuter train, reasoning that this wouldn’t be too pleasant actually cycle across. And we then began biking up through the hills that border Germany’s western frontier to the Saar valley.
This was a fairly dreary journey as the only road that didn’t wildly ramble over, under and around steep hills went past a big American military base, and was busy with trucks and huge “canyonero” style pick-up trucks (which appeal to Americans based in urban European areas for what I can only assume must be some sort of compensatory reason).
But we ploughed on, the day only being punctured by an actual puncture, which was caused by me hitting what I thought was a small curb far too fast. I valiantly tried to bunny hop the curb, but as you can imagine me being a 6'8 man on a fully loaded touring bike, this was never going to be something I was going to pull off.
We pitched up late in a hidden corner of a park on the edge of Saarbrucken. But we were awoken in the night by the ominous pitter patter of heavy rain hitting the tent in the deep of the night.
Iain forced himself out of his sleeping bag and heroically exited the tent to ensure the tarp that covers the bikes was secure. I was barely conscious, but it sounded like a battle against the elements and he returned soaking wet.
I woke up again at 7am to find that rain was still hammering down, I went back to sleep, awaking at hourly intervals hoping it would at least ease up. But finally at 10am I gave up hope and jostled Iain into life.
I looked up our options and settled on heading to a nearby Jugendbergen (which is something more akin to a YHA youth hostel than anything like a backpacker hostel, you know all good-health, sandals and outdoorsy-ness).
We embarked on a wet weather pack up, and anyone who’s ever packed up a tent in rain, knows this an experience that is as elaborate as it is depressing, as you try to manoeuvre your gear, bodies and take down everything in a futile attempt to avoid getting damp.
This was one of those days where even looking outside could make you wet, so we inevitably became soaked-through by the time we’d packed up, and had graduated from soaked to sodden by the time we finally reached the hostel.
We were almost turned away as there was some sort of big university event going on, but I pointed outside at the heavy rain and my squelching body and pleaded in a mix of pidgin German and English in a desperate tone.
We hung up everything in a drying room and proceeded to spend a day watching the weather, feeling very vindicated it didn’t stop raining until 5pm. We met two German lads who were planning to hitchhike to Scotland, but had had no luck around the Saar and were in the same boat as us, waking up in a tent and finding that despite their best efforts everything had become soaked through.
But the following day we hit the road again in earnest. We raced up the Saar river, past epic remnants of old industry with the vast rusting relics of a time when coal and steel were the building blocks of power looming over us.
In general the Saar valley is a bit less shiny and modern than a lot of Germany seems to be. Iain claims this is because they’re too close to France and it’s rubbed off on them. Though he may be more correct than he knew, as reading up on the history of the area I’ve learned that after World War Two it was administered by France and remained under their influence until well into the eighties.
Eventually we left the river behind and climbed out of the steep valley into the last country of our tour, France.
Into France — eating tarmac and croissants in Alsace and the Ardennes
As French influenced as the Saar was, the first village we entered in France looked so noticeably French it might as well have been wearing a stripey top and a beret to ice the proverbial eclair.
The houses had that distinctly shabby charm with just the right amount of peeling plaster, faded painted adverts, maturing tiles and ageing wooden shutters to create an aesthetic that is quite unique to France. Iain thinks “looks a bit tatty”.
The “insta-Frenchness” of the landscape compensated us for the lack of big tricolour flags and signs at the border. We started singing a loud and badly executed version of La Marseilles, which seemed fitting.
We crossed the great river plain where the battle of Verdun raged in the First World War, and whilst the imagery of shattered earth, barbed wire and grey fog hang in our collective memories, a century has passed, and the quiet green fields and blue skies seemed to hold no memory of the terrible years that wracked this corner of the world.
The only clues of the great battle on the western front were the haunting war graves and memorials, with immaculate lines of crosses and grandiose words etched in marble about the noble sacrifice of soldiers. I always feel more should be done to hint at the terrible futility of war in these monuments, and less general glorification of sacrifice for the nation, but as Wilfred Owen put it, maybe we need to believe “that old lie, dulce decorum est, pro patria mori.”
The hills of Alsace were punishing, but soon gave away to an endless undulating patchwork of green fields, sliced up by river valleys and with deciduous forests crowning the hilltops.
I feel the landscape looks uncannily like England, but on steroids, everything feels bigger, more endless. It was a reminder of how rural and sparsely populated much of France is, gone were the small lively towns of Germany that appeared at regular intervals, replaced by vast empty stretches of farmland and tiny hamlets.
But when you do reach a provincial town it does have that small town charm of the local butchers, bakers and whatever the modern equivalent of candlestick maker is. However, we seemed to stumble into the sleepiest corner of France on a very sleepy national holiday of some description, with most of the villages eerily quiet on both a Sunday and a Monday.
Though for all the charms of the country, Iain says “I remember why I hate France whenever I have to go for a shit”. As I’m sure as any traveller to France will be aware, French public toilets are often of the strange squatting basin variety. After using one myself, and upon flushing a rather unexpected tsunami was released out across the whole toilet cubicle covering my foot in manky French public toilet water, I’m inclined to agree with him.
But this small detail aside, France has been kind to us. The wind was at our backs, it was warm and we covered some of the biggest distances we have ever cycled. Eating roads for breakfast (after eating actual breakfasts of six croissants and a banana/apple each) we raced out 360 kilometres in three days, over some very big hills.
But finally, we were utterly spent, the wind switched to a very strong headwind so we just about limped 40km to the first decent sized town to get a train to Lille. This train felt a little like giving up, but also, given our general total exhaustion, we both agreed we have no regrets.
Finally, as a last little kicker, Iain’s cycling shoe broke as we left the station in Lille, having bravely handled the entire journey as a cheap SPD shoe from Sports Direct.
But we’re now enjoying the delights of Lille, which amounts to fantastic French cuisine, a few drinks and generally moving very little, as we prepare our battle plans to complete our final push to Dunkirk to get home.