688 miles by bicycle from Basel to Hoek van Holland

This was an impetuously organised trip in August 2009. The blog reads from bottom to top. You can leave comments if you wish - like little furballs deposited unexpectedly here and there so I know you've been in - by pressing on the pencil icon at the end of each post.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Wijk to Hoek van Holland

During the night a vengeful wind god cooked up a sort of pampiro for me. When I woke up, the trees were in what Laura calls the Downward Dog yoga position, which is to say their tips were almost touching the ground and they looked in pain. I turned to face the wind god and set off, making a mental note always to ride eastwards if I'm ever in Holland again. Let me tell you about riding into the wind - the furious roaring in the ears, the feeling that life is just one big uphill, and then there's what it does to your hairdo, which can become quite wild if you need a haircut. I was riding on the dike-top head-first into this invisible wall of air with nothing between me and the North Sea but 100 miles of perfectly flat land - if it had been any flatter it would have been shiny. At least it was sunny. If the gods wanted to play hardball then so be it, bring it on. All I had to say to them was Lekker! They huffed and they puffed, bits fell off trees, white surf skipped across rivers, and all the parked bikes in the Netherlands wobbled and fell over. The wind strengthened and my speed went from a pathetic 10mph to 9mph, then by late afternoon 8mph if I was lucky. I'd like to say that the wind god caused widespread destruction to civilisation but that would be exaggerating, especially as I was on the barbarian side of the river anyway. I met a German family on one of the many ferries en route. They'd followed the river on their bikes from Cologne. They weren't wearing any lycra cycling gear so I felt an instant affinity with them and it was good to have the 'Windy, isn't it?' 'Yes, awfully.' conversation, with plenty of hyperbole and superlatives because no-one else would ever understand just how windy it was (have I mentioned the wind?) when we told the story later on. Now I don't own any lycra - if I want to look like I'm naked then I'll just take my clothes off, thanks. Nor do I shave my legs and rub vaseline into them because I think it'll make me go faster. I think cycling gear is a fetishistic chimera, although I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that. However, I wouldn't cycle in my jeans for more than, say, the length of one European country, which is what this family had done. The lad, Simon, had those jeans that young people wear these days to give Victor Meldrew an extra thing to rail against - the sort that look like they're going to fall completely off the hips at any moment. Simon's jeans were quite stressful to look at because they looked like they were right on the edge, especially given the wind's aggravating effect on the situation. It was a bit like when (and I don't know if you've been in this situation) the base of Grandma's finest porcelain vase is half off the kitchen table at the very moment of a minor earthquake and for some reason you find your hands are full of washing. Anyway, they were a super family, just mum and two teenage kids and three big smiles. The trip was mum's idea and the kids thought it was a great one so off they went with Germany's biggest family tent on their bikes and I expect a foldaway kitchen sink - and the daughter seemed to have quite an extensive wardrobe, too. This expeditionary equipment was all covered in great waterproof sheets, resembling sails that the wind god must have loved toying with when he wasn't busy vexing me. Anyway, I was sure they weren't going to make it as I was only making 8mph with 18km to go and I was feeling tired even without a sail hanging off the back of my bike. In fact they did make it, about an hour after me (which means they must have been travelling at about 5mph). I think they made it on smile power alone, they had plenty of that. At the campsite we had a good long chat in English, German and Spanish about just about everything except the wind.

The next day I left early after a night of thunder and lightnings right overhead (very exciting). The wind had dropped a notch from Blind Fury to Mere Rage but bits were still falling off trees etc etc. I fahrted about (this is German for 'travel', I think) in Dordrecht for a while but it was a bit touristy and commercial (apart from a beautiful line of old boats - see yesterday's photo). Then the route took me past the long row of thatched-roof windmills that are on all the postcards of Holland - lots of Japanese people taking photos. I didn't take one (a photo, not a Japanese) because I didn't think you'd be interested. People live in the windmills - how perfect is that? - and the sails still work and move so fast they look like they're going to fall off. The sail arms almost touch the ground too so it's best to stay back if you like your own head where it is. I'd always assumed that these windmills were for grinding wheat but they're actually for draining catch-water basins. The mechanism was designed to turn a 6m diameter underground water wheel, like an impeller pump, to scoop up the water from one pool and dump it into another just 1.5m higher. From there the water could be drained into the river and sent out to sea. It turns out that Holland has been digging itself into a hole for the last 1,000 years. It used to be marshland, suitable for hunting but not for organised agriculture. To make the transition and also to combat rising sea levels and poor drainage, the people dug out the marshes and protected them from the sea with dikes. This released a lot of new land for cultivation and with the wealth thus created they dug ever deeper and wider holes until, as now, half of the Netherlands and well over half the population is in a hole below sea level (whoops-a-daisy) and all the rainwater has to pumped out. If the sea flooded the country there might not be any way to get it back. It'd be like Atlantis. In 1953 part of Holland did flood when a large sea swell helped along by a spring tide rose over some of the dikes and washed them away. Nearly 2,000 people died. This led to a special commission that made proposals for strengthening the flood defences. Dikes were raised and strengthened, the coastline was shortened by 300km and huge tidal barriers were constructed across each river mouth in the delta. The barrier I passed near Hoek van Holland spans a gap in the estuary of over 360m (a quarter of a mile in old money). In the event of a flood warning (about once every five years) huge steel gates float out across the mouth of the estuary and then sink to the bottom to stop the tidal swell. Apparently there's a special water tax to pay for all this engineering. Meanwhile the Dutch enjoy some of most fertile land in any temperate climate in the world. They seem to use it to grow a lot of sweetcorn and horses. Climate change is their big headache now and the Netherlands is one of the greatest producers of carbon dioxide in the world for its size, so there's something for them to think about there. That's quite enough of that.

I went through Rotterdam without stopping. Lots of shops, traffic and concrete. Nuff said. This left only the ride down the riverbank to the Rhine's final destination, the North Sea (a 688-mile ride from Basel including the getting-lost excursions). From the ferry window the industry lining the coast - oil refineries, wind turbines, docks and factories - looked strangely beautiful in the hazy pink of the setting sun. A new friend I met on the boat, Marloes (who'd just ridden to Berlin on a bike that had a basket decorated with little red plastic flowers) said that maybe industry is its own sort of natural. I liked Marloes.

Alone again and looking over the sea I felt free and relaxed. After just two weeks of the journey, the things that mattered mattered again and the things that didn't didn't and I felt a new sense of the possible. I hoped that this feeling would survive, like a fragile flower, the journey back into England - into London and the working week, past the anaesthesia of the in-your-face ad hoardings, the striplights of the supermarket, the tube ride home and the radio news that seems the same each day. That feeling never does survive for long but I'll try to keep it for as long as I can anyway. Maybe I'll find it again next time I ride over the Thames at dusk if I remember to look up from the road.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

More photos

The photo of the boats is for Jo who likes boats. The one of the steam boat is for dad who likes steam engines. They're in Dordrecht. The other one is for Katie and it's of a flush mechanism in a toilet in Rotterdam. You press it in and it gives a satisfying feeling of something happening. Katie likes pictures like that.

Millingen to Wijk

Holland is like Camberwick Green scaled up to life size with some added progressive ideas like universal cycling, unisex toilets, liberal values, dikes (these are for flood control, not sure why I mention them here), and backwards talking, already mentioned. Something else: the streets are made of small purple bricks. And one more thing: the cakes and pastries are even tastier than the German ones. Something I'm learning on this trip is that British cakes are mostly rubbish.

The Rhine disintegrates in the Netherlands, becoming a series of distributaries and forming what my German guidebook says is the largest river delta in the world, although I imagine the Nile Delta which after all can be seen from space is a bit bigger. The cycle route follows one of these distributaries, the Neder Rijn, for a while, heading north-west towards Arnhem. In nearby Osterbeek I saw a sign for a war cemetary and went off to look for it. Here the 1,750 graves are ranged in immaculate lines with flowers growing around each one. It's a peaceful place, there's nothing there that either glorifies the bravery of the soldiers or laments their loss - the place says what it needs to. There's a large board with well crafted English and Dutch text explaining Operation Market Garden, in which all those buried in the cemetary were involved. In a bid to end the war by Christmas 1944, Montgomery came up with a plan to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and 'sweep' down to Germany's industrial heartland in the Rhine valley. The main instrument of this would be an airdrop of 35,000 men, who would seize the city's bridge and hold it for three days until reinforcements could arrive. In the event, the allies overstretched themselves; they couldn't lift that many people quickly enough, the reinforcements couldn't get through, and the small force that did manage to take the bridge had to hold it for nine days before they were ordered to retreat. At first, I thought, Bloody Generals spending life as extravagantly as they spend their money. Then I thought that war has its failed ideas, just like everything else, and for all I know, Operation Market Garden was as well laid a plan as any other. Must a General's every plan be a success for him not to seem a callous fool from some future vantage-point? Even so, the text on the board at the cemetary was clearly critical of the plan, pointing to mistakes that should not have been made, but were made and had the ring of hubris about them. Hubris: most of us got some but the hubris in most of us is unlikely to lead to thousands of deaths. A General's hubris might, though, and perhaps Montgomery's did. One of the problems of war is that to make the right decisions, the war leaders have to be as humble and humane as a Gandhi, and as ruthless as a Roman Ceasar. It's an impossible contradiction, which is why a just war is also an impossible contradiction and why, once the tide of war is on the flood, the Geneva conventions are no stronger a defence of human rights than sandcastles, although we're better off with them than without - as a marker and for the reckoning when there is one. Looking over the rows of graves at Osterbeek, I felt only the waste of life that it represented - the sudden emptiness that it made in the lives of the families, lovers, friends and neighbours of the men now buried here. But then I felt moved by something else - the care given to looking after the cemetary because some people somewhere think it matters that there should be no weeds around the headstones, that the grass should be close-cropped, and that people like me should visit and encounter the place as it is and saying what it has to say. There's a statue of Montgomery outside the Ministry of Defence in London. I wouldn't mind - lots of people have statues made of them - but the pose he is cast in is too ruthlessly self-assured. We'd rather remember our Generals with their chins up, perhaps, but I'd like to see a statue of a General with head bowed - it seems the only attitude that really fits remembrance of a war. One other thing: where are the German dead of Market Garden buried?

From Osterbeek, the cycle route passes through dense woods on a tiny path four feet wide, it's surprisingly hilly for Holland. (These woods would have been full of soldiers 65 years ago.) It was a beautiful, sunny day for riding along the dikes next to so many rivers and canals. There's water everywhere, it seems. Soon I reached Wageningen and stopped off to look for Zeezicht, a special place I used to know when I had a friend who lived there. I looked rather silly, I think, in my 'Go Green, Go Bike' bright yellow t-shirt, with salt on my face and badly in need of a haircut, asking people on the street for directions to this place, but it had to be done. I managed to track it down but it had closed. Zeezicht was a low-cost, gourmet organic vegetarian restaurant run by students (my friend was one) as a cooperative. It had no official status as a restaurant - the students argued that they were hosting people in their home (and they could do this because their bedrooms ran around the outside of the eating area). The authorities didn't seem to mind too much. When I was there for a few days in 1996 the restaurant was always full. Everyone sat on long tables, which mixed everyone up and made companions (literally those you break bread with) of the customers. At the start of the meal, which was chosen by the cooks and the same for everyone, the cooks would come out into the eating area, welcome everyone and describe the meal, course by course. They'd also talk briefly about the aims of Zeezicht as part of the organic/real food/environmental movement. Everyone then tucked into the food and conversation and both were really good - it was a lively place. I once asked Nicole how the place came into existence. She took out a large photo album and showed me. Four gay men had the idea and bought the building - a disused wood workshop, I think it was - for almost nothing. Working alone and apparently under the radar of the authorities, they started digging trenches outside for connecting the building to the water, electrics, sewage and so on. Eventually they'd converted the place into a restaurant. I think that was in 1972. They moved on and left their story behind. In 1996 I was new to these kinds of social movements and I remember finding this story inspirational and very moving. It suggested that it was possible to create something beautiful, for and about people, and as witness to the truth that not every enterprise has to be framed in terms of monetary profit and loss, and that it was possible to do this just by deciding to do it. The four men moved on - I'd like to meet them one day - but students took over and carried on in the same spirit, each to be replaced by others as they left college. Everyone had to do their share of the prep - they had me trimming green beans, washing up and so on while I was staying. I was sad to see it had closed. When something changes like that, it means that the story that was made there could never be made again - it is closed off in history and becomes more special for it. The photo shows the alleyway that led to Zeezicht - the restaurant was on the first floor of the building at the back, now empty. You can see some heart graffitti on the alley wall - I'd like to think the students put it there, it's Zeezicht all over.

In the shop over the road, I asked about the place. They not only remembered it but told me it was still going, just around the corner, with the same live-in student staff arrangement. A sign in the window said we could get a wholefood, home-cooked veggie meal for six euros. I peered in the window and a chap called Vic came out to say hello. From what he described, it sounded like Zeezicht was just the same - same attitude to food, same politics. He didn't know a Nicole - some stories can only happen once.

It was turning into a lovely evening as I left Wageningen and I rode on along the dike to a place called Wijk, which is not easy to say but scores well in Scrabble. This is a beautiful town, as so many Dutch towns and villages are. They seem to be built and maintained as places to live in, rather than just places to shop in. This means, for example, that the central areas are based on places to meet, often on benches under trees, and there's room for kids to play safely. Where there are shops, these are usually independent except in the cities where there are more chain shops. These independent shops are beautifully maintained, as if the people who work there take some pride in their work. I stopped at a cafe-restaurant in Wijk for something hot to eat on the terrace. The lad who served me grudgingly tolerated my lack of Dutch until he found out that I wasn't German: 'Ah, you're not German, then.' then he completely forgave my linguistic lacuna and we had a good chat. I wondered whether some Dutch people don't like Germans and if not, why. Anyway, the reason I mention him is that he looked just like Prince Harry. In fact, he looked so like him, I'm still not sure he wasn't.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Langst to Millingen

Yesterday morning was beautiful - cool and bright and fresh after the rain. It began for me with a ride from the riverbank at Langst through some of Germany's older industrial areas with old iron bridges, rusting docks, disused freight railways and vast brick-built factories, which are still going with their mysterious occasional clanging sounds and their steam stacks rising into the sunny morning sky. From a large bridge over the river, factories lined the west bank as far as I could see. On the east bank, I entered and quickly got lost in Duisberg (I never found out how to say it properly so please don't write in asking). A kindly cyclist wearing driving glasses patiently put me on the right track with some complicated directions (in German - I seem to be getting the hang of it) and I made my way to the docks. There was a large Arab-Muslim population there, and given the lack of ethnic Europeans and the Arabic shop names, often without German translation, it seemed to be a very segregated community, almost a ghetto. I get the impression that where there is xenophobia here (and every country has it) it is quite vociferous. It's election day on Sunday and I've seen quite a few party political posters campaigning against mosques. The Green Party is the only one to show posters with anti-fascist messages, the others would rather steer clear of the issue, perhaps. There can't be a lamppost in Germany that doesn't have an election poster on it. Rather than our rather dull Vote Labour or Vote Conservative window posters, here there are big signs showing the smiling portrait of the candidate with their message, which is usually something like 'YOUR CHOICE FOR BURGERMEISTER', which in translation suggests an employee of the month competition in McDonalds but that's not what's going on here. The socialist posters have mini-essays on them about human rights for everyone (what does saying that actually mean as a political choice?) and other favourite wishes of beauty queens. There are so many political parties that it's quite dizzying being told to vote for one of them every time I pass a lamppost. I have looked into the smiling eyes of every candidate in Germany between Switzerland and Holland and I can tell you the effect is it's quite mesmerising. Luckily, I decided a few days ago, somewhere around Breisach, as I looked into the eyes of Dorothy Mogg (or something like that), that she was the one for me, and she gets my vote. And no, she's not beautiful, except on the inside. What I want to know is how all the lampposts are allocated to each party? Is there a great lamppost lottery in which every lamppost is written on a ticket and pulled out one by one? That's how I'd do it, anyway, it might be long-winded but fair's fair.
Eventually excreted from the back end of Duisberg, I crossed the river again onto the west bank and headed north along the dike cycle path. Here the river is very wide, fast-flowing and crowded with barges steaming flat out and overtaking each other. The etiquette is to slow down if you're being overtaken but some don't bother. It's amazing there aren't more accidents - these things weigh thousands of tons and take several hundred yards to stop when steaming downstream.
I was fairly zooming along with the wind at my back, stopping only to eat, gongoozle and look at the map, but something was wrong with Raquel - a little wiggle in the back wheel. Hm. I stopped and found that the outer tyre was starting to split. If it split, it would be irreparable until I could get to a bike shop, which would mean a walk of several miles. I took a bearing, put a finger in the wind, genuflected, said three hail marys, turned around three times without thinking unclean thoughts, offered incense to the sun god (but it didn't want it), and made all haste to the next town with a bike shop, 12 miles away, bumping along. It occurred to me that Raquel had made over 2,000 miles so far, usually laden with most of the weight over the back tyre, so it's not surprising that it had decided to try to burst. Praise be, we made it to the bike shop in Xanten (lovely town) and all was saved, and Raquel was quite combobulated to get a brand new tyre, too - so was I, it was new and I kept wanting to touch it. I get like that with wet paint, as well.
Campsites are few in this bit of Germany and at 5 o'clock I still had 30 miles to go to the next one so I rode on into the evening. The sun mellowed and it became a very peaceful ride to the border town of Millingen aan de Rijn. The campsite was an old farm, the sun was about to set and just catching a few wispy clouds, which shimmered in Holland's vast sky. A woman who was walking next to me started to make strange noises with her mouth, not unlike someone talking backwards, but faster. This was Dutch. I instantly pressed one of my only two dutch phrases into service: Ik spreek keen nederlands. She scoffed at this, held her hands up to the sky and said, Mooi! Mooi! Beautiful!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Just south of Cologne

This pic is looking towards Cologne from the south-east at sunset

Mainz to just north of Dusseldorf

I got my knickers in a twist a bit. The last entry was for Friday and Saturday and it should be titled Gambsheim to Somewhere Else Just Short of Mainz. It also means I missed out a whole section. You don't mind, nor do I, so let's press on. I was glad to leave the campsite on Sunday morning, which was not really a campsite at all - very few of these places in Britain, Germany or elsewhere (except maybe France) seem to have much to do with camping. Rather, they are just large carparks for caravans and mobile homes - I mean the caravans you can actually drive along without needing a car, whatever they're called. Please don't write in with the answer. In these places the caravans are parked up alongside each other and there they stay. Forever. The result is a sort of shanty town. Bits of corrugated plastic are nailed up on shaky trellises. TV aerials dangle and sway in the breeze (everyone is watching telly in the evening, everyone gets to listen). Bits of wood are fashioned into fences between the caravans to make little yards. Bingo, your summer holiday in a car park is ready. Turn up with a tent, however, and you're directed to an old weed patch that probably gets smaller every year. Luckily I'm not the sort of man who can sense a pea placed under as many as 21 mattresses, and who finds camping on terrain resembling a 4x4 testing zone an edifying, possibly formative, experience. But I like the place I'm staying to feel loved. It's important to do things with love, by which I mean pride, when other people are involved. I don't these places have always been carparks for caravans, though. The place I stayed at on Friday was one of these summertime favelas. It was by a lake (an old gravel pit), which would be pretty but at night the place was overlooked on one side by two giant columns of steam rising from some unseen cooling towers, the street lamps lit the billowing steam from below, giving them a toxic orange hue. On the other side of the lake red lights from a field of wind turbines winked through the night, each with industrial regularity but all out-of-synch with each other. I know this because I got up to take a leak, or was it a leek? This campsite had a huge, empty car park - enough for maybe 200 cars , and its little cafe restaurant had closed down and now appeared to be falling down. If the carpark was ever even half-full, then once upon a time people were coming and going every day, putting up their tents or using their caravans for one night, maybe, before moving on. Was there some golden age of camping and caravanning? Did youngsters stuff tents in hand-me-down backpacks and start wandering around the world like Laurie Lee? Dear readers, or maybe reader, I don't know. But wouldn't that be wonderful? And wouldn't it be better than buying one of those round-the-world plane tickets and spending one night in each country, which seems to be the preferred way to see the world these days, even though it leaves you just as milky-handed as when you set off? Aw, I don't mean that, I have quite milky hands myself. I just mean that it's not travel, in that it's not leaving something to look for something, not really, it's just a round-the-world jolly, without ever leaving anything at all. But don't think for a minute that my bike ride is some noble quest, let's not burden it with any meaning or goodness. It's not even particularly vegetarian. I'm still left with the question: with no tents in the campsites and the youth hostels full of retired people in their adventurous 'third age', how are the young folks getting their rites of passage? I need to ask some of them.

So, Sunday morning, campsite shanty town, showers made out of plastic sheeting and blu tac, glad to leave, enough said. The cycle route here follows the bank of the river, which by now is being a river again and looks alive and majestic. Steep, forested hills rise on either side, narrowing the channel sometimes with sheer cliffs and so quickening the current - the barges have to go flat out to make headway upstream, although I think they go flat out all the time anyway. It's starting to feel autumnal, mostly because we're now 600 km down river from Basel - there are lime leaves on the path and the sycamore leaves are curling, waiting. The river turns back on itself several times as it snakes through the hills. It's a beautiful ride on the smooth cycle path under clear skies. With a helpful following breeze, it's also very quiet, with only whatever squeaks of pleasure Raquel cares to make when we go over a bump. Many little villages line the river banks so I could often stop and take in the landscape, and maybe buy a strudel or a nussknacker (they're German cakes with nuts in, in this context) to keep up my energy levels (I need to eat A LOT of food). Or I might strike up a conversation in German to hone my skills in international relations and just to see what happens. Proceeding thus, it wasn't long before I reached the point at which Loreley, the beautiful mermaid with the gold comb and glistening jewels that Marcus warned me about, was to sing to me, causing me to fall in love and crash. Nothing happened. Maybe there's a delayed effect. In any case, Loreley appears to have been transferred to a new position as patron saint of the tourist industry, which is what the Americans call a 'sideways move' in career terms.

Sunday in summer in Germany and it's time for brass bands in biergartens, mostly playing swing music but slowly and without dancing. If you own a small biergarten and can't afford a band, then the done thing is to hire a man in a Hawaian shirt with a Casio keyboard - the sort we all wanted in the 80s that plays a bass line for you in the key you press while you play a melody over the top. He sets it going - um-pa um-pa um-pa-pa um-pa - and then sings. I saw this going on on Saturday and pulled up to watch. It's like Chas n Dave electronica but without Dave and in German. Naturally, I thought this can't be for real, but on Sunday I saw another man in another Hawaian shirt, albeit of a different design, doing the same thing 50 miles away. They are therefore spaced at 50 mile intervals all over the country. The second man was really going for it. One of the lyrics went, 'On a sunny day / All the little birdies are in the trees'. I thought that a song can't possibly have a line that bad in it so I looked it up and it turns out to be a Paul Simon song called Was A Sunny Day and it's about a (completely different) girl called Loreley. What are the chances? Anyway, that's what you do if you can't afford a brass band. I wanted to take a photo but my battery had run out.

I've been doing a bit of gongoozling and the more I watch the barges the more I like them. Their engines roar like wild men, they move slowly like royalty, and they turn in graceful, sweeping arcs like women (but not as elegantly as Raquel). Please don't send postmodernist letters accusing me of essentialising the masculine and feminine, or unreconstructed socialist ones accusing me of supporting the royal family - I won't have time to respond to you all. I could watch the barges' slow and steady work all day. They have intriguing names: Aqualite, Terra, Forens (also Forenso), Poyam, Eiltank 28, Oleander, Chamsin, Barbarossa, Wilhelm Betther, Somtrans XI, Fiducia, Oostsee, Bohemia II, Maria Louisa, Libel, and my favourite, LRG Gas 82. At sunset I saw one of these beauties punching the current with one chap at the helm and one sitting on a deckchair on the front deck watching the sun go down. That has to be a good job. On another boat a man was pumping iron on the roof. All the boats have palacial-looking quarters at the stern and every one has a smart car on the roof and usually a speedboat sitting next to it. The biggest ones, and they're all big, have telescopic bridges that can rise above the cargo, however high it may be heaped. The cargo is everything that won't go off in a few days: cars, coal, oil, gas, scrap metal, containers, grain, sand, whatever, maybe baked alaska, hair nets, smurfs and things. Going upstream they make not much more than walking pace, downstream they're going at 13 mph. I measured it using my cycle computer because although I didn't care how fast they went I knew you'd want to know. They're up to about 100m long and about 10m wide, and in Koblenz I saw a block of four bigguns tied together heading upstream, covered in assorted containers. These barges are passing where I sit now (just north of Dusseldorf) at a rate of about one barge every minute. Please raise an impressed eyebrow now because I'm done with this subject for the time being.

And there's been sunshine all the way until today. Last night it poured with rain but not before I had hung the washing on Raquel, which led me into a late-night dash - first to find the light, then the underwear, then the zip, then the other zip, then the other zip, then to rush out and get the washing in. In the morning it looked like it was clearing so I set off, then it chucked it down non-stop until midday. It was a brutal onslaught from the gods. I passed through Cologne stopping only at a cafe, where I watched a German rap video called Sexy Ice Cream while I waited for the rain to stop, which it did until I set off again. Again the gods tried to break me but I said no, I will ride through Germany's industrial heartland in the mercilessly heavy rain. They sent thunder and lightning but missed. They sent Loreley to sing for all she was worth but I could see through her shallow mind game with its jewels and its gold comb. Gee up, Raquel, there be power stations to circumnavigate, vast docks to bridge, gordion knots made of motorways and railways to cut through, and so finally I rounded the Ford factory with Promethean hubris, victorious, and with squelching feet and soggy map. Wait, I can hear rousing music... Yes, there's music... Here it comes... 'On a sunny day / All the little birdies are in the trees...'

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Gambsheim to Germersheim

Morgen. On the German side, I've been going into shops and doing my best to communicate. I feel that the whole European project that Marcus and I talked about is at stake. Often my best is no more than 'Ich... er... oo... and then I'm reduced to pointing. On the French side je peux exprimer mes sentiments plus profonds si j'en ai envie. I can say 'Je n'ai pas de cuillere' if I need to, for example, if I've not been given a spoon to eat my ice cream with, which really happened in Gambsheim on Wednesday (German name, French village - a politically charged). In short, it was good to be on the French side of the river (for a change) on Friday morning, flitting (what is flitting exactly?) between the villages of the Rhine valley. These seemed like ghost towns on a weekday morning, especially as there was no wind at all and the sky was overcast, so the world seemed sort of inanimate as it can do on such days. This is not to say that the villagers sit at home wringing their hands all day. No, there appears to be a fierce battle going on between them. At the edge of each village a large sign shows the points it has won in the French equivalent of Britain in Bloom competition, the beautifully titled Fleurissement de France. We can't have too much fleurissement, whether it's of a village or... pretty much anything else except hives. Unfortunately, it seems like you can have too little of it. If your village is a virtuoso at the trowel (a garden trowel, not a builders' one), you might get a five-flower rating. Every village I passed through was full of flowers - it was like living between the pages of the Bakker catalogue. Flowers were pinging out of the ground and hanging off every lamppost and railing. Offendorf - beautiful gardens, flower power, go down to San Fran with a piece of this place in your hair - a mere three-flower town, even though there's plainly no room for any more flora. Herlissheim - just as pretty (all the same flowers as the other village - hmm, a fleurissement company may be at work playing one village off against another) gets just one measly flower out of five for its prolific efforts at fleurissement. It's pathetic. And it can't hide its shame because there at the entrance to the village its disgrace is there for all to see:

Herlissheim. Fleurissement de France: one flower.

Anyway what has this to do with anything. You'll see a picture of a tree trunk under what looks like a bus shelter. I took this because this is part of an oak tree 2,100 year old, found well preserved during quarrying works nearby. I can't explain why it hasn't rotted - seems a bit fishy - but I thought you'd want to see it, if you're there at all, that is. Note the flowers around it - every little helps with the fleurissement.
Back to the journey again. I didn't see much of the river at all. The route on the French side follows the main dike, which was built to protect the huge flat valley with its hundreds of villages and farms from flooding. The dike, which is matched by one one the German side, is maybe 8 metres higher than the river and runs for about 150 miles until mountains rise on either side and it's no longer needed. The cycle route mostly runs either on top of the dike or, more usually, it's dug into it about half-way down on the non-river side. Because the dike has to be perfectly level, the cycle route is completely level too (racers use it to test themselves on the flat) and it's uniform: it's possible to ride for four or five miles in a perfectly straight line, or for 10 miles without seeing any dwellings except for occasional fleeting views of villages bypassed by the dike. For nearly two days of the journey, the dike leaves the river entirely, moving 'inland', as it were, and the cycle route moves with it. Between the dike and river is flood plain, which is covered in woods and largely left to do its own thing. On the other side there are sometimes fields, mostly of sweetcorn, and views across the valley plain that stretch for many miles, broken only by the spires of distant village churches, and sometimes more forest, giving a closed-in feeling to the cycle route. Occasionally the route swings back to the river, which is now more like a river in that it has a strong current and the landscape of a living waterway rather than the trussed-up, industrial feel of a canal, but the route soon leaves the river behind again, leaving me curious about how it's evolving. So for most of Friday and Saturday I was on a tiny cycle route that, being away from the river, seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I saw almost no-one and because the route was winding through woods a lot of the time, I had little sense of where I was. Both days were eerily still, accentuating the feeling of dislocation. I got to thinking about solitude and whether I had anything worth saying about it, and I didn't, not really. But I did wonder what the compelling attraction of solitude is - by solitude I don't mean just being alone but a state of being in which everything has been left behind, all the accretions of life have been, or appear to have been, shed, for a while, and there is only being left, the glorious emptiness of being that is possibility. Part of this experience is the feeling in my body from working it for so long each day on the bike. It's very easy cycling on the flat but there's still that tingling feeling of semi-exhaustion that is highly sensual and allows that visceral feeling of living in a physical body that is just not there when I'm in cerebral overdrive in some office in London. No, actually it's not so much about living in a body but being a body, a thinking and feeling body that is me. So I guess that's something of the attraction of solitude, although there are times when there is something wonderful - the evening light on the river or racing a heron maybe, and the most important thing then is to be able to share it with someone. I can't have it both ways.
I wasn't long on the French side of the river on Friday before France ran out and became Germany, not that the river noticed. For quite a while, nor did I. I'm liking Germany. I like the bakerei shops that do such tasty, calorific cakes, and the beer gardens, which are really just pubs where everyone has migrated outdoors. It was one of these that fed me dindins on Friday. You may know that I'm a strict vegetarian. I make allowances in that I eat fish, and I'll eat meat if otherwise it'll be thrown away, and if you want to fry my falafel in lard then just go ahead and notch it up on your conscience notchstick, not mine, and how was I to know that the tarte flambee gratinee I ordered in Gambsheim was going to have bits of bacon on it? Anyway, apart from those minor issues I do make one exception to my vegetarianism, and it's that I eat a Bratwurst sausage once every year. Last year, the deed was done in August, the year before that, December. This year, it was done this Thursday. I have included a picture because I know you want to see it. I didn't know I was getting two sausages, not one. Honest mistake.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Breisach to Gambsheim

Thursday was the hottest day in Germany all year, I was told. At the end of the day I crossed the river and entered France with a quick genuflection, only to find that it was just as hot there. Many of the banks here have those big posts outside telling the public the date, time and temperature. The one outside Credit Mutuel at 8pm said it was 34 degrees. The one on the other side of the road, not to be outdone, said 44 degrees. Doesn't matter, it was hot by 9am in Breisach and stayed impossibly hot until about 2am the next morning. Let's move on from this.
Something else I've noticed about the German people is that many wear sandals and socks - many Germans and many British Quakers, in fact. Drinking a morning coffee on a lovely cafe terrace in Breisach and reading The Summer Book, I noticed a sort of roaring sound to one side. I saw an elderly gentleman sitting on a plastic chair in his drive taking a blow torch to the weeds growing between the cobbles. The blowtorch wasn't something you'd use on masterchef to finish your creme brulee - this thing was the real deal, it had a separate gas bottle (the sort that patio heaters use). The weeds were catching fire and the flames were licking at the man's feet. Amazingly he was wearing socks and sandals, which is why I'm telling the story. (Please don't do this - get weed killer or pull them out by hand.) Now tell me, what would you do in this situation if you didn't know the German for 'What are you doing? You're going to catch fire.'? What I did was hatch a plan. I thought that if his feet caught fire, I'd grab my cycling water bottle - the sort with the drinking nipple thing on top - and I'd rush over and squirt his feet with it. I'd have to be quick, though, because if he was wearing nylon socks, it could be WHOOF before I could get there. Anyway in the end he seemed to give up and he went inside.
The Summer Book - two lines that struck me to a stop. 1. 'Everything was salvaged, some by the right hands and some by the wrong, but nothing was simply lost.' 2. 'Oh, stuff and nonsense,' Grandmother said. She stopped and turned to face him. 'Just because more and more people do the same stupid things, that nothing to make such a fuss about.'
Back to the journey... Most of Thursday's journey was along the east bank of the river. Here the Rhine has been canalised, which is to say that its course has been altered to run in more or less a straight line and its flow has been controlled so it resembles the contrived tameness of a canal rather than a living river. On either side of the river is a big ugly dike (a dike in this context is an artificial barrier used to contain a body of water). I was riding on top of one of these (oh stop it, will you) on a gravel track pretty much all day. The river becomes very wide, industrial and featureless, the sun was very hot and giving off its harsh midday light. and the gravel track was dusty and made a constant crackling sound, so it was not ideal for cycling. I went fast, pausing only for jelly bears (i.e. to eat them, they're good for energy).
I met another lone cyclist, Marcus, who'd ridden from the source of the river and was heading for Koln as fast as he could. He's a big guy on quite a small bike and he was sweating quite a lot. His big red beard probably had an unfortunate insulating effect, too. In fact, he looked quite a lot like a viking on a bicycle - a biking viking. We rode side-by-side for a while - about 20 miles - and passed the time of day. I wasn't sure if I was going too fast or too slow for him - I worried about this - but never mind. We had a drink at a bar and he told me that further downstream a mermaid would sing to me from a hill and cause me to fall in love and crash. I'm looking forward to it already. It comes at kilometer marker 524, he said. I think (the river has markers every kilometer). All Germans know about it. We talked about being European. The Rhine is a good place to be a European these days. On the French side, they speak French and sell Pains au Chocolat in their bakeries, on the German side they speak German and sell Apfel Strudel-type things in their bakeries (all good cycling food). They use the same money, have no border controls, and are very glad that thanks to European integration it would be very difficult for the two countries to have yet another war. Marcus says he feels like a European. He feels good on either side of the river, and doesn't think that one side's better than the other, and why would he? And why is the UK not using the Euro yet? There are lots of reasons given but I think it comes down to this: we think we're a bit better than everyone else because we're not foreign and we had an empire once. We don't all think that but our most popular newspaper after the tabloids is the Daily Mail. I think that European understanding was advanced by a small amount through the serendipitous meeting of Marcus and me. He was on a crazy schedule - so were the vikings in yesteryear - and he burned on up the crackling dike track while I took a left into France.
The campsite was one of the municipal ones so cost almost nothing and as it was positioned around a lido was jam-packed with families. It was a lively place - lots of howling happy young people. I washed the salt, dust and insects out of my clothes in a sink and hung them on Raquel to dry. She didn't mind, she's an inanimate object, but don't let her hear you say so. At 2 in the morning there was thunder and lightnings so I had to leap up and get everything in.
I have to type all this into the numeric keypad of my mobile phone so it takes a long time and today I'm rushing so I don't have to go back to the campsite in the dark. Cheerio. The picture is feet-dipping in the river...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Dover to Basel to Breisach

Running between England's most expensive campsite and Dover are 3 miles of clifftop road. More precisely, the road runs from St Margaret's at Cliff, which is a beautiful village perched in a cleft in the chalk rocks running down to the sea. There's a museum there telling of the defences erected all along this coast against the expected German attack in the Second World War. What a strange time that must have been. George Orwell described this part of England as the sleekest landscape in the world. It seems improbable that it could be a frontline of barbed wire and anti-ship guns. It's a place for the milk round, dog-walking and things turning out nice again. I suppose there's nowhere particularly well suited to be in a war. At seven on a sunny August morning, it's easy to see what G Orwell meant - it's a genteel landscape, reassuringly unbothered by anything at all. At that time of the morning the air is cool and moist and the world is alive with smells (not my own, that takes time to accumulate) and the sea makes you look out over it. It always reminds me that we live on a planet, that there is life on it, and I'm part of it, and that is miracle enough.
Dover docks may be an eyesore but they symbolise a wonder, too - travel, which is simply to say, looking for something, and we're all doing that. Talking like this makes me want to smoke a pipe by an open fire and impart wisdom casually to my dog.
After the ferry boat ride I was confronted with riding on the right of the road. It's like trying to read in a mirror, but with more health and safety issues. At one big junction there wasn't enough computing power in my head to work out what to do and I couldn't stop because I was nearly in the middle. I just sailed across, waving apologetically to anyone who cared to look. I've got the hang of it now so don't worry about me - not for that reason anyway. Paris Nord and Paris Est stations both smelled of burning black sump oil. The streets were dusty, dry and dirty, it was noisy and hot, and I wondered quite what it was that was supposed to make Paris romantic. The people were friendly, though - guess what, I got lost in the half-mile between the two stations. A very helpful chap shouted directions through the noise and dust, which I understood, but to make sure he stopped a bus and got the driver to shout them across the street to me.
Let's skip on, metaphorically speaking, to Basel - 1,000ft above sea level but stiflingly hot - and the Rhine. Here the river runs through a narrowish channel with the city climbing up each side. The water is limpid turquoise and churning in large eddies as it flows quickly through the city. Hundreds of people were swimming, or rather floating with the current, through the city past the bars and cafes on the waterfront (see rubbish picture no. 1). Many young lovers seem to do this, floating downstream for a mile or so and walking back in their swimming gear along the riverside for a beer overlooking the water. We can only guess where they go next, probably Evensong. I didn't have time to stay in the city but I saw enough to enjoy its general ease of being - people walked or rode bikes as if they weren't in a hurry. I preferred it to Sittingbourne.
I camped in a campsite just a few yards from the German-Swiss-French border, which is in the middle of the river and, strictly speaking, both infinitessimally small and just a legal construct anyway, but it feels particularly European to be there. On one side of the river, everyone speaks French, on the other, German. There are no border controls any more, in fact I've been in 3 countries and haven't needed my passport yet - I didn't need it for the ferry either. I camped on the French side but spent all today (Wednesday) on the German side. The Germans this close to the border speak French, which I also speak, but I get a perverse pleasure from trying to communicate in German, which I don't know at all. There's something about not knowing a language, and it's that both parties in a conversation usually try much harder to listen to understand and to speak to be understood. It means both parties are much more present to each other, and when one says, 'Ahhhh! I understand now,' it's a moment for celebration, maybe fireworks and both national anthems, and the two people concerned become best friends and want to hug each other. Sometimes it's like that.
From Basel to Breisach, where I am now, the river is wider than the Thames in London, occasionally deep blue and still except for jumping fish, sometimes forming short falls through rocks that folks use for sunbathing. The cycle path along this part of the Rhine is a dusty, tree-lined track quite high above the river. There're lots of butterflies but otherwise the woods seem still. Today there was no wind at all and because the trees are quite far back from the track, no shade either. I don't know how hot it was at the height of the day but at 6pm it was 34 degrees in the shade. Luckily the track was flat as a pancake (I don't mean one of Lorraine's vegan pancakes). In fact there would have been a very slight downward slope all the way along (so quite like one of L's pancakes after all, but you should try her pumpkin and potato soup, which is a work of nature in its own right). Raquel didn't like the dust - she was covered in it - but I tickled her behind the ear and she put up with it (that works on some human beings as well, by the way). Raquel gives me something to project various states of mind onto. You'd think that no-one would be out cycling on such a blisterer of a day but many were. Most looked quite German, if you know what I mean - moustaches (on the men) and funny sunhats, and most were in their 50s and 60s, wearing very little and either sunburnt or very well tanned, possibly cooked. These people are hard-core and it's no wonder they win more Olympic medals than we do. I kept my shirt on because it would be madness not to in this heat (see rubbish picture no. 2 - the kind chap who took it for me took about 20 steps back first - I couldn't take any more because the battery ran out). Mercifully the river is right there if I need to dip my head in it. When I dipped my feet in today little fishes nibbled my toes, especially the little toe on the left foot, for some reason. The end. Have to go to sleep.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Dartford to Dover

Hello. If you've ever wanted to be Quasimodo for a day, then you can. Just stay up until 1am, set your alarm for 5.20am, wake up, cross London, or Paris if you want that little extra authenticity, then ride a bicycle 92 miles (let's assume he had a bike), put up a tent in the dark, set your alarm again for 6am, fall asleep finally at about 4am and dream of Esmerelda, then at 6am ding! dong! ding! dong! ding! dong! fumble with the infernal contraption for what seems like a few minutes, gripping it as if you don't have opposable thumbs, having inexplicably forgotten how to turn the blasted trinket off, all the while screaming 'THE BELLS! THE BELLS! ESMERELDA!' Good luck.
Welcome to my One Gongoozler blog. It's kind of you to drop in. It's just you and me here. Let's start with Dartford. As you can see from the photograph of what meets you from the train station Dartford has been the subject of recent regeneration. Penetrate deeper and you find the regeneration project's apotheosis: a new shopping centre and one-way system. Apart from the sad fact that this is typical of community regeneration programmes - find the soul of a place and transplant it with a load of new glass and steel chain shops that close down the independent ones - it's strange that the word regeneration is used for it at all. It's not as if we 'generated' communities in the first place, they evolved. Come to think of it, when do we use the word regeneration at all (apart from when Doctor Who gets a new body)? I suppose it means 'remade', but does a host of new shops remake a town? Or does it just clone one? It's a leading question, and merely rhetorical, please don't send lots of letters (although you can leave a comment round here somehow). Anyway, the people of Dartford don't need regenerating - they were helpful pointing me in the right direction several times. In fact, I got to know most of them.
It wasn't long before I bumped into National Cycle Route No. 1, which is the Route 66 of the cycling world. It runs from Dover to John o'Groats, largely on traffic-free routes. If Jesus rode into Jerusalem today, it could well be on a bicycle following National Cycle Route No 1, praising Sustrans and puzzling scholars with this postmodern re-working of the prophecy. This thought was enough to squeeze a few lines of Blake's Jerusalem out of me as the route took me past a massive power relay station, the new Eurostar station at Ebsfleet, several deafening motorways and what I think was Bluewater Shopping Centre of no-hoodies notoriety. This last looks like a vast upside-down crash-landed space-station with no windows, all dumped in an old quarry. I was tempted to grab a shovel and start filling in the hole but I was going downhill and wasn't about to stop just for something like that. For the Garden of England, Kent has quite a lot of crap in it. Route 1 delivers in the end, though, for soon I was passing apple and pear orchards and fields of hops; farmers were making rolly-polly bales in the wheat fields and occasionaly there was the sweet smell of overripe plums and damsels growing wild by the road-side. I couldn't breathe in enough of it, but during a particularly long and care-free inhalation I was cruelly reminded of the roadkill basting in the sun on the hot tarmac. Live and learn. I meant damsons.
Where were we? Along the south bank of the Thames estuary, backed by the ceaseless heavy industry of the north bank, the hulks of old, abandoned boats ooze into the mud that steams in the sun and smells of seaweed. Once these boats were brand new, the loveslabour of craftsmen who knew how to cut and bend planks of wood to create the sweeping lines that only the eye could judge right for the sea. As these boats decay, revealing more of themselves in their rotting hulls and cross-spars, they take on a sort of twilight existence - half-way between made and unmade, waiting for the sea to take them finally. The sea gets everything in the end, you and me included. Perhaps they know this when they launch boats, or perhaps it's something best remembered later.
Unfortunately, by now I was getting lost more and more often. It didn't help that the cycle route was jumping about all over the place like a fibrillating heart, all in order to keep clear of the howling A2, nor that the signs were often facing the wrong way. This directional deception was deliberate, either the work of hoodies, hoodlums and oiks denied the freedom of the Bluewater Centre and forced to roam the streets or, I imagine, old ladies climbing on top of their shopping trolleys and switching the signs sound with a wobbly stick and a grin. It's possible that neither stereotype was responsible, I just don't know. I became particularly lost in Sittingbourne. I don't want to slander the place directly but a fellow cyclist who told me I was going the wrong way before I'd even got there said the town was 'a bit yucky'. Tell you what, book a holiday there and make your own mind up. Suffice it to say that when I eventually found out how to leave Sittingbourne all my burdens seemed to lift and a choir of angels sang alleluia. The people were friendly, though - I met most of them asking directions again. By now I'd met half the people of Kent, it was 6 o'clock and I still had 40 miles to go, so there was nothing else for it - A2 or bust. I turned onto this merciless dual carriageway to suffer cars, lorries and similar heavy chunks of metal screaming past me at 100 mph, maybe 200 mph, it was hard to tell. For 25 miles the ride was one long near-death experience for old numbbum here, but Raquel was faithful and got us both through the ordeal. And when I realised I still hadn't eaten the samosa from Dartford Waitrose, I felt moved to sing Jerusalem again. By the time I reached what seems to be Dover's only campsite it was dark. Although I was charged a whopping £15 to camp for the night and had to put up the tent in the dark, they sold me a fried egg sandwich, I washed off the salt and the sunburn and morale remained irrationally high (until the early morning alarm incident described above). I went to sleep dreaming of Esmerelda and the bells, which, my dear and patient reader, would be a great band if your name was Esmerelda and you wanted to make it big in pop music, but that's another day's project.