Looking Back on Germany
(Oli) Monday 26th February: we woke up in Holland and rode out on empty stomachs. Snow floated down and settled on our gloved and layered, but still cold, hands. A friendly looking man, Hialmar, who we had spotted through a window, took pity on us and unlocked his cafe when we pulled up outside looking too sheepish and blue to be ignored. Our final Dutch breakfast was eaten in Kekedorm, a few kilometres from the German border. Hialmar put on an amazing spread for us and lit a fire whilst old vinyl jazz crackled away in the background. We were soon back on the bikes and ready for country number three. This was our first land border and it barely announced itself. Within a couple of kilometres the landscape & feel of the villages had obviously changed. The first of many times we would observe this when crossing borders.
For me Germany summons up the Rhine, curling and silvery, and never far away for much of this leg of our journey. From an utterly surreal looking cafe in a very stately old persons' residential home, (not dissimilar to the set in the film ’The Lobster’ but with an extra dose of the grandiose: floral pianos, pastoral paintings with cherubic frames, and peacocks peering in through the long tall windows), I remember texting my German friend, Caroline Steinbeis; ‘Castles and spires everywhere! The chocolate boxes are all true!’. It really was quite amazing. Particularly further south along the river; where we would see new fairytale towers on every bend, the vast river glistening below, and more often than not a village worthy of any Grimm tale spreading out behind it. Their ‘ye olde’ picturesqueness in stark contrast to the frequent monumental evidence of Germany’s impressive 20th century industrial endeavours.
We were due to follow the river south towards Basel. As with Holland we met many amazing people. Our first hosts were Christine & Melanie. Their family a mix of artists, activists, and animal lovers who lived in a bright green town house in Duisburg. I remember Christine brewed up thyme tea with mystery herbs and honey to soothe our raspy throats, and gave me an extra buff to protect my previously exposed necks & ears. It was our first truly cold week. Minus eight to ten at times.
A couple of days and several bakery-stops later we stayed with Helga and Dieter in Koblenz. They cooked up a vegetarian feast for us and made us feel very welcome. It had snowed overnight and Helga voiced concerns about our plans for the day. She warned us that because the ground had been so cold for weeks the snow would quickly turn to ice on the quieter lanes and bike paths down by the river. She told us we were welcome to stay with them as long as we needed. In the end we did a couple of practise pedals up and down the street outside and decided to push on. It was very tempting to stay in the cosy apartment below their house, and spend a little more time with this caring and interesting couple, but we were excited by what lay ahead, and provided we were careful we were both quite seduced by the idea of cycling in the snow globe world that now lay before us. We took our time. Koblenz sits on a hillside. Our first proper snowfall and we’re a few hunded metres up a steep slope above Eurovelo 15 and the bike paths that lead south. Obviously we slid and tumbled a couple of times, but it was a lot of fun.
One memory of our time in Germany that really stands out for us is Saturday night on the town in Grolsheim. We had contacted Vera and Jörg through the Warm Showers app, asking to stay the night. They’d been recommended to us by a friend of theirs, Stephen, who also hosted touring cyclists but had replied to say he wasn’t available that night. Vera and Jörg were also busy but told us to come anyway. If we were tired we could stay in. If we were up for it we could join them and their friends at ‘Wine and Groove’ for some dancing.
“Er - what’ll it be then, Ruth?” I remember asking.
“No brainer; it’s got to be Wine and Groove!”
Vera and Jörg were not a mid-twenties hippy couple living in some kind of commune. Which was, for some reason I can’t remember, what I had expected. They live in a stunning house they’d designed in collaboration with an architect friend of theirs. And as it turned out ‘Wine and Groove’ was no dingy affair. It was a night of live music hosted by a local winery to showcase a new grape to connoisseurs.
We arrived late, as was fast becoming a pattern, but Jörg told us to take our time and freshen up. Vera is an incredible cook and had read about our interest in local food on our website earlier that day so had created an amazing meal including ‘Handkäse’ (literally; ‘hand-cheese), an appetiser local to their area. They had first dated whilst Vera was working as a nanny in Liverpool in the early nineties. Jörg used to travel from Germany by motorbike to visit her. I still have no idea of their age; needless to say they were sophisticated, accomplished, and a lot of fun. We immediately liked and admired them. A forever-in-love, forever-young, couple if I have ever seen one.
(Ruth) Nights out on our cycle tour always start the same way. Routing through our panniers to find the cleanest most ‘non-cyclist’ clothes available. It seems important before we leave the house and instantly not a problem whenever we reach our destination. ‘Wine and Groove’ was in the town hall and it looked like the whole town had turned up. Vera and Jörg seemed to know everyone so we were thrown into a mix of incredibly friendly German people, curious about what brought us to the Rhineland on a Saturday night. We were exhausted from the day of cycling but managed to string enough sentences together to explains ourselves. The wine helped and because Oli doesn’t drink much, I got a couple of extra tokens.
When the band started to play I was quietly relieved. I hoped moving around would help perk me up and it did. The band started to belt out cover after cover of English pop songs. Nearly everyone in the room was dancing and they were dancing in a way that felt so free. There was no pretence and little attempt at looking good and as a result, everyone looked marvellous. We even found Stephen from Warmshowers on the dance floor, head-banging away to ‘Wonderwall.' He had some cherry tomatoes in his pockets which he would pop into his mouth in between songs and for whatever reason this really made me smile.
Oli and I danced with as much energy as we could muster. But, by midnight, we were flagging. Surely things would be winding up soon? I’d say on average the crowd were almost double our age, but you wouldn’t think it looking at them dancing. The night seemed to just be getting started. Vera and Jörg would whirl over to us mid-song to check we were holding up ok. As night officially became morning they suggested we leave in about ‘hour or so’. We agreed wholeheartedly, not wanting to cut their night short and not wanted to be the British couple who couldn’t handle a bit of Wine and Groove on a Saturday night.
Oli and I clung to each for the last hour. Perhaps it looked romantic, like we were slow-dancing to ‘Uptown Funk You Up’ and ‘Sex on Fire’ but really we were just trying to hold each other up. I fell asleep in the car home, even though the journey couldn’t have taken longer than 15 minutes. It remains one of favourite nights of the trip and we’re so grateful that Vera and Jörg invited us into their world for the night.
From Grolsheim to Mannheim, Germany was filled with open-hearted people who had a spirit of adventure. Razz in Mannheim embodied both. Originally from England, she's walked and cycled across Asia and the Middle East and is now settled in Germany with her partner Miriam. Maybe it was BBC Radio 6 playing in their living room or her British accent that me feel instantly relaxed and at home. She is one of the handful of long-distance female cyclists I’ve met that made this trip feel possible.
We listened to Razz’s incredible accounts of walking and cycling solo. She made us laugh with stories of drinking vodka with Vladimir, Vladimir and Vladimir in Russia and navigating crossing the borders of Uzbekistan. On entry to the country she was asked if she was ‘carrying any guns or weapons?’ Of course she said no, earnestly and eagerly. The guards looked confused. ‘You’re not carrying any weapons?!' . It’s the kind of story that makes you laugh if you’ve already been to Uzbekistan or never plan to visit. It’s the kind of story that makes you laugh and slightly anxious if you’re about to head towards Uzbekistan.
But really all of Razz’s stories left us feeling excited and empowered for the road ahead. She packed us off with advice on antibiotics she found useful and some ‘learn basic Russian’ audioguides. We cycled out of the town together, had a big hug and headed down the river.
We stayed in the beautiful town of Baden-Baden for our last night in Germany. The streets were lined with arching trees that almost looked like they were cheering us on as we rode. Our host was a man called Tobias. He was a TV producer and I like him right away. He showed us to our room, where there were towels laid out for a shower. He’d changed the wifi password to ‘England 2018’ which I thought was really sweet. Knowing we’d be hungry, Tobias had cooked us a feast of carbohydrates: a cyclists dream. I had a sniffling cold which Tobias had noticed (it was pretty obvious from my watery eyes, chapped lips and dripping nose). Whilst we were showering he’d boiled up some ginger tea to help. Feeling under the weather often makes me a little teary and that little gesture nearly made me weep into my spaghetti.
We chatted over dinner about working as a producer. Tobias we impressed that I’d worked on a documentary series for Channel 4, which made me feel proud of our life back in the UK. He suggested a route for the next day that was ‘mountainous but glorious’. I could see Oli’s eyes lighting up as Tobias described the gradients leading to breathtaking views. I didn’t want to think about how much my legs were already aching and how much more they would thanks to Tobias’ suggested route. But, we did take the steep route and for the first time on the trip I actually enjoyed an uphill. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, lets say it was the first time I didn’t loathe an uphill. I could almost breathe properly and my legs felt stronger. And Tobias was right about the view. It felt incredible to freewheel down through the Black Forest. The trees threw patchy shadows across our bike, almost creating a strobe light effect.