germany

The Ardennes

The German Army discovered that it was not especially easy to cross the Ardennes forest in late 1944.  The area was the site of the last major German counter-offensive of World War 2, an offensive which was hampered by the tightly-packed trees, steep hills and narrow valleys of the area.

I’ve spent the last few days confirming their findings.  Even without overwhelming opposing military forces shooting at you, it’s much tougher than it looks on paper.  There’s a reason that some of the hardest one-day races on the professional cycling calendar take place in the area.

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I was still on relatively flat land as I left France on Thursday (after a rain-inflicted extra rest day on Wednesday).  I was happy to be heading back into Germany on the 14th July.  I still remember how difficult it is to find anything whatsoever open in France on Bastille Day (after nearly starving to death on Day 2 of the round-the-world trip in 2014).

The price you pay for a gentle re-introduction to Germany (in the Saar valley, at least), is plenty of heavy industry (above), rather than delightful views.  But, as the hills started to rear up, and I approached the border with Luxembourg, it started to look much prettier.

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I crossed into Luxembourg at the village of Schengen, where it was finally possible to get a photo with three countries in (above).

The photo’s taken from the German side of the bridge.  The left bank is Germany, the right is Luxembourg.  And the village on the hill in the background is in France.  Needless to say, as all three countries are in the Schengen area, crossing the border is as simple as finishing crossing the bridge.

Luxembourg is tiny.  After breakfast in Schengen, and still absorbing the horrible news that was starting to come in from Nice overnight, I crossed the country before lunchtime.

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As well as being essentially a giant duty-free shop (every petrol station sells bulk tobacco and alcohol, as well as dirt-cheap fuel), Luxembourg is where the Ardennes really start.  As I got closer to the Belgian border, the landscape became more forested, as well as corrugated by what felt like hundreds of small hills.

It actually feels a lot like riding the bike at home: lots of small, sharp climbs, with equally short descents.  So you don’t really have time to recover before you’re heading uphill again.  It’s taken a bit of getting used to, as I’ve become accustomed to either flat plains or majestic mountains in the last few weeks.

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And, as I entered Belgium, the sky clouded up, too.  Just so I really felt at home, there was even a little bit of drizzle.

Maybe because it has felt so familiar, or maybe because the forested nature of the countryside means that impressive views are few and far between, both Luxembourg and Belgium (so far) felt kind of pleasant but not super-special.  And that impression’s not helped by the standard of the roads in Belgium, which might give the UK a run for it’s money for the ‘worst in Europe’ award.

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Still, I find myself this evening, in the small town of Givet, on the Meuse river (above).  It’s a really nice little town, surrounded by some of the last of the Ardennes hills.  But it’s not in Luxembourg or Belgium – I’m back in France for about ten kilometres.  So that’s France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and back to France in three days’ riding.  Small world.

But it’ll be Belgium for me again tomorrow.  Out of the hills, and on to the flat lands which lead to the English Channel.  The last few days outside the UK.

I really am nearly finished now.  The good news is that the hair’s starting to grow back, slowly…

Crossing Alsace: Canals and Cols. And a Scalping.

On Saturday morning, I woke up in Germany, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the French border.  Today (Tuesday), I’m having a rest in France, just a couple of hundred yards across the river from the German border.

Which makes it sound a little bit like I’ve not gone very far.  Just crossing the river would’ve done it, wouldn’t it?

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In fact, I’ve left the wide, flat plains of the Rhine valley, crossed Alsace and Lorraine, and arrived on the banks of the Saar.  I’ve moved from the eastern border of France to the northern border of France.

The Rhine is like a motorway between northern and southern Europe.  Traditionally, it’s been freight that has made the journey, either on the river itself, or on the canals which flank it (pic above).

Today, it seems to be just as much a ‘motorway’ for cyclists, with a surfeit of choices of waymarked route; do you want to be on the road, or car free?  By the canal, or by the river?  Through the towns, or bypassing them?

The only thing you don’t get a choice about is the terrain.  It’s either flat, pan flat, or billiard-table flat.  Which, after the drama of the Alps, and the hills, lakes and gorges of Switzerland, was just a bit, well…  Boring, I suppose.  Good for making distance, but no expansive views, and the sort of area where a headwind can make your day a misery.

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I opted for the canals for the first couple of days.  No navigational issues; you just follow the (generally) well-surfaced paths.  Fairly straight lines, too, so you’re not doing lots of extra miles like you do on the roads.

And the canals here take you straight into the town centres, like Strasbourg (above).  A nice, straight, traffic free route into the city centre.  And straight out of the other side.  Like many canal paths, it’s not necessarily the quickest riding, as you avoid tree roots, kids, dogs and the elderly.  But the lack of traffic lights (and traffic) make it just as fast overall as the road, and without any of the stress.

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Still, as I trundled further along the canal path to the north of Strasbourg (above), I’d had enough of the flat lands.  It was time to cut away from the canals, and to give my legs a little bit of work to do.

The thing that’s very obvious in Alsace is that it used to be part of Germany.  It was given to France after the First World War, which is a reminder that I’m quickly heading towards some of the areas most affected by that horrible conflict just a century ago.

And as I headed into the rolling hills towards Lorraine, it was easy to forget I was in France at all.  The villages all look German, and the names on the signposts all look like this:

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Of course, you never forget completely.  Whether it’s having to speak French to people, or the amazing (in this 24/7 age) habit of closing everything for a two hour lunch break, you’re always reminded that this is France.

And France had one more little surprise for me.  I rode up a fairly large hill to discover that I’d just bagged my last French col (below).  It says something about the size of the hills around here that this is considered to be a ‘Col’ at just 350 metres high.

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And it says something about how much my climbing has improved in the last few weeks that I cruised up it in the big ring, without even really noticing.  I’d have struggled to do that without the bags before I left on the trip in 2014.  There’s not much doubt that loaded climbing makes you a stronger bike rider.

I said ‘one last surprise’, didn’t I?  Well, I got another this morning.  After putting it off (arguably) far too long, I finally got my first haircut since Kazakhstan.  Despite being sure that I asked the guy to cut it short, but not too short, I’ve ended up with the hair of an eighteen-year-old army recruit.

Which is something to remember France by as I head back into Germany tomorrow (two years to the day since I set off from London), and towards Luxembourg and Belgium.  I just hope it grows out a bit before I get home; it scares me a little every time I catch sight of my reflection…

Swiss Rolling

Another long gap between posts.

Who’d have thought that Switzerland, and then Germany, would produce such formidable technical challenges?  No electricity in one, and virtually no internet in the other…

I should’ve known things were going to get tricky.  Just a few kilometres out of Albertville on Sunday, the road towards Chamonix was closed.  This was, on the face of it, a bad thing.

It meant that I missed my reconnaissance of the Tour de France mountain time trial, which I’d been intending to ride (in reverse) on the way towards the Swiss border, as well as the Col du Forclaz on the border.  A swift re-routing was required.  This was a pain.

On the other hand, the only alternative was up a long, and very pretty, cycle route to (and along) Lake Annecy:

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Which was the first in a series of spectacular lakes.

And after one more (low) alpine pass, I was done with the French Alps, and parked up near the Swiss border.  Ready to have a proper look at the country, after my 90-minute preview a couple of weeks ago.

Like several Swiss towns which sit on the border with other countries, Geneva has ‘foreign’ suburbs.  So it was only a few minutes on the bike from my overnight stop in France to the centre of town, and Lake Geneva:

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The first thing you notice (as a cyclist) in Switzerland is the proliferation of bike lanes.  You can roll into pretty much any town on marked routes.  Often, these are segregated, although a lot are just British-style paint on the road, too.  In either case, it makes a nice change from having to fight for space on crowded streets.

The second thing you notice is how hideously expensive everything is.  This is obviously exacerbated for me by the inevitable economic damage done by the ‘Brexit’ vote – thanks for the extra 15% on everything, Britain!  But Switzerland is outrageously expensive anyway.

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For example, my campsite at Lausanne was in a beautiful lakeside location (above).  But US $24 for one person and a tent is not exactly as economical as camping should be.  A fizzy drink and a bottle of water costs US $6 in the average cafe or petrol station.  A ‘value’ meal in a well-known burger chain runs to US $13, (and those prices are against a pretty strong US dollar).  So you know you just need to cross the country as quickly as possible.  To get somewhere (anywhere!) where you can survive on less than a banker’s salary.

While I was out of the Alps, I still had to cross another range of big hills (the Jura) before reaching Basel, and the Rhine valley.  At first glance on the map, the Jura look quite intimidating; ridge after ridge after ridge of fairly high, steep hills barring the way north.

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But a little more planning reveals that there are little gorges between the valleys, so you actually ride all the way from Neuchatel to Basel with only one major climb.  Despite fairly often heading into apparently closed valleys with dismayingly steep sides, there’s always a little ‘doorway’ through which you can escape (like the one above).

Which made for a fairly relaxing run down from the lakes, and through the hills on Wednesday and Thursday.

The city of Basel is another Swiss border city.  I’d been flipping between French and German-speaking Switzerland every few kilometres from Neuchatel, and Basel sits on the border of three countries, with France and Germany both sitting across the city limits to the north.

Given that this triple border lies on the Rhine, which is one of Europe’s great rivers, I was hoping to get a picture of the wide river, with all three countries in one photo.  Unfortunately (certainly when heading to Germany), all you see is warehouses and industrial buildings before the – empty – border post.  At which point, you enter Germany, while your phone lights up with a ‘Welcome to France’ message.

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Thankfully, there are some flags to make the ‘triple border’ point without the panoramic picture or the inaccurate text messages.

And so, yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, I rolled along the flat Rhine valley in yet another country; Germany.  I can’t say much about it yet, as the area’s heavily forested (it’s on the edge of the Black Forest, in fact).

So it’s short on stunning views so far.  I do know that it’s much cheaper than Switzerland, which is good.  And that staying in a small spa-town with ‘lots of old people’ (as I had it described to me) is not a recipe for a decent internet connection.

It was also the wrong choice of country.  Had I chosen the French side of the river, I’d have watched a glorious footballing victory last night, instead of a bitter footballing disappointment.

Still, I’ll hopefully find out more about Germany as I go along.  In the meanwhile, the weather is good, the roads are flat, and I have exactly two weeks left to enjoy my ride around the world (I’m expecting to get into Greenwich on 22nd July, barring any problems).

Oh, and I received the photo I mentioned last time, which is nice.  For those who haven’t seen it on Facebook yet, the picture below is me and the bike taking on the Col du Glandon last Wednesday.

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Not quite in the style of the Tour riders (including Steve Cummings, who just won today’s stage up the Col d’Aspin in the Pyrenees), but a professional photographer certainly makes it look easier than it was…

More from the heart of Europe next time (hopefully a bit quicker, and with fewer technical problems).

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For UK-based Touring Cyclists

Note that most ‘universal’ adaptors for UK electrical devices do not fit modern Swiss electric sockets.  The socket design prevents anything other than narrow, two-pin European plugs from fitting.  There are a few old sockets around (I managed to find one in the whole country), which will work, but it makes sense to check whether your adaptor will fit Swiss sockets before you get there.

Otherwise, you might not be able to update your blog for a week 😉