Thursday 12 July 2012

Dordrecht, Holland - A river runs through it

It’s one of Europe’s great rivers, an industrial powerhouse and a key transport artery into the heart of the continent. It’s graced with natural landscapes, historic towns and vineyards but blemished by urban sprawl and factories. Since I left the Alps it has guided me north on the homeward leg of my trip. It is, of course, the River Rhine or, as I shall forever affectionately call it, the “River Rain”. Yes … it has been wet!

I joined the Rhine just east of Basel after I cycled out of the Swiss Alps and it was just west of Basel in the French village of Kembs that I was kidnapped by Bart and returned to the mountains for another idyllic month of hiking, biking and living it up in his campervan. And so it was that when Bart returned to Belgium he dropped me back on the Rhine at Kembs to continue my journey home. We said goodbye on a miserable, wet Sunday morning and I cycled away in rivers of rain and floods of tears. 

As I pedalled downriver through forests and pastures and pretty little villages, the rain lashed for several days, a case of the weather matching my mood. But eventually the sun came through for a little while and with it came the mosquitoes! I’ve slept in some strange places on this trip from gas stations to hotel storage rooms to public toilets and on the Rhine I found another strange spot. It was getting late in the day and I couldn’t find a place to camp as every good spot was infested with millions of mozzies. Then, just outside the quiet village of Reinsheim in the far corner of a sportsfield, I spotted a tent that on closer inspection was empty and abandoned. It was one of those huge, cheap tents that people buy in Asda for 50 quid then throw in the bin after the first gust of wind blows it down. I wheeled my bike straight in and dived into bed in one of the rooms, well out of the reach of the mozzies! 

There is a bicycle route that runs the full length of the Rhine, all the way through Germany and into Holland where the river splits into a huge delta and flows into the North Sea and it’s that route that I followed for nearly two weeks. It’s a small part of an amazing network of bicycle routes throughout Germany and Holland, all mapped and signposted. I barely ever touched traffic. In an effort to save money, I didn’t buy a proper map of the route and was laying my trust in the efficient signposting. Unfortunately the signs all disappeared around the large town of Ludwigshafen in a maze of roadworks, motorways and diversions, and I got incredibly lost. A local man came to my rescue and cycled with me for over an hour in a mini adventure along back roads, bike routes, farm tracks and muddy fields to get me back on my route. I had a job keeping up with him even though he was 72! 

Each day I would pass and exchange a greeting with all sorts of cyclists from locals on their daily commute to heavily-loaded, long-distance pedallers like myself. I especially remember two very loud German cyclists that I kept meeting. They wore those “bib” style cycling lycras that Bart likes but then Bart has the figure for them … these chaps did not! They didn’t even wear T-shirts on top so their huge, bloated bellies bulged out between the braces, looking like they’d been inflated with bicycle pumps! I never saw them without a beer in their hand so that explains a lot. Mind you, you have to sympathise with them because you can’t pedal a mile along the Rhine without passing a bar or café with a waterfront terrace. It’s so tempting to sit a while and watch the barges ferrying cargo, coal and cars up and down the river, or the cruise boats depositing tourists at another castle or historic bridge or souvenir stall. I took a few short cruises on the Rhine myself … each time I had to cross from one side to the other on the little ferries. Thankfully there are hundreds of these ferries that haven’t been replaced by bridges. They are a very charming aspect of cycling along the river. 

The sun did make a few appearances. At the beautiful small city of Koblenz I sat on a terrace enjoying a coffee at Deutches Eck where the Mosel adds its waters to the Rhine and listened to the music from an accordion player drift through the hot summer air. But the sun brings its own problems! My water bottles had developed a lining of green algae and I didn’t have a long-handled brush to clean them. Late one afternoon I stopped to ask a farmer if I could have some water. He helpfully took my bottles away into the house to fill them but took a long time to bring them back. I later discovered why … he had cleaned all the algae out of them! It briefly got really hot and sweaty as I cycled through the vineyards and orchards of the upper Rhine before I was engulfed by rain again. As the Rhine passed into Holland huge headwinds whipped across the flat farmland and waterways, driving the rain into my face. I cycled on along bike routes and quiet back roads, peering through the rain for views of windmills and pretty little villages with narrow, cobbled streets. I always wanted to linger in these places but the rain and wind blew me onwards to the end of the river.

My wet but wonderful journey along the Rhine has brought me from the mountains to the sea. In the next few days I’ll cross the city of Rotterdam and cycle north up the coast to catch my ferry from Amsterdam back to old Blighty! From what I’ve heard about this summer’s weather, I can expect more rivers of rain.

Photos from the Rhine on Flickr - sorry but the camera wasn't out much in the rain!

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