In late 1997, while cycling in Chilean Patagonia, I met a number of travelers from Europe. Many of these people inquired if I had ever cycled the Danube bike track in Germany and Austria. Their praises of this route interested me, and after I returned home to Canberra, I started to make inquiries about it. At the same time, I felt that such a trip also would be a good opportunity to explore the Somme Battlefield area of World War 1, not to mention getting a feel for the history and general character of Europe.
Early in 1999, I started to accumulate the usual necessities for such a trip, including a large bike box and a second smaller one for the balance of my gear. Transport was organised with Canadian airlines, with a return passage via Canada to London. As in previous trips, the two large boxes traveled free as part of my baggage, even though I was totally overweight.
The sister of my good friend Gill Ferguson agreed to house-sit while I was away, so on April 26, I was off on the first leg to Vancouver. As usual, this involved a broken journey in Hawaii, with Qantas flying there, and Canadian the balance to Vancouver. Unquestionably, Qantas was the better of the two lines, demonstrating a much more professional and organised flight.
In Vancouver, our friends the McDonalds once again showed their great hospitality; Maryalyce was there at the airport, and with a bit of pushing and shoving we managed to get my oversized boxes into her car and back to their home. Over the next week, I socialised with John and Maryalyce as well as spending some time up in the mountains with Catherine. The snow there was still excellent, so we were able to have an idyllic sunny spring day of downhill skiing - no wind and brilliant sunshine.
Catherine then joined me on the flight to Winnipeg were we visited with our many relatives in the area, not to mention my good friends, the McMasters at their Prairie Bluff property west of Winnipeg, and old school mates Ted Cuddy and Blake Whittleton. Fortunately we were able to avail ourselves of borrowed cars during the visit, which greatly facilitated getting around.
On May 25, I set out for Europe, while Catherine returned to work in Whistler. Flying via Toronto, my final stop was at Heathrow in London, were I caught a series of buses out to friends, Brian and Sylvia West in Marlow, about 70 K west of London. A two-day stopover there enabled me to get the bike and gear in shape for touring, plus time for purchasing various incidentals for the upcoming trip.
The great journey started on the morning of the 27th, when I said my adieus to the Wests and set out for a southern sweep around London. The first night was spent in a farmers yard at Billinghurst, as all the campsites were full (Victoria long weekend). This was very pleasant, as the farmer had a long talk with me (over tea and cookies) about my planned travels. He also organised for me to stay at another farm down the track (Northiam) for the next day. However, I was unable to make that distance, and instead stopped in a very pleasant campsite at Heathfield. The following day I made Northiam, and true to his word the farmer there offered a spot back of the barn, complete with a few cows sniffing around the tent. It rained rather heavily that night, so a cup of tea and a few munchies along with some more discussion on the problems of farming in the Common Market areas was a welcome interlude til bedtime.
The next two days, I rode to Rye and Folkestone respectively. The weather turned fine and warm for the two days, and in fact was delightful virtually for the rest of my time in Britain. Camping at Folkstone was right on the English Channel with great views out over the water. The weather and camping were so good in fact that I decided to have two days off on the channel; during this time I did some touring around the area, and in particular visiting a WW1&2 airdrome which had been a front line defense strip during the last war. This base (Hawkinge) had an excellent museum with a number of restored aircraft, and numerous parts and wrecks that had been dug up in the surrounding farmland.
Just arrived on the continent, Boulogne, France.
By June 1, I was ready to move on again and in what became a real downpour, I gathered all my gear and headed off down to the docks to catch the cross channel ferry. The crossing, taking about one hour in a 'SEA CAT', was mostly all in rain, but it did clear up as we cruised into Boulogne on the French coast. Customs clearance was a mere formality, and after being wished a "BON VOYAGE ", I headed off to confront a steep set of hills lying inland from the town.
For the first night in France, I camped at St Omer in a very pleasant and reasonable (about $7) site. The following day, I was headed for Bethune, but some heavy showers and detours forced me to seek camping in a farm courtyard about 25K south of Arras. There I had an eerie feeling the property had been used as a bivouac during the great war, but the owners did not have much knowledge of that time and its effect on their farm.
The following morning, the weather cleared and I easily rode on north to Arras. Along the way, there were the usual cemeteries (they are everywhere in western France) with graves from the Great War - all very sad. Then growing profusely all around, an abundance of that floral tribute to the times, the Flanders poppy. Near this area, I met two English cyclists who were over to study the various Somme battlefields as part of a tour company they were working for.
In Arras I booked into a hotel for 3 days, and after getting some maps of that area, went off to do a grocery shop in a very nice supermarket. That night I had my first big feed-up in France, enjoying the dry conditions in my room as it again pelted down outside. The weather conditions were kind of appropriate, as it made me think of the terrible times the troops had to face during, WW2 standing ankle deep in mud and with rain and snow pelting down on them, day after day. It made me realise how fortunate I was to only have to battle with a few mad French drivers and having pretty good weather protection - it all became relative after a while.
Vimy Ridge is only a short 15K north of Arras, and I cycled up there early the next morning. Fortunately, the rain had cleared again, and there was a fine day laid on for me. As my readers will likely know, Vimy was a big, mainly Canadian show on the Western Front in 1917. Using a ' creeping' artillery barrage, and resorting to extensive maps of the site, the Canucks were able to overtake the Germans in a fierce 3 day battle, something the allied armies had not been able to do up to that stage. For the battle, the troops made extensive use of tunnels through the subsurface chalk beds, and were able to bring in a lot of their men without the Germans knowledge. Although the Canucks lost about 4000 men, it none-the-less was a highly successful campaign for which Canadians were duly proud. My own father was involved at Vimy, and I wondered while I strolled so peacefully around the site whether I might even have stepped on the very ground that he had!
The site on which the battle took place is now a memorial, with a resplendent structure overlooking the area. France in her appreciation for the great sacrifice Canada made, has given to Canada a piece of land around the memorial. Thousands of maple trees have been planted, while a number of beautifully landscaped cemeteries show the nations appreciation to her brave soldiers. Of interest is that many parts of the Vimy site are still out of bounds because of the numerous unexploded ordinance still lying just below the surface.
A further interesting point about Vimy, is that the Canadian park superintendent in 1940, was taken prisoner by the Germans as they swept through the area. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Germans, not a part of the job he had probably bargained for when he took it on. Hitler is supposed to have visited the Vimy, also in 1940. No damage was done to the memorial or any of the cemeteries, but the Germans deliberately neglected the site, refusing to trim the grass or carry out any other maintenance.
Although Vimy left me with a feeling of sadness, I nevertheless felt pride as well, especially considering the great victory that Canada had won. I had a good tour of the site, both in the tunnels (still useable), and at the various commemorative displays. Canadian university summer students gave a good account of the battle scene as one toured the area.
Back in Arras, it rained again very heavily that night and the following day, which pleased me to be in a hotel. This was a good time to tour the sub-city tunnels and museums in town. The tunnels were originally built in the 10th century to obtain stone (chalk) for a protective wall around the city. Through the ages, the subsurface diggings were expanded and used for numerous purposes including wine storage, as religious retreats, and as hiding places during times of battle. The allies also used them during WW1 for hospitals and for troop movements to the front, even extending them north towards Vimy.
The day following was D-day, the June 6 invasion of France by the allies in world war 2, an appropriate time to head south into the main WW1 battle areas of the Somme. Traffic was quite horrendous on the main national road, so I was pleased to diverge off on a side track to the first aussie battle site of Bullecourt.. Then it was a southwesterly heading to the region around Pozieres where I found a pleasant little campground. This was most convenient, since it enabled me to leave most of my gear at the tent, and tour the rest of the battle areas on the bike only, saving a lot of energy dragging all my gear around. In the end, I stayed at the site for two days as it was so convenient to the rest of the battle scene.
It was strange riding without my load next morning, and the bike seemed to fairly fly. On the way south, there were so many cemeteries it was staggering. However, given the loss of life in that area, I guess it should have been no surprise - in one day in 1915, Britain alone lost over 60000 men on the Somme. The other thing which 'impressed' along the way were the numerous memorials standing out on the flat countryside, a tribute to those whose bodies could not be identified. The off again, on again showers during the day further reminded me of those poor men, soaked and cold in their trenches.
In each of the cemeteries, there was a plaque explaining the significance of the battles, also an outline map of the battlefront. Near one memorial, I discovered two artillery shells lying beside the road, no doubt discovered during farming operations. These had been painted bright orange, I presumed so an army ordinance crew could come by and pick them up for safe removal and destruction. It was kind of ominous seeing them just lying like that at the side of the road.
The main Aussie memorial and cemetery of the Somme is at Villers Brettaneaux (VB) about 20 K east of Amiens. This memorial was a rather beautiful structure, and commemorated the many Aussies (and some Canadians as well) who lost their lives in the region. Like the Canadian memorial at Vimy, VB is a dual memorial/cemetery, the former in honor of those who could not be identified or found. VB memorial has a fine view from the top of it, over the surrounding countryside, even enabling a distant glimpse of the Somme River valley. It is interesting to note that the VB memorial shows damage from bullets and shells during battles there in WW2. Most of the damage was repaired after the war, but some was deliberately left so visitors would appreciate that the area had also been involved in battles of later wars.
During the day's ride, I also visited other famous battle areas including Moquet Farm, Theepval (British), Sally-le-Sec etc. All in all, it was a very pleasant days ride as regards to (most of) the weather, but very thought provoking to see all those cemeteries and memorials honoring the many brave fighting men. A mid day lunch stop along the banks of the Somme also left me with many thoughts - such a pretty little river but with such a tragic reminder of past events.
On my ride back to the Pozieres camp site that evening, my trusty old Canon camera, which had taken so many great photos in previous trips, gasped it's last and refused to operate any longer. I took it to a camera shop in Albert on the way north were the shop owner said it was irreparable. There I bought a new (Konica) camera having a 35 to 110 telephoto lens, at a fair price of about 950 Francs - about $200A. This eventually proved to be an excellent replacement, even though I could still make the old one work by thumping it across my knee before each shot. This was not very professional, but somehow I had to make it use up the balance of the film still in it. Surprisingly, all those shots came out!
On June 9, I left the Pozieres area (after a brief early morning inspection of the famous memorial) and headed east towards St Quenton, Perronne etc. Near the latter town, my rear carrier broke in two places, so I wired it up as best I could and limped on in to town to purchase a new one. Near the breakdown site, I encountered a pile of about 6 artillery shells lying by the side of the road - again 'souvenirs' from WW1 I assumed. (Since that encounter, I since found out that French farmers "turn up" about 6 tons of unexploded ordinance each crop season - sometimes with devastating consequences as several farmers are killed by such shells each year. Needless to say, I didn't hang around there too long)
In Peronne, there was a huge market center where a range of products was available, including bike parts. Fortunately, they had just the carrier I needed to fit my bike; at the same time I bought an extra bike lock as a spare. There was a large enclosed front entrance to the shop and as it was rather a cool day outside, I took advantage of the cover to install the new carrier, and dispose of the old one. Many shoppers gave me the eye as they passed by. It was probably fortunate I didn't understand their French, judged by some of the scowls I received.
During the next couple of days, I continued northeast via back roads, mostly in very rural areas. This was great cycling country - numerous little villages, a gently rolling region and very light traffic. At one point, I passed by a paddock heavily grown over with Flanders poppies. The blood red colour was accentuated by white flowers growing along the margin - with fleecy clouds overhead a most beautiful scene, which well warranted a photo. At this point, I also encountered a drunken pedestrian, staggering down (and all over) the road; he had no idea I was coming up behind him even though I profoundly rang my bell. So it was with some trepidation that I quietly passed him, and with relief continued down the road.
At the medieval town of Rocroi, I camped along the banks of a moat surrounding an ancient fort and castle. Although old fortifications are common in this part of Europe, (some even dating back to Roman times), Rocroi seemed rather special to me with its narrow town entry (probably the old drawbridge) leading to the main center. After an early dinner, I had a fascinating time wandering around the nooks and crannies of the old town
Next day, it was a continuation northeast into the Ardennes country, which featured strongly in the 1940 German invasion of France. Riding through the region, I wasn't surprised that the Allied armies weren't expecting the Germans to break through at that point. The countryside was now heavily forested, and it certainly seemed the last place one would have expected the enemy to invade. At every turn of the road, I expected a Tiger tank to come boring through the trees and gun me down. It's amazing how you can be amused when out there cycling all day!
The Meuse River Valley, north east of Rocroi, France.
valley of the Meuse, north east of Rocroi, and almost on the Belgian border
was especially beautiful country - with that soft hazy scenery so typical of
European scenery. A couple of times, down in the valley, a small village complete
with a towering church steeple showed itself, complete with bells pealing out
over the countryside. Then a little further on, I encountered a large freight
boat chugging along the river, occasionally tooting its whistle to someone or
other. Fortunately, I found an open clearing from which I was able to get a
good photo of the boat and the river.
The valley of the Meuse, north east of Rocroi, and almost on the Belgian border was especially beautiful country - with that soft hazy scenery so typical of European scenery. A couple of times, down in the valley, a small village complete with a towering church steeple showed itself, complete with bells pealing out over the countryside. Then a little further on, I encountered a large freight boat chugging along the river, occasionally tooting its whistle to someone or other. Fortunately, I found an open clearing from which I was able to get a good photo of the boat and the river.
At this point I had to make a decision - whether to head on into Belgium, or turn southeast and continue in that part of France. The absence of any banks to obtain Belgian Francs decided for me, and I kept to the French side, eventually winding my way down into the twin towns of Charlieville-Mezieres. Unfortunately, the main road south was very busy with traffic, and also very steep and hilly in places, such that I had to push rather than ride at times. There was no shoulder and when big trucks passed me by, I was almost pushed off the road, shoving my bike and gear along on the edge of the ditch. This was dangerous riding at its worst, and I was very relieved to finally get down near the twin towns were the road expanded into 4 lanes.
There was an excellent campground in Charlieville, located on the east bank of the Meuse, and just under a footbridge crossing into town. The site was so idyllic that I decided to stop over a couple of days, do some laundry and most of all, have a rest - I felt I had earned it after doing battle out there on the road all afternoon. Later, I met several interesting people staying in the camp. One chap, a French cyclist was on his annual summer ride around a certain part of France, and this year had picked the northeast. He invited me to come and stay at his home over near the Normandy coast, but it was unfortunately rather off my planned route.
It was such a pleasure to stroll around the twin towns - lots of gorgeous old buildings, and of course nothing too far away from the campsite. During one of these strolls, I saw an amusing sight in a pet shop. The shop did dog clipping 'on the side'. This was accomplished on a kind of ironing board like structure were the "barber" had poor little poodle by one hand, the clippers in the other. That poor dog had such a forlorn look on his face, while several more contenders, chained down nearby, looked totally terror-stricken. I don't think I've ever seen a more dejected group of dogs. On the floor was the day's "takings", a large pile of snow-white poodle hair. It would have made a nice lot of wool!
So, after a 2-day rest stop, I cycled further southeast, headed for the Rhine river. Unfortunately, I missed the main road out of town , and ended up in a serious lot of hills. There I picked up a tack in one of my tyres had got a flat. Although I lost a considerable amount of time over both events, I managed to reach Villy-le-Fort where one of the Maginot Line fortifications was located. About the same time I arrived, along came the volunteer group to open up, and after paying the 20 Francs entry, I set out for the bowels of the earth (with an English couple from Chester) to explore the workings.
At the Maginot Line fortifications, near Villy-le-Fort, France.
This particular fort was one of the few which the Germans stormed in WW2 (the rest they bypassed through Belgium and Holland). The confrontation was quite obvious whereby blackened ruins were everywhere inside the surface turret, and down to the bottom of the shaft. On the way down, we inspected numerous ruins (I presumed deliberately left that way after the war), including a kitchen, sleeping quarters, telephone exchanges, electricity generating rooms etc. Then, at the bottom, (35 meters below ground) one entered a long but very narrow tunnel which lead to another set of stairs to the surface and a satellite turret, some 200 meters from the main one. There, we found all the doors locked requiring a descent to the bottom once more, and through the rabbit warren to the main shaft were we finally got free.
I suppose my main impression from this system was how technically advanced it was, but what a terrible waste of resources, particularly considering it was built during the depression era. The French surely must have considered an enemy might bypass such a stronghold (as they did). It would have been far better to put their money into mobile surface forces like the Germans did, which proved to be a much more practical approach.
After camping nearby, I headed out next morning for Verdun which was the centre for one of the bloodiest battles of WW1. Huge cemeteries lined the roads, both French and German. It is said that even today, vegetation is limited in the area because of the immense amount of explosives and poisonous gases set off during the battles. I believe my father had been at Verdun during a stage of his army career, but I have no further details on this.
On the same day, I had hoped to reach Metz, but in late afternoon, I got caught in a raging thunderstorm, which required me to seek the nearest shelter. Fortunately, an excellent B&B was located nearby, about half a km off the highway where I stayed the night. There, the owners had renovated an old farm stable/house and turned it into a very comfortable tourist venue. They were most interested in my trip, also the fact that I had an interest in vintage cars, (the husband was a fanatic on old tractors).
Around the same region, I encountered 3 very flash sports cars in a roadside picnic area. Naturally, I chose that location for lunch-break and while there, got a chance to speak to one of the owners, in this case a Mercedes gull-wing 300SL model. The other 2 cars were just as fancy, one being a Masseratti, the other a Mercedes 280SE. The gull-wing owner of course wanted to know what interest I had in old cars; when I told him that I had 2 cars, one a Chev, the other a Ford, there was absolute silence. In effect, I was totally out of their league! Oh well, to each his own!
After the violent storm of 2 days previously, June 15 dawned sunny and warm, and I continued east towards Metz , caressed by gentle west winds, and in a very light-hearted mood. My spirits turned rather sour, however, when I became totally lost in Metz. This was due to the usual poor signage of the French through routes in towns. I floundered around there for at least 2 hours before I finally located the route east. In the country again, I met a number of Dutch cyclists (who always spoke impeccable English); they directed me to a campground a few K's down the road, about half way between Metz and Strasbourg. This spot was a large resort, complete with an artificial lake and numerous very nice timber cabins. As summer holidays were still 2 weeks away, I was virtually the only tent camper on site. After the last few days of storms and getting lost, it was a real pleasure to settle down to a relaxing afternoon/evening in such a great location, complete with peals from distant church bells and the 'calls' of farm animals and poultry.
East of Metz and paralleling the Rhine, one encounters the Vosges mountains - a range with elevations up to 1400 meters, From the town of Sauerburg at the western extremity of these mountains, its a long climb to the top. Near the summit, I passed through the small town of Dabo, where the similarity with Switzerland was marked. An excellent campground was nearby, and seeing as this was very close to the top of the range, I called it a day and set up the tent. That evening I had a very interesting discussion with a Dutch chap who was walking the whole length of the Vosage mountain chain. He claimed to get some great inspiration for his public service job during such walks. I think I made his day when I gave him half a loaf of bread, which he said would last him until the next shop down the track.
The following day was the best one of the trip to that point - crystal clear weather and of course that wonderfully exhilarating feeling of effortlessly gliding downhill for 15 K amongst pine and hardwood forests. Along the way, the birds seemed to be in a particularly happy mood, with numerous calls echoing through the forest; off in the distance I could just make out the outlines of the Rhine river basin. In the lower region, I stopped to do a grocery shop, then continued on southeast through the delightful Alsace region and the towns of Molsheim, Roscheim, and Obernai. These 3 towns were the most delightful encountered so far, with so much character - markets, hanging basket of flowers, and often indications of an historic past - fortifications, walls, moats and what appeared to be the remnants of drawbridge entries to the town centres. Cycling through this was pure magic, particularly considering the fine warm weather I was experiencing.
After riding through numerous vineyards and roads lined with traditional Lombardy poplars, I encountered a back road which paralleled the Rhine, although I didn't immediately get to view the river - that came later when I found a narrow opening through the heavy riverside growth (almost like rainforest). And then, there it was, the famous Rhine although I had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, for the river was so lined with concrete along its banks as to be more like a large canal. However, it was rewarding to see river transport moving in the strong current, and various pleasure craft zipping by.
Over the next 2 days, I continued south to Mulhouse, famous for its huge veteran/vintage car museum. On the way, an Israeli cyclist, headed north to Scandinavia stopped for a chat. His load made mine look like a picnic basket, although he did have a very heavy solid looking bike, and was surprised that I had done so many travels on my 'bottom of the range' Trek. Then, just south of the above meet-up, I encountered a WW2 pillbox by the side of the road. I tried to get to the entrance of this, but it was so overgrown with foliage, it wasn't possible. At the time, I wondered if the motorists racing by on the road would see such sites - another great advantage of travelling by bike!
The Mulhouse car museum was magnificent - it would have to be one of the worlds greatest, although I was somewhat disappointed by the total exclusion of any American makes. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was electric, with the overall display presented in a huge old wool store, the roof of which was held up with lamps from the gas light days of Paris. There were a total of about 500 vehicles on display, some being of the rarest variety. It certainly was a museum for aficionados!
I left Mulhouse early on June 20, and by around 11:00, crossed the border of Switzerland and was passing through Basle. The Swiss border was a cinch to cross, in fact the (one) border guard wanted to know why I presented my passport to him. He just said there was no need, and to have a nice trip.
Basle was quiet in light Sunday traffic, and it wasn't long before I was well east of town were I stopped for lunch at a quiet picnic site. From there on I experienced my first European bike trails, with a fine wide track on both sides of the road. Being a weekend, there were a lot of other cyclists about, but it certainly didn't bother my enjoyment of the ride. Much of the border area was covered with pine forests, but shortly, the countryside opened up into more open farm land. The small town of Frick was my camping spot that evening; there I rang friends in Zurich to see if a visit with them was possible next day. However, they were just about to go off on a trip and I had to leave that idea for a possible later time.
Zurich, were I arrived next day was in fine warm sunshine. Just before I got to the outskirts, I passed the small town of Bergdietikon, were Barry had spent a year on a student exchange. I was tempted to try and find his host-parents house, but as I wasn't even sure of their name, gave it a miss. It was surprising how modern were the outer suburbs of Zurich, with many up-to-date factories and rather American type architecture - something I didn't expect to see. However, downtown the older buildings became more predominant and once again I recognised that I was still in Europe. The centre of Zurich is built along the Limmat river, which at the south end of downtown, spills into the Zurichsee - the Lake of Zurich. From there, the town stretches along the east and west shores of the lake; in my case I followed the latter as the campground was located about 4 Kms down, on a delightful shoreline setting. I picked a site very close to the lake with fine views to the far shore, the tourist traffic on the lake, and the distant mountains. The only problem was the tariff - about A$20/night plus another 2 dollars to use the shower. I was learning quickly that Switzerland was to be a rather expensive country, at least in the bigger towns.
The following day, I went back to city centre, following through an elongated park along the shoreline. In town, I tried my first attempts at E-Mail by sending a message to my good friend Gill in Canberra, followed by some sightseeing. Then it was off to some food shopping (expensive) and a visit to the train station were I left some of my gear in storage - thus to lighten the load as I took a round trip south into the mountains.
The ride southwest on June 23 was in perfect weather, warm and sunny, and of course with that magnificent backdrop of Swiss mountain scenery. On the way, I passed several lakes, notably Lake Lucerne and the Brienzersee. The town of Lucerne, on the lake of the same name, was crowded with tourists, but nevertheless was oozing with character, and I lingered around to soak up some of its charm. Unfortunately, there were no camping sites there, so later in the afternoon, I had to continue 20K further to the small town of Alpnachstad were a rather mediocre camping spot was located. However, the deficiencies (wet grounds, nearby freeway) were totally outweighed by the magnificent scenery all around - a nearby lake, mountains, and plenty of Swiss architecture.
The route continued in this very beautiful scenery which was all the more enjoyable because of the excellent lakeshore bike trail. I was quite amazed in places to find the track located on its own little bridge extending out over the water. However, it wasn't far until the track ended, and I was back on the highway fighting with road traffic. Even worse was to come as the road started a long climb over a 1000 meter pass; there I experienced traffic similar to that in the Ardennes of northern France, with many trucks and busses passing close by as I labored up the hill. Eventually, the summit appeared followed by a long descent down to the Brienzersee; what joy after that hard climb!
Looking west towards the Brienzersee, near Interlaken, Switzerland.
On the west end of the Brienzersee, lies the town of Interlaken. I had hoped to camp there, but could not find any sites, so continued down yet another lake (Thunersee) were a campsite was located high above the lake. My original intention at that point was to ride further south up into the mountains were I proposed to catch a train for the southern part of Switzerland (the upper Rhone river valley) were some more friends lived. However, by that stage, I was so tired from the numerous climbs of the day, I decided to ring my friends (the Woods) and cancel out on the visit. A further reason for this was to ensure adequate time to ride the Danube river track and thus meet my other travelling friends, the Rieds, in Vienna in late July
However, the following morning as I freewheeled down from the surrounding hills, I almost felt guilty that I hadn't made the effort to visit the Woods, but a decision had been made and I felt it was too late to change plans. In short order, thanks to the descending track, I was back in Interlaaken, where to make amends for not taking the mountain trip to visit the Woods, I decided to catch a train with the bike up to Grundewalde, well up into the mountains. After settling my gear into an excellent campground there, I took one of the walking tracks up into the mountains.The day was crystal clear and with the famous Eiger on the north side of the trail, I hiked up to a tea house, located at about 2000 meters, and overlooking the town. Over lunch, I met a pleasant couple from Holland, and we spent a relaxed hour or so discussing our respective travels in Europe. Again, I was impressed with the knowledge the Dutch people have of English. A further point of interest that day were the numerous hang gliders and para-gliders which were coasting around the tops of the mountains, generally at altitudes of about 3000 meters.
Rather than 'train it' back to the valley next day, I elected to cycle down the long steep slope to Interlaaken, which only took about 1 hour. There, I headed along the north shore of the Thunersee, in the direction of Bern. Travelling along the lake was most interesting with numerous short road tunnels where the rock formations plunged down into the lake from on high. I was also intrigued with the presence of several large garages, extending into the roadside rock formations. It has been suggested that such buildings contain defense equipment, as the Swiss army is known to maintain such dumps around the nation. I still have not obtained a concrete answer to this point.
Just north of the Thunersee, and not far from Bern, I sidetracked in increasing showers towards the village of Langenon and camping. The rain cleared the following morning, and it was an easy run back into Lucerne. Again, I was totally enthralled in the lovely old buildings and the mountain/lake setting of the town, not to mention the famous footbridge, recently restored after a disasterous fire of a couple of years ago.
My track from Lucerne followed along another lake to the village of Kusnacht, then the village of Arth and finally north along the 'Zugersee' to Zug where I made camp. Late in the afternoon, a raging storm came up out of the mountains, which was so severe, it blew down several tents in the grounds. Fortunately, I was able to secure mine with several additional spikes and ropes before the main storm hit.
Light showers followed me all the way to Zurich the next day, but luckily the weather cleared just before I got back to the campsite. It was still early in the day so there was time for a quick trip down town to collect the gear I had left at railroad storage a week before. On return to camp, I was fortunate to meet up with a cycling couple from Germany, who enlightened me on several things about the Danube track. We had a very pleasant time together that evening, sharing our food and talking about cycling all over the world.
The morning of June 29 was very lovely, with sunny clear skies, just a great day to set out for the start of my Danube ride. But first I had to pass through several parts of northern Switzerland, through the town of Winterthur and then on to the very beautiful Bodensee, or Lake Constance as it is known in English. Near the lake, I got terribly lost and had to do about 20 K extra to get back on track. However, I still made it early in the afternoon, and set up in an excellent campground adjacent to the lake. Nearby, a fleet of sailboats gently bobbed up and down in a light afternoon breeze. Later in the day, the wind calmed completely, and a soft mistiness settled on the lake, such that one could barely make out the German side of the shore, about a kilometer away. My mind wandered to thoughts of what this area was like during the war, with possible escape of allied prisoners to the Swiss side of the lake etc. Seemed like there would have been good potential here for a novel.
After a lazy evening (when I was able to further discuss the Danube track with some cyclists from Ingolstadt) , I set out on the last day of June north towards the Danube. Crossing the border again was a non-event with no one to check any of my details. I always felt a bit like I was breaking a law in such cases, but as no one seemed to be interested, the answer was to just keep going. On the German side, the land became quite hilly, with some difficult riding in places and several long slopes to climb. Finally, the last stretch wound its way down into the riverside town of Tuttlingen, which gave me my first contact with the Danube. The bike track actually starts about 15 K up the river from Tuttlingen at a village called Donaueschingen , but after so many hills that day, I was too tired to add that extra mileage to my travels, and settled for a camp site not far down river.
My first glimpses of the Danube along the river track caused me total surprise - the river was nothing but a large creek! However, I guessed this was to be expected, as I was only about 20 K from the actual source of the river near Frieburg. The other surprising point was how deeply the river had cut down into the countryside - a very profound channel indeed. The aspect was very attractive, with the winding valley set some 100 meters below the land surface, an abundance of forest land along the valley bottom, and occasionally, a farm complete with hay bales and grazing cattle close to the rivers edge. What a perfectly peaceful setting, and what a great start to my river adventure. I felt that I wanted to ride forever!
Day 2 continued in perfect weather, and I continued on down stream in fairyland countryside. The river was forever winding back and forth through lush deciduous forests. Here and there, a little village appeared in the valley, while high above, overlooking the scene, one occasionally saw a church and steeple. At one point, I passed the ruins of an old castle, seeming about to fall into the river. On the track, many people were cycling and walking, but few appeared to be on any long distance trips, judged by the amount of gear most were carrying. Later in the day, the high bluffs receded, with a broadening of the river valley. At the small town of Sigmaringen, my map noted a campsite on the river which I easily located near the town entrance. I had a quiet laugh to myself as I checked in, for the management appeared to be running the place like a Hitler youth camp, judged by the stern orders from the overseer. However, with a large attractive castle nearby, towering over the site, not to mention the scenic town itself, I wasn't perturbed by 'army style' treatment.
Below Sigmaringen, the countryside and the river valley became flatter still. The river also started to show signs of maturity as more and more lateral streams entered the main system. After a rather hot days ride, I camped the night in a small town about 80 K east of Sigmaringen. I was somewhat concerned on checking in that there might be a problem that night, judged by a circus and town show nearby. Sure enough, about sundown, the rock and roll music started up followed by some pretty rowdy carry on by several campers, including smashing bottles and rather drunken behavior. If that wasn't enough, then a bunch of the motorcycle crowd checked in and things really got wound up. Needless to say, it wasn't a very restful or pleasant night, and the final peace of morning was certainly welcome.
Next day, I followed further down river to the town of Ulm. I would liked to have stopped there, but there were no camp grounds, so it meant a further ride down river to the smaller village of Gunzburg. On passing through Ulm, I could see that it was quite an interesting place, and made decided to ride the 20 K back from Gunzburg and have a better look. This meant an extra day's stopover; however, I really didn't mind doing so since with my lack of proper rest the previous night, and the long hot ride that day, I rather looked forward to an extra day of relaxation.
The Gunzburg campsite was in a leafy hillside location overlooking the town. It was still oppressively hot and a site under a large spreading tree was most welcome. In the late afternoon, I was worried there would be a repeat of the previous night, when a bus-load of children arrived. Fortunately, they only stayed until about 5:00 pm, and then all became quiet. About an hour later, a couple arrived on bikes from the direction of Vienna, towing 2 trailers and everything except the kitchen sink in the way of camping gear. The most amusing thing about this entourage was the 3 dogs the woman was towing, (the husband had the balance of gear in his trailer). I had never seen such a load on cycles before. In speaking to them they admitted to having "too much gear", and taking 2 hours to set up (vs my 20 minutes). However, I had to admit they were travelling in luxury!
I rode back to Ulm the following day, and as I wheeled into town, the church bells were resounding and calling the Catholic faithful to Sunday service. It was so captivating, I locked my bike in the inner church entry, and headed on into the service. Although I understood virtually nothing of the German sermon, the organ music was enthralling as it reverberated through the huge building; a full 5 seconds of resonance continued when the organist stopped playing.
Halfway through the service, I decided to slip out and climb to the top of the steeple. Here, I must mention that the Ulm cathedral has the highest steeple in the world, rising to a dizzying 200 or so meters. The climb was via a spiral staircase with the final section on some old wooden steps. Although the view up there over the town and river (I could almost see all the way to Gunzburg) was superb, it was almost frightening as one looked out through the lacy and rather fragile stone work of the upper steeple. Then the bells started peeling again with a defining sound, and at that point I decided I'd had my fill, and headed down the long spirals once more.
On arriving at the plaza again in front of the church, I discovered the service was now finished and everyone had gone home to Sunday lunch. To my horror, I realised that my bike was securely locked, now inside the great front church door, itself also locked. At first I considered just staying around until the evening service, but of course that would have meant a very late return to camp, 20K down river. In the end, the ticket lady for the spiral staircase came to my aid with a huge key for the equally large lock, and freed my precious bike, of which the almighty had been taking such good care. Needles to say, I was pleased to return later in the afternoon to Gunzburg and a very good rest that evening, after a most interesting day.
I left Gunzburg early next morning to try and miss the worst of the heat experienced over the past 2 days. Besides, the early mornings were so delightful along the river, with mists slowly drifting through the trees, and the sounds of cattle and bird life nearby. However, by 10:00 am, I realised it was going to be another scorcher, and I started to seriously scour my map for a nearby campground. The closest site was the village of Donauworth, but on arriving there, it became quite evident the facilities were very 3rd rate. This meant a continuation down river in very intense heat to the town of Neuburg, were a campsite was operated by the local canoe club. This turned out to be a very good decision, for there was much to see in the town, including a large castle directly across the river from camping, as well as a most attractive and handy downtown. The father/son overseers in the campsite were a couple of real characters, very friendly (as I was beginning to find most Germans were) and most interested in my cycling experiences.
The castle at Neuburg, on the Danube River, Germany.
That evening I had an extensive walk around the points of interest in town, and then retired to my tent fairly early for a good sleep. Unfortunately, about 11:00 pm a particularly violent thunderstorm came up with equally torrential rain, so heavy in fact that I felt obliged to move my tent to higher ground in case I was flooded out. Needless to say, I got rather soaked in the process, but at least my equipment stayed dry.
Departing from town the next morning, I was surprised how quickly the scene along the bike track changed from urban dwellings to rather dense forested country. Then suddenly, another huge castle appeared in a clearing, complete with guard posts at the property corners. As there appeared to be no one in residence, I parked the bike along the edge of the track, and crossed over to an adjacent window for a look inside. Unfortunately, there was little to be seen, and on top of that I managed to trod on a stinging nettle plant (very common throughout Europe), ending up scratching my legs furiously for the rest of the day.
Ingolstadt was my next destination, at which point I planned to divert south, away from the river for a few days in order to explore Munich. I reached the former later next morning, and received another pleasant surprise the moment I rode into the outskirts. First there was an old portal gate followed by the most attractive cobbled main street through a couple of blocks of very old buildings, surely dating from about the 16th century. Then midway through town, an organ grinder was playing some very nostalgic music, while further down on the other side of the street, were 2 students playing equally haunting melodies on mandolins.
I was so impressed, I decided an extra day in town was well warranted. So after finding the campsite, I did my usual weeks laundry, then returned to browse and try to get maps for the Munich 'diversion'. Strolling about, I found a pair of sand-shoes, reduced from $38 to $4.
Never being able to pass up a bargain, I bought them, even though it meant that much more weight in my panniers.
Day 2 in Ingolstadt, I spent in further browsing (the organ grinder was still operating) also visiting a couple of museums. One was a war archives which displayed the German slant on WW1. I wished at the time that I was able to understand more of their language so I could comprehend how the Germans (and Japanese) feel about visiting our Canberra memorial.
The ride to Munich started the following morning, and the 80K took about 6 hours. Near the city, I diverted around to the western outskirts, and in doing so passed through the town of Dachau, with its infamous concentration camp. Right on cue, my rear tyre blew out - the one of course carrying most of the weight. I say 'on cue', for in 2 previous wartime centres -Albert and Peronne in France, now Dachau, I experienced cycle related problems. Accordingly, I began to think of my bike and equipment as war souvenirs! There was a bit of humor in the Dachau episode, for while I was installing the new tyre (on a local park bench), who should appear but the town council to carry out repairs on the bench slats. In the end, the repair- men insisted on helping me do the tyre changeover.
I settled into a campground about 6 K south of Dachau, and about 15 K from the center of Munich, then next day, cycled down town and explored, particularly in the town square area. This square is called Marionplatz, and was where Hitler and his troopers held numerous parades in the 30's. The star attraction there is the rathaus, or town hall with its wonderful tower clock containing several small statues (eg Knights, shepherds, kings etc) These revolve, but only at certain hours, at which time the square is filled with spectators, all enthralled with the action. There was so much to see in downtown Munich that I left returning to camp rather late, and of course got thoroughly lost. To make matters worse, rain started to fall, and 2 hours later, when I finally found 'home', I was very wet, tired, and disgusted with myself.
As a result, I abandoned any more cycling in town, and instead purchased a ticket for multi day use on the urban transport system. This turned out to be a much better way to get around town, and accordingly I spent the next few days on short train and subway trips to the various points of interest. In particular, this included the massive Deutches museum - a real Smithsonian show, and the BMW car museum, plus the adjacent 1972 Olympic grounds. I also spent one day on a train trip across to the Austrian town of Salzburg (Mozart and Sound of Music fame), namely because there would not be time to visit by bike. The Dachau concentration camp was also another 1 day visit; although this was very interesting, it nonetheless left me with a very discouraging feeling about mans treatment to others, something that took a couple of days to get over.
I enjoyed my stay in Munich, and towards the end of my time there, the campground people began to accept me as one of their own. However, after a week, I was ready to get back to my main challenge, the Danube. Thus, on July 13 I headed back north arriving in Ingolstadt about 3 pm. As the day was still bright and warm, I decided to continue down river, finally stopping for the night at Bad Gogging for a 120 K days ride. I should mention that I would have camped earlier, except for some minor flooding in a couple of the campsites up-river Apparently, the Danube was much more replete with water than most other years.
The next day when I reached Regansburg, I found an excellent campground on the north- west side of town. There were several advantages to this location, in that it was close to an excellent supermarket, and then just next door was a super hot spring pool (there are many in this part of Germany). This pool was open until 10 pm, so I was able to have a very enjoyable hot swim that night before turning in.
I stayed an extra day in town, as people had told me that Regansburg was a very interesting place. This was certainly true of the huge cathedral which I spent some time inspecting; I felt this was one of the finest churches I had seen in my European visit to that point. However, as far as the rest of the town was concerned, I felt quite cheated, as there were very few really old buildings left in town; perhaps these had been destroyed during the second world war. Fortunately, there was a festival in town that night, so the stopover wasn't a complete waste of time. There were a number of good bands there, playing various ethnic music, and I particularly enjoyed the Mexican one.
Next day, I cycled on to Degendorf on excellent river tracks, and on the following day reached Passau on the border with Austria. There I experienced the usual difficulties trying to find the campground. I finally located it over a steep range of hills on the north side of the town, and on a tributary of the Danube - the Ilse. Passau also has a river joining the Danube on the south side called the Inn, which carries the meltwater down form the Austrian Alps, passing through Salzburg on the way.
I was very impressed with Passau; it had such a romantic setting at the junction of the three rivers, and also demonstrated that special touch of a medieval past - the many fine old buildings, a gorgeous old cathedral, and a large castle overlooking the town from the north. An extra day there was certainly warranted, and between lovely walks along the river parklands, tours of various city buildings, and the castle, I spent a most enjoyable time. It is of incidental note to mention here that the Passau cathedral has a world record number of organ pipes (11000); a most enjoyable concert is played on this instrument every mid-day.
Just before leaving this delightful place, I met a couple of interesting people. One lot were a couple from Canberra of all places; they were on a 10 month trip through Europe, but of particular interest was that the woman of the group was related to one of our car club members, back in Canberra. It truly is a small world. The other meeting was with a young German chap who worked in a paleontology museum in western Germany. He seemed determined to delve into the Nazi era, particularly what they had done to the Jews in the various concentration camps. When I left him, he was cycling to Auschwitz in Poland; strangely, we were to meet up again in a campground in Budapest about two weeks later.
So, after a very pleasant 2 days in Passau, I set off down river again, this time bound for the town of Linz, which incidently was Hitler's birthplace. Along the way, two points struck me. First, there was absolutely no sign of any border customs as one crossed into Austria. In fact, I wasn't even sure were the border was located. The second point of interest was the sudden increase in the number of cyclists on the track. Many were only travelling with light loads - obviously staying at the guest houses (Gasthaus) which I saw along the way. The cycle track itself was the best condition of the whole trip so far - wide asphalt strip, generally very flat, and most always following directly along the course of the river. Apparently, the modern bike track has been derived from the old barge tow-paths used along the Danube in earlier times. The countryside too was very scenic, with traditional Danube deep, wide valleys, numerous vineyards flourishing on the north (sunny) side as well as many other fruit orchards growing right up to the track (and yes I was guilty of picking some of this fruit as I cycled along!). Also of interest was the significant increase of river traffic, both tourist and freight boats, although the former was most prevalent. Along the way were several locks used for the control of water levels for river traffic, but also for minor electric power development.
This was another very hot and humid day, and I was pleased to finally arrive at Linz. The campground was located some 5 K down the river, and I had the usual problem trying to locate it. I finally did so in a large park with tenting in the grounds of a restaurant, which in turn was situated on the edge of an artificial lake. The parkland surrounding the lake was jammed with bathers, still out in the very warm afternoon weather. Some of them were completely in the nude, possibly explaining why I had such a hard time locating the camp! The nearby golf course was well patronised; there, people were more conventionally attired.
Camping was well on the south-east side of the town, so the next morning, I thought it would be worth a brief trip back into Linz to have a look at the place, as well as to get some Austrian currency. The town was located on the south side of the river, and as the cycle path was on the north side, one had to cross over on a very high bridge, so designed I guessed to allow river traffic to easily pass through. Once over the bridge, you were in the heart of the town; this had a very interesting centre with quite a large square and a number of attractive buildings and many wandering streets. The cathedral, close to the central square, was a fine edifice, with most attractive (mauve) stained glass, and with lots of wrought iron around the pulpit and frontal area. This treatment, along with fluted columns and stone roof butresses far surpassed the gloss and glitter of so many churches that I had visited on the German part of the river.
By 10:30, I'd seen it all (never did find Hitler's birthplace) and cycled off down the river once more, again in very hot, humid conditions. At one point, the track headed away from the river for a short stretch, and with the lack of riverside foliage, conditions were hotter than ever. Can you imagine my joy when a small kiosk appeared right on the trail, complete with a cold bubbling spring, flowing into an adjacent reservoir. How lovely that was to drink and to pour over ones head and upper torso!
The Danube River flowing through Austria, near the town of Grein.
The next town (Grein), was only about a 60 K ride, but it was so darned hot, I decided to finish for the day, which meant rather an early arrival. The situation of this town was most attractive - located on a 180 degree bend in the river and with some large docks at the bottom of town. The campsite as well was very nicely spotted, directly on the track and a very easy walking distance in to town. This was one of the few sites I was able to find without any difficulty. As it was still so early, I wandered off on foot to look over the place, also to do a bit of grocery shopping, not to mention taking some photos of this exquisite place. After dinner that night, I wandered back to the dock area and watched the comings and goings around a tourist boat that had docked late in the afternoon. Although people on the tour appeared to be enjoying themselves, I felt disinclined to want to swap with them, for in that very romantic and impressive setting, I felt that I had the best option.
This feeling continued the whole of the next day, as the weather had cooled considerably, and the scenery just kept improving. To start the day off, I had to backtrack about 2 K to cross on a bridge to the south side of the river, were the main track was now located. Opposite the town once more, at the apex of the bend in the river, there was a magnificent photo opportunity with the town church and steeple, a castle, and the numerous smaller medieval buildings scattered along the waterfront. As I rode away, I felt this was one of the most attractive places I had visited on the whole Danube trip to that point.
It truly was a magnificent ride that day, with deep river valley scenery, and numerous vineyards scattered along the way. Here and there, one encountered little villages that were so quaint it would be hard to describe them. Generally, the bike track wandered through these places, so there was an added bonus at numerous stages. Not far from my destination that evening, I rode into the town of Melk, were a magnificent old Benedictine monastery is situated. I would have loved to tour this gorgeous old structure (which jutted out from a cliff face overlooking the bike track), but travelling solo as I was, this often was not possible. Here, the difficulty is that one cannot risk leaving a loaded bike lying around (even locked) while 'on tour'. Such diversions are only possible when all your gear is safely stowed in a campsite, and you are free to come and go. Perhaps this is a good reason to return to this part of the world with a friend to have a more detailed look at things.
While I was camped 7 K east of Melk, it rained heavily that night and continued to do so the following morning. However, as the day passed, the rain reduced to light showers, and it was possible to enjoy the most attractive valley scenery in good riding conditions. There were so many fruit orchards along the way, that it was a simple matter to collect apricots and plums as one rode along, particularly as this fruit often hung well over the trail. And what delicious fruit it was - juicy and with such a magnificent flavor. I guess all of these factors made me consider that this general area is one of the best cycling stretches of the whole Danube valley.
That evening, I camped in the town of Krems. Before I reached the campsite however, I stopped on the edge of town at a hotel with a magnificent river view. The viewing platform consisted of a stone portico that afforded a lookout directly onto the broad waters below. Here, one got a very good impression that no longer was this river a gentle stream, but now had developed into a major drainage system, that seemed determined to get on its way down to the major cities of Vienna and Budapest and eventually the Black Sea.
Krems was my last campsite before Vienna, so after stocking up on groceries there, I again cycled off down river. Immediately, the aspect changed from the deep glen to a featureless flat river valley below town. However, the weather more than made up for the scenery; there was a stiff tail wind most of the day which easily enabled me to ride the 95 K to Vienna by lunch time. The day was further enhanced by a profusion of flowers growing along the track most of which I was not able to identify.
In the outskirts of Vienna, the bike track joined some of the city streets and was quite rough in parts - I'd been spoiled by the smooth surface over the past week! Closer to the city centre, I crossed to the east side of the river, adjacent to a cluster of UN buildings. From there, it was about 4 K south to the campsite. This turned out to be an excellent location, with good bathroom facilities, and with a fine kitchen, even including a fridge and freezer. Although two main motorways and a railroad passed nearby, a high dirt bank around the site drowned out the sound to a very low level. The best part about this location was that one could easily catch public transport into town, as there was a bus connected to an underground directly outside the gates of the campground.
The first day in Vienna, I spent touring the downtown region on my bike. The city central was lovely - many fine mid 18th century government and private buildings, and loads of foliage. Downtown, a ring road (the former city walls) surrounded the central area, while the main street through the city was thronged with sidewalk cafes and some very fine (and expensive) clothing shops. Using a tourist walking map of city central, I did an extensive tour of the main parts of town, particularly so I could return and have a more detailed look at a later stage. This I did over the next couple of days even including some outer parts like the Vienna woods. The latter was a real discovery, complete with a walled hunting preserve section and a very beautiful lodge built for a former emperor, Franz Joseph. The weather was fine during this time, although slightly humid in the afternoons and evenings.
My good friends the Rieds arrived in town on July 28th. To help them orient themselves, I traveled out to the International airport and returned with them via train and subway to their flat in the central district. Over the next four days, we had such a good time, on various walking tours, visiting the famous St Stephens church, the Opera house and the famous summer home of the Hapsburgs - Shonbrunn palace, not to mention a couple of fine dinners we had at some little back-street restaurants. Surprisingly, eating out was not expensive, comparing favorably to prices we were used to back in Canberra. One of these restaurants had formerly been an old Vienese private home, built about 1400 ad; the locale was surrounded by several equally old buildings which certainly added to the atmosphere. One evening we also attended a Stauss concert in the theatre originally used by him. On encouragement from the orchestra leader, the audience at one stage danced to the famous waltzes, the Rieds included.
Sadly, I saw the Rieds off to China and home on July 31 (at which time I almost became trapped in the overseas part of the airport). On my return to town, I tried to visit the military museum, particularly to see the famous vehicle (Graf & Stift) in which Archduke Ferdinand had been shot in 1914, thus precipitating WW1. Unfortunately, the museum was closed that afternoon, so after visiting a flea market, I returned to the campground. The place was packed with tourists that day, and some camped nearby my tent went on a drunken rampage that evening such that it was very difficult to sleep.
After such a lousy end to an excellent visit, I left Vienna for Hungary the following morning. There were many channels and canals on that part of the river. I lost my way several times, but finally sorted myself out as I left Vienna behind. Along the way, there were a number of nudists bathing and sunning themselves on the river bank; none of them very 'interesting', as (mostly) they were old and obese.
The cycle track to the border was flat and very easy with an excellent asphalt surface. At the frontier, one has to pass through a small portion of the Czech Republic and the town of Bratislava (called Pressburg by the Germans). Here I noted the first signs of the former Communist regime in the tall concrete apartment blocks, so ugly against the skyline. As there didn't seem to be any cycle track, I had to follow the main roads as much as possible, and finally found myself through the Czech Republic and into Hungary. Crossing these borders was a simple formality, with the officers only interested in a quick look at your passport, and with a smile and nod, sent on your way. In one respect, travel in the Slavic countries was easy for me, since I had 2 passports, one Canadian, the other Australian. For some reason, most of the east European countries required a visa of the Aussies, while Canadians could travel without one. Needless to say, I used the latter one for most of this travel.
After an overnight in a small campsite run by a local canoe club, I continued south along the Danube to the large town of Gyor, and then around a bend in the river east towards the Hungarian town of Kamarom, were I stayed for a couple of days. Adjacent to the campsite was a hot spring, which I greatly appreciated at the time, since I was developing all the signs of a cold. However, in short order, the hot spring seemed to completely eradicate these symptoms, and by the second day I felt completely cured. I might add that this was the only illness experienced on the whole trip.
Further east, one encounters the medieval town of Estergom, which had been famous in Roman times. Just before I rode into the town, I passed an ancient burial ground that was being excavated. At first, I thought this site had something to do with the second world war; however, the lady archeologist on site told me briefly of the history of the diggings - of how there had been a reasonable sized town there about the 12th century. Her interest, along with her employers at the University of Budapest, was to discover such things as the food, cooking utensils used, and other useful bits of information relative to these town dwellers of so long ago. The general area of Estergom seemed to be a most interesting region, with many signs of its medieval past, including castles, old churches, and some Roman ruins.
East of Estergom, the Danube takes a sharp bend to the south, directly headed for Budapest. Close by was the village of Dovos were again I was fortunate to find a very fine camping ground, very close to the river. The lady running the site seemed very interested in my travels, and we had a long discussion about the communist past and what sort of future Hungary had now they were free again. The consensus, and most Hungarians I spoke to agreed to this, was that they were all happy to be free of the Russians, although the job picture was not as good, now the past 'make work' programmes had gone.
After Dovos, I followed the river south along a secondary road (unable to find the bike track) to finally arrive in Budapest about mid-afternoon. The campsite (Romai Furdo) at the far north end of the city was a former public park in the communist era, and on the surface, appeared to be a fine camping spot. Unfortunately, a rock and roll concert was in town, and although about 3 K away, still created a lot of noise in the campsite. While in this camp, I could smell that sweet sickly odor of marijuana being smoked nearby; for all these reasons, I decided to only stay at this campsite for 3 days. This decision became even more sensible as the campsite became increasingly crowded over the next few days, with tents, vans, caravans and all manner of travelers. There was even a huge 4WD bus from London, on its was to Nepal; all the passengers looked totally worn out, and certainly in need of a rest. At times like that, I felt very pleased I was travelling solo on a bike, and most important of all, was my own boss.
My time in Budapest was spent in sightseeing, window shopping, and riding trams, trains and the underground around the city. There are many fine old buildings, and in some respects, one had the feeling you were back in Vienna. However, there was a lot of graffiti on some of the older structures; in addition, I noted a lot of broken and badly repaired pavement about, which meant one had to take particular care when walking. The central shopping area - in the form of a mall, was most attractive, with some very fine shops selling exquisite porcelain, fine jewelry, and top quality clothes. Judged by some of their prices however, there must be shoppers around who have plenty of sheckels!
Subway travel in Budapest was a good way to get around. Surprisingly, I learned that this city was the first in Europe to have such a transport system, and at one time was regarded as being very advanced. Today, although the system still seemed relatively efficient, it was unfortunately very dirty and hot, and it was always kind of a relief to get back to surface. The crowds on the system were immense, and it was rare that one was able to sit down.
When I had first ridden in to the city, I noted a large shopping centre about 10 K on the north side of town. I decided one day to ride out to it, as my larder was getting rather low. To my surprise, this centre was ultra-modern, with all manner of goods from around the world. Prices seemed to be much cheaper than those in western Europe and particularly Australia. While there, I saw my first Russian automobile, and I wondered if, perhaps there might have been some Russian (mafia) money in the shopping complex. Well, no matter, as I was able to have an excellent meal that evening on return, part of which I shared with my German friend Steve (from Passau) who had just returned from his cycle journey to Auschwitz.
On August 8th , I left Budapest, cycling north along the river to near the big bend. There I crossed the Danube on a ferry and struck off to the northeast, through rolling farmland to the village of Bank, were there was a campground. Although the site only had 4 tents and one caravan, one of the campers more than made up for the rest, with a terrific domestic row which carried on well into the evening. Needless to say, I was pleased to get away the next morning, as the 'battlers' appeared to be settled in for a few days.
Salgotarjan, a town near the Slovakian border was my next destination. Along the way, the country was rather sparsely populated, with plenty of mixed farms interspersed with villages. In one of the places, I asked 3 ladies gossiping near the town well if I could have a photo of them. They obligingly lined up in front of the well, and I got my photo; however, not without some objection from one of them, who indicated she was much too fat for photos. I did get a smile from them regardless. Incidentally, the presence of the well suggested to me that such small towns probably had no plumbing, also supported by the presence of some outhouses.
The northern part of Hungary, unlike the rather flat southern Danube basin, is an area of rolling hills, and in some parts, semi-mountainous, as the Carpathian range extends south from the Slovak countries. My route more or less circumvented the western edge of these hills as I tracked north. On one long hot climb, I was fortunate to find a grassy tree shaded spot near a hill top. It was a perfect locale for lunch, and I was so taken with the spot, I composed a couple of paragraphs which I will here repeat verbatim.
"In cycle touring, it is not often one can find an ideal resting site, just on lunch time, but such was the case today. A grassy meadow at the roadside seemed so opportune, after the effort of a long hill, and on spreading the luncheon materials for repast, I realised what a special place this was. Initially, a timely breeze developed, and combined with the shade of a friendly tree, was most welcome. Gazing down the long slope I had so laboriously climbed, I noted a small town from which I could just make out the sound of mid-day bells from the church.
Focusing on the immediate surroundings, I noted a sloping pasture covered with extensive flowers and heavy with grass, and with grazing cattle in the further distance. Overhead floated thistledown and other airborne seeds, while numerous insects wafted about in the breeze. Adjacent, a heavy wooded area occurred, no doubt replete with wildlife; deer for one are very common in this area. Further afield on the far side of the slope, a large building was just visable, possibly an old homestead, or perhaps even a hunting lodge from feudal days.
All of this in turn caused my thoughts to cast back to earlier times - what migrating peoples had moved through this region in former days - on their way to a better life for themselves. Or what of the armies that had poured through from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East over the centuries. And what past battles may even have raged on this very peaceful spot I was now using for midday lunch. All of these thoughts made me feel very privileged to experience this special place. Perhaps I was travelling on a rather primitive modern conveyance, but I could still cover as much distance in a day as these former peoples could traverse in a week. Unquestionably, the modern cycle is a great way to experience life"
Salgotarjan was a reasonably sized town, quite close to the border. I stopped there for a couple of days, partly to rest up after the heat of the past few days, but also to carry out some small repairs on the bike (brake pad renewals, new kick stand, etc). The weather remained hot and humid, and it was pleasing to be in a park that had plenty of shade. However, the camp facilities left much to be desired - a hole in the floor for the toilet, an open pipe drain for the (cold) shower, and a 'horse trough' for the basin. The toilet rolls were padlocked on a piece of pipe, while some adjacent buildings had all the earmarks of a poverty stricken camp of communist days, particularly the wiring which would certainly have been condemned in any western country.
My first day over the border in Slovakia was an easy run with favorable wind and light traffic. I stopped the night in a huge campground on an artificial lake, and near the town of Rimavska Sobota. A very pleasant young lady checked me in; her English was quite acceptable, and we had a long talk about their communist past and Europe in general. She seemed quite interested in Australia, and wished to visit after completing a medical degree at a nearby college.
When I first checked into this camp, it was starting to get quite dark, and although it was only midday, I assumed we were in for a storm. Accordingly, I set up the tent for a downpour which involved stretching the fly as far out from the main inner tent as possible. You can imagine what a fool I felt when, after having finished the tent erection, I looked around to discover several people looking up into the sky through smoked glass. Of course, it was an eclipse! Shortly after, I was again embarrassed when I had to stand around in front of the 'facilities' until I discovered which gender used which toilet; my meager Slovak dictionary neglected to include 'men' and 'women'.
In the town, I visited a very interesting museum, displaying some fascinating relics from the areas past. The lady curator was very proud of the display, and the fact she could speak to me in English, which under her tutelage was a bonus for me to discover more of the local history. Just before I thanked her for showing me around, her 2 girls arrived from school, and were introduced to me. I kind of felt by now that Aussies on bike tours must have been a rarity around these parts, judged by all the attention I was getting. I guess she accomplished some additional monetary gain when I purchased a lovely little catalogue of the museum and of other Slovak archives for the princely sum of $2,
As I traveled around in this little country, increasingly I could not help but feel sorry for Slovakia. Over the ages, they have been trampled on by various powerful neighbors - Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans and of most recent, the Russians. Only now are they coming into their own. However, the country seems very poor - numerous horses and carts, run down buildings, people walking between towns (not even many bicycles) and very light vehicle traffic, (for which I was grateful). Amidst all this, I felt a total stranger/outcast and at times totally self-conscious, as people often stared at me passing on the bike. At one point, I became so discouraged at being gawked at, I just had to stop at the next quiet spot and roar out "Damn it all, stop staring at me!"
The few vehicles one sees on the roads are most often of Czech/Slovak or East German origin - Skodas from the former, and Tarrants from the latter dating back to the communist regime. The Tarrants with their 2 stroke engines often sounded like a motor bike as they came up behind you, usually smoking furiously on the hills. I kind of got to relate to these little cars, and I often wished I could have brought one back to Australia.
Riding north next day, I was deluged with rain for most of the time. As I was unable to locate a campsite that evening (near Bresno) I splurged and booked into a rather pleasant hotel, costing about $35 w/breakfast. Although the bathroom facilities were not quite up to 3 star standard, I nevertheless was pleased to be in out of the rain, and slept well.
Stopping for a break in the Low Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.
The rain next day decreased to a drizzle. However, I had other difficulties, namely a long hard climb up to the top of the Low Tatra mountains, just south of the Polish border. The elevation there was about 3500' at the summit, and I certainly relished the long 15 K ride down the north side. On that stretch, I passed my first cycle tourist - a young chap from Budapest who briefly stopped to chat (in English). Surprisingly, the countryside at this stage closely resembled Switzerland, with frequent pine forests, and architecture also resembling that part of Europe.
My day ended at the town of Poprod, near ski resorts in the High Tatras and adjacent to the border with the Ukraine. Again, I was unable to locate a campsite (my map suggested 3 in the vicinity) so I resorted to hotel accommodation, which turned out to be rather better than the previous night. The porter was very obliging with my bike and gear, and offered space in a small unused game room for things I didn't want to drag up to my room. Poprod incidentally, appeared to be a cross between something of medieval days and a modern town. The main thoroughfare had recently been renovated with frequent use of pavers and concrete pathways, plus lots of fresh new paint on some of the buildings. I was quite impressed with the town, and spent a good while wandering around it's streets and parks.
It was necessary to back-track some 30 K the next day in order to head out the main road for western Slovakia and eventually, the Czech Republic. On the way, I passed another major tourist centre (Tatanska Stroba); as this place also had a good campground, I decided to stop over for a couple of days. The following morning, I caught a cog railway up into the High Tatras to sample some of the mountain walking tracks. Being a weekend, the path was inundated with people, and I felt like I was marching with a column of ants. In one spot, I found some wild blueberries growing that were very tasty; this satisfied my curiosity as to what gypsies (?) were selling at several crossroads near the mountains. That day, I experienced another taste treat in the mountains, after returning starving hungry from my trek. At the little collection of kiosks near the train terminal, one shop was selling a large pancake-like concoction, deep-fried with various cheeses on top. With ketchup, it was delicious, so much so that I immediately had another. Since, I've tried duplicating the recipe, but only with limited success; perhaps it was so enjoyable because I was very hungry after the long days walk.
When I returned to the valley, tired but no longer hungry, I immediately crawled into my sleeping bag and was quickly in the land of nod . Next morning, my legs were so sore from the previous day's walk that I debated staying in camp one more day. However, by 9 o'clock I felt somewhat better, and set out for the west. I was surprised that using a slightly different set of muscles from cycling made such a difference, particularly considering the thousands of kilometers my legs had carried me to that point. Fortunately, the country I passed through that day was most attractive, thus diverting my attention from aching legs to other things, as I followed along a mountainous river valley (the Vah), with ruins of numerous old castles.
During the course of the next 2 days, I continued to follow some very scenic country along the Vah, finally arriving at the small town of Povazska Bystricia. Nearby, a campground was shown on my map, so I elected to stay there for the night. As I arrived fairly early in the afternoon, I set off for a short walk up into a rugged canyon, along a little creek which the campsite road followed. The further I went on this road, the more restricted but beautiful it became. Finally, the track passed through a precipitous limestone bluff, only just wide enough for the road to pass, and then on the other side opened into a small valley. There I found a small community, complete with masses of wild flowers, orchards, grazing cattle, and about 10 houses. People wandered along the narrow road in the afternoon warmth, smiling at me as they passed. It struck me as such an exquisite place I immediately thought of the comparison with Shangri-la It just seemed such a peaceful place, certainly, one of the more relaxing locations that I had visited on the whole trip.
Just before crossing into the Czech Republic the next day, I decided to stop at a final grocery shop to use up the last of my Slovak money. I bought cheeses (excellent), candied fruits, a bottle of cherry liqueur, and several other frivolities, still ending up with a significant amount of money remaining. To a westerner, this certainly was a paradise for shopping; the cost of living is so reasonable (to us) that I found my expenses only averaged about $12/day. Slovakia is certainly a wonderful place for a cheap holiday, not to mention the beauty of many parts of the country.
After such a pleasant visit in Slovakia, my first two days in the Czech Republic were a disaster. Crossing the border, I received the usual "happy travelling" greeting, and cheerfully rode off into a series of roller coaster hills, often lined with fruit trees. The weather conditions were fine and warm, and I felt in the best of spirits as I rode into the camp that night. However, shortly after turning in for the evening, I heard the ominous strains of a rock group very close by, which in the next ½ hour, increased in volume to an intolerable level. To make matters worse, an announcer came on about every 15 minutes with his voice booming through the campground. All of this continued until about 2:00 am, by which time my 'audio' system was in pain, (even after covering my ears with my hands). By morning, when I only had about 3 hours sleep, I was in a foul mood, and quickly packed up and set out; certainly, I would have torn strips off someone if I could have spoken the language!
The next day was pleasant enough for riding, and by evening my spirits had lifted considerably. However, to my horror, that night the campground (which looked so peaceful as I rode in) turned into another disaster area, with roudy parties and general noise reigning supreme for much of the night. I did manage to sleep through part of it, but about 3:00 am, was woken by a man (speaking English) in the next tent, discussing the Israeli secret service (Mosad), and apparently trying to hire a woman for that organization. I suspected it was a novel approach to encourage her for 'other activities', but by then I was so darned tired, I fell asleep again and missed the interesting outcome.
The balance of my stay in the Czech Republic I'm happy to say, was very enjoyable. Adjacent to the above campground there was a major caves complex, highly regarded throughout Europe. I spent the next day there, riding through some deeply eroded limestone valleys, which by themselves were certainly worth viewing. Then, as part of this complex, was a series of highly interesting caves, one with a river that could be traversed by underwater boats. Along this route were numerous stalagmites and stalactites, and at times huge underground caverns, again well worth viewing. The fare for all of this was a paltry $2, which might explain why there were so many people booked to go through; in fact , I regarded myself as fortunate to even get a ticket.
The next day, I rode south through the highly industrialised city of Brno, and then turned west to camp in the town of Trebic. After such terrible experiences in campgrounds the previous few days, I decided to treat myself that night, and checked into a very pleasant (and quiet!) hostel. Although I was very tired, the town seemed so interesting, I spent a couple of hours strolling in the adjacent streets, admiring the fine medieval buildings, followed by a very comfortable and restful sleep.
The heritage site of Telc, about 75 K down the road was my next stop. This town has a most imposing history, having been a stronghold of one of the early Austo-Hungarian rulers about 1500 ad. At that time, it was surrounded by a lake such that the main commercial area, plus the cathedral and castle, were completely protected by deep water, with entry by the usual drawbridge. Fish (carp) were also encouraged to grow in the lake, thus providing the town folk with food (and water) if besieged. Apparently, the powers of the time ran short on funds, and from about 1600 ad to present, there was virtually no development or change (nor attacks) in the town. Accordingly, because of its special character, the UN declared it a heritage site, and modern day visitors have a unique opportunity to see a town unchanged for so many years. Needless to say, I was enthralled with this very special place, and elected to stay an extra day to get a better feel for it. Camping was some distance away, so again I elected to stay in a hostel, which the tourist bureau selected for me. This was easy walking distance from the centre, and as well was very moderately priced at $7, including breakfast. I can't say enough for this gorgeous little town, and an extra days stop over was more than worth it.
I splurged again with a B&B the following day at the town of Jindrichuv Hradec. This was another historic centre, with the usual moat, castle and a mixed bag of new/old buildings. The accommodation I found this evening was a private home on the edge of town, a very attractive dwelling, with plenty of native timbers inside, all highly polished, and very well cared for. The owners were extremely proud of it, and insisted in showing me around the house and garden. I had a long but halting discussion with them about their country, and surprisingly, their interest in Australia. I was asked to send them a post card after returning home, which I did.
Prague is some 110 K north of the above town, and I found that ride a long drag, mainly because it was so hot, and there were a lot of hills to navigate. Fortunately, the campsite was on the south side of town (about 15 K) so that saved a bit of riding for the day. The other advantage was that the site was first class, with excellent facilities, and only a 75c ride to the centre of Prague, on a bus and tram.
I spent 6 days in Prague, most of the time exploring the various museums, churches, old buildings, and of course the usual castle on the hill (and including its own cathedral). Prague is a wonderful city - very fairy-tale like, and just a wonderful atmosphere. One could almost see where Disney had got many of his ideas, including the buidings with their flying buttresses, and antiquity at every corner. In the same token, the shops in town were just marvelous - beautiful china, pottery, jewelery as well as some fine antique shops In one of the latter places, I was very tempted to buy an icon, which had been imported from Russia. However, I couldn't see dragging it through the rest of Europe on a bicycle!
A couple of other diversions which I got involved in was a tour bus trip around the city, and a concert held at one of the small down-town churches, mainly on Mozart. I also visited a museum covering a fine vintage car and aircraft display. And of course, anyone who goes to Prague has a walk across the famous Charles bridge, with its rows of statues along the sides. So many people do that walk, that it is sometimes difficult to find space for a clear photo of the bridge. It is so fortunate that such a fine old city suffered such little damage during the second world war.
On August 30, I rode through Prague, and out on to the highway north. Traffic was horrendous, and particularly bad on one stretch where the main road narrowed from 4 to 2 lanes (with no shoulder). This I found to be one of the most dangerous stretches of road since France. I was overjoyed to finally arrive at a junction where the 4 lane diverged off to the west, and my secondary road continued north towards the town of Terezin - about 75 K from Prague.
Terezin was another of the infamous Nazi concentration camps set up during WW2. However, this camp was renowned in that the Germans had tried to make it appear to the west (eg, Red Cross) as a model settlement, with the inmates being well looked after, and able to carry on many of their pre-prison interests. In actual fact, the brutality was just as bad as most of the other camps, and by wars end, some 35000 prisoners had died, mainly of starvation and disease. Also, it acted as a transit camp for many Jewish prisoners, who were finally sent to their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I did a tour of part of the camp while I stopped overnight in town. I say 'part of' as the camp was composed of two sections - the little fortress, and the big fortress. These had been constructed by the Austro-Hungarians, in 1780 as a deterrent to the Prussians pouring into the area from the north. However, the defense status of the structure was never fully realised, and its main application was as a prison, particularly during the Nazi era. However, the most famous prisoner was the Serbian (name forgotten) who shot Franzduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914, thereby precipitating WW1. As with the concentration camp at Dachau, I was very saddened by the WW2 history of Terezinstadt. It is difficult to fathom how the Nazis could be so brutal to their fellow man, even considering their very low opinion of the Jews.
The next morning, I left my campsite adjacent to the large fortress in Terezin, and cycled north along the Elbe river towards eastern Germany. This was too great a distance to make in one day, so I stopped overnight in a pleasant little town of Decin, about 30K south of the border. There I largely spent the balance of my Czech money, buying groceries for down the track, but mainly on cheeses, which were very tasty and cheap in that area.
From Decin, the road continued along the Elbe to the border town of Hrensko. There I had a flat tyre almost at the border check-point. This worried me a bit, as I felt that someone would think I was trying to smuggle drugs across the border in my tyres. This thought was further strengthened when a border officer 'confronted' me, enquiring if all that luggage (from my bike) belonged to me. I assured him it did at which time he left with a shower of gravel and a scowling look, none of which did my confidence any good for crossing the border. However, crossing into Germany was a cinch, with both the Czech and German customs virtually waving me through. How easy the border crossing now are in most of Europe.
It was about a 3 hour ride from the border up to the city of Dresden, with light rain falling much of the way. I was surprised how poor the road surface was - it was almost better travelling in the Slavic countries. Then it came to me that I was now in (the former) East Germany, and authorities were just getting around to doing some much needed repairs. However, in Dresden proper, bike trails were being constructed, and this was a big help to avoid the heavy road traffic. This enabled me to easily to ride to the central part of town were I found a very pleasant camp-ground.
My time in Dresden was spent wandering around in the downtown area, inspecting the various museums (there are many), and looking at the marvelous architecture. The downtown buildings were a site to see with so many gorgeous cupolas, striated columns, porticos, and other medieval character. The shops were also something to see, particularly those selling Dresden and Meissen china, all of which was very expensive. Dresden had virtually escaped damage in the last war up until 2 months before the German surrender. In March '45, the allies extensively bombed heavy troop concentrations; unfortunately, in doing so they partly missed the transport areas south of city centre, and instead took out some of the fine old downtown buildings. One of Dresden's (and Europe's) finest old churches (Frauenkirche) was totally destroyed along with several other adjacent buildings. This church is currently being restored using preserved parts from the bombing (mostly for patterns), but it is not expected to be restored until 2006 - a massive job considering the complexity of the architecture. It was interesting to see a collection box, attached to the perimeter construction fence, the donations being used for the rebuilding process.
Unfortunately, I was in town on a Monday, and many of the museums are closed that day, so had to miss out on a lot of interesting 'shows'. However, I was able to visit the transport museum, plus, wander about in the "Zwinger" - a courtyard centre with a museum in each corner. I was very disappointed to miss out on those, as one of the four was a Dresden pottery museum, and would have been lovely to explore. However, there is enough pottery on sale in town to satisfy ones curiosity, not to mention various other bits and pieces, so I still enjoyed my time there, particularly looking at the wonderful old baroque architecture which was everywhere.
From Dresden, I rode west on a quiet country road, the surroundings of which resembled Canadian farmlands. About 90 K west, one comes to the huge wartime prison of Colditz, near where I camped for the night. The actual prison (a huge castle) is in the neighboring town of Waldheim, a small village along the river 'Mulde'. The castle appeared to be still in use as a prison, judged by the amount of barbed wire on the upper reaches of its structure. Again my mind flashed back to some of the interesting captives who spent time in this huge structure, some of whom had gone to extraordinary lengths to attempt escape, including the construction of a glider, hidden from the Germans, but never actually used. I believe the war finished before the glider was completed.
In the small east German towns, I found one of my continuing problems was the rather rough street surfacing - this was largely accomplished with paving blocks (rock) and was terribly rough. It was especially difficult navigating such construction when wet, or if you found a steep grade leading in to a town. This required a lot of braking, otherwise your bike and gear were in risk of being shaken to pieces. However, it did all add to the medieval character of most of these places.
On September 4, I rode into the town of Zeitz, about 70 K west of Colditz. Although it was early in the afternoon, I discovered such a nice campground there, that I decided to stop early, and do some exploring in the town. There were the usual lot of narrow winding streets, and great old time buildings, not to mention the usual lovely ancient cathedral. While wandering around, I was "accosted" by a group of tourists, one of whom spoke excellent English, all inquiring about my cycle journeys. The English speaking man invited me to stop off and visit them if I passed near Cologne. However, I felt I would be pressed for time down the track, so didn't encourage the visit. Later in my journey, I regretted not doing so, as there would have been ample time for such socialising, and they did seem like very nice people. The man was actually a geologist at the University of Cologne. I hope they may pay me a visit to Australia some day. Of interest, by the way, is the fact that the town of Zeitz has a copy of Martin Luthers thesis, no doubt dealing with his theories on religion and Lutherism.
Increasingly, I was starting to notice a change in the seasons, with signs of changes in colours of the leaves, and particularly a marked coolness in the late afternoon air. The lovely autumn leaf smells were certainly noticeable along the roads by now, while many of the fruit orchards that I passed had all the signs of late summer. In this latter regard, I found in several regions some gorgeous wild Damson plums growing along the highways; needless to say I loaded up on these, although they later played havoc with my digestive system.
Another interesting feature in that part of Germany was the electrical wind generators, which seemed to be everywhere. With their huge 3 blade fans, they slowly spun in the breeze, generally at about 30 RPM. The large steel tube bases of these were about 70 meters high, and on occasion, one would see a crane with men well up the tower, doing some sort of maintenance. Also of note in that part of the country were several nuclear power stations which I felt must have been much safer than those I had seen back in the Slovak countries, and constructed there by the Russians.
My next stop, Weimar, was having a summer festival when I arrived on September 5. The town looked like it had been thoroughly scrubbed, and was spotless, and crowded with tourists. I stayed a couple of days to get a good look over the place which I found quite interesting. It had been the home of Goethe and Schiller, and much was being made of this historical background, particularly in terms of great authors, musicians, and scientists who came from the region, eg Luther, Bacch, Neitze etc. On the negative side,, not far out of the town centre was the notorious concentration camp on Buchenwald, located on some high ground to the north-west. I gave this one a miss, partly because of its locale, (hills!), and partly because I was tired of the human torture angle.
After leaving Weimar on September 6, I felt I was really on the final leg of my European journey; in effect, about two weeks to go and I would probably be in England. On the way across to the Rhine at Koblenz, there were a number of little towns that were most attractive, and excellent for camping. In particular, the centres of Meinegen, Hunfield, Grunberg, and Limburg were all great places with charm, character, charm, and that special touch with the past. One place which particularly appealed was Lauterbach - very Tudor-like and just a lovely spot. My only objection there was the extensive street reconstruction going on, which required detouring at various points. However, this too had its advantages, for at one point I was 'dumped' into a market place in some back streets which I otherwise would have never found. The countryside too in this region had its special charms, with soft misty views over the countryside from the numerous hills and high points encountered along the highways.
In Limburg, I decided to stop over for a couple of days to do the usual laundry tasks, and to have a good look around this very scenic town. An excellent, and very reasonable campground was available only about 5 K west at the small village of Deitz. The traffic coming down from the northeast (around Wetzlar) was exceedingly heavy, and I had to be most careful in that regard. At on point I was 'chased' off a short stretch of 4 lane which I was forced to follow to get from one secondary road to another.
The stopover in Limburg was well worth the time; the town was a mass of winding cobblestone streets, and ye olde buildings, at times leaning about 20 degrees to starboard, but all with loads of character. Everywhere, one saw facades of timber and plaster, and with many overhanging balconies. I wondered while there if the famous cheese came from the town, but unfortunately, I neglected to enquire on that point.
The nearby village of Dietz was the campground for Limburg, and I stayed there for two days. One afternoon, while resting beside my tent, a couple of German girls came over to ask if they could borrow some fuel for their stove. I told them I didn't have a stove, whereupon they questioned where I came from, and if I was in town for the laying-on of hands by a Hindu faith healer out at the castle. I had to say I knew nothing about that so when they asked if I would like to go out there with them, I said yes. This session was held in an annex of one of the large castles in the area, the Hindu lady apparently having bought the same for her healing sessions. The place was packed with about 500 people, and during the 'program' each person worked their way on their hands and knees along the isles to finally face the 'healer'. The treatment consisted of a hand on ones head by the Hindu lady, while she concentrated on you, apparently trying to figure out what ailed you. Of course, after 5000 K of cycling, my only ailment was a few sore muscles, so in short she didn't do much for me. It was an interesting episode however, and I placed it away in the back of my mind for a bit of interesting dinner table conversation back in Canberra. Judged by the crowd of people out there, the sessions must have done some good for some of them, otherwise it wouldn't have been so popular.
I departed from Limburg on September 11, cycling through some tough hill country, until I passed over a height of land which led to a long downhill run towards the Rhine drainage basin. Initially, the road followed the Lahn river, a tributary of the Rhine; this had a very picturesque bike track along its course, which finally dumped me out on the Rhine. There were numerous families out for a Sunday ride along this track, and one had to be careful not to collide with a few wayward children, at time cycling all over the track. The adjacent countryside was most attractive, with many pleasant little old towns and heavily forested hillsides. Then when I started down the Rhine proper, it was back to the commercial river boats again. There were many more towns along the Rhine than the country to the east, and as well, an abundance of vineyards. At one stage, I stopped to pick some of the black grapes virtually growing out over the cycle path; these were sweet and delicious, and I almost felt like hopping the fence and getting a big swag of them to last me for the next couple of days.
Near Remagen, (about 20 K south of Cologne,) I was unable to find the bridge indicated on my map to enable me to cross to the campground on the west side. After travelling some distance past the town (which I could plainly see with its campsite across the river) I headed back south again. I finally realised that the 'marked' bridge was a railroad one, and had been the only one remaining across the Rhine when the Allied forces were starting to invade Germany in early 1945. A river fairy nearby (which I failed to see earlier) carried me over to the west side, and I was shortly ensconced in a very fine campground. While eating my dinner later that evening, I gazed across to the east side of the river noting a high steep bank with what appeared to be some sort of a memorial on top. I guessed this was to commemorate the allied advance on that part of the country in 1945. Certainly, it appeared to have been a very difficult ascent for the invading force.
From Remagen, I rode north along the river towards Bonn and Cologne. However, I decided to bypass Cologne, and headed west from Bonn towards Aachen. Bonn was surprisingly modern, with few really old buildings evident; perhaps this was partly a result of a lot of damage during the 2nd world war, with more modern architecture resulting. The ride west from Bonn was quite tough, as there was a steep set of hills rising on the west side of the river, which seemed to go on forever. My other problem was that it was a very hot and humid day; the temperature must have been at least 35 degrees. It made me think that I must carry a small thermometer on any future rides. However, on the favorable side, I had some good tail winds that allowed me to make excellent time. The countryside in some respects reminded me of the Canadian prairies, with plenty of open farmland, and not very many towns of any size.
In Aachen, there was supposed to be a downtown campground. However, that had been taken over by a large apartment complex, and I had to retrace my ride to the suburbs again were I had seen a pleasant hotel with reasonable rates (there were no other campsites in the area). The downtown hotels were 130 Dm Vs 65 Dm for 'mine' in the suburbs. After a long hot day's ride, I was delighted to have a comfortable bed that night.
Aachen was such an interesting location, and as I was still tired the following day, I decided to have an extra day and see the points of interest. The town centre was particularly attractive, with both historic and modern buildings. The Aachen cathedral in particular was very lovely-plenty of very colorful stained glass and lovely interior, not overdone as so many European churches can be. Near the podium, there was a large brass box which was reputed to hold Charlamagne's remains.. An American standing near by told me a story of how he transported this box during the last war from a secret hiding place in Belgium, to be returned to the bishop of Aachen. He seemed to be quite nostalgic about the story after the 50+ year time span!
The ride west from Aachen was in fine weather, and mainly on bike trails, which significantly added to riding safety. At the border crossing point into Holland, there as usual was no customs or even any indication that you were in another country. In fact, I got thoroughly confused as to whether I was in Holland or Belgium at one stage; it reminded me of that movie comedy some years back which had a 'throw away' line of "if this is Tuesday, we must be in Belgium". What a different world Europe has become.
In the small town of St. Truiden, I almost got 'cleaned up' by a mad lady driver at a cross-roads. Even the pedestrians scowled at her! I think she was quite embarrassed by the episode, as she had been looking the other way at the time and completely missed seeing me. The town more than made up for this episode however, for it was quaint, and colorful, with plenty of narrow cobblestone streets, and shops selling all manner of interesting things. I almost bought a sweater in on place, but decided it was just more weight.
The next couple of days, I continued west and north, circling around the south side of Brussels, and finally arriving in the lace capital of Brugge on September 17. Again, I was fortunate to find an excellent campground there, and stopped in the town for 2 days. The lace in the shops was gorgeous (although expensive), and I bought some for gifts to friends. I found a lace jumper for Catherine at a good price, and some interesting stamps for Barry to add to his collection. My only objection to Brugge was the huge numbers of tourist about, so many in fact that at times it was difficult to move about in the centre of town. Also, I felt the town was a bit 'glitzy', and not nearly as attractive as many of the smaller centres in central Europe.
Brugge marked my final stay in continental Europe, and on 19 September, I cycled over to Oostende on the Channel, where I caught the 'Sea Cat' to Dover. I had a hard ride up the famous white cliffs, then south along the escarpment (past the Battle of Britain memorial) to Folkstone, and then west to a campsite about 3o K inland from the channel. Again, I was fortunate to land in a first class camp - almost like a park, with very clean facilities, uncrowded, and only 4 pounds sterling.
The following day, I continued west and north through Turnbridge Wells (extensively restored from the previous time I was there some years ago), and then camped the night near the town of Crowley. It rained most of the day, and combined with very heavy and dangerous traffic (even on the back-country roads), it was not an enjoyable day's cycle.
Camping that night was in a reasonably good campsite, but there was so much aircraft noise from planes in the circuit around Heathrow airport, and possibly Gatwick, that I really got very little sleep. On the road north to the A-25 south around London the following mornoing, I found the traffic even worse than the previous day. This was in part due to the huge number of vehicles headed north on the lateral road into central London; surpisingly, it wasn't until I came to the junction with the A-25 ring road, that the volume of traffic declined to the stage that I felt reasonably safe again. Such conditions certainly make a cyclist appreciate bike trails, such as there were in both Belgium and Holland. It also struck me that the English drivers had much less patience than their European counterparts. In one case, a truck, after honking extensively at me, almost ran me down when he finally passed, meanwhile shaking his fist threateningly. With out doubt, My experience suggests cycling in Britain is the worst of any part of Europe.
The next couple of days, I continued on around the south-west side of London, encamping in the town of Finchhampstead, and finally, Henley-on-Thames. As my friends, the Wests were away on a cruise, I stayed on in Henley for 3 days, mainly sightseeing and doing a bit of shopping. The campground (Swiss Farm) was located about a mile east of town on the Marlow road, and was quite pleasant. However, the weather was very poor during that time; it rained every day, as it had also done since I landed in Dover. Take me back to sunny Europe!
Brian and Sylvia returned on Sunday, September 26, and I rode the final 8 K to Marlow by about lunch-time. After dealing with such terrible traffic on the British roads, I was certainly pleased to be finished with cycling, although the bike trails along the Danube and elsewhere still beckoned me. I certainly had to admit to a certain amount of nostalgia to be totally finished riding, after covering so much country (7,000 K).
In Marlow, it was great to have a comfortable bed to sleep in again, after so many months sleeping on soggy and wet ground, particularly during the previous few days. It was also handy having my Australian bike box waiting for me in Marlow, so I didn't have to go searching the town to find another to get back to Australia.
After a couple of enjoyable days with Brian and Sylvia (and including one day in London to visit the war museum), I caught a taxi back to Heathrow, and after a 3 hour wait, flew out for Toronto with Canadian Airlines. Just before departing however, I did the rounds of the duty free, but found most things so expensive, that I felt it was cheaper to use the duty-free on the aircraft (which it was). London certainly seemed to be a very expensive place.
The Canadian Airlines captain to Toronto was on his final (retirement) flight, so a large birthday cake was brought out, some of which the passengers shared. It seemed that the crew were having a most enjoyable trip, with many congratulations to the Captain. Even his family had come along for the ride, and were sharing some of the glory of his final trip
After Toronto, it was a further 3 hour flight to Winnipeg, where there was a large entourage to meet me, including June and Gord, the McMasters and the Cuddys. Ted Cuddy very kindly took my bike home with him, while I proceeded to Kenora with June and Gord. Certainly, after about 16 hours of waiting and flying time, I slept well that night
Over the next 2 weeks, I visited with the McMasters, some of the folks at Sanford, and of course sister and brother-in-law, June and Gordon. At the McMasters 'Prairie Bluff" property, I helped Don clear up the ski trails for the winter season, not to mention cutting wood and clearing around Leon and Louises new cottage, across the Assinaboine river from Don and Ardythes place. Don, Leon, and I had a couple of evenings out on the marshes near Glenboro, to try our hand at some duck shooting (got about 7 birds)
My final day in Canada was spent at the Cuddys, and on October 13, I left for Sydney via Canadian Airlines and Qantas, arriving back in Canberra on the 15th after a superb cycle experience.