I am typing this blog from my seat on the train from Füssen in southern Germany to Zürich, Switzerland. I have a table, electricity and a wonderful view out my window (though it’s cold and raining). We’ve cycled about 550km so far – it’s been wonderful.
Yes, Frankfurt was exactly that – a pain in the butt. But through no fault of its own.
We booked the airline tickets for this trip back in July last year. I had been thinking about Germany since then, and in particular thinking about Frankfurt, because that was the only place I knew for sure that we would visit (that’s where our flight from Abu Dhabi landed). I knew we would be there for at least a couple of days, because we needed to buy bicycles for our cycle touring. And we weren’t exactly sure when our parcel from Canada with our cycling gear would arrive, so that might make us wait. We had packed a large box back in August with cycling shorts, shirts, gloves, racks, paniers (bags that attach to racks), lights etc. and left it with friend Javier. We needed an address in Frankfurt for Javier to send the parcel to so used the “warm showers” network to locate someone. Warm Showers is a network of cyclists who open their homes to other cycle tourists passing through their town – for a place to stay, perhaps a meal, shower etc. The expectation is if you use the network for a place to stay, you open up your home in return. Javier mailed our parcel via surface back in early March, so we were hopeful it would be there when we arrived.
First impressions of Frankfurt were excellent. Within moments of arriving at the airport from Abu Dhabi we found ourselves on a bus from the airport to the city center. From there we immediately caught a train north about 10 stops, and walked less than 400m to the city’s one campground and had our tent set up – all in about 90 minutes from the airport. So far, so good. Next day we set out to buy bicycles. We wanted to buy 2nd hand, but there were no 2nd hand shops, and the buy-sell happened on the weekend with hit and miss availability (and apparently these are mostly stolen bikes anyway). So we headed off to “Stadler” bike shop. It was HUGE!
We were there for about 4 hours but in the end settled on 4 bikes and a large cycle trailer. We were pleased with the purchases – we spent about $350 Cdn (including some missing racks, upgraded tires ..) for each bike, and hopefully will get about $250-300 back for each when we sell them in Copenhagen after 7 weeks of riding. $100 each for 7 weeks transportation …not bad!
We were pretty excited when we left the shop, though we did not take the bikes or trailer with us. They wanted to make sure the bikes were tuned up and needed to put our more narrow (read “faster”) tires on.
Yvonne had been tracking the progress of our cycling gear box and it had arrived in Germany two days before, and was in the Frankfurt area this day. We were quite excited to pick up the box the next day then head back to the cycle store to do the final setups then hopefully cycle out of town later that afternoon. HA!
The night before, it dawned on me that our travel insurance that came with our Airtreks ticket purchase had run out when we left the UAE. So that morning Yvonne bought insurance online and we were back in business. Later that day a small irritating pimple at the top of the back of my leg started to become increasingly painful. The trend continued into the next day, and the next, to the point where I knew I needed to see a doctor. Sitting down on both “cheeks” was no longer an option. This had happened twice already this trip, and in both instances some prescribed antibiotics fixed things up nicely. So I figured a quick visit to the hospital to see a doctor, run to the pharmacy and I was good to go. Doc took one look and said it needed to be lanced. He wasn’t kidding when he said it would hurt a bit … no freezing … ouch! Told me to come back the next day to have the dressing changed. Next day, different doctor, takes one look at it and says “surgery”. I figured a local, with some freezing. No … full on, general aesthetic, in 2 hrs time! You gotta be kidding me! I came in yesterday for some pills, now am heading to the O.R. Except I’d just eaten … had to wait 6 hrs.
Surgery went well but they kept me in for that night and the following night. I noted from other conversations that German hospitals do not seem to be in as much of a rush as Canadian hospitals to discharge their patients. Before being discharged the doctor asked me what I’d be doing when I got out. I told him very sheepishly that the plan was to cycle tour. He winced (big open wound, about 1″ from bicycle seat). He told me that I’d be a whole lot better off with at least 4 days of no riding. OK, I will hang around a bit more in Frankfurt while Yvonne and kids set off on the bikes. Then I’ll train to catch up.
Through all this time, we had been trying to locate our package from Canada. We couldn’t leave without it. It had arrived at the correct address but because it had my name on it instead of our host’s it was “returned to Canada – recipient does not live at this address” No!!!!! To make a very long and exceedingly frustrating story short, we finally found someone who could put their eyes on it, in a depot about 50km from Frankfurt (on its way back to Canada). He said they could redeliver it. But after about 15 phone calls, emails and a trip to another depot, we’d given up hope with German Post. So Yvonne and the kids took two trains out of town and walked 2km through farm fields to reach a post depot in the middle of nowhere. 15kg parcel on Yvonne’s head and they walked back to the train station (the passing tractor driver did not have room for all three of them and the parcel).
Next day back to bike store to pick up bikes and do final outfitting. Now things were getting exciting!
Now fully outfitted for 6 weeks of cycle touring, Yvonne and the kids headed out to ride back to the campground … and moments later got pummeled with hail, while I rode the train back with my bike. We spent a few hours organizing our stuff … most for the tour, big box ready to mail back to Canada, and another big box with all our backpacks up to the farm near Copenhagen to await our arrival. About to head to post office, then realized it was a holiday and unlike Canada, virtually EVERYTHING closes. So Yvonne and the kids set out with their loaded bikes and I headed downtown with my bike to book into a hostel for the evening. I posted the boxes next day then found a train to catch up to my family who by that time had been riding for two days.
The package and surgery challenges seemed to occupy much of our mental energy and time during our week in Frankfurt, and we felt like we saw virtually none of the city. We did get to know the WiFi enabled cafes downtown and the cozy ethnic restaurants around the campground quite well (campground had absolutely no cooking facilities – not even a table, so we did not ended up using our camp stove).
We struggled a bit in our tent at night – it was still April when we arrived and we awoke to frost several mornings. We are traveling with light summer sleeping bags so Yvonne and I had a few relatively sleepless nights (not sure how the kids slept through …?)
That aside, Frankfurt is actually a very charming city, with an extensive walking street section downtown and beautiful bike paths all along both sides of the riverfront. Art, theater and music abound. When the sun even hints at coming out, Frankfurters (sorry … couldn’t resist) flock to the riverside in droves with their picnic blankets, food and especially their beer.
Perhaps what impressed us most about the Frankfurt we saw was its public transportation system. The city proper has a population just a little more than 700,000 but there are 5.5 million in the greater Frankfurt metropolitan area. There are trains coming and going in every direction with multiple transfer stations. We never waited for more than about 7 minutes for any train, and they accept bicycles. Trains head way out into the suburbs and neighbouring communities. Where there are no trains, there are trams. Where there are no trams, there are buses. All coordinate beautifully. For 10 Euro ($12 Cdn) our family could travel all day on any of these modes. I think the crazy complex spider web of the transit map below gives some sense of how effective it is.
We drooled over their transit system. Most people admire the Toronto’s TTC. And the GTA’s GO system works for many people. But they still pale in comparison to Frankfurt. Put Frankfurt’s transit system together with the city’s extensive bicycling infrastructure and you understand why we never saw a traffic jam in Frankfurt (I know, we were there only 1 week, and there are no doubt snarls). We were to many places in town and getting there was a breeze. Never even considered a taxi. One of our primary sustainability interests in our Europe segment of this trip is public transit and cycling infrastructure. We’ll have lots more to say about these ideas in later blog entries.
The very first house we saw when we left our campground the first morning had solar panels.
This was indicative of what we’d encounter throughout Germany. Roofs across Frankfurt – on homes, factories, commercial and institutional buildings – are adorned with solar PV. This was no surprise – indeed we decided to come to Germany primarily to see first hand how they have been so successful in rolling out their solar, wind and biogas electrical power.
Our setbacks in Frankfurt were clearly “first world” problems. After all, it was here that we learned of the Nepalese earthquake. But our trip thus far had been so much without hitches, we did feel we were spinning our wheels. Or in this particular case, NOT spinning our wheels. It was great to watch Yvonne and the kids cycle away. And it felt great for me to board the train south the next day to find them. Our 2 days in Frankfurt had stretched into 8 days. And now as I write this two weeks later, we are planning to train some sections we had hoped to cycle as a result. We really enjoy taking the trains here, but we REALLY are enjoying the cycling and don’t want to give that up.