A dam good city

“Amsterdam is one of those iconic cities” said my dad as we rode into the city one afternoon after a very windy 50 km ride from Utrecht. Amsterdam first caught my interest when I read the book and watched the movie of The Fault in our Stars by John Green, which partly takes place there. And I can say that our visit to Amsterdam was at least as magical and beautiful as John Green portrayed it.

We are very lucky to have a friend in Amsterdam, who lives about 10 minutes by bike from the city centre. We met Saskia when we lived in Namibia. She was also there through VSO (Volunteer Services Oversees), and was living in the nearest city, Rundu. We stayed with Jelda, (also a VSO in Rundu) in Utrecht, and then with Saskia in Amsterdam. Lucky us!
Saskia was out when we arrived, but she texted us and suggested a very close Indonesian takeout spot for dinner. We had fun practising our (very limited) Indonesian that we had learned there, with the restaurant owner from Surabaya, Java. We brought the food back to Saskia’s place to eat it. It was delicious! Soon after, Saskia walked in. It was great to see her again!
She lives on the bottom floor of a 4 or 5 storey building close to downtown. Since she is on the bottom floor, she has a big backyard, where we could easily fit our tent (a bit easier than fitting our tent in Jelda’s backyard!) We caught up with Saskia about what we had done since we had last seen each other.

In the morning, Saskia said goodbye to us, because she was going to Belgium for the weekend, and invited us to stay in her apartment longer if we wanted. But before she left, she recommended to us the Rijksmuseum, an art gallery downtown with hundreds of paintings from very famous Dutch painters, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh. To get there, we rode though Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s central park. It was lovely. So many people out for exercise, or just chatting at a picnic bench. Also, there were the people like us, riding our bikes from A to B, and enjoying Vondelpark, at the same time.

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One of the many ponds of Vondelpark. A message to Peterborough city council: beautiful parks bring people together, make people healthier and happier. Roads do just the opposite. Peterborough is lucky to already have that greenspace. We would be foolish not to preserve it.

When we came out of Vondelpark at the other end, we were in central Amsterdam. We weren’t exactly the “only bikes there”. Amsterdam is known for its bicycles. And no wonder! When we ride our bikes back home in Peterborough, we are almost always the only bikes on the bike lane, when there is a bike lane. So, we don’t have to be so alert. Amsterdam is a very different story… now we are the majority of traffic, not some strange outcast. Now we have traffic rules. Whoa. We will leave that for a separate blog entry. But, I just want to emphasise how many bikes there were. Mind blowing!

Finally, we arrived at the Rijksmuseum (say Rikes museum).

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The art gallery is located across the street from a canal, as most of Amsterdam is.
I was blown away at the Realism painting style of the Dutch. I can’t really remember details or names (except Rembrandt and Van Gogh), but I can remember some stories associated with the art.

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Van Gogh's self portait. He would experiment many painting techiniques in his many self portaits, and in this one he used a large brush, so you can see the individual strokes.
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Here I am looking at Jan Willem Pieneman's Waterloo. He brought together many stories from the battle of Waterloo, and combined them into this painting. This is one of the biggest paintings in the world: 5.5 m by 8.2 m!
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Classic Netherlands. A canal, a wind mill, and blue sky. Notice how all the lines converge into one place.
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These children interrupting their sister's piano practice are not painted in the Dutch Realism style, but the Italian, more "perfect" style. This artist specialised in drawing children, and I think he did a great job at bringing them to life, and showing their playfulness.
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This is an interesting piece. The young people are painted in Italian "perfect" style, while the older people are done in the Dutch Realism. This Dutch artist had lived in Rome, and then combined those styles. I find that very interesting, as it's probably one of the first traces of "arts fusion"!
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And finally, Rembrandt's "Nightwatch", the crown jewel of Rijksmuseum. This one is almost as big as Waterloo, but what makes it so special is little things, for example the shadow of one man's hand on another man's chest. But Nightwatch is no secret -- We were some of the 100 people looking at it in that moment!

Rijks museum was very well done. The explanations beside the paintings were very interesting. But the best thing about Rijksmuseum was that there are sheets of paper for almost every piece of art, with a print of that specific painting on it. The print has circles around all the interesting parts of that painting, with explanations on the side. So you could take a sheet, study the painting and find the coolest parts of it. Then, you put the sheet back where you found it. Also, you can download the “Rijksmuseum app”, and listen to even more interpretation.
But we weren’t finished: we still hadn’t checked out the boat exhibit.

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These model boats were once used to teach the military about sailing!
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Do you know the difference between the ship types Barque, Barkantine, Brig and Brigantine? Neither do I!
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I learned that some of the models took longer to build than the ships themselves!

Wow… I was surprised to learn that there were so many amazing artists in such a small country. I would recommend Rijksmuseum to anybody who wants to learn interesting things about history, art, or just the Netherlands in general. Everything was really well explained, with just the right amount of detail.

Right behind Rijksmuseum, there is another one of Amsterdam’s landmarks: the I amsterdam letters.

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It's made for people to climb on. I'm on the "t", and Jake is on the "e".

By then it was raining, so some street musicians were performing in the tunnel under Rijksmuseum.

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One thing you may know about Amsterdam is that the city has many canals. In fact, all of the Netherlands is full of canals. Amsterdam has many rings of them, with smaller canals connecting the rings.

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Here's a map of the inner city. The middle ring is called the Dutch equivalent of "rich man's road", because that was the fanciest place. Then on each ring going outwards the buildings would get less and less nice.

The best ways to see Amsterdam are by bike and by boat. Since it was raining, we chose a boat tour.

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Inside the covered boat.
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The city was named when they built a dam on the Amstel river, so they called it Amsteldam at first, and later it was changed to Amsterdam.

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You can't really tell here, but the houses in Amsterdam are built with a slight slant towards the front. Every building had a pulley system to bring big things to the top apartment. If the buildings weren't slanted, the objects would bang into the balconies of the lower apartments. Most of the buildings still have the pulley system, though they may not use it anymore.
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Look at the bikes locked to the bridge! Apparently, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam.

Have you read the book of The Diary of Anne Frank? Actually, I haven’t yet. But she and her Jewish family lived in Amsterdam, in the secret annex of her father’s business during the holocaust. You can visit the Anne Frank house, if you are patient enough to wait in line! But we saw posters about an Anne Frank play, and people had told us that it was very worthwhile and if you see it, you don’t feel like you have to see the Anne Frank house. So, we booked seats for the evening performance. While we were riding there, it started POURING rain! But we were late and had to keep going. At one point, my mom had a very bad fall that still hurts to this day. Finally, google maps said “you have arrived at your destination”. We were in a construction site. We thought that google had sent us to the wrong place altogether, and we had paid a bunch of money for theatre tickets. But, luckily, we looked a bit more in that neighbourhood and found it! The play was about to start, so the people hustled us to some seats near the back right on time.
Since this is a touristy kind of play, there is a VERY slick translation system. The actors are speaking Dutch, but if you want another language, you get a stand that holds an iPad and earphones. You choose between about 8 languages, and audio and/or subtitles, and there you go. Someone behind the scenes is on a screen clicking whenever a line is said, so you hear the lines real time, even if timing varies between actors of the same role. I loved how even in the English translation, you hear the lines spoken in a Dutch accent. Listening to the translation hardly even detracted a bit from the overall experience.
Anne was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929, but she, her parents and older sister Margot moved to Amsterdam in 1933. In 1942, for Anne’s 13th birthday, she received a diary. But unfortunately, shortly after, her family was forced to go into hiding in the secret annex of her father’s business. A woman named Miep delivered them food and supplies. Soon, 4 other Jews joined them in hiding and they were 8 in the tiny apartment. In her diary, Anne describes the challenges of living in cramped quarters. Since she was so bored, she starts flirting with the other family’s son, Peter. But she gets very tired of him, and he starts really liking her! At one point, she is forced to share her room with a very strange adult man! They would often fight over the table in the room — she wanted to write in her diary, and he wanted to study. The way she dealt with these problems was writing in her diary, because it was her only loyal friend to whom she could tell all her troubles.
Horribly, they were found by some Nazis and were brought to a concentration camp. The Nazis threw her diary on the floor. She and her sister Margot were together until the very end, and they died, probably of typhoid in early 1945. Anne was 15.
The only family member to survive was her father, Otto Frank. The family’s loyal friend Miep found Anne’s diary in the secret annex, and it was first published in 1947.
I really enjoyed that play. It showed the story of the Holocaust from a 14 year old girl’s perspective, which made it easier to understand and relate to for me. The translation system was so slick as well, which made this play really excellent. I highly recommend it. I’m now very interested in reading the book.
By the way, the production has only been on for one year, and it’s just getting started. The theatre it takes place in was built for this play. A few days after we went to it, my grandma emailed us and said that she went to see the Anne Frank play in Stratford, Ontario!
The ride home was a bit sketchy in the dark, but luckily we all made it home safely.

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The next day, we were going to ride into the city and explore a bit more before riding out of town. But we were all so exhausted that we took a rest day, a day when we are not a) riding somewhere or b) intensely exploring a city. We rode into town again just to ride around and enjoy Amsterdam’s fantastic bike paths.

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This is a "pissoir" (right beside the road), if you know what I mean!

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My dad gets an email news feed every day of ‘”clean tech” news, and the day before there was an article about a solar panel sidewalk in a village outside of Amsterdam.  So he rode 30km out of town to see it.  He said he didn’t mind riding on a day off because he did not have the bike trailer hooked up.

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The traditional entrance to the Amsterdam harbour has been closed off for land reclamation, so the boat traffic uses this canal to get to/from Amsterdam now. My dad crossed it on a ferry.

He said the ride there was great but the solar road was “underwhelming” to see. It is only six months old and was apparently quite controversial locally because of the cost and people didn’t think that the sidewalk would generate much electricity.  But it actually has generated much more than expected (70m long and 3000kWhr in 6 winter months) so it seems to be a good news story.  It was built by a company that is experimenting with generating electricity from road surfaces.  Maybe we’ll see more of these in the future.

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The left side is solar panels.
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The panels are covered by a rough but strong plexiglass so bikes don't slide and the cover doesn't break.
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This is the company's promo slide. How's your Dutch? The electricity generated is used for street lighting.

The rest of us just rode around downtown. We saw the Anne Frank house, and it had a really long lineup! We spent that night at Saskia’s place again, and rode out of town the next morning.
Amsterdam is such a beautiful place. It is on my bucket list to live in downtown Amsterdam for a year or more. A bicycle can get you anywhere in town, and a train can get you anywhere out of town. Arts and music are everywhere. The downtown makes you feel like you’re in the past. All of this together make Amsterdam a beautiful, magical and unique city! I’ll be back, Amsterdam!
Kaia

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Hello, Holland!

Before we started the cycle tour, the biggest distance Kaia and I had cycled in a day was 42 kilometres.  During the first week of the cycle tour, we passed the 60km mark a few times, and while cycling along the Rhine river, we hit 85km.  We felt like we were up for a big goal: 100km.  And what better place to do it than in a very flat country with great bicycle paths: Holland!

Our big day started near the city of Dusseldorf (Germany), in a campground with lots and lots of rabbits.

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We needed to get to a grocery store, and we actually spent quite a long time at one, because we had breakfast at the little bakery in it.  We ended up having a kind of late start.  We rode for about 40km to get to the German-Dutch border.

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Northern Germany is very windy, so there are a lot of wind turbines.
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To get a sense of how huge this wind turbine is, compare it to my dad at the bottom of it. The tiny orange dot is the bike trailer.
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There were also lots of solar panels!
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We had lunch in the last town in Germany.

Crossing the border into Holland was just as easy as it was between Germany and Switzerland.  All there was to tell us we were entering a new country was a little sign saying “Niederlande”

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We took down the German flag...
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And put up the Dutch. Unfortunately, we lost it a few days later, because it flew off and landed in a canal!

Our first impressions of Holland were pretty similar to Germany, but we did notice a few changes.  Here are some of the things we noticed:
-The bike paths are great.  They’re almost always separated from the road by a strip of grass, and they’re easily identified because they’re painted red.

-The Dutch language seems to to be halfway between English and German.  Ex: in English “street”, in German “strasse”, so in Dutch “straat”.  The letter J is used a lot in Dutch, as well as double vowels.

-Renewable energy isn’t as big as it is in Germany.  There aren’t many wind turbines, but there are a lot of old-fashioned “windmills”.

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We continued our ride north into Holland.

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My dad was mad at Kaia for being a "Bad Arcen"
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We hit a total distance of 1000km that day, meaning we had cycled 1000km starting from Frankfurt.

At first, it didn’t seem like we would make it to 100km, but the further we went, the more determined we got.  60km… 70… 80…  Once we hit 90km, we knew we would succeed.  We counted down the last few metres.  99.97… 99.98… 99.99… 100 kilometres!!!

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Yay!

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Wow!  It was the first time for 3 of us to cycle that far in a day.  It was a big personal accomplishment!  We were tired and it was getting late, so we camped beside a canal right near the place where we hit 100km.

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The next day, we continued to ride north.  Now, those of you who have known us for 5 years or more will probably know that we spent a year in Namibia in 2009-2010.  One of our best friends there was Jelda, a woman from Holland who was working in the same volunteer organisation as us, VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) in Rundu, a town 2 hours away from the village we lived in, Mpungu.  We would often stay at her house when we went to Rundu (Rundu had the closest grocery store to Mpungu, so we had to go pretty often), and we did many safari drives in Etosha national park together.

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Here's us with Jelda in Namibia.

When she learned we were going to Holland, she invited us to come visit her in Utrecht, a city about 50km south of Amsterdam.  We planned to ride in to Utrecht and meet her for dinner that evening, but we ran out of time, so took a short train ride to the central station.

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Jelda lives close to downtown, so it was a short ride from the central station to her house.  It was so good to see her again!  We also met her husband Nick, and later, their 4-month old daughter Lykke, who was sleeping when we arrived.  We had a delicious dinner, and talked about our experiences on this trip, and from 5 years ago in Namibia.

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Their house is pretty small, so we were planning on staying at a campground that night, but they have a small back courtyard; just enough space for our bikes and tent!

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We had breakfast with them the next day, and before we left, Jelda introduced us to some Dutch sweets like licorice, sweet bread, and Kaia’s and my favourite, “stroopwaffels” (these waffle cookies with cinnamon and honey in them).  They’re delicious little treats, and were a great replacement during our time away from the land of pretzels, Germany.
We started riding kind of late, and had lunch in a park in Utrecht.

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That day, we rode the 50km to Amsterdam, along perfectly flat bike paths, and beside canals (doesn’t get any more Dutch than that!)

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Kaia will write a separate blog entry about what we did Amsterdam, so I’ll skip to May 31st, the day we left the city.

The first part of the day was going well, as cycling almost always does in Holland.  After a while though, the weather started to get bad, and my parents wanted to have coffee, so we turned in to what we thought was a cafe.  It was actually a visitor centre for a conservation area.  There was a video about it in English, and we learned a lot.  We were in an area of Holland called Flevoland, which is all reclaimed land, meaning it was once under the sea.  It turns out, the land we had been riding on for the past couple of hours was all below sea level!  It was a very ambitious plan: build dikes around a large section of ocean, then pump the water out until it’s down to land.  Now, they’re really making an effort to help plants and animals begin to live in this new environment.

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All the coloured land has been reclaimed! The biggest red area is Flevoland. I find it hard to believe that they were reclaiming land in the 1700s, but I guess that's what all the windmills were for -- pumping water!
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The doors of this lock must be really strong, for if they break, all of Flevoland would be flooded!

As we continued our ride, the weather worsened.

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While riding along a dike, we went by a huge new wind farm.

We hit 100km in the town of Emmeloord, and we were so cold and wet that the idea of camping was out of the question.  We stayed at a hotel, a little over our budget, but definitely worth it!  Ah, it felt so good to have a warm shower, get dry, and have a creamy hot chocolate at the restaurant in the hotel.  We slept excellently that night.

There isn’t too much to say about our ride the next day, but we made it to 104 km (a new record) and camped at a campground just outside of Groningen, in the north of Holland.  We were interested in learning about Groningen because it’s the town that has the highest percentage of trips done by bicycle in the world.  59%!  While cycling through the town, we really felt like part of the majority, not a minority like we do in Canada.  We went to City Hall to meet with some of the transportation planners and learn why Groningen is so bicycle-friendly and how it came to be that way.  There will be a later blog entry about cycling infrastructure in European cities, so the details about Groningen will be there.

We rode out of Groningen that day, and headed towards an inlet at the northeastern border of Holland and Germany.  The last ferry of the day to cross the inlet of had already left though, and it would take a long time to cycle around it, so we spent the night at a little campground near the ferry.

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It was cold and rainy outside, but we ate and slept inside a nice, warm, dry little greenhouse!

We took an early ferry across the inlet the next day, back into Germany.  Holland is one of our favourite countries on this trip.  It is such a lovely country.  Its beautiful bike paths, interesting history, and smiling, friendly people made us feel happy too.

Jake

Almost home … what are we looking forward to the most?

About an hour ago, we started coming home.  At 11:30 PM tonight we started a hike up the mountain overlooking Reykjavik.  Sounds like a crazy time to start a hike? We wanted to fully experience the “white nights” here in Iceland on the longest day of the year.  At the top of our hike (1:00 AM), in what felt like broad daylight, we turned to come down, and realised we were now on our way home, after 10 months away.  In fact we’ll be back at my mom’s in Toronto before the day was finished.  Wow.

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Near the top of Mt Esja, Iceland at 1:00AM, June 21st

We had a fantastic dinner in Reykjavik with Yvonne’s mom Betty who has been travelling with us this past week, and we mulled over our year.  Made lots of notes regarding our fave countries, experiences, moments and learning.  And on the suggestion of one of our readers, we reflected on what it was that we’ve missed the most about home … or what it was that we were most looking to coming back to.  It is the wee hours of the morning now, but still so light out.  I thought I’d post some of our thoughts before we arrive back in Canada.  Our blog has been relatively quiet of late.  That’s in part because the never ending light has resulted in … never ending days for us.  Haven’t really slowed down enough lately to sit in front of a keyboard.  But look for lots of updates in the days to come.  And we’re also looking forward to sharing some thoughts on being back at home.
So, here’s what we’re really looking forward to back at home (beyond, of course, seeing family and friends)

Kaia:
– knowing the city well and being able to get around independently (by bike)
– having choices for clothes in the morning
– having some lazy days

Jake:
– having a house to live in
– lazy days

Yvonne:
– speaking the language and knowing the “rules”
– consistent access to clean underwear
– listening to CBC radio

Me:
– having my own kitchen to find food and cook in
– the lake, smells, and activities of the cottage
– working in our vegetable garden
– listening to CBC radio

One thing we’re ALL looking forward to is summer weather.  Germany, Holland and Denmark were mostly quite cool.  No hot days.  Iceland has been downright chilly.  A local remarked to me yesterday how “nice a day” it was, and I appeared a bit puzzled .. it was about 12 degC out, on June 19th.  Then she clarified and said “it’s not raining, and isn’t that windy”.  🙂  Just checked the Peterborough forecast … 25degC here we come!

Cam

Rolling down the Rhine, take two

Unfortunately, I am the latest victim of the glitchy WordPress app — an entire blog entry got “hung” while uploading, and was subsequently lost.  I can’t believe we haven’t figured out a convenient way to back up these entries.  Anyway, I have decided not to rewrite the whole thing for three reasons:
1.  The main purpose of the blog, for me, is to take time to reflect on experiences we have had and consolidate the things I’ve learned.  I already did that.
2.  I refuse to spend more of my vacation time writing about it.
3.  We are down to one working keyboard, so I won’t continue to monopolise it.

We are presently in Iceland, touring around in a small campervan with my mom.  The weather has been cool and quite changeable in terms of sun and rain. The icebergs that calved off of Jökulsárlón Glacier look surreal and blue in the glacial outflow.

So… back to the Rhine River in Germany!  Great place to cycle.  We spent 3 days going from Mannheim to Koblenz, then trained up to Köln (which is actually Cologne for all of us English speakers!)

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I have chosen a dozen photos to illustrate some highlights from the journey.

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Oppenheim is a quaint city celebrating its 1250th anniversary this year!  It boasts a complex labyrinth of underground cellars that used to be for storing trade goods — especially the wine for which the region is famous.

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The Rhine was historically and still is a busy transportation corridor!  It’s headwaters are in the Swiss Alps and it flows all the way to Rotterdam.  There is a constant stream of boats going in both directions (both freight and passenger), and there are train tracks and roads on both banks.  The cycle path is lovely and well-used.

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Here is Cam in front of one of the many vineyards we saw — and notice the wind turbines in the background.

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We had no problem finding waterfront lunch spots.

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One industry on the bank of the Rhine is BASF.  I don’t know exactly what they produce, but they have a huge campus in Mainz where every worker is issued a bicycle!

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Now I know that “Bingen on the Rhine” is a real (and romantic) place.  Kaia, Jake, and I remember laughing about its name when we read Anne of Green Gables.  Anne described how Gilbert Blythe gave a wonderful recitation of the poem “Bingen on the Rhine” at a community event.  We thought it sounded hilarious!  The arches in the photo are part of a large castle/tower complex.

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My favourite castle along the Rhine was Burg Rheinstein.  It is compact and was nicely restored in the 1800’s by Prince Friedrich of Prussia who used it as a summer residence.  The photo above is of the basket that was used in the Middle Ages to punish travelers who tried to avoid paying the toll. I’m hoping Prince Friedrich used it for a nice potted plant.

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Here we are cycling towards Marksburg Castle (on the hill in background).  Our record for longest cycling day was 85km.  Go team!

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Magnificent Marksburg Castle is said to be the best preserved along the Rhine.  We took a tour to see many of its authentic features.

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Jake liked the display of armour throughout the ages.  Some of it was pretty scary looking.

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We often found ourselves camping among the motorhomes and trailers.  This was our last night, in Koblenz.

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The sweet end to our journey down the Rhine was meeting up with Falko, (whom Cam had met in Nepal) and going to the Lindt chocolate factory in Köln.  The kids are holding their custom chocolate bars that they got to design.  Falko also took us to the impressive Gothic Cathedral (which took over 600 years to complete!) and out for lunch at a classic pub that served great German sausages and beer.  The beer came in small 0.2L glasses (as opposed to the 1L steins that are so common in Bavaria).  But until you cover your glass with a coaster, the waiter keeps bringing more.  No matter how you cut it, the Germans love their beer!

I have met my self-imposed quota of 12 photos… well, let’s make it a baker’s dozen.

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Yvonne

Oozing green in Freiburg

We “landed” at Yvonne’s aunt and uncle’s fabulous farm in Denmark a few days back after our longest cycling days of the trip. Our days have been more relaxed of recent. Our bicycles were sold yesterday and we are off to Iceland this Sunday. Yvonne’s mom Betty joined us at the farm and will travel with us through Iceland. We arrive back in Canada June 21st, in time for Kaia to attend her graduation. Yes, clearly that’s a bit cheeky 🙂 It really does feel like we’re coming home, now. Bittersweet for sure.

You will find what is perhaps my most ambitious blog entry of the year below. If you don’t know me well, you will see below that I am passionate about sustainable energy, transportation and urban planning. That is my excuse for the detailed entry. People have from time to time asked us about the intent of this blog. There are many intents. The driving motivation behind this entry however is to share with anyone who is willing to read, the exceptional leadership shown by Freiburg. We, especially in North America, have SO much to learn from cities like Freiburg if we hope to divest ourselves from fossil fuels as politicians around the world are now (and finally) agreeing with scientists that we must do.
Cam

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For those who follow clean tech (green energy, electric cars, etc) and sustainable urban design, Freiburg Germany is rather iconic.  It has entire neighborhoods that are energy producers, and it is home to solar module manufacturing and extensive solar PV research. Cycle and transit use is very high.  This was an obvious destination for our cycle tour, and we were pleased to learn that it was beside the Black Forest which we had also been looking forward to visiting.  Also enticing was the city’s well known old time charm; it was founded in the year 1120 and boasts numerous walking streets.  Although heavily bombed in WWII, the city has rebuilt the downtown core and instead of widening streets for cars, many downtown streets were built just wide enough for trams, bikes and pedestrians.

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A little bit of history is very helpful to understand how this city of 200,000 has progressed so far environmentally.  During the 1970s, a nuclear reactor was proposed about 20km outside of the city.  Germany, like much of the world in the 1970s, was waking up to the bleak global environmental reality, and in particular to the challenges of nuclear power.  A huge public outcry over the reactor took hold in Freiburg and was ultimately successful in stopping it’s construction. 

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Images courtesy of the Innovation Academy

Perhaps even more important than the actual prevention of the reactor though was the political coming of age of Freiburg’s citizenry.  They had discovered their voice, and there was no turning back.  Politicians in Freiburg know now that they must listen to their constituents. Freiburg is what it is because of strong and ongoing grassroots interest.  And because of its very progressive Green Party mayor who has been elected to a second 8 year term.  Alas, democracy is alive and mostly well in Freiburg.  I say this with more than a little envy and resentment after watching just the opposite sort of political (un)accountability unfold in my home town of Peterborough in past years.

The movement away from nuclear energy forced Freiburg residents to answer the “if not nuke then what?” question head-on, and in doing so their commitment to renewable energy  and energy efficiency was born.  Years later, acid rain in the Black Forest from coal produced electricity production and growing concern about climate change strengthened their resolve.  Then along came the national government’s very aggressive green energy policies of the early 2000s and solar power exploded in Freiburg.

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courtesy Innovation Academy

We were very lucky to have connected with some Warm Showers hosts in Freiburg.  Upon arrival in town we immediately cycled over to Peter and Sabina’s flat.  Peter is a transplanted Brit who has traveled the world many times over as a publisher of English as second language learning resources.  His partner Sabina was born in Bremen Germany but grew up in California and now teaches English at the University in Freiburg.  They’ve been in Freiburg for about 5 years now, and open their home to passing cycle tourists through the warm showers network.  Peter gave us a fantastic walking tour of the nearby neighbourhoods.  He understood our particular interest in sustainable urban design so was able to illuminate some fantastic stories that have unfolded in Freiburg.

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This house just down the street was built a few decades ago with a goal of becoming energy neutral. Most solar PV is fixed to rooftops. Some PV panels in fields are mounted on "trackers" that move to follow the sun through the day and the seasons. This house actually rotates to follow the sun! Perhaps it isn't the ultimate solution for residential energy, but certainly is a clear indication of the culture of innovation in Freiburg.
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This "Heliotrope" is a more modern Freiburg version of the house above and is in fact a net energy producer.
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Next to the rotating house is this one - with solar thermal (hot water) and solar PV (electricity). This rooftop was a common sight.

We walked through the district of Vauban which was built in the 1990s on old military barack land.  This area features 3 story blocks of flats that share ample green spaces in lieu of private yards. 

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This shared green space features of all things a wood-fired bread oven!

Cars are not allowed in the neighbourhood. Instead, there are parking garages in the surrounding areas.  But because Vauban is directly connected to town with a frequent tram line, and because Freiburg’s cycling infrastructure is so well developed, most Vauban residents (many with families) choose not to purchase cars.  In fact, car ownership (per capita) is only half of the German average.

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The tram runs right through the center of Vauban
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Cars from the city's car sharing program (stadtmobile - "citycar") are allowed to park in Vauban and are well used. Proponents of the car share program are aware that a very large portion of a car's carbon footprint stems from the materials and energy from manufacture, so reducing the number of cars being used is important. Members of the carshare program are given free transit passes and half price tickets on intercity trains.
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While Canadian cities are just starting to get their heads around car sharing, Freiburg is promoting their "E-car" sharing program. Ha!
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This is the scene in front of one of the Vauban kindergarten/daycares. I think the parked "vehicles" speak volumes.
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This school bus holds about 6 little kids.
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The local public school. Green roof over a very well used bike/scooter shelter. Not bad!

Many of the rooftops in Vauban were covered with solar panels (thermal and PV) and most of the neighbourhood buildings get their heat and electricity from a biomass-fed combined heat and power plant.  This approach of using the “waste” heat from electricity production produces fantastic efficiency results.

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Vauban combined heat and power (electricity) plant. It uses 80% wood chips and 20% natural gas. Heat from the plant is carried underground to the buildings; individual buildings do not have their own furnaces. Photo from the net.

Peter emphasized that Vauban’s sustainable approaches did not happen overnight.  Instead the moves forward underwent extensive and rancorous debate and ultimate compromise between different views and interests.  But importantly the citizens had a meaningful voice throughout.

Adjacent to Vauban is the “Solar Settlement” and Peter toured us through this neighbourhood too.  This community generates more electricity than it uses, and the rooftops in the photos below leave no doubt about how this is accomplished.

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This commercial area is also energy positive. Just as importantly, it demonstrates the compact, mixed us design where residential, retail and commercial land uses are mixed to minimize the need for transportation.

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You can see the commercial/retail (in front) located adjacent the residential (behind). From the net.

One of Peter’s passions is wine.  Perhaps the Brits are not well known for their distinguishing tastes of fine wine, but Peter knows his wines and sits as a volunteer advisor on ensuring continued success for local Frieburg vineyards.

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Freiburg's other little claim to fame in Germany is that it boasts the most "urban" vineyards. This one is a stone's throw from Peter and Sabina's flat.

Peter also volunteers with high school youth at risk and had a meeting with them that afternoon so we thanked him for the tour then set off on our own to discover Freiburg’s downtown.  Many things struck us about the downtown, but one thing stood out more than any other:

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bicycle share program

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Freiburg’s transportation plan explicitly aims to improve mobility while reducing auto traffic and benefitting the environment.  Wow …. a transportation plan that explicitly sets out to reduce automobile traffic!!  The plan also clearly prioritizes environmentally and health friendly modes such as walking, cycling and transit.  Finally, we had arrived at the city we set to find in our German cycling adventure.  Cycling lanes and covered bike parking abounded.  Trams and busses were going by at all times in all directions – usually with lots of folks inside.  Beautiful walking streets were packed with shoppers, walkers and diners.  The city was intentionally planned to be compact so that it was both a) not far from anywhere to anywhere and b) had sufficient density of people to make the investments in transit and cycling infrastructure economical.  We would learn the next day of an amazing transit pass, too.  We were all smiles as we were surrounded at each intersection by other cyclists.  And they were cyclists of all sorts, shapes and dress.  Older folks.  Kids.  Suits, dresses, jeans, chic 30-something get ups, and only a small amount of lycra.  Bikes typically were not fancy.  Many just 1 speed (Freiburg is pretty flat, though).  But almost all had the European styled wrap around handlebars. 

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Our straight-bar mountain bikes were certainly not earning any style points against these beauties!

We will have much more to say about cycling cities in later blog entries when we share what we saw and learned in Amsterdam, Groningen and Copenhagen.

The big catholic church downtown was breathtaking.  It mostly survived the WWII bombings.

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These are all wood carvings above the main entrance.

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McDonalds ... really!?
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Doner shops ("donairs" in Canada) are ubiquitous in Germany. That's just fine from our perspective.

Freiburg actually has created a self guided “green tour” so we set off on our bikes to take in a few sights with what remained of our afternoon.

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Solar research institute at the university.
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I am standing in front of 13 stories of "building integrated" solar PV at the train station.

One of the stops we didn’t get to was the large football (soccer) stadium whose roof is literally covered in solar panels.  This idea apparently came from the football club itself, and fans who donated money to cover the cost got 1st dibs on (limited) seasons tickets. 

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Freiburg football stadium.

Wow.  Similarly, many university roof-tops are covered in panels that were financed through a scheme that allowed profs, staff and students alike to be share holders in the green energy venture. Another innovation in Freiburg is the solarization (is that a word?) of the full (and closed) landfill site.
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In addition to a heavy dose of solar energy, Freiburg draws from six wind turbines. This part of Germany gets more sun and less wind than northern Germany, but the community wanted to increase its renewable portfolio, and these turbines are actually communally owned (citizens invest and receive energy producer dividends).
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With our heads buzzing with inspiration we cycled back to Sabina and Peter’s to find dinner ready to go on their backyard wood BBQ.  Drinks, salad and sausages went down so well over some great conversation with these very engaging hosts.

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They have a lovely terrace with a garden shed (that Kaia and Yvonne slept in) above and behind their building.
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Kaia and Jake impressed our hosts with their refined culinary skills ... that is golden brown roasted marshmallows. Sabina understands North American campfire culture and had the marshmallows ready to go.
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This is the heating system for Peter and Sabina's building. It is actually a small scale combined heat and power system. They generate their own electricity (from natural gas) then use the waste heat from the generator to heat the air and water for their building. These small but VERY efficient systems are promoted through Germany's Feed in Tariff program and are becoming increasingly popular in Germany. I had never seen one before.

The next morning brought some pretty awful continuous rain so we enjoyed our comfortable surroundings with our hosts and got caught up on some blogging.  We were very relieved to see the weather break because our green tour in the afternoon was on bicycle.  We had contacted the “Innovation Academy” the day before because we had learned they knew very well the green ins and outs of Freiburg.  I don’t think they had ever been contracted by a family before, but they were more than happy to share their wisdom … for not an insignificant price.  The first part of the tour was actually a 40 minute PowerPoint overview of the city’s initiatives and some stats on their successes.

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In this slide Steffen from the Innovation Academy is showing us the exponential growth of solar PV in Freiburg.
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These figures are impressive from a North American point of comparison. Recent stats were just about to be released that had the modal share of cycling even higher, and auto use lower.
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The city's carbon reduction goals are notably more ambitious than national and international levels. And unlike Canada, they actually have reached their interim goal, even though their population grew significantly!

The presentation was actually excellent, and Steffan kindly gave me a pdf copy to use in my teaching.  He touched on energy, transportation, planning and waste management, all of which Freiburg excels at.

We then headed outside to meet our cycling tour guide Luciano.  Luciano is involved in many aspects of sustainability planning and was able to take us to key representative sites around the city to better appreciate the strategies.

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Luciano. Born in Chile he had lived in Luxembourg and now makes his home in Freiburg
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We started at the main transportation center, where tram, train, bus and cycles converge, to allow for easy transfer between these modes. In this photo, bus on left, train tracks on right, and tram runs across above. Huge cycle garage is just out of sight to the right.
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City tram riders connect on these stairs to the regional (commuter) and inter city trains.
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You need to have an electronic access card to get into this secure, dry, and multi story parking garage.
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Yes, this goes right around in a circle ... on two floors!!!
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OK, this one is pretty hard core ....
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Luciano is telling us about the city's transit pass. For about 50 Euro ($60 Cdn) per month, you can travel on any mode of public transit within the city and within a 60km radius of the city, 7 days/week. Equally impressive is that the card is transferable - you can hand it (legally) to your friend or family member to use at any time. Clearly, Freiburg is serious about helping people to get out of their cars!
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This old bridge is adjacent the transportation hub. 1st tram, then car, now VERY busy cycling bridge.
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This very visible counter measures bike traffic across the bridge above and the corresponding amount of CO2 reduced by not driving (some assumptions have been made, obviously). Simple math suggests that there are, averaged for the entire year, 3000 trips/crossings per day!
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The four of us have at times really struggled with our bikes up and down stairs - especially when they are loaded. These simple enhancements made a big difference. Put your tires in and then roll .....
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Cycle route signs are ubiquitous in Freiburg (and most of Germany, for that matter). As tourists they were SO helpful.

Luciano then changed the focus of the transportation story to road design.  Like North American cities, Freiburg’s urban planning catered to cars in the 50s and 60s.  But over the past few decades planners have changed the profile and nature of many of Freiburg’s streets to decenter the cars and provide for safe walking and cycling.

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Notice that ultimately bicycles are being separated from pedestrians (these collisions can be serious too) and that four lanes give way to two, with on-street parking. This model is being used around town, but is not universal or without its critics.
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Many cycling accidents happen at intersections so it is important to clearly delineate bike lanes here. Notice that even in this rather wide street profile, only two lanes are dedicated to auto traffic.
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Here is one street about 50 years ago.
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Here is the same street today. Cars are allowed to drive only up to the same speed as bicycles (30km/hr). Trees were added, and sidewalks widened. Less road space for driving. Traffic has been calmed

When most people think about “greening” the energy system, they think of renewables like solar, wind, hydro and biomas. But the “low hanging fruit” of green energy is not energy production, but energy conservation and efficiency (that is, it is cheaper to save energy than build new generating capacity). Freiburg has been REALLY ambitious in both retrofitting the old building stock and creating very high efficiency standards for all new buildings. Through incentives/subsidies entire neighbourhoods have been insulated, windows upgraded, air leaks sealed etc. The poster child for Freiburg’s retrofitting though is a very nondescript apartment building in the Weingarten district from the 1960s.

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This apartment had become so run down and energy inefficient that it was slated for demolition. But energy specialists stepped in and used it as a demonstration project for efficiency. The building was gutted and heating/cooling systems and windows replaced. Heat from the sun (passive gain) was maximized. The building is now very popular among the lower income tenants of the area because utility costs are so cheap.

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All this listening and cycling was hard work 🙂 Time for Bavaria's best snack - a fresh pretzel! (OK, Jake will no doubt remind me that Freiburg is NOT in Bavaria ... but they still serve up pretzels here)
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This combined heat and power plant (CHP) was built to service the retrofitted apartment building and other neighbourhood buildings.
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Most of these energy standards are national standards. You can see the tightening of expectations through time. But note that Freiburg's standards are now notably tighter than the national average, and that in fact the newest standards have houses producing or otherwise gaining (through glass) as much energy as they consume. Wow.

The final focus of our green tour was urban planning. Progressive cities the word over recognize that it is smart for reasons economical, environmental and quality of life to plan compact cities where people can live, shop, and work without having to get in their cars. Connections to the city center are provided by frequent transit. Sometimes referred to as “New Urbanism”, these medium density neighbourhoods typically feature retail on the ground floor, commercial on the next floor, and then two or three floors of residential. Green spaces are shared. We all had a big but dark chuckle during the initial PowerPoint presentation when Steffen was explaining this concept. To help us understand, his presentation showed international photos of the opposite to compact design, and up came sprawling Toronto! Any of the newer subdivisions in my city of Peterborough could easily be substituted. Steffen then remembered we were Canadian and apologized. That’s OK Steffen … no apologies necessary.

We had visited Vauban earlier with Peter, so with Luciano we went to the newer neighbourhood of Reiselfeld. Whereas Vauban emerged through a rather messy, citizen driven process, Reiselfeld was planned by the city government.

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Note that the tram was constructed at the outset, and that virtually all residents live within 400m of the tram.

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The tram in Reiselfeld. Freiburg (or maybe someone else?) discovered that trams are much quieter when they run over grass. Luciano had us listen to the difference as the tram moved from grass over a road then back onto grass. Wow!!

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Reiselfeld's main intersection. It's a bit hard to see in this photo but there are cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores etc etc all along the street level. And of course ... there is a bicycle shop!

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The residents above this large grocery store don't need to worry about borrowing eggs from the neighbour. Food is only steps away.

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Cycling is such a great way to do a city tour. It is so easy to get around, things pass in slow motion, and it is easy to stop and chat along the way.

One of the key aspects of this neighbourhood design is the concept of shared public spaces. Instead of people having their own private yards (discourages interactions), green spaces are shared. There is enough room for being social and for quiet contemplation. Apparently this is one of the main reasons for residents reporting very high levels of quality of life.
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Jake was happy to not have cycle bags on the back of his bike when we discovered this bmx/skateboard park.
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There are fabulous play structures tucked into this playground.

Not surprisingly, residents of Reiselfeld are keen to take advantage of the ample sun in this part of Germany.

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Notice the use of green roofs here. Green roofs dramatically reduce heating and cooling needs, reduce storm runoff and help keep neighbourhoods cool.

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Vacuum tube solar thermal (hot water).

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Unlike Vauban where cars are kept to the outside perimeter, the approach used in Reiselfeld is to have residents share the transportation corridors. Speed limits are kept to 30 km/hr. From our experience of 60 minutes riding around, this approach seemed to work very well. That said, car ownership and use within Reiselfeld is well below national averages.
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This rather innocuous photo has very important symbolic value. Planners in Freiburg recognize that "hard" city limits are needed - to protect forests, wetlands and farm fields, but also to discourage the sort of urban sprawl that is rampant in North American cities. We are on the outside boundary of Reiselfeld, gazing across the city limit. Land on the other side is protected from development. This hard boundary was difficult to negotiate politically, but apparently citizen voices in Freiburg carried the day against low density developers' lobby. Yes, I am envious.

Vending machines in Canada usually sell candy, chips, or soft drinks. We were disappointed to see many cigarette vending machines through much of the rest of Germany. But what is sold out of vending machines in Reiselfeld?

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Yes - bicycle tubes, to keep people on the road. The different colours represent different wheel size and thicknesses. OK ... I am NOT in Canada!

And so ended our green tour with Luciano. He knew his city, knew the environmental story, and was an excellent communicator. It was SUCH a rich 3 hours we spent with our two Innovation Academy hosts.

All four of us were pretty wound up after this tour, and were again buzzing with stories and questions when we arrived back at Peter and Sabina’s to make our Mexican dinner. Freiburg hosts an incredible “density” of sustainable living and if you have managed to read all the way to this point (I doubt it!) you can appreciate that we are now full of ideas and many real examples to share with our Peterborough community and any other that is interested.
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Thanks for your leadership, Freiburg!

Cam

Switzerland and the Black Forest

Back in March, in the Philippines, we met Omar and Tanja from Switzerland. In Donsol, we snorkeled with whale sharks with them. Here’s a picture of us with them in the Philippines.

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Omar is Italian and Tanja is Swiss, and they live in Zurich. We were in Schwangau, Germany, not so far away, and decided to take them up on their invitation and go visit them!
Since we lost a week in Frankfurt, we no longer had the time to cycle our entire planned route. So, we sometimes take trains when the weather gets bad. Well… as the forecast warned us, we woke up to a very gloomy day at our Schwangau campground. We lay in bed for a while trying to coax ourselves to get up. When we finally did, it was the most awful feeling to pack up the tent in the rain. It wasn’t hard for us to make the decision of “ride or train?”.
I didn’t want to get my socks wet during the 7 km ride from our campground to the train station, so I went with bare feet in sandals. Ouch! Cold cold cold!
We only had to make one transfer for the entire journey in Buchloe, where we changed from our 30 minute regional train to a nice intercity express one! It was a beautiful ride, we had a table to blog…

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My dad takes his blog very seriously.
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Jake and my mom take their game of 2048 very seriously.

I knew that crossing borders between European countries was easy, but I didn’t know that it would be that easy! The only thing that made us realize that we had crossed the border was that our German sim card in our phone wasn’t working anymore. Otherwise, there was absolutely no indication.
Our plan was to take the train all the way to Zurich Hauptbahnhof (central station) and then ride our bikes to their place. But as the train was stopped at the Zurich airport, Jake remembered that they had said that they live very close to the airport. We all agreed to get off there instead.

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After taking the elevator up from the platform (we always take elevators in train stations because of our bikes), we realized that we were right in the airport! There were signs to the gates. Duty free shops everywhere. Not a window in sight. We asked a few people how to find the exit, and finally ended up, well…

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If you think this looks funny, imagine my dad going up with his trailer!

We were just laughing at ourselves the whole time. But the funny adventures weren’t over: we still had to find our way to their house.
It was pouring rain. My dad had some idea of how to find their place, but in this case, reality was not as google maps thought it was. Long story short, we ended up on a big 4 lane highway going around roundabouts with huge semis whizzing past. It was scary. Finally, my dad saw the road that we wanted to be on, only it was under us! With no paths connecting the two roads, we had to go through the forest!

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A few more kilometers of riding finally brought us to their house. They live in Tanja’s grandfather’s house, a big, nice old home in the outskirts of Zurich, in a neighbourhood called Rümlang. They can be in the city center by a one minute walk and a 12 minute train ride.
It was so great to see them again! It was also great to be dry again! That night, they cooked us an authentic Swiss meal: raclette and fondue. I’m not really a cheese person, but even I really enjoyed that meal.
We caught up with them about our travels after leaving Donsol. They spent some more time in the Philippines before going to Japan. They have also been to Nepal on a previous trip, so we talked about that too.

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We were a bit crunched for time, but had planned for one full day in Switzerland. Omar and Tanja suggested to do the Pilatus mountain circuit. It includes a cog railway and a gondola. And at the top, there are amazing views! It is near the city of Luzern, which is about 40 minutes from Zurich by train.
The cog railway starts in a place called Alpnachstad, so we had to take another train from Luzern. Our ticket said platform 14. Twelve minutes before the departure time, we saw a train parked at our platform. Assuming that it was the one, we got on.
My dad needed to use a bathroom. The ones on the train were all full, so he got off to use the station bathrooms instead. No problem, there were 12 minutes left.
One minute later, the train started moving! Oh no! We quickly realized that we were on the 1:01 PM train, not the 1:13 PM one. This train was, for a few stops, heading towards Alpnachstad, but turning off before that stop. Our general rule on this trip was: if we get separated, we return to the last place we saw each other. That was platform 14 of the Luzern station. We got off our wrong train at the first stop and took the next train back to Luzern. Oh, shoot! Daddy’s not there! We had all of the stuff, money, train tickets, phones, everything. We couldn’t contact him, as he had no phone. Still, we sent an email to his account in case he somehow checked it.
After a while, we finally came to the conclusion that he must have gotten on the right train and was now at Alpnachstad. But we were afraid that if we went there, he would come back to Luzern, and so on. We didn’t budge from platform 14.
Meanwhile, my dad was waiting at Alpnachstad. He was so hungry, and had 1,85 Swiss Franks in his pocket, enough to buy a Bounty bar, but not a Mars bar. When he borrowed a computer to check his email, he saw ours in his inbox. He responded with “come to Alpnachstad – I’m not going back to Luzern – this is where the cog railway starts!”. Finally, we were on the train to meet him.
It was a guessing game. He assumed that we would assume that he had gotten on the right train. We were playing by the rules. Also, we didn’t think that he would get on a train without a ticket! That separation delayed our day by about 2 hours. But that was water under the bridge, once we ate our much needed lunch!

OK, let’s do what we came here to do: go up the Pilatus mountain on the cog railway. A cog railway is different than a usual train, though. It’s specially made to go up very steep slopes. Instead of the power going to the train wheels, like a normal train, the power goes to a big wheel with teeth in the center of the train. The teeth interlock with teeth in the track, and that’s how it goes up.
The Pilatus cog railway is the steepest train in the world! At its steepest, it’s 48% inclination. The train is built “diagonally”, because it only services this mountain! The track is 4,6 km long, and, amazingly it was first opened in 1889, using steam power! Wow!

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It's so steep!
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There were about 4 or 5 tunnels.
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At first, we had some pretty great views!

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But, then as we got up higher, the clouds started rolling in.

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By the time that we were at the top at 2073m above sea level, we were literally inside the cloud.

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We could hardly see the cog railway anymore.

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We didn’t spend too long at the summit, as there was nothing to see.

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Aww... apparently that's what the view looks like on a sunny day!

To get back down, we took the gondola that goes all the way back to Luzern.

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Yay, we're finally getting out of the cloud!

And back in Luzern, we took a short bus ride to the downtown.

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Our favourite thing in Luzern town was the lion monument. Someone told us “follow the tourists to find it!”. And that was good advice.

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It is the saddest carving I’ve ever seen.

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Carved by Lukas Ahorn in 1820, this carving of a mortally wounded lion commemorates all the Swiss guards of the French royalty who died during the French Revolution in 1792.
We also really liked the Luzern church downtown.

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40 minutes later, we were back in central Zurich. We bought some dinnerish things at a grocery store and ate them by the river. I noticed that the grocery store was packed with people on this Saturday night, because everything in Switzerland (and Germany) is closed on Sundays. Somehow, it never occurred to us that maybe we too should stocking up for Sunday. More on that later.
Omar and Tanja had gone out for dinner that night with friends, so we just took the train back to Rmlang and went to bed.

The next morning, my dad made omelettes for all of us! We really enjoyed our short stay in Zurich, but we had to keep going. Thanks, Omar and Tanja for hosting us! It was so much fun to see you again!

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Omar leaving for his soccer game.

To leave Zurich, we went past the airport. It is the 10th busiest one in the world!

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The Emirates plane on the tarmac is an Airbus A380, the biggest in the world!

As I said before, we forgot that on Sunday, everything closes. This is not a new problem for us – I think that we have forgotten about every single Sunday so far! We really do like that idea, though, because it means that families are together on that day. But coming from Canada, where most stores are open 24/7, we aren’t used to it. We had no food for lunch. Luckily, we found a very Swiss little restaurant that was open.

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This is very typical German/Swiss food. Buns, cheese and meat is usually for breakfast, though.

We were right near the German border. Looking across the river from the south side, we saw a lot of solar panels!

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Crossing the border back to Germany was just as easy as it had been the other way around. This time, all we saw was a teeny tiny little sign that said something about “Deutschland” on it.

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Crossing the river.

That evening, we had to eat dinner at one of the few places that’s open on Sundays: McDonalds. Those are pretty similar to the ones in Canada, except that they have a bakery. We got a few slices of black forest cake, as the next day we would be riding through it’s namesake: the black forest.
After dinner, we rode way uphill. It was really steep for a long time. We didn’t need a campground, just a flat spot, but we didn’t have any breakfast for the next morning, because stores were closed. We would have gone further out of a town, but we stopped in Aichen for the night because there is some food there. Actually, there are no grocery stores in Aichen, just a small guesthouse with an attached restaurant where we could go for breakfast. We set up our tent in a parking lot-ish thing at the edge of the tiny village. It was right near the church, which ended up to be very irritating! This church would ring once on the -15 minute mark, twice on the half hour, 3 times on the -45 minute mark, and then whatever time it was on the hour. But the worst part was that it did that all through the night! Yes, we were camped right next to a church that rang once every 15 minutes all night! At 6 AM, there was the big village wakeup call, and it didn’t stop ringing for about 5 minutes. Jake and I actually managed to sleep through most of it, but my parents had a pretty rough night.
For breakfast the next morning at the guesthouse, we were surprised at first because they never came around to show us a menu or take our order. But then we realized that breakfast is breakfast: fresh rolls, cheese and meat. Yum!
When we first came to Germany and did a bit of research about the best places to visit, one thing that stuck out in our minds was the black forest in southwestern Germany. It is the country’s “wildest” place, and the photos on the internet made it look lovely.
On this day leaving Aichen, our plan was to cycle through the black forest and finish in Freiburg, where we had already found some people on the Warm Showers network to stay with.
We use google maps most of the time to get around. When it finds a route for us, it also gives us a profile of ups and downs for the day. For this day, it was: a short but steep down, then a huge up then a huge down.

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The black forest really was lovely! It was so peaceful and quiet. We would go for long periods of time without seeing anybody!
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Oh, no! A big branch fell across the path!
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Should we carry our bikes over?
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Oh, no worries. A man with a chainsaw cut it up for us.

We stopped for lunch beside a big lake.

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In the quaint village of St Blasien for our bakery stop, we saw the most amazing church!

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Paintings on the ceiling.

Wow… such a huge church for such a tiny town. After getting some calories from the bakery, we continued on our big long uphill. All day, we kept thinking “in a few hours, we will be gliding downhill all the way to Freiburg!”. My dad kept saying “it’s all down from here, guys”. Then we would continue going up. “OK, we must be near the top of this hill!”. We just kept going up. At around 6 PM, we got into a bit of a pinch. We were kind of lost, and every route google maps told us about either didn’t exist, or kept climbing up the hill. We made many wrong turns and wasted so much time. Finally, we found a (downhill) trail that we thought would lead us to Freiburg. Yay, finally our downhill that we’ve been looking forward to all day! But at the bottom, an unpleasant surprise awaited us. This bicycle path didn’t go all the way to Freiburg, it simply led to a huge highway that went there! But we weren’t going to ride on this highway: we found out later that every transport truck from Romania to Portugal uses this road. And unlike most other German highways, there was no separated bike lane – not even a shoulder. No thanks!
We phoned our warm showers contact Peter to ask for directions. He told us that our best way to Freiburg would be to go back up the close hill and then keep going uphill for a long time before going back down. Oh. Shoot. Or, we could just go up the hill for a kilometer or two to a place called Hinterzarten where we could catch a train to Freiburg instead. Yes, that sounds better! But it was already quite late, and we were too tired for that. OK, we’ll pitch our tent here and climb the hill and take the train in the morning. We set up camp right under a really cool train trestle. It was a cold night.

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At least Galdis is warm!

The hill we were to climb the next morning was so steep, there was no way we would make it up with our loaded bikes – even pushing them wasn’t an option. But my dad found an innovative solution. He talked to a very nice family that lives halfway up the hill. They agreed to meet us at the lowest car turnaround spot, and put our gear into their car. Then, we could ride up with empty bikes. They would leave our gear at the top near the train station, for us to collect when we made it up. It all worked very smoothly. Three of us made it up empty without pushing our bikes.
We found the train station in the town of Hinterzarten, and caught the 40 minute train into Freiburg. It was the most downhill train I’ve ever been on. That was the downhill that we were hoping to ride the previous day 😦 .

Our time in Switzerland and the black forest had many mishaps or “problems” (in the Zurich airport, lost on Swiss highways in the rain, separation in Luzern, forgetting about the Sunday closings and getting lost in the black forest). Though these problems seemed somewhat big at the time, they really weren’t. And compared to the problems in Nepal or Vanuatu, ours are just laughable tiny inconveniences.
And, we really enjoyed these places! Taking the cog railway up the Pilatus mountain on a 48% incline was very exciting. Seeing Omar and Tanja was so much fun! Forgetting about the Sunday closure gave us an excuse to splurge at restaurants and eat great food. And the black forest was still just as beautiful and peaceful, even though we were going up.
OK, they aren’t mishaps. Neither are they problems. They are just funny stories that improved my blog post.
Kaia

The Beckoning Bavarian Alps

We leave Holland tomorrow, to return to Germany at its northwest corner via ferry. Holland has been an AWESOME ride!

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OK, how many of you knew that Germany had some gorgeous alpine topography?  I didn’t.  Of course, we know  of the Alps in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France.  But Germany has its own little piece of this great feature.  We wanted to visit Freiburg in southwest Germany because of its exemplary green infrastructure and planning, and wanted to visit some friends in Zurich, Switzerland (on Germany’s southern border), so decided to head to the south of Germany to see the famed Neuschwanstein castle and to do some hiking.

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We cycled two days from Munich to Schwangau in southern Germany.

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As Jake mentioned, we spent another half day in Munich to take in more of the down town atmosphere.  By the time we got back and packed up our stuff at Gotz and Liza’s, it was 3PM which is not an ideal time to start a cycling day.  Getting out of a city the size of Munich on bicycles is not much fun, even when there is an OK bike path.  So many stop lights, so much traffic, and the path is always jumping between road and sidewalk.  It took us the better part of 2 hrs before we were again amongst the green fields that we so enjoy cycling in.  I, in particular, also continued my admiration of the extent to which rooftop solar PV had been deployed on homes and barns.  I will do a separate blog entry later to explain why and how Germany has made such astounding progress towards a renewable electricity portfolio.

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We saw a few of these bike-mail carriers. Easy for them to stop and get in and out, especially on narrow streets.

A pastry stop (crucial part of our afternoon routine), a few water breaks and 55km later, we found ourselves riding beside the lovely Ammersee (“see” is a lake).  The campground we’d set our sights on didn’t accept tenters, so we had to scramble a bit because it was now 8PM.  We ride very well in the later afternoon and early evening it seems (fewer distractions and we become more goal focused!) so often find ourselves still going at this time.  We ended up finding an outdoor ed. center right on the lake and got permission to camp in their fire pit area.  The manager’s son had gone to the teacher of the intermediate level class staying overnight to seek her approval.  What a different world.  I can’t imagine in Ontario a manager even considering asking for permission.  A bunch of strangers camping 100m from the class? Not a chance.

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Kids taking advantage of a few minutes of downtime and a picnic table to blog while Yvonne and I set up the tent and made dinner in the fading light.

Until this point in our cycling we had not really encountered anything like a serious hill.  That was to change the next day.  We use google map cycling routes almost exclusively to find our way, and one of the nice features of these routes is that you can see the elevation profile

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This is the 1.5 day route we followed. Note the 2nd half had us climbing about 300 vertical meters.

Climbing on a bicycle does not need to be unpleasant.  But we have all our gear on our bikes, which changes the picture notably. The kids have full bike paniers (bags on the back rack) plus sleeping bags tied on.  None of our empty bikes are light.  Yvonne has heavier bags and our tent.  And everything else is in my trailer which probably weighs about 50 pounds.  So hill climbing was a challenge.  I was so impressed with how Kaia and Jake did.  Some hills were very steep up for maybe 20 minutes at a time, and nobody got off their bike to walk.  I was flat out in effort at one point, just trying to get the next pedal stroke.

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Hard do see here, but this was actually pretty steep.

A sense of accomplishment was enjoyed and you can imagine how well the post-hills pastry break went down that afternoon!

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Typical lunch stop. Sandwiches are the usual fare.

The ride from the top of the hill in to Schwangau was lovely – flatish, great bike paths, and ever-growing mountain views.

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Kaia's little Orangutan "Galdis" was really enjoying the fading afternoon light.
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This farmer's field turns into a little ski hill.
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We stumbled onto this magnificent 450 yr old church in the tiny settlement of Steingaden. Clearly the congregation must come from the countryside. That said, it was explained to us that the Catholic churches are struggling with declining numbers and are having to close some churches. Every one we stepped into was magnificently ornate and well kept.

Our typical routine approaching dinner would be to look for a supermarket an hour or so before our planned stopping point.  We’d buy dinner ingredients and make sure we had enough for breakfast  – sort of a “just on time” approach to avoid carrying too much food. Our campsite on the Bannwaldsee was typical of German campsites.  It was geared 90% towards long time trailer leases, and 9% towards short term camper/caravan travelers.  The last 1% was tenters like us, and there was only 1 other tent among the hundreds of trailers.  We really miss not having a picnic table at these campgrounds, but are rather blown away by the other camping amenities.  Like in this case the very clean and large bathrooms and showers, laundry room with a drying room, dish washing up room, little store, outdoor patio, huge party/event room (beer hall) and full restaurant.

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Still early in the camping season, most trailer leaseholders had not yet arrived so we poached one of their picnic tables for meals.
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This Bavarian beer tasted like Hell.
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Sunset over the Bannwaldsee.

We had been lamenting since starting cycling that our trailer was too full.  After food shopping, the cover would barely fit on.  So next morning we spread all our things out on the grass and made a pile of what we now knew to be non essential things.

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A trip to the post office was next in line, and about 7kg of stuff was on its way to Canada.
  
Neuschwanstein castle was only 2km away from the village of Schwangau and the approach to the castle is outstanding.  This castle is best known for being the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle.

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The castle was built by Bavarian King Ludwig II starting in 1868.  Unlike other Kings of this area/era, he did it with his own (well, mostly borrowed) money – instead of public money.  He really was building his “summer house”, after all.  Ludwig had travelled widely and incorporated architecture from other European castles, and honoured other religions and world architecture in huge murals inside.  Ludwig started staying in the partially finished castle in 1884 but by this time had borrowed huge sums of money and become quite a reclusive King.  In 1886 parliament sent a posse to arrest him (he was apparently no longer “fit” to govern, though was later found to be not the case in hindsight), and they brought him back to Munich.  The next day his body along with the body of his chief “arrestor” were found dead in a nearby lake.  This mystery apparently has never been solved.  Sadly, all this after Ludvig spending only 112 nights in the castle that he had poured his pockets, heart and mind into for 2 decades.
Immediately following his death, the Bavarian government finished the castle and opened it up to paying guests and tens of millions of visitors have now been through.  Apparently, during the summer, as many as 6000 go through in a single day!
Even on our day in mid-May, it was busy.  You purchase tickets for very specific entry times, and your group is guided through together.  Our entry time was 1.5 hours after ticket purchase.  That was OK though, as it gave us the necessary time to hike the road up to the castle and to take the walk to “Marienbrucke” which is a bridge over the rather spectacular gorge adjacent the castle.

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Marienbrucke

No photos are allowed inside during the castle tour, as this would make it difficult for the guide to keep people moving.  This is unfortunate because the inside of the castle is at least as impressive as the outside.  One huge gallery room with a stage is devoted to Richard Wagner whom Ludvig greatly admired.  It looks like it was built so the King could be entertained by various musicians; in fact, he would just enter alone and imagine Wagners’ operas being performed.  Yes, he was a tad ecentric.
Ludvig II loved this area because he spent his summers as a boy in the neighbouring and equally impressive Hohenschwangau castle.  This castle too is open to visitors.

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From Neuschwanstein, looking towards the sister Hohenschwangau castle.
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Hohenschwangau castle.

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I wasn’t sure what to make of the Neuschwanstein castle before visiting.  It had a lot of hype.  And the Disney connection didn’t exactly sell it.  But I have to say, it was VERY impressive.  The setting, the furnishing and the rather dreamlike overall architecture set it apart.

En route back to the campground we came across an outdoor BBQ chicken seller.  Our Munich bike tour guide Tony said that the quintessential Bavarian dinner was a half chicken.  And we had no food (Sunday) so …

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When in Rome ...

I noted a poster on a wall for a traditional folk concert at one of the close by churches.  My family wanted to stay put for the evening so I headed off on my bike for a short trip to the church.

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The church has a pretty spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps!

The concert by the MarianSingers was a mix of duets, small ensembles, and my favorite – a group of 8 men doing yodelling harmony.  Brilliant!  Equally impressive was the inside of this catholic church.

The following day we set off for the Bavarian Alps.  They rise  up dramatically from the farming plains, and the access point for a hike up was only 2km from our campsite. 

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Our objective is the top of this mountain. If you look carefully you can see the cable car tower.

I had spoken to a tourist info person the day before and learned that there was a rather dramatic route up the face of the mountain.  She said as long as we were strong hikers with very good footwear we ought to be OK.  We’d have to hold on carefully to the cables that were strung up.  The kids liked the sound of this so away we went.

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The trail got pretty steep pretty fast.

Not too far into the hike we came across some rather disconcerting signs.  There were warnings in German with signs of rocks falling on people’s heads (you’re supposed to wear a helmet, apparently) and other pictures showing how to fasten your harness and repelling gear for safe movement up and down cliff faces.  We were part way up the mountain already.  And I distinctly remembered the tourist info woman saying we could do it.  So we pressed on, figuring this was the management’s way of dodging legal problems if someone gets into trouble.

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Look way way up ... and the little dots are hikers further along our trail. At least we knew others were on the trail!
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I zoomed way in to see their trail, and was not pleased to see the ladder.
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The cables were reassuring, and the views were really starting to open up.
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We were camping on the lake on the right.

At one point, which was about half way up the mountain, I looked up not too far and saw a couple of people hanging off their ropes on a large vertical face that had only little iron nails sticking out for hands and feet.  Shortly after we came around a corner and saw a ladder that went up vertically for about 20 ft.  At this point I figured we had made a big mistake.  So I asked a guy hiking behind me “do we have to go up that way?”  He assured me that yes, it was the only way.  Hmmm.  But then a few moments later another guy came up and said that if we continued around the bend the regular path continued – the ladders and cliff face were only for those with climbing equipment. The first guy then apologized and said “sorry, I’ve never done this hike before”.  WHAT?  You’ve never done the hike before and you assured a family with youngish kids that they’d have to hang off a vertical face?  Thanks, buddy!
Phew.  I finally realized that this hike would turn out well.  We were all enjoying the steep trail with the cables.

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This was the last section of trail.

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Most people get to the top of the mountain in this cable car. We'd decided we'd ride it down.

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One last pitch to the top. Most of these hikers were on their way down following a more gentle ski slope.
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View from the top, looking north into Bavaria. At this point we were only a couple of km from the northern Austria border.

We enjoyed lunch at the top.  We really felt like we’d earned it (1 vertical km up) and had enjoyed the rather spectacular trail.  Good thing there was a restaurant at the top, though. It was a holiday and EVERYTHING is closed on Sundays and holidays in Bavaria.  So we couldn’t buy groceries for the day down below.   Once again I was amused and rather amazed by the steady stream of 0.5L and 1L  beer steins that were being downed by just about every other guy up there.  And it was only about 5 or 10 degC and they were all sitting outside! 
The view back into the Austrian Alps was fabulous and I was drooling looking at the hiking map with trails galore from peak to peak and hut to hut.  But most of the high mountains were still under snow so going further was not really an option.

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The final part of our hike up, as seen from the cable car.
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A different set of spirally switchbacks. This is the luge/toboggan run set up under the cable car.
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Just had to try it ! Kaia and Jake are being towed up ahead of Yvonne.

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I was pleasantly surprised at how fast you can get going in these things.  Whihoo!

From the cable car base we cycled about 8km into the neighbouring and larger town of Fussen.

Fussen is one of Germany’s oldest towns and dates from the period of the Roman Empire.  Several of the churches date back to the 800s.  It was on the trade route between Italy and the Roman provincial capital now known as Augsburg.  It was a delight to walk around that evening.  Huge, ornate churches abound, and the city has an extensive walking district full of cafes, bakeries and outdoor seating.

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Fussen, courtesy of the net.

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Read the blue lettering on the window carefully. Ha!

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Dinner that night was at the most scrumptious Greek restaurant.  I’m not sure what I liked more – the savory flavours or the medieval town ambience & architecture of the restaurant.
After a very full day we set off on our bikes again to return to our campground.

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I was quite enamored with this firewood holder.
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Speaking of firewood ... rural Germany depends to a very large degree on wood for heating. Almost every farm we saw from bike paths had large wood supplies from their carefully managed forests.

Cam