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.
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.
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”
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”.
We continued our ride north into Holland.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
That day, we rode the 50km to Amsterdam, along perfectly flat bike paths, and beside canals (doesn’t get any more Dutch than that!)
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.
As we continued our ride, the weather worsened.
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.
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.
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.
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)
– knowing the city well and being able to get around independently (by bike)
– having choices for clothes in the morning
– having some lazy days
– having a house to live in
– lazy days
– speaking the language and knowing the “rules”
– consistent access to clean underwear
– listening to CBC radio
– 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!
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!)
I have chosen a dozen photos to illustrate some highlights from the journey.
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.
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.
Here is Cam in front of one of the many vineyards we saw — and notice the wind turbines in the background.
We had no problem finding waterfront lunch spots.
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!
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.
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.
Here we are cycling towards Marksburg Castle (on the hill in background). Our record for longest cycling day was 85km. Go team!
Magnificent Marksburg Castle is said to be the best preserved along the Rhine. We took a tour to see many of its authentic features.
Jake liked the display of armour throughout the ages. Some of it was pretty scary looking.
We often found ourselves camping among the motorhomes and trailers. This was our last night, in Koblenz.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not surprisingly, residents of Reiselfeld are keen to take advantage of the ample sun in this part of Germany.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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!
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.
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!
But, then as we got up higher, the clouds started rolling in.
By the time that we were at the top at 2073m above sea level, we were literally inside the cloud.
We didn’t spend too long at the summit, as there was nothing to see.
To get back down, we took the gondola that goes all the way back to Luzern.
And back in Luzern, we took a short bus ride to the downtown.
Our favourite thing in Luzern town was the lion monument. Someone told us “follow the tourists to find it!”. And that was good advice.
It is the saddest carving I’ve ever seen.
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.
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!
To leave Zurich, we went past the airport. It is the 10th busiest one 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.
We were right near the German border. Looking across the river from the south side, we saw a lot of solar panels!
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.
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.
We stopped for lunch beside a big lake.
In the quaint village of St Blasien for our bakery stop, we saw the most amazing church!
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.
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
We leave Holland tomorrow, to return to Germany at its northwest corner via ferry. Holland has been an AWESOME ride!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A sense of accomplishment was enjoyed and you can imagine how well the post-hills pastry break went down that afternoon!
The ride from the top of the hill in to Schwangau was lovely – flatish, great bike paths, and ever-growing mountain views.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The southeastern part of Germany is known as Bavaria, called Bayern in German. It’s more traditional than other parts of Germany, and most people that live in this part consider themselves Bavarian, not German. The city of Munich, or München in German, is the biggest city in Bavaria, and apparently worth seeing, so we decided to go there.
The weather forecast had been saying all week that a certain day would be very rainy. The morning of that day that we spent in Augsburg was fine, but we had already decided to take a train to Munich instead of riding. It’s pretty easy to take your bike on trains in Germany. And, sure enough, on the train, it rained for a while.
We had heard from a few people that they really liked Munich. My dad went on the Warm Showers network (people who open their house to cycle tourists) and found some people who let us stay with them in Munich. He also looked at TripAdvisor reviews for the best things to do there, and one of the activities that got great reviews was a bicycle tour of the city. So, we contacted a company that runs these tours, and found out where to meet for the tour. The train from Augsburg arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof (central train station), and then we rode to Marienplatz, the central square, where we met the rest of the tour group.
The tour guide was a guy named Tony, from Washington DC. He has loved Munich ever since he moved there 9 years ago, and he’s really fun and enthusiastic about the bike tour. He really brought history to life for me!
There were 11 people on the tour, including us. 2 were from Scotland, and the rest were all Canadians! First, Tony told us some general history on Munich, and specifically, on Marienplatz.
Things have been happening that square for a long time. Munich used to be the “capital” of the old kingdom of Bavaria, so the king held many celebrations in the square. For a royal wedding that happened there, they even held a jousting tournament! You know, when knights on horses run at each other with big lances and try to knock the other guy off his horse. Sounds pretty entertaining!
Then, we walked to the bike tour shop to get bikes. We already had ours, but we left all our paniers and trailer there. Once everyone had a bike, we started the ride around town. We visited another square, with a statue of King Maximilian in the middle. If I remember correctly, his son Ludwig’s wedding got re-celebrated every year, and now it’s known as Oktoberfest. Don’t blame me if I’m wrong though, because I find European monarchs’ names extremely confusing (King Ludwig I, II, III, and so on).
We went to an old government building, with a big courtyard in the middle of it. It looks like all the walls are intricately decorated, but at a second glance, you’ll see that some of it’s just painted on! The reason why is that before Germany started World War II, they knew that their towns would be bombed, so they hid some of their precious artwork (statues, paintings, etc) in lakes and salt mines so that they could be put back after the war. They did start to restore these things after the war, but didn’t have enough money to complete it. You can see that some of the pillars and windows in the government building are real, and others are just painted on.
Outside the building, there are a few big statues, but before going out to see them, Tony had us “act” out the statues.
And here’s what the real statue looks like.
The statues have interesting meanings. The lion on the left (Kaia) has it’s mouth open, facing the government building, and the one on the right (me) has it’s mouth closed, facing a big church. It means that you’re allowed to criticize the government, but not the church! The statue in the middle represents when the kingdom of Bavaria became part of Germany. It means: “Germany can have our flag, they can have our lion (the symbol of Bavaria), but they can’t have the Lady of Bavaria”, or in other words “we’re still Bavarian”. I don’t know what the two soldiers on the sides represent though. I still think the one we did was better!
We had a look inside the theaterin kirche church (the one that you’re not allowed to criticize!)
After touring of the old part of town, we went through a big park called the English Garden, which is bigger than New York Central Park!
The bike tour stops at a Biergarten (beer house), but the one it usually goes to was closed, so we went a smaller Biergarten in the park (don’t worry, Kaia and I didn’t have beer!) We chatted with the other people on the tour as we ate wieners and pretzels. My parents were surprised that some others on the tour drank two full litres of beer! My dad had a half litre and Tony said that Bavarians would ask 1/2 L drinkers if they were still in Kindergarten. My dad ordered another half litre. Tony said that people who don’t want to drink all that alcohol get half beer and half lemonade, so it still looks like 1L of beer.
The last stop on the tour was… the surfers! There’s a wave on the Isar river that people can actually surf.
It’s an unusual wave to surf, because instead of riding with the flow of the water like you do in the ocean, you ride against the flow. It’s certainly much harder than where I’ve surfed on Zancudo beach in Costa Rica and Kuta beach in Indonesia, but the surfers there made it look so easy.
The bike tour was really fun. I think it’s a great way to see a city like Munich. At the end of the tour, we rode back to the bike shop to pick up our stuff, then rode (through pouring rain and hail) to Götz and Liza’s apartment, the people we met through Warm Showers. Götz has cycled through New Zealand staying with Warm Showers people, and now opens his apartment to cycle tourists like us. Their apartment is pretty small, but there was enough floor space for us to sleep on our air mattresses.
We were out all of the next day, but it wasn’t at all as joyful as the bike tour: we visited the Dachau concentration camp which is about 30km out of Munich.
It’s a really sad place. Dachau was a concentration camp before and during World War II, but now, it’s set up like a museum. The main building has many informational plaques, and a small theatre showing a video about the camp. I’ll share a bit of what I learned with you. I used to think that concentration camps were only used to imprison Jews, but I learned that there were also Hitler’s political opponents, communists, homosexuals, prisoners of war, and pretty much anyone else the Nazis didn’t like. This particular camp was only for men. It was originally built to hold 6 000 prisoners, but at one point there were more than 60 000 of them. Prisoners were forced to work extremely hard all day, but were hardly given any food. How is someone supposed to work hard without any food in their belly? And the guards treated them so poorly. Twice a day, they had attend “roll call”, where they had to stand straight and motionless for hours as the guards did “attendance”, but mostly just for torture. They were also brutally punished for the slightest thing, like a missing button on a shirt for example. About 49 000 prisoners died there, but not from the “gassing” used in other concentration camps to murder large amounts of people at once. They were either worked to death, starved to death, beaten to death, and many Soviet prisoners of war were brought there, where they were shot. Typhoid outbreaks killed many too. It was finally liberated by the American army in 1945.
There was a gas chamber, but it was never actually used for mass murder, like at other concentration camps. A particularly notorious camp was Auschwitz, in Poland, where thousands upon thousands of people were brought in on trains, then murdered with poisonous gas.
These next photos were taken from the Internet. They’re from between 1933 and 1945, when the camp was still in use.
The visit to the Dachau concentration camp left me feeling very sorry for all the prisoners who died or spent time there, but also feeling appalled that Hitler could actually do that. How could someone think that putting people in concentration camps would do any good? What did those people ever do wrong? It seems like pure evil to me.
We took the train back to Götz and Liza’s apartment, and went out for Mother’s Day dinner at a lovely restaurant on a walking street. It wasn’t the usual cheery way to spend mother’s day but it was a nice meal in the end.
We left Munich at mid afternoon the next day, but we went downtown to see a few more things in the morning.
We climbed to the top of a church tower near Marienplatz.
We also went to the Munich food market.
And back in Marienplatz, we watched the 12:00 PM glockenspiel, a carousel type of thing on the clock tower that shows a mini jousting match.
It always has the same outcome: the Bavarian horse always wins!
I think we experienced a lot in and around Munich. The beautiful, the evil, the friendly, and the yummy. It’s a really cool city, and it made great first impressions of Bavaria. Next stop: Neuschwanstein!