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Monthly Archives: June 2011

What I’ve Learned While Biking Through Germany, France and England

Oops, I left my day-to-day notes back at home, so my Paris post will have to wait.  In the meanwhile, here’s some stuff I’ve learned while biking in Germany, France and England.

– English IPAs are way less hoppy and way weaker than American IPAs.  In fact, I haven’t found any hoppy beer since I’ve left the U.S.

– Driving on the left is an interesting mindfuck. Turning right is like turning left (and vice versa). As a pedestrian, you have to check the ‘other’ direction first. Lefthanded roundabouts!

– England seems to have way more towns but way fewer grocery stores than France. Germany has towns that start as soon as one ends, and has a lot of grocery stores and amenities.

– England loves free wifi! Oh what a joy it was to find free wifi at every other pub and cafe around town. France and Germany love to charge you for wifi, and access is not reliable.

– On the continent, the “A” roads are the mega-freeways – bikes prohibited!  In England, the equivalent are the “M” roads.

– The Dutch almost always speak English and are almost always awesome.

– The toilet on the trains (at least the Dutch and German ones) empty out onto the tracks immediately when you flush. No kidding! They have signs that say that you must not flush the toilets while the train is stopped at a station.

– When I first arrived and would ask people “Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?”, almost everyone here in small town Germany would shake their heads sheepishly or slowly say “Nein”. But I soon learned to add “Ein bissel?” (“a little bit?”) – they would almost all say “Ja” to that.  Almost everyone here speaks enough English to communicate everything needed in a shop transaction, or to ask direction, or even have a good time over a brew – but they’re too shy to answer yes when you ask if they speak English.

– In Germany, roadies – in full kits with bicycles worth as much as a used car – are actually quite fast. In fact, everyone else is fast, too. I got outpaced going up a hill by a grandpa in a squeaky town bike with a six pack in his back basket.

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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Journal notes: Wiesen to (just before) Paris

Someone had asked that I write some posts journal-style, with day-by-day ride notes, so here it is.  Part 1 is Wiesen to Paris.  I have a few blanks to fill in later, which I’ll hopefully get around to, including kilometer counts.

6/4 – Ochsenbuch 159.02

We had visited a bike shop in a nearby town the day before to get my bike in touring shape. The front rotor and brake mechanism were replaced with Shinamo, as they had no Avid rotors. We loaded up our panniers the night before as well, mostly, and we were off bright and early. Unfortunately, we had intended on staying at a hostel, but they were booked up. We called another place, but on the night watchman was on duty, and he spoke no English.

Chris’s “breadcrumb” navigation on his Garmin worked well. He had placed little waypoints that we were to navigate through as we went. As the afternoon wore on, we called both the booked-up hostel (in case of cancellations) and the other place, to no avail. Afternoon became evening, and we started asking people if there was a campground nearby. We got the tip around 6 or 7pm that there was a place not too far, and it was on our breadcrumbed route, so we headed over. An old rusty sign pointed the way in.

When we arrived at the gatehouse, the employees were just leaving. They said there was indeed a campground and that there would still be time for us to get beer and food at the chalet. We biked down and were greeted warmly by one of the owners, a Dutchman who spoke English fluently. He and another Dutchman had purchased the campground (it had been in bankruptcy) and reopened it only two weeks ago.

We set up camp and showered, then went to the chalet for some Grolsch and cheese toasties (grilled cheese). We talked to a group of German recumbant bike tourists as well. They were quite impressed with the distance we were covering – they were doing 80-90 km per day, and they had only arrived at the campground an hour or before we had. We talked about biking on the roads and on paths in Germany (we told them we had given up on paths after one path took us up and down very steep hills before deviating us from the road we needed to get onto – we had to drag our bikes across a ditch and road barrier to get back). It was a good night, and we very much enjoyed our stay at the campground.

6/5 – ? france 166.5

Our second day was warm and partly cloudy. Again, we made good distance despite the hills. Crossing over into France, the sign indicating a different country was less impressive than the signs in the U.S. indicating a different state – it was a very plain highway sign marked “FRANCE” with default speed limits for various road types listed.

Again, we weren’t quite going to make it to the campground we had wanted to get to, so as it became later in the day, we started asking people for campgrounds. Neither Chris nor I spoke French, however, and no one seemed to speak German, let alone English. We finally found a man working in his backyard who spoke English. We got directions from him for a campground not too far away, so we headed there. We made a pit stop to get dinner, but no one there spoke German or English, so it was a lot of guesswork and pointing to get what we wanted.

When we arrived at the campground, there was a wall and a sealed gate, along with a “no trespassing” warning in four languages. It was getting dark now, too, so it wasn’t feasible to go out into the French countryside looking for another campground. We were almost ready to stealthcamp in a field across the way, but, luckily, Chris found an unlocked pedestrian gate. We walked our bikes in and made our way to the campground.

It was mostly a campground for caravans (RVs), and it looked like most everyone was asleep. We found a couple of youngsters hanging out and tried to ask them if it would be okay if we set up camp, but they had no idea. We eventually found a Dutchman who was camping there, who thought it’d be no problem. We picked an empty spot close to the showers and made camp for the night.

Notably, the toilets had no seats (bare porcelain) and no toilet paper. The lights were activated by motion sensor, so if you were sitting still for too long, you’d be in darkness before too long. Good times!

6/6 – Ste Menehoulde 123.4

We woke up in the morning and went to the campground office. It was no problem at all. There were two goats at the side of the office. The brown one only wanted to sit in his chair, while the black one wanted nothing in the world but to get petted by me. He followed me as I walked to the office door, and then watched sadly as I rode off.

We rode against headwind through lots of hilly country (not to mention some rain, but it wasn’t quite so bad), so we didn’t make it to Ste Menehoulde until just before 9pm – we got there as the campground keeper was leaving. I learned later that Ste Menehoulde is significant in French history. When King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fled Paris after the revolution began, Ste Menehoulde was where they were recognized – they were later captured and brought back to Paris.

As we were riding through the main drag to get dinner, some jackasses dumped a bucket of (what I will continue to assume was) water on us from their 2nd story apartment. Oh well.

Chris told me that Ste Menehoulde was famous for le pied de cochon, where you eat the whole thing – including bones, so I went to the Cheval Rouge [check] to check it out. The locally made pied de cochon was 9.50, whereas the imported stuff was 5.50. Like as sucker, I got the local stuff. It was good, but I couldn’t quite choke down all of the bones.

6/7 – Reuilly-Savignon 112

Our last day before Paris went through beautiful Champagne country. We passed by many vineyards, including Moet & Chandon. Unfortunately, not only the terrain against us, it rained on us all day. This was the day we stayed at Bill & Meredith’s B&B – take a look at Paying It Forward for the rest.

Okay!  That’s all I got for today.  Next time (whenever I get to internet again), I’ll post my notes for Paris.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Paying it forward

The day before we arrived in Paris, we rode through Champagne.  We saw fields and fields of grapes for wineries such as Moët & Chandon.  It had been a pleasant sunny day when we started the day in Sainte-Menehould, but quickly turned sour.  It rained nearly all day with a stiff headwind as well.  We had planned on camping in Château-Thierry, but halfway through our day of getting drenched with no end in sight for the rain, we called an American-run bed and breakfast in Reuilly-Sauvigny that Chris had stayed at in years past.

Bill, the owner, was very apologetic, but the place was full – there was a large group of British motorcycle tourists coming in.  He told us he’d try calling around to nearby B&Bs and hotels; we told him we’d call back in a bit.  On a particularly laborious uphill, Chris got a call.  He grumblingly answered, and it was Bill.  He said we could come by and use his barn for shelter, and we could also use his bathroom and shower.

We arrived at the B&B and was greeted warmly by Meredith, Bill’s wife and co-owner of the B&B. She allowed us to use the shower in their private apartment, did our laundry for us (the clothes we were wearing and also the laundry we had done the night before, which we had hung out to dry on our rear racks but which were soaked by now), and put us up in an adjacent building which was being renovated – very much nicer than what I thought we’d get when I heard “barn”.  They also invited us to join them for breakfast, which we gladly accepted.  They apologized that they had no food for dinner, but offered to let us borrow their car so we could go a few kilometers away to the nearest restaurant – we declined their generosity here, opting to eat our emergency rations instead.

As we left the next morning, Meredith and I talked a bit about her own trips.  She was a hiker – she was soon to go on a 1000 km hike in northern Spain which she had done several times before.  She told us how she was helped along the way on her long hikes by strangers, and that she likes to be helpful to other travelers in need.  She asked that we help other travelers when we can.

It didn’t take long before we got a chance to help another traveler out.  Our first day out of Paris, in Amiens, as we were eating our dinner around 9pm at the campground and caravanning/RV/chalet site, a Dutch bike tourist came in.  He had been staying at hotels but there were no rooms in Amiens (apparently there was a big judo tournament in town) – this was his last hope.  The clerk – again, very apologetically – told him that there were no chalets left.  The clerk and the Dutch tourist frantically tried to brainstorm any possibilities, but at that late hour, it seemed hopeless.  Chris and I offered the Dutch tourist use of my bivouac sack and I would stay with Chris in his two-man tent.  The clerk had a sleeping bag, so we were able to help this bike tourist out.
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On the road, plans go awry and conditions change in unpredictable ways.  A bike tourist is especially at the mercy of what happens around him.  It’s nice to know that there are people out there who will help, and it very much made our day to be able to help a fellow traveler out.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

European Tour: First Impression

A recap of my Eurotrip thus far and the planned itinerary: I arrived in Frankfurt on June 2 and made my way to Wiesen (with some difficulty – the bus from the nearest train station to Wiesen was not running anymore because it was on holiday schedule!  lucky me).  After getting my gear ready, Chris and I left on our bike tour to Paris, then London. Today, June 8, we arrived in Paris via the Ourcq Canal.  We will spend three nights in Paris and then make our way to London, where we’ll be spending another three nights, before making our way to Holland, then down the Rhine River back to Wiesen.

Bike touring in Germany and France has been exceptional.  Drivers have been generally very respectful.  We have mostly traveled on two-lane highways with almost no shoulder, and I’ve never felt unsafe.  In particular, truck drivers in France have waited patiently behind us, passing only when they could do so completely in the other lane.

Eating on the road in Germany and France has been much better than during the Mississippi River bike tour.  During the Mississippi tour, we consumed mostly fried gas station food.  On this tour, so far, we’ve been eating fresh sandwiches made at delis or butchers, or, at worst, prepackaged sandwiches with smoked meats and cheese and yogurt. During the Mississippi tour, we drank Gatorade mostly.  On this tour, we’re drinking water – the house brand water at supermarkets is about 20 to 40 cents.

As on the Mississippi tour, the folks we’ve met have been exceedingly helpful and friendly.  There’s something about traveling on bike that seems to attract good people.  When we’ve been in a bind, on both trips, we’ve gotten a little help to keep us going.

Those are my first impressions.  I’ll have more to write as my Eurotour winds down – hopefully I’ll have internet access!

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2011 in Uncategorized