I have looked forward to reaching Ulm, looking at its position on the map for months and wondering if it was really possible for me to get there on a bicycle. It has been a good rest day destination for Andy and I, a small city with an interesting history but a contemporary culture that includes plenty of drinking, chatting and watching the world go by. The citizens of Ulm decided to redesign the centre of the city a few years ago, and a 4 line road through the centre now has an art gallery and pedestrian priority sections in the way, so car drivers now have to go VERY slowly. And there are cyclists everywhere. Not many Brits, in fact just us and the guy we met 2 days ago on a coffee stop. And not many coach loads of tourists from other parts either, so the city has a pretty authentic feel, unlike Lausanne for example. The early food market outside on the plaza today was full of locals gathering their veg, cheeses and bread for lunches. I had a lovely time doing the same thing, sampling the cheeses and gesticulating a lot. We explored the minster and admired the choir stalls in particular, with really skilled wood carving. It reminded us of Ripon cathedral alot and found it interesting how close the design was to those at home. The exception was in the depiction of individual characters in wood, like Pythagoras and Virgil with very detailed work and expressions on their faces. Of course I enjoyed the carvings of fed up faces, and the man who was blowing a raspberry. Good to see German sense of humour there from the 15th century.
Andy went off for a sauna in the afternoon and I wandered down to the river for a walk and some book reading. Before crossing the river in the solar boat I had a chat with my new friend Gunter sitting next to me on the public bench. He was a Polish man of 72 who came to Ulm with his family after the war. It was interesting that he was still grateful to Britain for the ‘war effort’ even though he has lived in Germany all these years. If you are impressed by my conversational skills, it was helped greatly by a young woman from the local cafe who was having her break, and she translated for us! Perhaps a German born person of a Gunter’s age would not have been so complimentary, given what happened to Ulm in the war.
Our evening plan involves a local creperie, as appetites are not enormous today, well not including the large gateau and all the tea I had this afternoon. I have no idea if I have lost weight in these 4 weeks, though I think a bit, but I do seem to be wearing some one else’s legs, which must be how I managed to cycle so far. So far…
Helen’s track of the day: Martin Simpson, When a Knight Won His Spurs. This came to mind when wandering in the minster, as I have hit on a period of listening to folk music and heard MS playing this – a memory of singing this when 8 years old in choir practice. And all that wonderful choral music I COULD have chosen…
We didn’t wake until 8 this morning – after 11 hours solid sleep. It could have been something to do with the 49 miles yesterday in cool and sometimes rainy weather. But the accommodation and food last night were excellent and this morning we were refreshed. First stop was Munderkingen – a small town on the Danube with a sense of humour, as evidenced by the giant plastic white storks that were on every corner.
We cycled on to Ehingen, where we took an alternative route up a side valley and over a low pass to join the river Blau. (Helen threatened to kill me if it turned out to be anything other than ‘the lowest pass in the known universe’ – as advertised by me. Luckily it was – and I survived). The reason for the diversion was that the Blau is one of those rivers that emerge, fully formed, from the bottom of a limestone cliff. In this case it was known as the Blautopf – the Blue Pool – and it was a lovely, tranquil place to stop for a drink.
Cave divers have explored the river underground for about 4 miles, and there is a parallel, dry system of cave passages too. For those who prefer their entertainment to be less challenging there was a large teddy bear on the wall, blowing bubbles.
Another 10 miles or so down the winding Blau valley brought us to Ulm, and the end of another leg of the trip. Entering large conurbations by bike can be tricky. But the bike route into Ulm was beautiful and landed us right next to the Minster and our hotel. Oddly it reminded me of the Taff Trail in/out of Cardiff (though that lands you beside the Arms Park, which isn’t quite the same). We’ll have a rest day here tomorrow.
Helen’s track of the day: Springsteen, Born To Run, playing at our lunch stop today with an American woman as proprietor of a very retro pub. Not my favourite Springsteen song but this is not a favourites list, just what comes up during the trip.
Somehow we ended up cycling 49 miles today – which I think is a record. We had stopped a few miles short of our intended campsite last night because of the rain, so it was always going to be a longer day – but it turned into quite a test at the end as the supposedly riverside route left the river and turned hilly, and huge thunderstorms forced us to stop and shelter.
Part of the problem was that the first 10 miles or more were so beautiful and we made a slow start. The path continued to wind (look at the loops on our GPS track) through the limestone gorge with ‘wows’ at every turn. Wildenstein castle was particularly spectacular.
You will notice the absence of photos of the view back down from the castle. Somehow the urge to cycle up there for it just didn’t seem to be there. But I am sure it is very good. Back in the valley, the off road trail through the forest was just perfect – if rather slow.
And the tiny hamlets were equally idyllic, so that out coffee stop was a real treat.
By lunchtime we had emerged from the gorge and entered a wider section of the valley – back to sharing it with road and railway. The riding here was not so spectacular, but at least we had a tailwind. But this particular tailwind had a sting in it, as it was driving thunderstorms in from the west. We sat one out under a huge concrete road bridge that crossed the Danube on piers and tried to chat to locals who were also sheltering. Neither of us was keen on camping – given the conditions – so, after some false starts and extra miles we found a modern and welcoming guest house in Obermarchtal.
One of the many tell-tale signs of the keen cyclist is an imprint of the large chain ring, in oil, on the back of the calf. Here is a perfect example of the genre – if I say so myself. I am seriously considering getting it tattooed there permanently.
Helen’s track of the day: Supertramp – Dreamer, because we hear a lot of Supertramp in Germany and every holiday playlist should have some Supertramp.
As I got up this morning ….. I could see the rain clouds gathering again in the west. But you can’t change the weather – so we packed the tent and off we went towards the Danube. (And yes- Pauline – it is for real – though we have to keep pinching ourselves!).
Having missed the official start of the trail yesterday we stopped as soon as we reached the river for our own photo.
We had breakfast sitting outside a bakery beside the bridge. Our first white storks flew overhead – so we knew we really heading east. The rain held off until our coffee stop – where we met our first British cyclist on a very similar route to ours. For the first time we are on a recognised (and very popular) cycle route and not on one that I made up. I hope we can adjust to the crowds! We have noticed already that most seem to be middle aged couples. What do the youngsters do?
Lunch was in rainy Tuttlingen, where we came across a bookshop with an English section – much to Helen’s delight because a parcel from the UK had not reached Zurich before we did (either we are fast cyclists or the post is slow). Four days with nothing to read and only me to talk to.
The rest of the day held all the scenic treasures. The river enters a limestone gorge, of a similar depth and width to Monsal Dale in Derbyshire, but about 20 miles long. There are limestone cliffs, caves and towers – as in Dove Dale – and fairytale castles on the cliff tops – unlike Dove Dale.
One strange feature is that about 80% of the water from the Danube/Donau disappears underground into sinks that re-emerge about 15 km to the south on the other side of the watershed. Here the water flows down to the Bodensee and thence the Rhine and the North Sea! But we followed the reduced river Donau heading for the Black Sea (eventually).
The gorge is too narrow for road or railway so it was beautifully peaceful as we cycled the unpaved track.
We decided that it is now officially too wet to camp – so we have checked in to the Pelikan hotel in Beuron – still in the heart of the gorge. Once rested there is a monastery to explore.
Helen’s track of the day: Tavener, The Lamb, in keeping with the spiritual calm from the monastery across the road from our guesthouse.
This was a top day’s cycling, but hard, with a lot of climbing. The payoff was that almost all of it was on tiny lanes (some unpaved) and miles off the beaten track, in the edge of the Black Forest, no cars and just huge birds of prey (eagles?) and the deer for company. Brilliant! Food was almost a problem though – having spent our last Swiss francs in Schaffhausen on breakfast we had to get to Germany before we could buy lunch in Euros!
Here is the view back from the first hairpin on the first climb of the day, which turned out to be 300 m high!
At the top there was a dirt road along the ridge at 850m with superb views to the south. Sadly there was cloud over the Alps, which would otherwise have been clearly visible. But at least it wasn’t raining!
After a couple more small climbs we reached the German border. Not that you’d have noticed, given the lack of officialdom.
Germany should have meant lunch – but the first village was entirely closed up. So on we went – to be rewarded with a great pub restaurant in a tiny village. Beer, pork and pepper sauce, chips and salad. We flew up the final climb of the day – and possibly the most beautiful – to arrive on this high plateau at 780 m, where the Danube rises. Unfortunately we were tired and not thinking straight and cycled right past the ‘official’ source of the Danube, thus missing the photo op, but we have found a nice camp site just a few miles down the Danube bike track.
It is officially ALL DOWNHILL all the way down the Danube from here to Budapest! Think of that!
Helen’s track of the day: Amy Winehouse, Valerie. There was no apparent reason for this arriving in my head after lunch but it kept me going for a while.
The hotel in Zurich had been lovely, so it was a wrench to leave – particularly since it was raining again as we packed up. But it relented and we made good dry progress out of Zurich on suburban roads for the first part of the morning. After coffee we did a short climb and descended a valley to enter different country altogether. This was deeply wooded and rural.
We joined the Rhine valley in a wooded gorge – where repairs to this very small road had resulted in its closure to traffic but, because this was a significant bike route, a fully signposted cyclists diversion through the woods!
I love this country. Diversions just for cyclists! And even the smallest place has urinals that flush as you step back. (When I first came here, aged 16, my mate told me that the sensors also photographed your willy and that the police kept the photos for solving sex crimes. My mate was clearly ahead of his time – but luckily he didn’t go on to become a Labour Home Secretary.)
Just after lunch we reached the Rhine Falls – 120 m wide and 26 m high – allegedly the largest waterfall in Europe (by flow). This was a sight that I had wanted to see for years (sad man!). I took some video but haven’t been able to upload it yet. So here is a photo. The rock in the middle was under siege from people landing from the flotilla of tourist boats.
Now we are camping at Schaffhausen and surviving thunderstorms and more prolonged and heavy rain. Oh well. Tomorrow Germany!
Helen’s track of the day: The Hot 8 Brass Band, What’s My Name? After an hour of listening to Louis Armstrong tracks in the Italian pizza place tonight I needed to listen to something loud and a bit more contemporary. Thanks to Daniel for putting this on my playlist.
Today was a welcome and really enjoyable rest day, and exploring the city of Zurich was an unexpected treat for me. We bought a tourist card allowing travel by trolley bus or train throughout the day, hopping on and off when we reached our destination, or getting off and heading back in the other direction when we went wrong. Despite having had the good sense to bring Andy on this trip with me that still proved necessary on a couple of occasions.
The city has lake, river, mountain scenery and historic town to explore. I enjoyed the Grossmunster church, with magnificent abstract stained glass windows designed recently by Sigmar Polke. One series of windows had patterns produced by thin slices of agate stone which were back lit in sunlight and produced beautiful kaleidoscopic effects. So, my first souvenir purchase of the trip – two postcards of my favourite windows!
We also visited the old town, the Fraumunster church with windows by Marc Chagall, and the Kunsthaus, one of the main art galleries in Switzerland. We spent a long time admiring Monet Waterlillies, three from the series in a room of much greater tranquillity than hung in the National Gallery in London. It could be the relative number of people visiting or it could be a reflection of my current calm state of mind. Or it could be both.
As the day got warmer and the sun came out we decided to take a train up to the main Zurich viewpoint, the Uetilberg Mountain. This gave great views and proved to be a popular local Sunday afternoon activity. Zurich types seem to go in for dog walks involving taking the train up the hill, carrying the dog and the dog’s stick and then having a very short walk on the mountain paths. Today we did actually see a very pampered dog (wearing a pink dog coat, and with pink ribbons in its hair) which was being followed on its walk by a chap pushing a pink pooch-chair for when the poor thing got tired. Sometimes I despair of humankind, hope it doesn’t show too often.
Track of the day: Paul Simon, Rene and Georgette Magritte and their dog after the war, because this came into my head the instant we stood before a Magritte painting in the art gallery today!
When it rains in Switzerland it certainly rains! This has been non-stop for 48 hours, but it does seem to have dried up now, as I sit here in this smart hotel in Zurich. Amazing that they let us in – given that we arrived wet and covered in dirt – some from the wet road and more from mending a puncture in the rain. But we were given a friendly reception and were even told we could take the bikes up to our room!
Last night in Lucerne was the start of the International Blues Festival and there was a party atmosphere – despite the weather. The town is in a delightful setting on the edge of the lake with mountains all around. The famous medieval wooden covered bridge seemed to be the star attraction – despite the original having burnt down in 1993.
We spent a pleasant evening looking round the old town and went to sleep with the sound of live blues reverberating through the streets.
Today has been a straightforward enough 35 mile ride through to Zurich – though quite hard work in the coldish rain. There were what would have been great views of Lake Lucerne, but the low cloud blotted most of it out.
It was amazing then that there were still planes flying for the air show that we had been told about yesterday. A huge jumbo jet, hopefully without passengers, was pulling the aviation equivalent of handbrake turns over our head in a showing off sort of a way.
We stayed cheerful – even when having to mend the aforementioned rear puncture – and the rain eased off on the final climb over the ridge to Zurich. So here we are – nearly at the end of Switzerland and with a day off the bike tomorrow to enjoy Zurich.
Helen’s track of the day: Mr Carlos Santana, Smooth, because he is on another world tour and arrives in this area in September. I hope he has packed his brolly. And because I needed something loud to keep me going on a day when the effort felt considerable. But over 600 miles now done!
A bit of an eventful one today! First there was the weather. It dawned dry but under heavy cloud that was hanging right down to the valley floor. As we set off so the rain began – and it has been raining at least steadily – often hard – all day.
Then there was the accident. After a couple of miles we crossed a level crossing. The track was at a shallow angle to the road and I was leading. But I didn’t turn to take it at right angles and got my front wheel caught in the slot. I went down heavily. Helen failed to stop in the wet and on the slippery rubber between the tracks and went down on top of me! Bikes, bags and bodies everywhere! Helen hit her head hard on the road (the benefits of wearing a helmet) and we suffered minor road rash – but we soon disentangled the bikes, got out the first aid kit and began to patch ourselves up. But we had forgotten that we were in the middle of a level crossing and just then the warning sounds started to indicate that the barriers would soon come down! Queue another burst of panic as we dragged everything right off the crossing. Strangely enough I didn’t think of taking pictures.
Then there was the shortcut. We had crossed a gentle pass out of the Emmental valley and had a downhill run on a fairly big road all the way to Lucerne. But the valley we were in did a large dogleg to the north – and I had seen a minor road cutting the corner. I knew it must go over a ridge – but hadn’t bothered to check the spot heights. Needless to say, it turned into a classic little climb up into the clouds, up a series of beautifully engineered steep zig zags. I loved it, but Helen did not seem impressed! From the pass there was a gem of a descent through classic Swiss pasture land – all still in the driving rain you understand. As I may have said at the bottom – cracking shortcut Grommit!
Finally, there was the tourist office in Lucerne. From what we could see through the rain, this looks a lovely place, but a hotel seemed more attractive than the tent. So we stood making huge puddles on the desk, and the floor, whilst our newest friend Irene told us that Lucerne was full – what with the Blues festival tonight and the Swiss national air display tomorrow. A queue of normal people began to build up behind us as we dripped and listened to the lengthy account of Lucerne’s attractions. But our luck was in and we grabbed a cancellation in a hostel – where the rain continues to fall. But at least we are in the dry.
Helen’s track of the day:
Wed – Elbow: Starlings because I have enjoyed the droll northern humour of this song a lot.
Thursday – Cyndi Lauper: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, heard at the breakfast stop today and seemed to stick with me during the day.
Today- to be honest the last 2 songs stayed with me all day, but by rest time tonight I needed something calmer, and enjoyed Fleet Foxes, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song which reminded me of my ponderings during the day about how mountain people live with all this rain.
It was good to be back on the bikes today after a rest. In fact, the day was a bit short!
Today we were retracing more landmarks from a family house exchange holiday with Catherine and Daniel in 1997, when we had use of an apartment in Burgdorf. This lovely small town in the Emmental is 12 miles from Bern, over a ridge. We arrived mid morning and wandered around reminiscing. More usefully, we found a small bike shop where a mechanic tuned my misfiring rear derailleur.
From Burgdorf we turned up the Emmental valley. This has none of the spectacular mountains of the Simmental, but it has a rural charm all of its own. We used a cycle route off the main road and rode through tiny rural hamlets and farmyards. With dampness from rain the previous night, and more storms brewing, you could smell the grass growing and the cheese curdling!
In the absence of convenient campsites the plan had been to stay at the Youth Hostel in Langnau. But there was clearly a storm brewing, and the YH dorm was very basic indeed – so we remembered that we are 50 after all, and checked into the hotel instead! This is lovely, and I am now watching both the rain hammer down outside and the final big mountain day of the TDF. Heaven!