Now at the end of my second week on the road, I find myself in a city I had no intentions of visiting, until, well, a week ago. In fact I had no idea where Bern was until a week ago. However I can safely say I now have an acute muscle memory of the mountainous contours required to get here, and judging by the view out the window, I’m about to gain a few more come Monday.
It’s been a funny old week on the road, leaving Romain’s (my Belgian couch surfing host) beautiful country house on Saturday, I knew I had a few big days of cycling ahead of me if I was to make it to Bern for Friday. Possibly the hardest ride of the lot was going to be that day. With plenty of forewarning about the east Belgian hills, I had prudently prepared a route of minimal elevation and distance to take me to my next couch surfing host. As a man who knew his Belgian hills, I thought it wise to consult Romain about my route and when he offered to plan some alternatives, I happily accepted. Rolling into my first Belgian valley my journey had somehow become 13 miles longer, contained two border crossings and an extra 500m of climbing. Brilliant.
Riding enveloped in a thick fog, I was hidden away from said rolling peaks, being cruelly deceived by the flat riverside terrain. Like a badly kept secret, one would pop out from above the fog foreboding what lay ahead. After completing my Belgium-France-Belgium border hopping, the road gently pressed upwards and I knew the roller coaster ride had begun. Starting calmly at first, the climbs were long but manageably steep. This quickly changed however to a seemingly never-ending series of tight switchbacks up hills that relentlessly followed on and on. This being early in the trip, my legs weren’t best pleased, but for all the toil and profuse profanities directed at those hills, I really couldn’t fault the sunny Belgian countryside. A steep yet stunning landscape wasn’t what I expected entering the world of smooth chocolate and law-abiding citizens, yet I was happy to here. Until I saw the next switchback…
The hills mercifully petered out as I clocked up over 80 miles and 2000m of climbing. Pulling into the drive of my next hosts, I was seriously grateful for a warm chicken pie and somewhere to rest my head. With the temperature swiftly dropping to below zero, I had no desire to be out there riding.
Geraldine and Julien had spent a year cycling around Europe, and despite being in a semi-vegetative state from my day in the saddle, it was really nice to hear about their tales from the road. They advised me that with the large amount of rainfall they’ve received this winter, it would be best to avoid camping if I enjoyed having feeling in my toes and a dry sleeping bag. Hearing this I quickly booked myself a hostel for the next night in Luxembourg.
Living by the border, the next days ride was smooth sailing and crossing into this new land I was greeted by an overcast Luxembourg. After a quick ‘sight-seeing’ walk around the city, complete with enthusiasm levels to match the dark clouds, I began to piece together how I could get to Bern for the following Friday. All my couch surfing leads had dried up for the next few days, so with a questionable last minute Airbnb booked for the follow night, I decided to leave Luxembourg the following day. After a quick chat with some bikers from the UK, I climbed out of the valley that bares the very original name of Luxembourg city. The day was spent being blown 60 miles along the river Saar through to the home of Bratwurst. Deutschland happily greeted me with well signed bike paths and locals who refused smile when I waved. Religiously following this industrial waterway, I entered into Saarbrucken in the early afternoon before finding my Airbnb for the night. Vita greeted me outside the house in broken English but managed to say ‘I’m glad it’s you’. Although somewhat uncertain of what she meant, I made a note to lock my door that night.
Waking up the next morning without incident, I wanted to hit the road early. Such was my rush to get going that I ended up locking my helmet in the garage as I left. With Vita out the house and my set of keys safely posted through the letterbox, I began to work out how I could best get back into the house. Deciding to go through the neighbours garden, I made my way around the house with a panther like stealth. Clearly it wasn’t enough, as I came face to face with a rather portly German man who was just sitting on a step, staring into space. It was as though he had been waiting all his life for this to happen, sitting on his garden step every morning at 7:30 for an English cyclist to try make their way into the fortress that was Vitas garden. Having been caught so prematurely I let out a feeble ‘sprechen sie Englisch?’ to which I received a firm shaking of the head. Well now I broke into full mime trying to explain the situation and that as random person wearing bike gear, he should let me break into the house of his neighbour. My mime skills were clearly up to the mark as he soon escorted me into the garage to pick up my helmet, remarking that it was actually called a ‘Helme’. With that nugget of knowledge lodged firmly in mind, I began pedalling back to the trusty Saar with my course set for Strasbourg. The sun rose in a spectacular fashion over the river, dousing everything with a warm orange hue. The summery light was soon replaced with thick cloud, but this had little effect on dampening my mood. It was going to be a fun days cycling. Working my way up the start of the Alsatian hills, the locals were cheering me on my way and even two gravediggers halted their work to give me a supporting wave.
80 miles of smooth rolling hills went by in no time and by 3 o’clock I was nestled into the beating heart of Strasbourg. The place was pulsating with life, beautiful buildings, bikes and people were all out on the street and I was loving it. Armed with my camera, I greedily shot every pretty street in site. As a testament to the place, by the time I was finished it was time for bed.
Waking up the next day I was excited, not least by the fact I’d be reducing my mileage to 50 per day and would be able to take my time riding through the beautiful Alsatian countryside. However my body had other plans. I slowly began cycling out of the city I liked so much with a stomach churning like a washing machine running an express wash. Despite this it seemed the cycling gods were with me that morning and sent me a gift in the form of Nickolas. A lawyer studying for his Bar exams, he was out for a morning ride and wanted to know all about my trip. We happily nattered away for 20 miles before he made his way up a particularly steep looking mountain and I ploughed on deeper into the Alsace. With my mind no longer occupied, a stiff headwind for company and some hills forming under my tyres, it was to be an afternoon of struggling. But struggle on I did, and to the beautiful backdrop of quaint french villages I slowly made my way to Ammerschwihr.
As I entered the village, it started to rain as darkness immediately fell. I couldn’t find my hosts house for the evening and was not the happiest of bunnies. Asking random people if they knew where Patrick lived provided a lot comments from the locals but none that actually led me to find the correct road. Google maps was showing that I had to walk through a barn and after the day I was having, I suspected my supernatural powers weren’t going to be up to much. After a bit of jigging with the maps I eventually managed to find Patricks place and was greeted by a smiling frenchman and his two sons. Conversation consisted of a healthy mixture of french and english combined with the odd gesture, but they managed to make me laugh and really enjoy my evening. Feeling refreshed the next day, I waged another fierce battle with yet more headwinds down to the Rhein and after 50 uneventful miles I entered Basel.
Darkness was just descending on the city and I had some time to kill before my host would be ready for me. I walked my bike around the city, settling atop a church garden with some keen photographers. Soon I met two lads around my age who were interested in my bike. It turns Abbas had to build a drone as one of his university modules and after realising he wasn’t able to do this, he’d posted on facebook for help, offering to pay for flights and food for anyone that could build his plane. Hikmet had taken up the offer and that’s what brought this unlikely duo together. I had to laugh. We walked around Basel chatting with Abbas even insisting he bought me dinner in the form of a traditional Swiss raclette.
The next day was to be a big one. Riding 65 miles complete with my first mountain pass as I closed in on Bern. The mercury had dropped to negatives in Basel and it was sure to be a cold one climbing those switchbacks. Well I needn’t have worried because I was working up a good sweat climbing for the next hour and a half. At 800m the pass really was hardly the Himalayas, but it definitely felt like a significant moment in the trip. Fields and trees sprinkled with snow like icing sugar made for spectacular viewing and the 5 mile descent was incredible. I felt like a child riding a bike again, grinning from ear to ear. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far. I rode into Bern still buzzing from the day and met up with an old friend Fabi. Tonight I had been invited for dinner with the family and tomorrow was to be spent with a few beers celebrating her birthday. Very much ready for a day off the bike, this sounded perfect.