11) Alsace loop

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Almost exactly a year to the day after we last boarded a train to Basel to ride through Alsace and the Rhineland, Giles and I headed back, as we’d promised ourselves we would. But this time we took along a rookie by the name of Tom. Tom wasn’t having the easiest time of things and we wanted to cheer him up a bit. Whether we were successful or not we’ll find out when he starts responding to stimulus again.

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Tom

By the time we reached Basel we were already steaming drunk. Tom had gotten carried away and bought a lot of red wine before we set off, resulting in an animated drinking session with a young German lass who had abandoned her husband to go ride over 1000 km on a road bike on her own carrying just a tiny backpack, but who still managed to look fresh and elegant. We, by contrast, had so far cycled zero kilometres and already looked (and probably smelled) like shit. Still, she heard us making noise and came to join the party. Giles and Tom flirted outrageously with the poor girl, but I didn’t.

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The weather in Basel was crap. Specifically it was raining. Luckily our R2 unit (Giles) has acquired a meteorology module and was able to tell us that if we sat down and drank a beer for 30 minutes the rain would stop. We didn’t believe him, naturally, but a beer sounded like a good plan after all that red wine so down we sat and after half an hour spent talking to some loony old hag (actually she may have been the young lass from the train prematurely aged by a three hour drinking binge) who was convinced she had just received a text message from Gerard Depardieu it stopped raining.

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It was past midnight by now and we were very very drunk so half an hour out of Basel we stopped and set up camp by the river, sucked down a couple more beers and crashed (out).

Day 1

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The weather forecast was for rain all day, and that morning things didn’t look great, especially through the haze of a hangover, but it stayed dry until just past 11 when we decided enough was enough and stopped at a conveniently placed bar for a large beer, at which point it promptly started raining and didn’t stop until we had finished the beer and were ready to go. This happens all the time in the German Rhineland, but they don’t mention it in any of their brochures.

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Twenty past beer

With a stiff wind behind us, a large beer inside us and the rain not on us we careered merrily down to the tiny town of Oberrimsingen for a lunch which was awesome in a very German kind of way. August is clearly chanterelle (“pfifferlinge”) season in that part of the world because they threw them over everything, and chanterelles are like bacon in that they improve everything they are added to.

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A pleasant afternoon’s cruising (in the meaning of travelling enjoyably for the hell of it, rather than trawling dodgy parks at night looking for gay sex) ended in Freiburg. Freiburg is a big place compared to the tiny little burgs we usually choose to spend our evenings and this was deliberate. Small burgs are cute and everything but they tend to only have one restaurant and be populated by inbred axe murderers. Only one restaurant means it’s down to dumb luck whether you eat well or not, plus said restaurant tends to be shut by 10 pm because all the inhabitants have a busy night-time schedule fucking their relatives, sharpening their axes and murdering. So we decided that on this trip we would hit bigger towns ensuring that we ate well, and with the added bonus that after resting several hours and eating and drinking heartily the 15 or so kilometres you have to ride to find a place to sleep feel effortless.

On arrival in Freiburg we hit a beer hall, then the swimming pool. German swimming pools are as amazing as you’d expect, but it was a rather uncomfortable experience, for me anyway. The reason, dear reader, is that the French, in all their infinite wisdom, insist that you wear Speedos, budgie smugglers, “moule-boules”, in their swimming pools, so that was what I had brought along. The Germans, being civilised, don’t insist on Speedos so I was the only grown man in the place wearing the fucking things, added to which I am tall and gangly and entirely unsuited to such a preposterous garment. As soon as I walked out of the changing rooms two teenage girls cackled loudly in that unnerving way that teenage girls do. Possibly they weren’t laughing at me, but it didn’t help things.

From thence we wended our way into the city centre, where after loudly protesting that every bar along the way “wasn’t German enough”, the R2 unit led us firmly to an Italian restaurant. Whilst excellent at data manipulation R2 units are, like all computers, actually pretty stupid. No matter, the place ticked all the boxes (actually just the one box, the one marked Will Swap Booze for Money) so we took a table and I proceeded to fortuitously fuck up by confusing the German for “a bottle of wine” (ein flasche wein) with “a glass of wine” (ein glas wein, not exactly difficult) and ordering the former whilst meaning the latter. A bottle of excellent (Calabrian) wine and one glass showed up and I didn’t have the heart to send it back so we drank it, plus another because it was so good.

After wolfing down very tasty weiner schnitzels in a cheap buzzy restaurant called Tacheles that served every possible variation on schnitzel, we mounted our trusty steel steeds and hoofed it 20 km out of town to a small lakeside beach that the R2 unit had located using satellite data and which looked like a peaceful place to spend the night.

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We arrived past midnight to find the bar still open, loads of people around drinking beers and an 18 year old’s birthday party pumping bad teenager’s music at full volume. The bar owner told us this would go on all night but we were welcome to crash on “his” beach so we ordered beers and settled in. The evening turned into one of those mildly surreal nights where you meet strange and hilarious people and laugh a lot. The owner kept the beers coming, refused to accept payment and sat and talked bollocks. Some other guy who was the spit of Billy Idol showed up and announced he was exhausted “from all the fucking”, and the funniest German man I have ever met (and they are much funnier than they are given credit for) kept us in stitches all night. He also told us in no uncertain terms that the wine festival in Colmar to which we were headed on Sunday night was “SCHEIßE” and that under no circumstances should we go near the place.

Finally we crashed, the bad German music still shaking the ground upon which we lay, but a combination of physical exhaustion, alcohol and earplugs afforded a comfortable night’s sleep and we awoke refreshed to a beautiful sunny day…

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well, some of us awoke refreshed

Day 2

… which stayed sunny and beautiful right up until the moment we packed up and left at which point it clouded over and threatened to rain. Unsurprisingly though our luck held and a dry, uneventful ride got us as far as Lahr where we stopped for the most German lunch it is possible to have: bratwurst and potato salad served with a smile and washed down with large beers. And damned delicious it was too.

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The ride that afternoon was a good’un: canals, cornfields, cute villages, the mighty Rhine.

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Finally crossing into France and entering Strasbourg we hit the swimming pool next to the European Parliament building, and unsurprisingly it was amazing, with every muscle relaxing bubble, water jet, whirlpool feature you could think of, no doubt built with some European grant awarded by the MEPs next door and paid for by us. We had no hesitation in abusing every facility, especially the hot showers.

It was a very welcome end to the day, because it was starting to dawn on us that we were cycling rather more than the 70 or 80 km a day we usually aim for. It was more like 100 km a day, not ideal given that Tom was a rookie, Giles was riding a rowing machine with wheels, and I am a lazy old fuck. As a result we were more exhausted than usual at the end of the day and it was going to take a good deal more beer, wine, schnapps, good food and bonhomie than usual to revive us. Luckily we were in Strasbourg.

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Dinner was epic. It was a very busy Saturday evening and our table reservation was for 9.30 pm. It was now about 7, so we found a table on a terrace and ordered a bottle of Muscat because the waiter told us to. It was predictably ambrosial so we tucked in savagely, wasting several bottles before staggering uncertainly to our awaiting table and ordering a bottle of face-meltingly good Sylvaner.

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A feast of rich, delicious, obscure parts of cow and pig arrived at our table along with more and more wine and several glasses of mirabelle schnapps. When we finally finished it was late and about to rain but we were way way way past caring so we belted down the canal through the tranquil suburbs of Strasbourg (past an astonishing number of hookers) and just as it started to rain found sanctuary in a World War II artillery bunker where we slept the night.

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Day 3

Waking up in a World War II artillery bunker on the side of a canal is a bit depressing, not to mention dusty. We didn’t feel like hanging around so we left a small tribute to all the poor kids who’d been shot to bits in there and never got to cycle peacefully around the bucolic Alsace countryside quaffing fine wines. Then we scuttled away feeling hungover and slightly guilty.

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After a crap breakfast in Eschau we set off towards the veloroute des vins (“bike road of the wines”) which sounds like literally the best thing in the world, and which we were excited to get to. Unfortunately the R2 unit suffered a system malfunction and things went wrong very quickly. We got totally lost, stuck in muddy clay which jammed up our wheels, went round and round in ever decreasing circles and finally had to hack our way through dense brambles, pushing our heavy bikes, getting hungrier and hungrier and finding the whole thing less and less amusing with each passing minute.

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By the time we reached tarmac only 10 km separated us from lunch, at least until the R2 unit fucked up again, taking another wrong turn. Harsh words were spoken, blows were threatened and we finally crawled into Obernai, a cute town where we sat down at a cute restaurant (Restaurant Les Ramparts), admired the cute waitress and devoured a damned fine lunch.

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Around 4 pm, after the last coffees and schnapps and scrapings of rich dessert, mellowness set in as we contemplated a leisurely 35 km ride along the veloroute des vins to Colmar which the R2 unit had planned for us. He chose this moment to drop a bombshell: he had lied and we still had 50 km to cycle, a very different and much less pleasant proposition. When we angrily demanded to know what the fuck? he told us it was because he had already screwed up a couple of times that day and didn’t want any more abuse over lunch. I don’t know which more upsetting: the extra 15 km or finding out that a primitive AI system had figured out lying.

It would have been such a great afternoon as well: the sun came out and the veloroute des vins entirely lived up to expectations, but it was all ruined by the awfulness of those extra kilometres. OK, maybe I’m being a bit over dramatic, somehow we made it to Colmar without anyone suffering from death or worse, and actually it was great, but it’s an unsettling feeling when you can’t trust what a computer tells you. It feels like the fabric of the Matrix is ripping asunder.

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Colmar, as has previously been mentioned, was our chosen destination because it happened to be the closing night of Colmar’s huge, renowned 10 day “foire des vins” (wine fair).

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So we pitched our tents, donned our glad rags, downed a brew (or two) and headed towards the venue with the words of our hilarious German friend from a couple of nights ago ringing in our ears. Disquietingly we were being directed towards the airport and it took us a little by surprise to realise that the foire was held in a huge modern expo centre next to the airport.

That didn’t stop it being extremely popular: there were cars parked everywhere and streams of people walking for miles to get there. We gave silent thanks for bicycles as we wheeled right up to front entrance and waltzed straight in. It is here, O faithful reader, that words fail me completely. They simply cannot convey the biblical bizarreness of the Colmar Foire des Vins. Our German friend was spot on about it being “SCHEIßE”, but at the same time he wasn’t. It somehow contrived to be dreadful and fantastic all at once.

It wasn’t a wine fair, not really. Don’t get me wrong, there was wine as far as the eye could see, mostly being swigged out of bottles by pissed teenagers, but there was also agricultural machinery, furniture, double glazing, hippy shit, security systems, professional soft-ice machines, cosmetics, a pimped Lamborghini, a Swiss chalet with people dancing to techno-yodelling, and much much more besides. But mainly there was an ocean of people having a cracking time. It was infectious. We were having a blast and then at 1 am it ended, just like that, just when things were getting really really good. Everyone got kicked out and went home to bed.

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Day 4…

… started badly. Around 7 am I awoke in my tent on a campsite with a gruesome hangover and a bursting bladder. Campsites have a couple of major drawbacks versus wild camping, chief amongst which is that one cannot simply fall out of one’s tent at 7 am, stumble two steps and take a piss, because at 7 am there are already all sorts of people up and about, weirdos who think its cool to get up at 6 am on holiday and who flip out and call security if you piss anywhere near their tent.

So, feeling confused and ill, I stumbled to the men’s toilets (which were twice as far as the women’s toilets) and pushed the door open in desperation. It crashed against a cleaning trolley and an angry cleaning lady told me the toilets were closed. But where can I piss? I asked, close to tears (and closer to pissing myself). In the women’s toilets was the answer. So I stumbled back round where I’d come from, and barged into the women’s toilets only to find it was full of thin lipped women glaring at me disapprovingly. It was almost more than I could bear, but I could feel the piss about to come squirting out of my ears so I bolted for the nearest cubicle and did my thing. It was awful.

Several more hours sleep and a decent breakfast alleviated most of the hangover symptoms, and a couple of hours riding sorted out the remainder.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We overdid the kilometrage again, but as we’d basically done that every day of the trip it didn’t seem like such a big deal. In fact we began to attempt to rationalise it thus: the purpose of cycling is to work up an appetite in order to be able to eat more of everything. However, the older you get the less appetite you have. We are, incontrovertibly, getting older, hence we have to put in more kilometres every year in order to work up the same appetite. I sincerely hope this theory is incorrect.

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The end

The route: http://ridewithgps.com/routes/9989609

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