Alsace: that bi-national region famous for its wine, rivers, amusing name, beer, culinary treasures, smoked pork products, foie gras and cycle paths. All a mere two hours by train from Geneva. With hindsight it’s a little insane that we had not gone there before.
The sternest challenge of the entire trip was the very first: manoeuvring Giles’ unwieldy bicycle onto the train. We managed it without damaging anything or anyone, then settled back and supped on cold beers in eager anticipation of supping on many other cold beers.
Mainland Europe in 2014 was having the worst summer since about 1930 and as we approached Basel, the start point of the ride, it was pissing with rain.
It was fine by the time we arrived in Basel, but started raining again soon after, at least in Switzerland, because we crossed the border into Germany, all of ten metres away, and curiously it wasn’t raining there. German efficiency. Or something.
At the first bar in Germany we halted for a large beer and some pork product and pickled cabbage (delicious!) then set off to tackle the 40 km to Mullheim, our stopover that evening. Twenty minutes later just as we arrived right bang in the middle of nowhere it started spitting, then raining lightly, then raining just hard enough that we started to worry… at precisely which point a small wooden structure with a roof, the likes of which I have never seen before and will most likely never see again presented itself to us like a gift from above.
Gratefully we took shelter, just in time for it to piss down torrentially. Had we not been sheltering under our weird wooden mushroom we would have been sodden, bedraggled, cold, miserable and stuck with a soaking wet tent less than an hour into the trip. But as it was it stopped raining, the sun came out and off we pedalled, warm, dry and wondering whether there would be some terrible karmic price to pay for this outrageous stroke of good fortune.
A couple of beers and a couple of smallish hills later we arrived in Mullheim and headed to the local pool hoping to shower. It was about to close but the woman running the place was friendly and let us in. The communal showers were empty apart from one other bloke who had the most enormous pair of balls I have ever seen on a human being. At one point I opened my eyes, having rinsed the shampoo out, to see him bending over right in front of me presenting me with his hairy arsehole and his huge pendulous bollocks dangling beneath. It was quite a sight, and although I shut my eyes again immediately it haunts me still.
Finding somewhere to camp was easy, and so was pitching the tent. I mention this because I had just bought said tent. It’s a Vango Banshee 300 and it’s pretty damn good, especially considering it cost around £100. It calls itself a three man tent which it isn’t. A three midget tent maybe, but it very comfortably sleeps two full sized adults.
Mullheim is a pleasant but sleepy little town, with only 3 restaurants to choose from, so after a delicious glass of local white wine as an apero, we chose one at random and proceeded to eat an unexpectedly excellent meal. Unexpectedly because although you don’t ever eat badly in Germany, you don’t usually eat that well either. We had a 4 course “mushroom menu” served in coma inducing quantities and damned delicious. To finish we drank several schnapps which appear to have caused permanent damage.
Needless to say I slept very well indeed that night.
It was warm and sunny enough to take coffee on a café terrace, pleasant but made a little tense by a multi-lingual bi-polar loony who was stuffing his face with e-numbers and sugar from a fun sized pack of Haribo, whilst simultaneously loading his unstable system with caffeine (from coffee) and alcohol (from beer) and jabbering to himself aggressively yet fluently in four different languages.
The morning was spent sweating out our hangovers next to a river on a perfectly maintained German bike path. A word about Germany and cycling: I cannot claim to be any kind of expert, having biked a grand total of about 100 km there, but in my extremely limited experience, it’s amazing.
For a start there are cycle paths everywhere, and they’re in excellent nick. The people are friendly and relaxed (it’s a myth about Germans being uptight and anal and prone to invading neighbouring countries. Maybe the Bavarians are like that, but the rest are extremely good fun). The food isn’t knock your socks off great, but the beer is and the food is meaty and salty and carby and perfect for cycling. And there are bars everywhere.
We found a good one by the river, full of fat happy provincial German geriatrics hammering the booze, chain smoking, enjoying the sun and just generally not giving a shit. We joined them, pleased for once to be the youngest, hippest cats in the joint, and drank beer and ate the best flammekueche in the world.
Then we crossed the Rhine into France and spent the next 12 hours on a 70 km long dead straight canal tow-path.
Within an hour of leaving the German bar it was lunchtime. Rural France doesn’t fuck about when it comes to lunch, it’s served between midday and 1.30 and then the kitchen is closed the chef is syndicalisé we don’t care if you’re hungry we’re not interested in your money and get the fuck off our fucking property, except in French.
Having learned this several times the hard way we made haste to the nearest town which was in zombie apocalypse lock-down and completely devoid of life. I immediately panicked, suggesting we head back to Germany where exist people and commerce, but the R2 unit stayed calm, interrogated the cloud and found an open restaurant close by.
It was seriously good. We drank fantastic wine and ate our body weight in pickled cabbage, pork product and potatoes.
Luckily we still had 40 km or so to go that afternoon because the quantity of food was biblical and it was too good to stop eating. Despite being almost totally pork-blind and suffering from heaving meat sweats we set off in great spirits (18 times over the legal limit) on our way along the straightest canal in the world.
After a pretty uneventful afternoon (or maybe lots of amazing stuff happened and I’ve just forgotten) punctuated by second world war artillery bunkers and canal locks and getting lost a few times, we arrived at our destination. Actually we flew merrily past our destination and only realised about 5 km later but we were still so stuffed with cabbage and pork that we didn’t really care.
Said destination was the small town of Boofzheim, chosen more or less at random for its two camp-sites and its silly name. We showered in one camp-site and drank an apero in the other which was contender for the Worst Camp-site in the World, situated as it was right behind a hypermarket by the side of a stagnant lake. They were hosting a karaoke party later that evening and we considered coming back to sneer and laugh but didn’t. After all if you’ve got nothing nice to say…
Supper was flammekueche, which in Alsace is what passes for a light meal. In fact a lot of people eat it as an accompaniment to their aperitif, but we were still reeling from the pork onslaught, so that was it.
We camped next to the canal which was very quaint and picturesque and absolutely infested with mosquitoes.
I awoke from the sleep of the dead wishing for the second morning in a row that I hadn’t drank so much schnapps after supper, and reflecting on the old aphorism that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.
The R2 unit was already awake (do they sleep?) and announced proudly that – whilst lying in a tent by a canal in the arse-end of nowhere – he had found a well reputed restaurant in Strasbourg, phoned to book a table, and then downloaded the exact route (all on cycle paths) from exactly where we were (inside a tent) to the door of the restaurant. All on a Samsung Galaxy Note. I may take the piss when it comes to the tech, but let it be noted for the record that I was mightily impressed.
Searching for breakfast we found a very odd, unprepossessing little place that served as post office / general store / hardware store / newsagent / tobacconist / café / bar. It was the only place in town you could both get a cup of coffee and take a shit, and neither prospect was very appealing, but needs must when you have a fiendish caffeine habit and need to take a shit.
I have banged on ad nauseam about the dire quality of coffee in France, so imagine my total astonishment when, in absolutely the last place on earth you’d expect it, we got served a perfectly enjoyable café au lait. The toilet was nasty though.
More canal, more straightness, more locks and more artillery bunkers full of human faeces and used condoms took us to Strasbourg where, in the reassuringly named Tir Bouchon, we ate an outrageously good lunch of saturated animal fat washed down with an even more outrageously good bottle of Sylvaner.
Once again bloated and hallucinating we headed back into Germany and spent several hours cycling aggressively next to the Rhine trying to burn off a few of the 8000 calories we’d consumed at lunch.
It worked, to the extent that by 4ish we started to think we might once again be able to ingest matter; if not foodstuffs, then at least liquids. Specifically beer. In fact we were getting a little tired and rather gagging for a beer, but there was nothing around, and the prospect of suddenly arriving at a little German bierhoff was looking very poor right up until, 10 minutes later, we did. Boy that beer tasted good.
That evening we planned to be in Rastatt – famous, apparently, for its castle, although I didn’t notice one. We were making good time so stopped for, you guessed it, another beer. As soon as we got inside the bar it started to rain. Hard. Too unnerved at this persistent good luck to feel smug or even relieved we looked round the spectacularly shit bar we were in and were further unnerved to find that all the other patrons were serial killers, murderers or rapists and they were all peering at us malevolently. Luckily we stank too badly for any of them to try anything so we got out in one piece as soon as the sun came back out, and hauled ass to Rastatt.
All the swimming pools were closed and it was a pain in the arse finding somewhere to shower, but we persisted and in the end a toothless old crone indicated to us through the medium of grunts where we might find something. We no faith at all that he had even understood what we were asking for but followed his directions anyway and lo and behold, showers!
By the time we’d gone through that whole rigmarole all the restaurants were closing so we hurried to the one that had been recommended to us by locals and ate the only thing they had left. “It is good” the lady told us. It was.
On the way out of town we found a noisy bar (actually Irish pub or facsimile thereof). Everyone was drunk and smoking cigarettes inside which isn’t even legal anymore in most “civilised” countries. Enlightened people the Germans. We stopped for enough drinks that the best thing we could think of to do next was to ride another 15 km in total darkness and fog, and pitch the tent in some random field next to what looked like a load of caravans. Camping next to a random gang of pikeys is a sophomoric thing to do, as is leaving your expensive bikes out unlocked where they can see them…
… but when we got up the next morning and had a proper look it turned out that they weren’t pikey caravans at all, just normal caravans, and there was no one in them in any case so we needn’t have worried. Not that we had worried, we’d been far too drunk to give a shit.
Talking of giving a shit, our breakfast venue failed to provide the necessary facilities so we were forced to adopt Plan B: shitting in the woods. We turned down some abandoned dirt road, each found spots a decent distance from each other, dropped our keks and squatted. Inevitably some old dude chose that moment to drive straight past. I’m glad I have never had to witness what he witnessed, and I hope he hadn’t had breakfast yet.
Having got the permanently traumatising old German men bit of the day out of the way we cycled the remaining few kilometres into Karlsruhe, ate a fantastic-in-a-mediocre-way lunch and had God’s own job of getting home. Turns out the Germans are brilliant at everything to do with bikes except accommodating them on their railway system.
It was a great trip though – we’re definitely going back.