Germany and France 1986
We’ve all faced decisions on where to bike. My wife Sally and I were definitely flying in and out of Frankfurt, Germany, but we waffled back and forth about whether to spend our two weeks in Germany or France.
On the flight over, we were still debating the question. France has an excellent rural road system and Germany is so densely populated; but the German people are more approachable and many speak English. The French are aloof and few speak English, but French cuisine and wine are superb. However, the German beer and hearty food also appealed to our bicycler’s appetites. The weather would be the same for both countries in September: expect 13 days of precipitation out of 30.
We finally decided to ride to Heidelberg the first day. We felt that we could always catch a local train if the roads were too congested.
We emerged from the Frankfurt airport into hazy, warm sunshine. We took a minor road south avoiding the Autobahns and happily discovered our first of many bicycle paths. We followed a series of interconnected paths all the way to Heidelberg. Sometimes these paths were separate off-road ways and at other times they were wide shoulders next to the road. Occasionally, we’d be forced to ride on the roads which were congested with very fast moving traffic, but overall it was a pleasant first day ride.
Our orientation to biking in Germany was beginning. We followed the signs showing a silhouette of a bicycle all the way to Heidelberg; but there were risks in traveling by the seat of our pants. At one point, we encountered a sign showing a graphic of a bicycle with a read circle around it. We blithely passed it thinking this must be a special route since the pictured bicycle was circled in red. We all know that feeling—on a narrow road with heavy, fast moving traffic; white knuckles clutching your lower grips; head down to both squeeze the edge of the pavement and disregard the roaring traffic coming up from behind. It’s even worse when, off to the right, you spot the bike path that you should be on meandering through the serene fields. And so we learned that the sign with the bicycle circled in red meant emphatically “No Bicycles.”
On our second day, again under hazy, warm sunshine, we headed further south. About noon, we encountered our first harvest festival in Wiesloch. The bands were playing, the bratwursts were cooking, and the beer was flowing. American military bases dot this area, so we were hardly foreigners. Still Klaus, a spry English-speaking octogenarian, adopted us and gave us a guided tour of the town and festival. We snacked on the various local specialties and then hit the road again.
By later afternoon, we were pedaling through Ettlingen where it was also festival time. Sally and I decided this festival would be especially good nocturnal entertainment, as it was unabashedly food, drink, and entertainment oriented. Local sports clubs and singing clubs, etc. each sponsored a booth which sold different German beers and local food specialties to raise money for their respective clubs.
We took a room at a hotel and headed for the festival. While ordering two steins of beer and watching a dance group perform, I literally bumped into Gerhard who immediately, in perfect English, invited us to join him and his wife Gilda at a picnic table. Again, we had guides.
Our preconceived notions of Germany were right: friendly people who spoke English, opportunities to meet and get acquainted with the local people, excellent food and beer. Our surprises were pleasant ones. The bike paths allowed peaceful biking even thorough the densely populated regions, two glorious days of warm sunshine, and it seemed like there were harvest festivals everywhere on the weekends during September.
The next day we crossed over the Rhein into France. We stopped at a small village fest, had sausages for lunch, and continued on to Huguenot where we booked a room. As we pulled into the city, the weather was becoming cloudy, windy, and cold, but here was yet another festival where we had a dinner of Torte Flambé, a local specialty.
We were in France, but in Alsace where the contrast between Germany and France is not that marked. After all, Alsace has been both German and French through the years depending on the vicissitudes of the last war and treaty. Since World War I, it has been French except for German occupation during World War II. Our innkeeper described Alsace as the best of both France and Germany.
We eventually found our way to Strasbourg, the interesting metropolis of the Alsatian region. First, we biked through the Vosges Mountains, ending up in a cold downpour at Schirmeck. For the sake of comfort, we went to the station to catch a train. The line ran only one way—to Strasbourg.
We toured Strasbourg on foot, got tourist information, and washed our clothes in a Laundromat. (Later on, back in Germany, we discovered that Germany, unfortunately, has no self-service Laundromats.)
That night, we dined at a restaurant which specialized in the local cuisine which consisted of sauerkraut, sausages and beer. The German language, or rather the Alsatian dialect, which sounded very much like German, was usually spoken and the half-timbered buildings were typical German architecture.
The next day, armed with better maps, we headed for the Route du Vin (Wine Route). After a deceptively steep ride to Obernai from Strasbourg, we skirted the vine-covered mountains while riding in the relatively flat Rhein valley. These romantic medieval towns were only three or four kilometers apart, so our progress was slowed as we toured each one. The highway always circumvented the towns t avoid their narrow cobblestone streets. Our bikes gave us a great advantage over the motorists since we could always ride through the towns by simply spotting the tallest church spire (usually at the town center) and heading in that general direction.
Most of the towns were completely intact from medieval times. We have all taken pictures of quaint places by making sure to cut a supermarket or apartment building out of the photo frame, but in these perfectly preserved towns you could turn 360° and snap photos. There was very little destruction during the last wars since Alsace simply capitulated to whomever arrived first—invariably the Germans.
As you would suspect, there were plenty of tourists. The roads were fairly heavily traveled, but the French drivers were extremely courteous, steering a wide arc around us even if they had to pull out into the oncoming traffic lane. Sally and I figured that the French drivers didn’t want to risk knock off a future Tour du France hero, since most of the bikers with whom we shared the road were not touring but rather race training.
One day toward evening, anticipating a hot shower, we realized that there were no hotel rooms available in the beautifully preserved town of Ribeauville. Panicky tourists were rushing in and out of each hotel, guesthouse, and pension the town. It was simple for us. We would ride up to a hotel, Sally would hold my bike, I would poke my head in the door and ask simply “Complet?” (French for full). The proprietor would answer, “Oui,” and we would go on to the next one.
The race for shelter was on as we rode to the next town, Riquewihr, which was even more picturesque than Ribeauville. The motorists zoomed around us and we could see that the hotels outside the town were full since the tourists would pull up to the hotel, run inside, immediately run out and speed off.
As darkness fell, we pushed straight into town on the little narrow roads. Since cars were not permitted into the city center, the first hotel at which we inquired still had two rooms available. Now, however, we became overconfident. Sally stationed herself at this hotel to protect our potential room while I cased the rest of the town for a possible better deal. I could find no other available room so I quickly returned. Sally said that there had been no other customers in the meantime. However, the proprietor, recognizing what I had been doing, now declared that one of the rooms had been taken, so that the only room available had no shower…not even down the hall.
We had to take it and we did. She was punishing us for attempting to find another room. The French are master politicians in world affairs and in everyday life. Applying your basic power politics, she managed to not only put us in her least desirable room, but also forced us to agree to eat both dinner and breakfast in the hotel dining room.
The room rates in France are strictly government controlled so that you are never really ripped off. If rooms are in great demand, however, the proprietor may require you to have meals there. This was seldom a problem, but the continental breakfast was usually overpriced.
We washed rather well in our wash basin and descended to the dining room. Our meal was excellent. Actually, the worst meal we had in France could still be described as “very good,” but the food was usually “excellent.”
We spent the majority of the time on this bike trip in France, so “how did you find the French?” was a legitimate question put to us upon our return. Sally had spent time in France previously and she could have answered cryptically: “We didn’t.”
Except for waiters, store clerks, and innkeepers, our contact with the French people on a personal level was minimal. There was the French farmer in a small town in Lorraine who invited us into his house, gave us a tour of his house and attached barn and offered us refreshments. And there was the couple in Soultz in Alsace who owned the hotel, but they seemed more German than French, just like Alsace itself often did.
And then there was Luigi—the bartender. We approached him in a small bistro in Besancon, just south of Alsace, and asked for “2 bieres, s’il vous plait.” I thought I had perfected this line, but Luigi shot back at me, “I suppose you want two Budweisers.”
You’d have to call him French. He had not left France for 20 years, was married for 25 years to a French girl, and his son for whom he was working that night spoke only French. Luigi, as his name would imply, was of Italian extraction, but had grown up in England. He was an orphan during World War II, lived by his wits on the London streets, and at night slept in the Victoria Train Station.
Sally and I took turns peppering Luigi with questions. He recommended and took us to a small restaurant around the corner, introduced us to the owners, helped us order the specialties of the region, and joined us for dinner. We mentioned our lack of contact with the French and Luigi commented, “The French are not mixers. They prefer cafes in which to see and be seen rather than pubs to discuss the events of the day with both friends and strangers.”
The meal was excellent as usual, and Luigi then mapped out our following days. “You must go to Arbois and stay at the Hotel du Paris which has the best country restaurant in the region—three starts. Go to Beaune and then finally to Dijon.”
Our trip was developing into a tour of France. The bicycling was enjoyable and served the dual purpose of burning off the calories we consumed in the restaurants, the bakeries, and right off the trees.
Each night we would find a restaurant emblazoned with the necessary emblems of merit that could satisfy our biker’s hunger with local specialties and local wine. Each day, as we made our way from Strasbourg to Dijon, we would choose between the breads and pastries of the small bakeries (every town, no matter how small, had its own bakery) or the fruits of the season.
Along the rural routes, the mirabelles and plums were ripe on the trees. Mirabelles looked and tasted like cherries, so we would stop any time we spotted an especially luscious harvest hanging on a tree and pick and eat our fill.
Although there were plenty of bicyclists on the roads, they were either local shoppers transporting their groceries in their big front baskets or racers who swooshed past us during their workouts. The bicycle tourists we encountered were neither French nor German.
In Beaune, we met two English bicycle tourists and started comparing notes. We enthusiastically described the “Route du Vin” through Alsace to them. Reflecting upon their tour of central France, they had decided to call it the Route de la Peche” (Peach Route) based upon their huge consumption of the local fresh fruit.
We also met Ellen and Irv Rothschild of Cleveland in Beaune. We were staying at the same hotel and spotted each other’s bikes, so we sought each other out. Irv was a retired professor from Western Reserve Medical School who was the most enthusiastic bicycle traveler I have ever encountered. If he and Ellen weren’t touring, Irv was either writing about his trips or tearing apart his bike in his basement. He is considering writing a book entitled “The Joys of Bicycling.” He captured me in the garage of the hotel to show me more than I wanted to know about his bike’s mechanics. As my attention span was being tested, his instincts as a teacher led him to tap the part he was instructing me about and say, “Now pay attention here.” I know that we would read with relish a book entitled, “The Joys of Bicycling” by such an enthusiastic, interesting, and experienced author.
Over dinner, he allowed us to express our feelings about the joys of bike touring. We told him we loved to travel and we like to be physically active. We felt encapsulated in a car zooming from one city center to another. The genuine folks are most likely in the countryside and villages. We especially love our encounters with these people and these encounters seem easier when on a bicycle. It seems to us that people are more open since even a stranger on a bicycle obviously presents no risk to them. The bicycler shows a real interest and commitment to their area just by being there rather than only passing through. Irv and Ellen understood.
In Kaisersberg, we met a 70 year old retired Swedish airline pilot who was meandering through Europe on an ancient one-speed bike. He said that after a career of flying over Europe at 30,000 feet, he was just poking around little streets in tiny villages, which previously were but dots on the landscape.
While still in Alsace, Sally and I attempted a shortcut to find ourselves up the side of a mountain on a dirt track running through the vineyards. As we pushed our bikes up the final steep grade of a hill, we spotted a couple in folding chairs having a picnic of bread, cheese, and wine. They had come by car and I cold see Great Britain license plates, so instead of greeting them, I simply said, “Every time I find myself in the most obscure corner of the world, I invariably run into a bloody Englishman.” This couple then went on to regale us with stories of their past bike tours throughout all of Europe. It was obvious that their preference was biking, even though they had driven this time.
After Following Luigi’s tour through Beaune and Arbois, we rode into Dijon. On impulse, we rode directly to the train station and discovered that a train was leaving shortly for Metz and that they would allow us to take our bikes onto the train. This quick trip would position us to ride down the Moselle River to the Rhein and then up the Rhein back to Frankfurt. So we left Dijon, a reputedly interesting and attractive city, after a most superficial look and headed for Metz, a supposedly less notable city in the north.
When we arrive in a new area, we usually starte at the tourist information office if there is one. Some of the information people, after a hectic summer of answering the same questions over and over, had obviously run out of patience. However, in Metz where the tourist traffic is relatively thin, M. Cleven, the elderly director of the Metz Tourist Office, gave special attention to our concerns as bicyclists instead of giving us the usual curt answers.
He reassured us that there were bike paths almost all the way up and down both rivers. He gave us maps and information galore and guided us to Sierck les Bains, the last French town on the Moselle. We had excess French francs and wanted to spend one last night in France before following the Moselle into Germany. He assured us that there was a nice hotel and restaurant in Sierck les Bains.
We saw the hotel on the river as we descended a sweeping hill into the center of town, but it was closed for two weeks because the owners were on vacation. We rode through the small town and found the recommended restaurant where we made reservations for later.
Since we didn’t have any guidebooks, we had become experts at picking hotels and restaurants in both Germany and France from their outside appearance. Each establishment wore emblems of recommendation like a soldier would wear his medals. We especially looked for the Swiss and German Touring Club emblems on hotels and Hatchett Guide emblem or just the sheer number of any emblems on a restaurant.
After some inquiries, we learned that there were rooms across from the train station. We had little choice. It was a pit but with a correspondingly low price: 50 francs ($6). We would still have 550 francs in cash ($66) after paying for the room. As it turned out, the recommended restaurant was very elegant with lots of tuxedos and fabulous food. Our bill exceeded our cash, and I had to put the surplus amount due on a credit card. Sally said, as we waddled away, that this must truly indicate something about our values when we spend 12 times as much on dinner as we did on our hotel! She was right.
Whereas the contrast between Germany and France was vague in crossing into Alsace, it was very sharp as we traveled down the Moselle. There was an abrupt change in architecture, food, attitude, and style.
The traffic was heavy, but as before in Germany, we found bike paths which ran along the Moselle and the Rhein. Again, we were surrounded by vineyards cascading down the hillsides as we pedaled through medieval towns full of tourists. Occasionally survival became paramount as we were forced to share the road with the fast moving traffic streaming along the riverside.
The last night we stayed in Weisbaden which left us with a 40 mile trip the next morning to the Frankfurt Airport where we knew showers were available. On reaching the center of Weisbaden, the sound of loud rock music was blaring from the boom boxes of American GIs. There are many U. S. army bases in this area also. At our hotel we met the proprietors, Horst and Anna, who had recently returned from a vacation in France. We swapped stories about the meals we had feasted on, the bakeries we had overindulged in, and the fresh fruits of the season that we had devoured. We said that France is the best place in the world to be hungry.
The German couple confided that they had spent a leisurely time sailing a powerboat through the rivers and canals of France. Anna, a trim woman of 35, confessed that she gained five pounds on the trip. Horst, more portly, sheepishly admitted to putting on 20 pounds on their two week trip. The ultimate reason for traveling by bicycle in France is to avoid doing this!
At the Frankfurt Airport, we met a couple from Sheboygan, Wisconsin who assured us that we would not only survive but enjoy the bike trip they had taken down to Munich from Frankfurt, primarily because of the network of bike paths. This report rekindled the debate about where we would bike when we return to Europe. On the plane, Sally and I reviewed the positive and negative points of biking in France and Germany. The arguments for each place really hadn’t changed. Ultimately, we will probably head for France. The deciding factor is the French cuisine.