As I navigated my way out of Ulm, reflecting on the reasons I very nearly cried as I hugged Janina goodbye; still so tired, such a brief stay, such a long way still to go…I relished the bike paths and noted the gradual climb out and away from my dear, dear, friend the Donau, and EuroVelo 6.
Ulm, is, however, under a lot of construction – awesome – go Ulm, you grow that city, but PLEASE think of the cyclists and give us viable alternatives, not truck filled roads or gravel tracks.As I found my way back onto a cycle path I saw a little puppy rounding a corner behind his owner, happily trotting along the pavement and no sooner had I thought, wow, he must be still very young or very well trained, he paused, bounced towards his owner and then immediately veered playfully into the road where he was struck by a car coming down the hill. I won’t go into the details but he was moving and breathing and trying to get up when I rushed across the road to him. I stayed with the owner and the driver reassuring young Max, limited in my usefulness for lack of German skills, until the owner’s wife arrived in the car (with her two daughters who witnessed all) and we stretchered Max into the car and on to the nearest Vet’s that (so I gathered) a passing motorist had provided details of – the owners’ place being much further away.
The moment stayed with me all day, and actually all week. I didn’t think Max had seen us when he darted out but I keep thinking maybe it was my fault for being there, and that he was crossing to see Scout. He certainly should have been on a lead, but he may never have rushed across at that exact moment if we hadn’t also been there…a pointless exercise in what-if-ing. It’s extra sad for me as there’s no way to know how he is. So if anyone lives in Ulm and knows a family with a young pup called Max who was hit on Bergstrasse in Blaustein and knows how he is, please get in touch. I’ve been thinking about it ever since and have kept Scout pretty close around roads.
I eventually found myself in the more rural, bike specific routes out of the city – they are not great. Big white gravel paths and ones with tire tracks and grass in the middle. Not long after leaving the puppy I had Scout running beside me with the lead when she stopped abruptly to have a poo and, for some reason I was clipped in to my left cleat which resulted in me falling over and mashing my knee in the sharp white stones.
The second sight of blood that morning. I then rode along a tarmac road parallel to the gravelly way which after about 2 km suddenly diverged and I ended up climbing an extra 100metres in height over about 1km for no reason. Because I couldn’t tell how long or high this hill was I stubbornly just kept going. A German man cycled past me giving encouragement and what I had assumed was – ‘you’re nearly there!’ – but on reflection was more like, ‘you’re about 30% of the way up, it’s a really big hill, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ So I took a slight detour to visit the town at the top of the hill (760m) and have a rest and a coffee and a Pretzel, Bretzel, Laugenbrot. I may have mentioned but I LOVE THESE THINGS.
I finally rejoined the gravel track after whizzing down 7% incline tarmac and that 100m elevation I’d just sweated up and found a nice couple who assured me I was going in the right direction – Otto and Anne, out for a circular bike ride and picnic – no electric bikes for them – proper stuff. And then after we chatted I set off and met a family warning me seriously against going along the track they’d just come from, their unburdened mountain bikes caked in mud – road works, huge areas of muddy, lumpy uneven path, I’d have to unhitch the trailer, it would be a nightmare. Probably best to go back up the tarmac road I’d just whizzed down. Oh god. I balked at the very thought, but then Otto and Anne came along and heard the news and said there was another road that was a little longer than this track but would get us where we both needed to be – they would accompany me and all would be well. It was a gravel/woodland track again but it wasn’t torn up and would be better than the tarmac hills.
Amazing. We rode together, Otto telling me the history of certain towns and the renowned baker he’s visited by bike a few times a year ever since he was a child to get his amazing bread. And then we parted and despite a few more wrong turns and having to deviate from my path it was really just a case of me keeping on pedalling my little legs off and getting Scout out when it was safe enough and the hills were so steep there was no alternative. It was over 30 degrees and the hills were utterly knackering. I had to push twice (once with Scout in the trailer because we were next to a road) and it was back-breakingly slow and heavy work – I went so slowly the auto-pause on my Garmin kicked in. But when I finally found myself going down the other side it was wonderful. There were a few more little hills between me and the campsite so when I saw a supermarket I had to stop again for a couple more pretzels, (they seem to fuel me like nothing else), but I finally got there. 15 extra km than my initial route to make an impressive 71 and 826m elevation over the day. It took me 10 hours though. There were stops of course – lunch and a read of my book for an hour and my coffee stop and of course the time spent leaving the city and helping out with the puppy, but it was close to six hours in the saddle and the most punishing hills since Bulgaria (Transfagarasan Highway not withstanding) along with some pretty challenging riding surfaces. They’re known as the Schwalbe Apes in these parts…Boy am I glad I had two days’ rest!
It thundered in the night. I packed up a soggy tent, looking at the sky and knowing there’d be no hope of drying it any time soon and saddled up to get to Stuttgart. Scout had chewed the campsite shower keycard 5 minutes before leaving, costing me an extra 10 euros – thanks, buddy – and she snuggled up contentedly in the trailer while I donned my wet weather gear and shuffled away, red faced.
Stuttgart is the home of Mercedes Benz and boy do they like to tell you about it! There’s an entire town around the factory area and I was happily following signs to Stuttgart town centre and accidentally rode into one of the massive entrance roads – the lady was very upset about me trying to do that and sent me back the way I’d come, ignoring the bike path signs.I later realised I obviously should have gone out to the right and not the left despite it being the opposite direction in real terms to the centre and there would have been some lovely bike road to follow the river into town.
As it happened, I followed the angry woman’s instructions, perhaps suitable for a car, (Mercedes Benz seem not to worry too much about cyclists for some reason) and found myself on horrible city highways and roads and pavements skirting around the massive MB arena that were blocked by fencing, forcing me into oncoming traffic. I. Was. So. Done.
It was absolutely miserable weather, cold and rainy and my coffee stop was a windy affair with no chance of getting Scout into the bakery with me. With my wifi hunt still fruitless I asked my mum to look into hotels or guest houses in Stuttgart which she dutifully and diligently did, booked and paid for and sent me the details. Love you, mum. I got there about 2.30pm – Stuttgart had not been too far away and even then it took until morning to dry my tent pieces, tarp and clothing with the two radiators. I thoroughly recommend Gästhof Ziegler in Stuttgart. It was an amazing comfort to be clean, warm and dry with wifi and a bed. We ventured out into the rainy evening to find some food and I tried some Maultaschen which is a sort of massive ravioli which was pretty nice but didn’t photograph well and I don’t want to do it a disservice. I don’t seem to have much luck with big cities. Rain is not the best way to get to know one so the next morning I grabbed an actual soya milk Starbucks Cappuccino (don’t hate me) from the station and wiggled my way out of the grey and drizzly city for hopefully the last of the hills ahead of me.
I followed my planned route and although the paths were next to busy, loud roads and sometimes on them, the hills were nothing compared to two days before and by the end of the day, I had found sun and the Rhine and it felt so good to be back on the river. I’m a mountain girl; I love hills and have spent most of my holidays for the last few years in some European Alpine setting, come snow or sun, but stick me on a bike and all I am interested in is the flattest, most boring route possible. Which was lucky because that’s mostly what I got from Karlsruhe northwards to Speyer. I couldn’t even see the river for most of it. The next day had two thunderstorms, one which totally ruined my leisurely breakfast by rolling ominously in the distance and causing me to abandon my tea and break camp and pack up in record time, finishing just before the rain started. All kitted up I didn’t think there was much point waiting around and pushed off into the rain, stopping about ten minutes later to shelter in a Lidl carpark as the thunder and lightening crashed around us, drawing looks of sympathy and confusion and a sweet from one man who looked at the two of us and clearly felt an overwhelming desire to help in some way and that was the best he could manage. I was grateful all the same.
Campsites were scarce along that stretch of the Rhein, I’d nearly not found anywhere the night before and what I had found was very basic and very overpriced but as the day drew on and my mileage crept up and the sky threatened to break again I saw wide beachy areas on the opposite bank where fishermen were camped and, I’m pretty sure, a large group of cyclists had set up for the night. My new plan was to cross at the next ferry and find a beach to camp at, but first I rode through lightening and rain in one of those states of stubborn teeth gritting ridiculousness, talking to myself and the Gopro as I predicted the intentions of the storm and my grand plans to beat it and camp wild and dry on the other side. I finally made it to the ferry and Scout drew interest from a couple on foot who, when I said I was going to look for a place to camp for the night pretty much instantly offered me a room in their house. They were walking and I assumed they lived at the town across the water and immediately decided that would be wonderful and as we made plans they revealed they lived about 15-20km by car that would take my day’s total close to 100km….I actually felt it would be rude to back out, and so took on closing day and arrived in Darmstadt at 8pm to the couple’s youngest daughter welcoming me into their home, feeding me, giving me a towel for a warm shower and taking Scout for a night time walk as she’d sat so miserably in the trailer for so long that day. Martin and Nicole arrived back from Nicole’s birthday meal with a friend from Frankfurt who’d been evacuated because of the unexploded WW2 bomb discovered there and she made mojitos for everyone and I was given a slice of homemade birthday plum tart. Oh god, if you’re reading this and thinking it sounds like such heaven you are right. If you aren’t, try spending more than a month on the road and then read it again.
The morning came and Martin went to the bakery for rolls and croissants and made me coffee (with soya milk) and also gave me a little nut cake bar thing for the road. The night before, riding along horrible roads because of diversions and google maps to get to the house I’d thought many times ‘just stop here and put up the tent and be done – you’ve got food, you’re going the wrong way, it’s not worth it.’ But I kept on because I am stubborn and my god how wrong I had been. It was so, so, worth it. Martin and his family were so kind and caring to me and a soft bed that night and the conversation and warmth I felt from that home were absolutely worth 40km off my route. [Disclaimer: political statement follows] Among other things, we discussed Brexit that night and I almost cried again for shame. We really mustn’t do this to our neighbours or ourselves. I love the EU and Europe. I do not want to leave it. [ends.]
I found the river again and met some friendly cyclists who told me to stay on the east side of the river rather than getting the ferry as planned and my journey through Mainz was probably so much nicer because of it. I could see the main city across the river and simply enjoy the view from my grassy bike path on the other side and eat my sandwiches and Martin’s cake slice without getting into any of my previous big-city confusions. They’re always when I manage to lose my way and slow down and get stuck but thanks to the friendly cyclists I could stay by my beloved river and mostly enjoy the ride. One thing’s for sure, the days are getting colder and wetter and I’m well aware it’s now September, I’ve got a long way to go and right now the river is a windy serpent with intimidating, unfriendly mountains either side – no short cuts it seems – I’m sticking with the river, come Rhein or Rhine.