For the past three weeks and nearly 900 km I have been following the Rhine and the river has shown me some of its many faces. All the branches at its delta in the Netherlands, where between polders and dykes it was hard for me to recognise it as a river and the very industrial section that followed. The section between Bon and Mainz was a box of surprises with its steep wooded banks and castles and pointed church spires in every turn and with it’s legends of fair maidens being betrayed and seeking revenge and greedy Bishops being punished.
Germany is a cyclist’s dream. Wonderful cycle paths take you away from the traffic, following the many turns of the Rhine, crossing through fields of yellow wheat moving in the wind like waves , entering cool woodlands where the sunlight filtering through the leaves is magical, meandering through quiet streets where people go about their lives. And I’m soaking it all in.
Mainz had a real treat in store, a church full of Chagall’s windows where I was for nearly an hour just sitting and looking at them.
I am slowly relaxing into the rithm of the road. I have even managed a couple of siestas, on very hot days. It is great to be able to do exactly as you please like the Sunday when I was attracted by the sound of church bells in a beautiful village called Eltville. I followed the sound and ambling through the village found myself in a beautiful walled garden in full bloom. That evening I had a delicious glass of Riesling, perfect end for the day
I’m now in Strasbourg . My first big milestone reached, I am ready to leave the Rhine and through the Black Forest seek the source of the Danube that will take me towards the Black Sea and another continent.
That was the common answer when asking for directions in Holland and I did, I followed many dykes, some where the right ones and others took me nowhere. To start with I didn’t even know which were the dykes but soon got it and all was well…
Route finding is time consuming but satisfying, each of those ‘wrong’ turns bring surprises, a lush garden, unexpected conversations, peaceful countryside, a fairground inside a nuclear power station. Slowly, following the wrong turns I’ve made it to Koln.
The first night I stayed with the most wonderful Warmshowers hosts. They were incredibly open and generous, they gave me not only a place to sleep but great tips, sound advice and human warmth. Exactly what I needed on my first day. It was a good omen.
I have been through some very beautiful places already but as ever what makes it all worth it is the people. The students I stayed with on the second night, the fleeting conversation with the young couple in the ferry crossing the Rhine, the two cyclists on their way to Rome, the 68 year old French woman who cycles over 70km a say, the young woman in the youth hostel who invited me to her house, the German CEO of an international company with whom I talked about dreams and Séneca under a bridge in Dusseldorf and the young gypsy (his words) lad who gave me a plateful of sausages last night in the campsite because I looked tired.
And now, I am sitting by the cathedral in Köln soaking up the atmosphere and listening to soothing classical music. This is the life!!
Farewells completed, house handed over to my daughter Amaya and her partner John, bike packed, ferry booked. All that remains is to start pedalling: day one of many.
What am I feeling?
I am excited, slightly apprehensive, sad in the knowledge that I will be away from the people I love, thrilled to be doing something I really want to do, moved by the support and generosity of so many people. And much, much more that can´t be put into words.
Today’s plan is to cycle over to my bike shop, say goodby to Paul and team and meet my friend Jackie who is going to cycle some of the way to Harwich with me. At the end of the day, my intention is to settle in the ferry with a glass of Rioja, or two, before retiring to my cabin for a good night sleep (I hope!)…
Beijing 2007, they were busy building the Bird´s Nest Stadium and my daughter Emma and I were busy trying to get into Tibet. We were staying in a hostal in one of the few hutongs (old neighbourhoods) saved from the bulldozers which were cleaning up the city in preparation for the Olympic games.
In the hostal I met Fritz, a retired German, heading back home after cycling round the world.
We sat in the hostal´s courtyard and chatted well into the night. Fritz told me about his children and grand children; he told me about wild camping in the Australian outback; he told me about the thousands of kilometres he had ridden, about scary moments, the beautiful places he had seen and the kind people he had met. We also talked about his forthcoming 70th birthday, about aging and what it meant for him. I felt inspired by his stories and that night I found it hard to go to sleep.
In the small of the night, I thought about the time when I crossed the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic on my own in 2002, carrying everything I needed in my rucksack. In those 47 days up in the mountains I experienced absolute joy and freedom. I thought about how I loved the company of my friends and family who met me occasionally to stay a few days with me. How good the encounters with other walkers in the mountain huts at the end of a day were, and how great it was that at any time I could look at the map and decide to go down a valley to a glacier lake, have a dip in its waters and let the sun dry me out.
But most of all, how much I loved the long days on my own. There and then, I decided that one day I would take to the road on my bike, and like Fritz explore the world.
Last Saturday I had the chance to say farewell to may of my friends. It was pretty wonderful to see so many of the people that matter to me gathered in my house. Friends that I hadn’t seen for a while and friends that go back a long way.
Great people, loads to eat and plenty of beverages are the perfect ingredients for a great party and I did enjoy myself enormously.
The first port of call on entry to the house had to be admiring the bike! She looked absolutely gorgeous, all dressed up with her panniers…I think I’m in love!!
The evening spilled over to brunch the following day. A perfect chance to test my selfie stick (yes, I am taking one – no shame I know!!)
Other than having a serious bout of butterflies in my stomach I’m nearly ready. Well nearly…the travel insurance bit is proving a bit tricky but it will get done.