Biking the Upper Rhine

Leaving SFO with our bags and bikes in boxes
Putting bikes together in the Zurich Airport
Putting bikes together in the Zurich Airport

450 km of the Rhine completed, 800 km to go! Perhaps up there with hiking Colca Canyon in Peru and to the Mirador de las Torres in Chile, biking through the upper portion of the Rhine route ended up being one of the more challenging physical activities we have undertaken.  Listed as an “easy” and “suitable for families” route, we thought that it would be the perfect introduction to cycle touring.  Relatively short days of around 50 km per day and flat terrain coming out of the mountains would allow us to settle in to a rhythm and get used to biking with all our gear with us.  At least, that’s what we thought it would be.  The reality has been quite different, still good, but not nearly as “easy” as we thought it would be.

Bike lanes are everywhere
Bike lanes are everywhere

You’ve got to love the Swiss because the whole country is set up for bicycling.  There are literally thousands of bikes traversing cities, towns, and villages.  The Swiss are also fanatical about identifying their bike routes.  Think signage at every possible juncture.  Unfortunately for us, we encountered 100 or more such junctions each day as we were winding our way through medieval towns, traversing apple orchards and spanning rural farm roads.

Well marked, but sometimes confusing

The system works great  until you don’t see one of the signs because it was hidden behind a jasmine bush or hyacinth.  It may take a while for you to realize that you’ve lost your signage and now are not really sure how to get back to where you want to be without backtracking great distances – something irritating in a car but down right disheartening when on a loaded bike.  We also have a mobile app which has all of the Swiss bike trails on it, so we thought we were good to go.  If we got lost, we could just look up where we were on the map and find our way back to the route.  It would probably work great if it didn’t take 10 minutes to load when we were in the rural areas of the Alpine Rhine or if we had better cell coverage.  In the end, it was pointless to even try to use it so we were stuck relying on the signs.  It worked okay, but we have made more than a few wrong turns which extended  both our mileage and daily elevation.

Konstanz, Germany from the church tower

In my mind, I had pictured peacefully spinning along the riverbank on a flood dyke or towpath, following the river as it meandered across the valleys.  However this section is through the mountains so the river is sinuous and convoluted as it tumbles down from the high passes.  The bike route frequently has to veer away from the river to cross a ridge because the valley cut by the river is too narrow or too steep for a bike path.

Pleasant Swiss courntryside

A few of our “misdirections” included adding 12 km of “undulating” terrain through the hills where the book Heidi was set on our very first day, crossing through a farmer’s field and sheds to then go down a dirt path, across a stream, and back up the other side of the ravine on the third day (this one ended up great though because we found a Turkish restaurant for lunch as a result!), pushing our bikes through a quagmire of clay-like mud along a construction zone as it rained on day 6, and a 3 km ride along what might be described as a high-speed truck-route our last day in Switzerland.  And this is just some of the highlights of our misdirection adventures – there were many, many more!

One of many clock towers

However frustrating the navigation, the scenery and experience have been amazing.  We began riding in Chur, one of the longest inhabited cities in Switzerland.  Charming streets are lined with half-timber houses, winding narrow cobblestone streets, and yummy peasant food lured us in to its charms.  The scene was idyllic – high granite mountains with a quaint typical Swiss town in the valley below.  It was the kind of scene which makes you want to break in to Julie Andrews, “The hills are alive, with the sound of music….” but we didn’t because none of us can really sing all that well.  The weather was fantastic – high puffy clouds, 70 degrees, and abundant sunshine.  This, of course, was not to last too long as it has been a rainy summer here, but we enjoyed the auspicious start.

A rainy day

After a few days of riding we decided to spend our first rest in a hotel in Konstanz, Germany.  A very welcoming college town, it was easy to get out and see some of the sights.  Part of us just wanted to hole-up in the hotel and relax, but the other part of us really wanted to walk the streets, see the churches, and explore the area.  This conundrum is something that we have faced often.  If you are visiting an area for a week, you can sort of suck it up and do everything that you want to even though it is exhausting in the end.  If you’re only going to be someplace once, you need to make the most of it, right?  With long-term travel, it is different because you simply cannot have amazing new experiences every minute of every day.  You saturate your mind, burn out, melt down, and end up in a puddle on the ground.

Finally getting out for a walk

Over our time traveling, we have found that one incredible “event” per day is plenty.  It may seem like we are wasting our time because we’re sitting down listening to music or reading stories instead of seeing all of the sights of an area, but we just can’t do any more than that.  Some days our event is simply getting from one place to the next, other days it might be visiting a church or taking a tour by canal boat.  We also have to be able to get school done along the way and we have found that the process is much easier if the kids aren’t exhausted from touring different sights.

A small Swiss castle

Another few days of biking lead us to the small town of Kaiseraugst, Switzerland.  Our family has a thing for ancient history so we wanted to see Augusta Raurica, an old Roman fortified town built around 200 A.D.  Walking down a path along the river we came across the restored old bath house you can just walk through — no entry fee, no guards making sure you don’t touch anything, just informative signs as you walk through.  Walking further along the path, we came to a playground the kids wanted to explore.  As we looked around, we noticed that the wall of the playground was really, really thick – like 9 feet thick – it was part of the old fortifications.  Again, the kids could climb on it if they wanted to – no barriers, no signs admonishing you to stay off of the relics, just history embedded in to the town.  The weekend we were there was also the annual Romanfest complete with expositions of gladiator fighting, presentation of the troops dressed in period clothing, and a whole bunch of other Roman things.

Parading of troops at the Romanfest

This was one of those times when we were so tired we could barely walk to the store to get groceries but really wanted to go see the festival too.  After much deliberation, we thought this was something we really had to do so pulled our butts up one more hill to the festival.  It was good fun, but probably would have been better if we could have understood at least a few words of what they were saying. Leaving Kaiseraugst was difficult as we really liked the town and our campsite along the river.  The whole process was very relaxing.  The people who run the place are a Swiss-American couple so it was nice to be able to speak fluently with her about the area, how to get around, etc.  The man is Swiss and Lynn his partner is from Long Island, NY.

Demonstrating a battle formation – Mac loved it!

Switzerland is not part of the EU so has its own currency, Germany, France and Austria use the Euros.  You would hope that most places would accept either currency at a nominal exchange rate, but our experience has been that in Switzerland it is Francs and only Francs and everywhere else is Euros only.  We ended up having two different money storage (left pocket Euros, right pocket Swiss Francs) and would have to figure out if we had enough money when we had to pay for something because you often cannot tell what country we are in.  One day we must have crossed back and forth in to different countries at least six times.  Mac got a kick out of this though because he hates immigration.  He thought it was a hoot that we never had to have our passports stamped!

Steim am Rhine, with a beautiful medieval main street

Strasbourg, France followed Kaiseraugst.  We decided to hop a train as there were 150 km of undulating terrain, a big city, and not too  much to see so we decided to get a bit ahead by taking the train for a couple hours.  It was a nice break as we were able to get an extra day in Strasbourg, which we adore, and also to give our legs a break. 

How bikes travel on French trains

The kids were able to do double lessons, Colburn and I were able to eat some yummy Alsatian food, and we enjoyed walking around town.  One of the things that we love about many of the cities/towns we have been in is just how walkable they are.  Unlike the US where your favorite restaurant may be 20 miles away, our favorite place was only three doors down from our apartment (not that we were there long enough to really develop a “favorite”, but we really enjoyed our date-night there).  Strasbourg was especially nice and we have started to consider coming back for a European Christmas!

A stormy morning in France

Our last few days have been much more along the lines of what we expected – flat tow-paths and flood dykes, long-ish distances (60 km yesterday) without being exhausted when we get to camp , and a little bit of extra time to enjoy where we are.  We have spent these couple days mostly “big ring riding” – a phrase we can only use when the terrain is flat that you can actually use your largest chain front ring.  We love big ring riding!

Happy bikers

So, to this point, if you would ask us if we have enjoyed biking the Rhine, we would give it a qualified yes.  It has been more difficult both physically and emotionally than we had anticipated yet we have enjoyed the process overall.  Despite near-obsessive signage, we manage to get mis-directed several times each day.  It’s happened so much now that the kids just groan or chuckle we she have to take a “detour”.  We’re settling in to a rhythm and realizing that a decent map is a godsend, that shorter days are better than longer ones, that chocolate makes everything better, and that we need way more food with us than you would think.  The kids love the pastries, schnitzel (fried anything, sometimes on bread=schnitzelbrat), spaetzle (a thick egg noodle), and Shorley (an apple drink).  Colburn and I love the wine and beer.

Currywust and Schnitzelbrat at a festival

The people in Switzerland were lovely, reserved but always patient and helpful.  We were also surprised in Strasbourg by how accepting of our linguistic incompetence people were and how they would go out of their way to try to help us.  Often it has required a mixture of German, Spanish, and some English.  Now we are in Germany and have been struck by just how far the German people will go out of their way to help us.  In just one day, a man saw us ride up and down the same street (we were looking for a bakery) and he got on his bike to make sure we found what we were looking for; another man saw us looking at our map so asked where we were going and gave us two different options on how to get there; a woman who saw our tent and sleeping bags on the back of the bikes stopped to ask us if we were looking for a campground because there were none in the area. Finally,  when we stopped for lunch at a Home Depot type place, another man was checking out our bikes and started to ask questions about what we’re doing – ends up he lived in Pittsburg for several years as a coal miner.  Speaking with him in English was profound for Colburn as he sounded precisely as a early Shindell in Pennsylvania would.  So far we’ve made it through every situation somehow – often through the kindness of strangers.  These are the experiences which make travel so rewarding.  Everywhere we turn there is warmth, kindness and generosity of time and spirit.

Medieval streets

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