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#12 France I:  Eastern-Central Region     September 22 - October 15, 2009 

 

Shifting Gears:  Leaving the Mountains


Saying our last "'Good-byes" to the peaks for the year.

In late June we made the 10 day journey from the Mediterranean Sea north to the alpine mountains for a long summer of hiking. In late September, it was the fall equinox that brought with it a symbolic close to our hiking season, to our time in the mountains.

It was then that we honored our last high-elevation hike; said our good-byes to the rugged peaks; and slowly slurped on our last fresh peaches for the year. With the lament we've whined since childhood "Summer is too short" we packed our waterproof bags and headed west towards the sea.

This journey to a different sea would take 2 months instead of days as we'd work our way down the river valleys of western Austria and southern Germany, crossing in and out of Switzerland, before arriving at the rolling plains of France and then the Atlantic.

 

The Lower Lands in Germany & Switzerland

Hugging the Shoreline

Map Man of course strived to optimize our retreat to lower elevations and warmer lands. Days of riding along the bike paths of Bodensee/Lake Constance in Germany were idyllic. Well-groomed and signed bike routes; charming villages; and warm fall weather made it easy to simultaneously enjoy the moment and to reflect upon the summer experiences we were leaving behind.


What a picnic stop: the old town of Stein am Rhein, Switzerland.

Permanent signs in southern Germany for long-gone strawberries and melons reminded us of the pleasures of the area we'd enjoyed in the summer months of prior years. Now it was "kurbis" or pumpkins that were adding visual interest to the fields and rural market displays.

 "Selbst schneiden" or "U-cut" flower gardens were all but barren with a few sunflowers and gladiolas being the last stragglers. School was back in session so their grassy grounds were no longer possible venues for our daily picnics. And the whir of the occasional passing train in the lake area replaced the marmot whistles we frequently heard when in the high mountains.

In the mountain villages the flower displays were largely confined to window boxes but in the lake and river villages flowers were everywhere. Many municipalities had colorful and creative plantings along the promenades and bridges despite the cooler weather. We especially admired the clever use of trimmed and untrimmed grasses to add texture or height to the plantings of which I only could name about half the flowers. Fuchsias, impatiens, begonias, and geraniums were the familiar favorites against Dusty Miller and well-placed red chard.


Flowers & well-placed grasses draped the length of this bridge.

We'd slow or cross a street to savor the visual impact of the flowers knowing that these splendid color splashes would soon be gone. Especially fine public or private plantings would have us parking our bikes for a closer look or to walk all the way around them.  Admiring the flowers was like saying a long good-bye to summer for another year and we didn't want to be rushed. Like with the warmth of the sun, we longed to fill our beings with the images of these wonderful floral displays so as to draw upon their brightness during the colder and bleaker months ahead.

Away From the Water

Between the villages, riding along corn fields is a fleeting though annual experience we always enjoy. Rarely are these the "as far as the eye can see" fields like in the US Mid-West but instead patches here and there. In the summer months we amuse ourselves by noting the difference in crop heights between the neighboring fields and the range in the maturity of the ears. But unlike prior years, this year none of the corn stalks were completely green when we rolled through and many were reduced to neat rows of mere stubs. But the reflection of fall in the still-standing corn was more interesting than the usual summer greens and yellows.

In some corn fields stripes of green were still evident on the leaves though the stems had turned the deep purple of sugar cane stalks. In these fields, the shrunken and blackened cob tassels were dramatically framed by the light brown of the withering leaves. We assumed that these ears were drying in the field for feed corn as in some fields the entire plants had turned a uniform peanut-brown. The sharp crinkles and rustles of the foliage in the strong wind almost sounded like a pounding rain as we rode by.

Daily Bill would inspect the trees for turning leaves but it was only the crimson stag-horn sumacs that were flashing a vibrant color palette. Almost all of the other browns and reds he detected were ripening fruit or seeds instead of turning leaves but we knew that any day it would change--that suddenly one day the colors of fall would have captured the leaves. But the horse chestnuts, walnuts, and acorns littering the bike paths confirmed the seasonal process under way and they added to the mix of plant material giving a subtle but distinctly autumnal scent to the sometimes still air.


The 1930's Zeppelin's Bauhaus decor was decidedly modern.

Institutions 

Off the bike, we shifted our attention to more permanent sights. This was the year that we took the time to visit the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany on Bodensee. Though the commercial and military use of 'air ships' came and went quickly, we were stunned to see what an impact they had had in their time. Regularly scheduled Zeppelin service connected Europe and South America; Hitler co-opted the Zeppelins to underscore the glory of the Reich; and the air ships aided in the exploration of Arctic. Some would carry as many as 1,000 passengers and provided sleeping rooms with sinks as well as a carefully isolated smoking room.

Online searching of Zurich's attractions didn't pencil-out for the high cost of staying in Switzerland but we did duck into Basel for a couple of nights to tour their city history and natural history museums. But the phenomena that had our jaws dropping was the permeability of the Swiss border.

Switzerland is staunchly not an EU member and in our experience has always been quite strident at its borders. But this year border crossings were a mixed bag. Some border crossings had all the familiar trappings with gates, guards, and lines of traffic whereas other crossings were invisible. We crossed in and out of Switzerland multiple times some days with only knowing that we'd done so in hindsight.


Fachwerk buildings in various states of repair were common.

 We were never once asked to present our passports or speak a word by either German or Swiss border guards. (Perhaps Roman Polanski who was arrested in Switzerland during the same time period should have entered the country on a bike.) Finally we learned to watch for "Die Post" in Switzerland for the post office as opposed to "Post" in Germany. The different providers for the phone booths were also a tip-off. 

Just when we thought we were getting the hang of knowing where we were, one town threw us for a loop. It was baffling as it had a phone booth for each country side by side and the post office displayed their dual Swiss and German zip codes. Apparently long since tiring of the questions from outsiders, a sign (in German) posted in the town square explained that it was a "German island in Switzerland"--it was a Germany city completely surrounded by Swiss territory.

 

Eastern Central France

Cycling on "#6"

The border between France and Switzerland was well marked but, as with the numerous border crossings the previous days, there was no guard protecting the EU border at Switzerland and we again sailed through without a pause. The instant change to the exclusive use of the French language left no question as to which country we were in whereas German was the signage language in both Germany and Switzerland.

Cycling in France is always a mixed bag for us. Our first fall cycling day in France dished out a punishing 2,500' of elevation gain as we oscillated around the 1000' level in the low hills. We groaned and our knees begged for a reprieve from the sudden burst of climbing. But the next day couldn't have been more different: we stumbled upon France's portion of the "Black Sea to the Atlantic" bike route which was almost entirely along canals for hours.

We'd seen the "6" stickers for this long distance route added to the German bike route sign posts and assumed that their portion of the route was all on existing bike paths. France, which like Italy seems to lack the initiative at the national level to build an integrated biking network, was still busy linking their segments to EuroVelo #6.

We savored the northern-European sensibly about bike routes that the emerging #6 was overlaying on France and admired their bright new signs and freshly painted asphalt. The French disregard for such formalities was however already showing as some new route signs were disappearing into spreading vegetation and drivers were happily using the 'paint is still drying' bike lanes as parking strips. But the bike-friendly route made for a largely idyllic day of riding after the previous day's athleticism.

Familiar Aggravations

Just as quickly as the grades changed, what we do and don't like about lodging in France presented itself. Bill aimed us to a freeway interchange the first night in France so as to stay in an Ibis Hotel chain room. France is the home-base for Ibis and surprisingly, the worst representatives of their chain seem to be in France. Ours was one of the tiniest Ibis rooms we'd ever been in but we were glad for the predictably excellent beds and reliable soundproofing. Usually perfect plumbing is a part of the draw for us at Ibis but this night almost-hot was the best that they could do.

Our second night's stay underscored why we head for the freeway chain hotels in France if at all possible as we ended up in a very sorry room. The best of the town's hotels was full for the night and Bill's expression became increasingly sour as he exited each successive hotel's front door. After over an hour of shopping and exhausting the options, he had no trouble deciding upon one of the cheaper places as having the highest overall quality. The smell of cat pee in the hotel corridor initially had been a turn-off but he had noted the odor didn't extend into the room.

We were up against the wall with no better place to go, so we made the best of it. Getting sufficient lighting into the room required taking advantage of the outdoor street lamp by leaving the curtains open and keeping the bathroom door open for the benefit of the single fluorescent tube over the sink. My second night of a lukewarm shower was salvaged shortly after nearly being scalded when Bill drew a little cold water at the sink. Desperate for a really hot shower, we discovered that he could precisely regulate my shower temperature by adjusting the flow of water at the sink. It was clumsy system but the room was so small that even when using the computer plugged into the lone outlet, he wasn't far from the sink faucet to make temperature refinements.

The lodging in France often has us comparing it with that we've experienced in developing nations but the food in the grocery stores in some regions had us purring. Giant supermarket chains like Geant and Super-U (super-ooo, not 'you') each have their delights. Super-U has tuna in olive oil for a killer price; a nice brand of bulgur that we enjoy with beans for a hearty breakfast; and they and others have pre-packaged beet salads and shredded carrots in vinaigrette sauces that we wolf down while loading our bikes with groceries at the end of the riding day. The bread is hit and miss: some days it's divine, other days it is decidedly ho-hum. No doubt like in year's past our first day of riding up and down in France's hilly country would mimic our yo-yo-like experience of the people, the food, and the lodging.

Biking the Canals


One of the larger locks along the French canals.

Map Man hadn't planned a canal trip for us but stumbling upon the other, non-#6 signed canal routes made it too easy to pass up. Primarily on multi-use paths, we had hours of traffic-free riding most days. Some canals and rivers in Europe can be mighty boring as the waterways often are too-tame: straight courses, concrete banks, and a lack of flora diversity can conspire to sap the vitality of the route. But in the region of the Saone and Loire Rivers, the waterways generally retained their visual interest.

Some canal segments would be dotted with welcoming picnic tables and rarely, graced with blooming plants. Occasionally the banks would be built-up with a small village or a few businesses. In the frequent, less urbanized areas, we could practically mark the miles by the regular appearance of a lone heron. These weren't the large Great Blue Herons we know from our local Willamette River in the Pacific NW of the US but the more diminutive herons with dark streaks down their long white necks. Just staring at them was enough to make them take flight but announcing "Heron over water on the left" or "Heron perched on the right bank" was one of the daily sources of entertainment.

Unlikely to take flight upon our approach but equally well-spaced along the canal banks were the solitary fisherman. Like the herons, they had the look of defending their territory. These experienced fishermen ranged from absolute minimalist to fellows that had the back of their van opened so as to readily access their bulging stock of supplies. Many of the men had multiple poles held in special brackets stuck in the ground with the poles ranging from small varieties attachable to their bicycle frame to near crane-like models that stretched more than half way across the canal.


And a smaller lock.

None of the men stood to fish but instead sat on a road guard rail, an inverted bucket, or a nifty folding fishing chair with fabric accessory pouches. Some were content to be exposed to the elements, others had huge umbrellas, and still others had semi-permanent mini-tents erected on private property with a plastic chair poised at the water's edge. Bared-chested and working on their tan was the preferred uniform for a few; others had hats and specialty vests that supported their fishing goals. We never saw an indication of any fish actually being caught though one good-sized specimen seemed to be taunting the man with the huge poles by jumping 20' down stream from him.

In addition to watching the feathered and non-feathered anglers, examining the dozens of canal locks was another standard activity on our tow-path days. Their increasing frequency reflected the increasing elevation of the surrounding land and their relative age could be assessed by the ratios of metal to wood in the construction. Old lock master's dwellings were now private residences and bathroom-sized, new wooden huts served the lock master who arrived by car for a pre-scheduled passing.

Nights Along the Canals

The curse of the canals was the same as everywhere in France: the lodging. Bill spent all of one evening and several hours the next morning online and on the phone desperately trying to find us a room for the night. Inexplicably, all of the rooms in every direction he turned were booked. Finally he found us a room a half-day away from the canal and we rode all of the next day on the roads to reconnect with the canal tow-paths beyond the problem area. This wasn't the first time we'd had difficulty finding lodging in the middle of the week in low season in France and no one we asked had an explanation for the problem.

Many nights in poor quality rooms added injury to the insult after working so hard to find lodging. Amazingly, even at $100/night, one hotel's interior walls were so thin that they swayed when the room door was closed. In this room the unenclosed sewage pipe for the guests a floor above us was too prominent in our room so that every flush of the toilet or drawing of water by them was loudly registered in our space. We noticed that the hotel door proudly displayed a 2009 Michelin Red Guide sticker--a guide that prides itself on selecting the best in France.


Playing it safe: traveling with their own accommodations.

And then there were the social aggravations that came with the lodging. More often in France than elsewhere we are greeted with "No eating in the room" messages, either verbal or written. We of course always expect to eat in our room and find it an odd restriction in this era when others look to make a profit by encouraging the practice with room service and mini-bars. The other stance that some of the small hoteliers took that made us feel like we were staying in a youth hostel and not a hotel was the "5 pm Rule." Some establishments wouldn't unlock their doors until 5 pm, which especially in the fall, literally left us standing in the cold. And unfortunately, they weren't at all prompt about arriving at 5 pm.

And more often in France than everywhere else combined, we got zinged with unexpected charges for the bikes. These charges weren't ever mentioned up front and at prices like $7.50/day were enough to notice. At one such rural place it was all the more startling as they rented bikes so stashing our bikes obviously wasn't an intrusion or a degradation of their image. Then there were the welcoming inn hosts that instantly turned distant and pouty upon hearing we only intended to rent their room and wouldn't be dropping $100 on dinner and breakfast at their table (we happily 'self-cater' for under $15/day).

In addition to these recurrent aggravations with the French hospitality industry, we had an unexpected  evening's entertainment created by an especially thoughtless room design. We were in a characteristically tiny old room using our 'overnight in a ferry cabin' skills to cope with the cramped conditions. I put my $20 stainless steel water bottle on top of a free-standing closet so it would be out of the way only to have the bottle drop to the bottom of a 7' shaft created by the wall and cabinet. Inexplicably most, but not all, of the cabinet had a board across the top.

We spent too much of an hour retrieving my bottle. The first effort was by Bill 'fishing' through the small opening at the top with our telescoping hiking poles while standing on a chair. Finally we resorted to unscrewing 2 pieces of wobbly furniture from the wall so as to snatch the bottle from atop the small pile of garments that other, less-well-resourced guests, had lost down this shaft. 

From the Canals to the Rivers

After unexpectedly riding mostly along the old canals for over a week, it was time to break-away to the hills. Moving from the canals to the river valleys brought a string of changes. Our nervous systems that had shed their armor while riding on the canal tow-paths had to refortify to cope with the shock of again being on truck routes. Bill worked hard as always to keep us on the smaller roads but sometimes difficult traffic conditions couldn't be avoided and then we hunkered down and hoped for the best.

The gentle grades of the canals were instantly replaced by short pitches up the numerous rolling hills. "Good training" were our feeble replies to our bodies that had happily adjusted to the less vigorous canal riding. And the scenery changed with the route change. Lush, deciduous tree lined canal ways gave way to open fields carpeting the hills. No longer were the locks and solitary anglers our main sightings for the day. Off the canals it was the calm and curious massive white cows and occasional brown hawk posted in the freshly plowed field that caught our eyes.

Like in southern Germany, studying the corn fields was one of our regular activities once off the canals in France. In the course of a few minutes one day we watched what we imagined to be a demonstration of the entire fall harvest process in a series of fields. The first of the 3 stages was harvesting the dried corn kernels by whacking down the plants and stripping the cobs with 1 pass of a single large machine. A small tractor was all that was needed to draw the special attachment that mowed down the remaining foot-high stubs of stalks. Finally a tractor with a different attachment would churn the top soil while tilling-in the plant debris. Other rarer agricultural sightings were whole tobacco plants inverted to dry in low sheds and huge piles of dirty sugar beets that from afar looked like big loads of dumped rocks.

 As our westward journey to the sea continued to drift south the prevalence of giant-leafed Indian bean trees and feathery tamarisks reminded us that we had indeed left the colder climates behind us. In another week the changes would be even more dramatic as bamboo hedges, bananas plants, palms, and yews would appear.

Sharper Fall Sensations

Coincidental with moving on to the rivers, the weather changed. Daytime highs that had flirted with the low 80's one week couldn't break 60 the next. The days of warm-most-afternoons were suddenly gone and finding wind shelter for each day's lunch became a top priority.


The 1800's tunnel was built just for the canal traffic.

Gone too were the days of settling on an outfit in the morning and having no need to make adjustments while riding. Instead we fortified ourselves for the first hour or 2 with fleece shirts, heavy gloves, and a skull cap. When the morning fog and clouds cleared, the heaviest layers were removed for an hour or more until the winds came up. Then an intermediate level of 'bundling' was needed. We knew it wouldn't be long until the extra stops required each day for wardrobe adjustments would be gone. There would come a day in which we headed out wearing all of our warmest clothing and the only adjustments made during the day would be to the height of the zipper closures. 

Pondering the Lives of the People

Switching from the canals to the rivers brought a shift in the environmentally-triggered conservations about social matters as well. When on the canals we frequently interjected yet another remembering about times in the late 1800's when the canals were in their heyday.

Like in our lifetime when the explosion of technology has created a rapidly changing world, it seems that the late 1800's were also a time of unbelievable advancements for those living in cities in the western world. Life-enhancing developments were occurring on many fronts with innovations like the telegraph, the telephone, bicycles, trains, air flight, and light bulbs either emerging on the scene or becoming significant in the lives of the middle class.


Farmers on their way into town for a protest rally.

Canals were another part of this revolution as they made transport easier and cheaper in some regions. We spotted a defunct brick factory that was sited on a canal because it was cheap to haul in the required heavy coal and clay and equally cheap to send out the heavy finished product.

In contrast to conjuring up images of the life and times of the late 1800's technical revolutions while on the canals, when on the rivers and in their hills, it was the lives of farmers present and past that became the central theme of our musings. While there, diary farmers in the EU were literally dumping milk on the fields to protest low prices and we thought of those TV images as we rode past hundreds of cows. Farming has always been a tough business and though the technology of the industry has changed dramatically over the millennia, the precariousness of the livelihood hasn't. 

Ramping-Up the Tempo

At the city of Clermont-Ferrand a bit south of Lyon, our lake-canal-corn field-river riding came to an abrupt end. Clermont-Ferrand itself was built inside a volcanic crater and getting out of it would entail a 2,300' climb into the peaks and summits of the volcanic chain to continue our journey to the sea.


Clermont-Ferrand cathedral's lava blocks & gargoyles.

Days in which we accumulated a few hundred feet in elevation gain along the waterways would suddenly give way to days of several thousand feet gain. The harshness of the effort was accompanied by yet another equally harsh change in the weather as the daytime highs would be confined to the low 40's and the wind chill without the addition of the breeze we created with our own speed would make it feel like the temperature didn't break the freezing point. All  of our warmest clothing would be layered on with the addition of wind breaking from raingear despite no rain. We'd revive an old winter trick, which was to have insulating gear like a pair of flip-flops handy to sit on during lunch to stave off a deepening chill. Fortunately there would be a reprieve: the very cold temperatures and strong north winds would abate in a few days.

  

A Strange Time of Year

Scrutinizing the Details

Aside from strenuous bouts like exiting Clermont-Ferrand, overall the riding becomes easier for us in the fall as the threat of snow drives us out of the mountains into the lower hills and onto the plains. It is the time of year that we necessarily shift from building our power and hill-climbing endurance to accepting the quieting and inward-turning quality of the season. That season-driven change in focus is reflected in our increased attention to our bodies while on the bikes; to working on the details of our form. Being in the mountains is hard work and we get through them any way we can; being along the rivers and in the lower hills is a signal to get back to the basics, to work on our cycling form.

Having good cycling form is basically the same as having good posture and having good posture always seems just out of reach. So as we pedaled on these generally easier days, we exchanged reminders about relaxing our shoulders and jaws; dropping our shoulder blades; lifting our breast bones; and aligning our necks with the rest of our spines. Then there were the more cycling-specific checks like making sure the non-dominant leg was contributing 50% of the power and that the tilt and rotation of the pelvis was symmetrical. It's tedious work but attending to the details decreases the risk of injury and increases our power and efficiency.

Detailing the Master Plan

Juxtaposed to the quiet, inner focus of our fall riding is always the 'blast-our-brains' aspect of the evening planning sessions--sessions inextricably linked to the changing seasons.  Much of the year our detailed planning horizon goes out a day or 2, or perhaps a week, and has a backdrop of a very general itinerary. But in the fall our detailed planning horizon suddenly extends for 6 months with September seeing us simultaneously making hour-by-hour plans for specific days in both December and March.


No Roman roads to discover when back home.

Our return to the States in December and our return to Europe in March must be planned in tandem as we select flight dates for Europe-US-Europe round trip tickets. "Where will we leave the bikes?" and "When is the 10 day-long Easter holiday?" are the 2 pivotal questions. Other priorities like minimizing transit times, keeping the costs down, and avoiding the crowds also get factored in.

Amazingly, in September I start making my lists, including one for the first 24 hours back home. "Get cash; turn on the hot water heater; buy these groceries; apply for a new passport; get a flu shot; visit Mom" were among the first items jotted down.

Once our flight dates were set, then a slough of appointments got scheduled as we had good internet and telephone access. Unfortunately, the first month after our return to Europe also must be well strategized in the fall because of the havoc the Easter holiday can cause for lodging in the south.

When we return to Europe in 2010 we are planning a visit to Morocco for a few weeks without the bikes. In prior years we've seen parts of Egypt and Tunisia as pre-season activities and doing so has been a satisfying way to extend our travels. Being in North Africa gets us farther south at the end of winter and yet not bringing our bikes avoids the potential culture-clashes of me being a woman on a bicycle where that isn't always tolerated. It's a trip we are looking forward to but it too must be in the detailed planning stage in the fall.

And this year there was the extra bit of excitement and inconvenience layered onto our year end planning because when home last winter we had to unexpectedly move. As we made our lists and planned our return to the States we had to visualize launching from a different address than the previous 9 years.  The "To-Do" lists would have to include time for unpacking several dozen boxes, organizing cupboards, hanging pictures, and completing our 2008 photo album. Amidst the confusion and frustration will be the delight of a new adventure, a new 'sense of place' when we are at home.

 

 

Where We Are Now, November 8, 2009:   Arranjuez, Spain (south of Madrid)

We were flying along the highways of northeastern Spain heading south towards Seville when our cycling came to a screeching halt. We battled head and crosswinds for 2 days and then decided it was time to stop consuming the goodwill of the truckers, so we stopped. The online forecast indicated 5 more days of increasing winds, so we caught 1 of the 2 daily trains out of our tiny overnight village of Medinacela hoping to get to Toledo.

Toledo was around 150 miles south of Medinacela and was on our sightseeing list for the year, so it was the perfect place to wait-out the weather. Unfortunately bikes weren't allowed on trains going to Toledo past Madrid, so we rode to the end of the line at Arranjuez. We are only about 30 miles from much more historic and scenic Toledo, but the only way we can get there with the bikes is by riding them and that currently means heading straight into the 20+ mph winds.

Arranjuez has the services we need to be comfortable and content, so we are busy catching up on the webpage, laundry, and making a string of reservations for going home in early December. In 2 days, on Tuesday, there may be a break between weather systems that will allow us to safely bike to Toledo where we likely will be stuck again.

We are disappointed to be 'wind-bound' but the sun is bright most of each day and there is no rain. In contrast, the southerly nosedive of the jet stream that has triggered high winds over all of Spain is creating heavy rainstorms to the east of us,  including blanketing all of the southern half of Italy and much of the Balkan Peninsula. Many years we've finished our riding season farther east so we feel lucky to be where we are despite the inconveniences.

 

Our best to all of you,

Barb & Bill

 

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