Week 16: Riding High on Low Expectations along the Rhine
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
Kaiseraugst to Bonn, 640 km; total 7,315 km
“I’d be okay with a little church vandalism,” was the only-half-joking suggestion one early morning from inside a tent, by a sleep-deprived parent who shall not be named for fear of divine recrimination.
Just as we’d finally found a campground along the Rhine River with no partying teenagers, late-night karaoke bar, or sports-stadium-grade overnight security floodlights, we discovered the curiously outdated European tradition of ringing church bells every quarter-hour. All. Night. Long.
“Where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shall not sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time’?” inquired an anonymous teenager.
“Yeah, do they not have cell phones to tell time?”
The kicker was the daily 6am call to prayer: a cacophony of random tollings that lasted well over a minute, jarring even our deepest sleepers irreversibly awake. Apparently this region in the heart of Europe - where the cathedral was the village heartbeat for centuries (and often still is) - has yet to adopt the modern concept of occasional sleep-ins. Or alarm clocks. Or wristwatches.
We read that some parishes have voted to silence the gonging between midnight and six - there’s even a published academic study showing that locals suffer up to five sleep disruptions per night if they don’t.
But hey, medieval traditions die hard. At least we didn’t have to pay fealty to the local lord and give him half our food.
But while we may not have rested especially well this week as our tires turned northward along the Rhine, our days were brilliantly full of unanticipated treasures.
You see, we expected this riverside route to be easy, flat and a bit bland: the border between France and Germany has been disputed and redrawn countless times over the past several centuries of war treaties, but that rivalry has been tamed as one of the great successes of the European Union. And in North America, it seems, thoughts of Germany still unfortunately conjure World War villains, Cold War walls and a chugging economy fuelled by heavy industry.
Yet thanks to Jonah, Joce and Chrissy’s diligent route research, we discovered daily gems in this place at the heart of Europe - steeped in rich history from long ago, and brimming with perky personality in the present.
We began our week leaving Switzerland at Basel - a return for us, having rushed through this city’s magnificent waterfront seven weeks ago en route from France to Austria. This time, we made time to meander the old town and marvel at the grand Basler Münster, a Catholic cathedral turned Protestant church during Christianity’s troubled Reformation 500 years ago, with its iconic twin red-sandstone towers and mausoleum-filled courtyard. Later as we rode along that waterfront path, we spotted a few dozen people strangely floating in the river - a creatively conspicuous climate protest, with a huge floating sign urging action. This would not be any old week after all.
An hour afterward, we crossed imperceptibly into Germany for the night, then across the Rhine to France for a few days in Alsace. We discovered Neuf-Brisach, a hexagon-shaped fortified town with a vibrant market in the middle and a funky set of animal-themes art all around the grassed-in old moat surrounding the centuries-old stone walls.
In Strasbourg, we wandered the canals and (un)covered bridges of La Petite France, then scaled the 338 spiral steps to the base of the imposing cathedral spire, with a sensational vista of the city that blends both cultures seamlessly - largely because it’s been won and lost so many times that it’s a wonder residents know what country they’re in.
Back in Germany, we were surprised by Speyer - specifically its extraordinary gothic cathedral and its superbly hands-on Technikmuseum that showcases the engineering marvel of human transportation. From a warehouse filled with Luftwaffe fighter planes, pre-Ford cars, fire engines from all eras and places, and bikes with springs for tires, you go outdoors to a park where you tour inside a stripped-down 747 (you even go into the cargo hold), other planes and boats, a nuclear submarine and a replica of the space shuttle. If a kid doesn’t emerge from here wanting to be an engineer, they never will (Ed was musing possibilities for a return to university himself for hours afterward).
We also stopped in at Worms, where the original Protestant Martin Luther was convicted of heresy in 1521; Mainz with its cavernous Romanesque cathedral and packed biergartens; and Rudesheim am Rhein, where a gondola brought us to the colossal Niederwald monument celebrating German unification after the Franco-Prussian War rallied all the domains behind Otto von Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm (who personally laid the first stone of this resplendent hilltop display of national pride). All five boys (and both moms) politely had their absolute fill of Ed’s history snippets.
Having a second family along for the ride proved advantageous again this week, as we were able to spontaneously split up a few times to repair bikes and bodies (some on bike, some on train) and ensuring incorporation of everyone’s interests (Europe’s largest fish ladder at Rheinfelden for Sitka, an ambitiously large Wibit water park for all the boys, and getting functional gear shifters for Chrissy). Tommy is cycling faster and farther than we ever imagined possible, thanks to active and persistent encouragement by Heron, Sitka and his brothers.
You know a kid has been on a bike for a few weeks when he starts thinking of everything in terms of distance: Tommy was telling us about his “girlfriend” back home, so we asked the conventional question, “How long have you been dating?”
“A long time… seventeen kilometres.”
It helps, too, that the trail is indeed smooth and flat - though certainly not bland. Most of the route is directly on the Rhine’s banks or atop the dykes constructed in the late 1800s to “domesticate” the once-wild waterway. Otherwise, it winds through thick oak and maple forest, or amongst the sprawling corn, wheat and sunflower fields. In the occasional village - each cottage-like home with an expansive mini-farm of vegetable garden - we stop for bakery delicacies and richly flavoured ice cream. On the outskirts of larger cities like Mainz, we rode past little communities of vegetable gardens with little shacks where folks from various cultures seem to gather on weekends to play and socialize away from the urban.
We had some special gatherings of our own this week - timely visits from old Canadian friends who graciously plotted their travel trajectories to coincide with ours. Susanne and Josiah joined up with us in Strasbourg for some scrumptious Alsacian dining and rollicking conversation as always - a joyful treat to catch up with our dear friend and the boys’ childhood buddy from New Westminster as they prepare for life after high school. Later in Boppard, Silvia, Jitse and their three sons added to the boisterous boy energy for an afternoon, gifting us with insight into our upcoming route through their homeland in the Netherlands.
Towards the end of week, the flat farmland of the Middle Rhine evolved into cliffy hills lining the river, with storybook castles peering over us as they did their vast fiefdoms centuries ago. Some castles now have “HOTEL” affixed to their walls, and the one in Bacharach is even a youth hostel.
The Germans themselves even surprised us. Sure, one could generalize a reserved and formal people (compared to the Albanians we met, Fozzie Bear appears cold and distant). But at the three-generation family-run campground in Phillipsburg, and at the packed trailer park in Bingen, where Wolfgang and another mystery man generously joined Ed and Chrissy to help solve a complicated bike repair issue, and indeed all along the bike path where our friendly “Guten morgen” greetings were almost always returned with proportionate enthusiasm, we found warmth and curiosity and boundary-busting human connection. Take that, outdated stereotypes!
On that note, our week ended with the most surprising town of Koblenz. The meeting place of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers was obliterated by heavy bombing in World War II, so most of the “old town” was actually quite recently remodeled after its medieval predecessor.
Here we found the playful wit of postwar Germany determined to turn the page on its recent past: the Schängel Fountain features a life-sized bronze boy innocently running - until he spits a stream of water outward every few minutes onto unsuspecting admirers reading the perfectly placed plaque in the cobblestone.
A few plazas away, the wood-carved human face below the Augenroller clock rolls its eyes with each second and sticks out its tongue with each hour bell.
We didn’t stick around to see if it would continue chiming and charming all night long. If we had, we may have done something we’d end up regretting.