Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dolomites

For a week our bicycles got a vacation. Stored in the basement of my aunt's cellar, they waited patiently while we extended our mid-bike tour break. My second cousin Pia and her husband Joerg drove from Dresden with borrowed harnesses and backpacks to whisk us back to Italy for a week of climbing in the Rosengarten Group of the Dolimites in the Italian Alps. This was a long-planned trek, but neither John or I quite knew what to expect.

We rode a ski lift to get to get to the trail that would we follow three kilometers to the hut where we would sleep for the first night. Hiking in the Alps is not toally the wilderness experience we are accoustmed to. Our backpacks were the size used for day hiking, and we carried only minimal personal gear, a bedsheet, and snacks. No tent, no stove, no breakfast or dinner food. All those would be provided at the hut, enabling us to travel lightly as we climbed the routes that led us to a different hut each day.

The huts were located on some of the most scenic prepices in the range. Many were built over 100 years ago, but renovated with all the modern conveniences of modern life like hot water, flush toilets, and electricity. Most nights we had a room with four beds, but for a bit less money one can stay in a dormitory sleeping arrangement. Most of our time in the huts was spent in the dining area, where we ate dinner, drank wine, and played games in the evening on long wooden tables with cushioned benches. And on the nights where the wind blew and rain pelted the windows (which seemed like most nights), we were happy to have the comfort of the huts. The food was excellent, characteristic of the South Tiroli region, a blend of Italian and German fare. I could get used to this kind of wilderness.

Especially if it snows. Day two of our trip found us in a snowstorm that laid a couple of inches on the deck at the pass where we sought refuge.

But the real objective of the trip was to climb, Alps style. This means scrambling up exposed sections of rock, where handholds and footholds are obvious by the polished rock from the many climbers that have passed by over the last century. Permanent cables are provided on the difficult sections, and we could grasp them for balance and clip into them with ropes attached to our harness for safety. This setup allows reasonably fit but non-technical climbers (like me) to traverse the peaks in the Alps. Stretches of the routes are of moderate difficulty, but we found it challenging at times when it started raining and we had to maintain traction with the weak support of our bike touring shoes.

In the first two days we had experienced climbing in rain, hiking in snow, and scrambling down rain-slicked skree slopes. By then my quadricept muscles, well tuned for biking, were quite sore from the exertion of climbing and descending. But the bad weather clearled like a miracle, and we were able to attempt one of the more difficult routes in the range, the Via Ferrata Laurenzi.

Good thing I am not afraid of heights. And that Pia was ahead of me, giving me gentle instructions in German. And that everyone was patient with me, the least experienced in the group. I made did it by focusing just on the cable in front of me, one section at a time. It was one of the most physically challenging things I have done in my life.

The midpoint was the peak, and the stellar weather and views were our reward.

Joerg was like Spiderman, dropping down the last wall, slightly overhanging. The three of us that decsended before him were secured by an extra rope, belayed by Joerg from above.

The day after we went back up to the top of Kesselkogel, the highest point in the group. We were again so lucky to have clear weather for the ascent. We could see far to the southeast to the Antermoia Hut, where we had spent the previous night, situated just the other side of the lake in the photo above.

We were not alone --the clear weather attracted many climbers to the peak.

But clear weather does not last long in the Alps, and after two days of sun the clouds came in and brought rain. We hiked the standard trail while our "Crazy German" guides went over the Rotwand route. The threat of rain spooked us, and we wanted to stay in one piece for the two more months of biking ahead of us.

Almost as equally thrilling as the climbing was driving the five hours back to Nuremberg on the Autobahn. School was out over most of Europe and cars choked the major routes. And where there was no traffic Joerg could drive at unlimited speed, controlling his Volvo with the same coinfidence that guided us climbing through the Alps.

Monday, July 21, 2008


We have reached the symbolic midpoint of our trip. Late on a warm afternoon we arrived in Nuremberg at the doorstop of my Tante Christel, my father´s younger sister. It has been thirteen years since she visited our family in California, and it was with great joy that we were again together and she could meet my dear John. My cousin Andy and his girlfriend Michaela joined us for this first evening of this reunion.

And food is the center of any German celebration, and this event was not an exception. Bavarian sausages, German potato salad with its characteristic tang of vinegar, shredded radish root, and the local favorite drink -- Radlers, consisting of half beer and half lemonade. Refreshing!

The next day Andy gave us a walking tour of the city, and we circumnavigated the old heart of Nuremberg along the ancient wall and over the bridges that cross the Pegnitz River.

And after our tour we sat in a park at a biergarten and drank Radlers and ate "bretzels", under umbrellas bearing brewery logos that shielded us from the hot summer sun. We talked about Germany and America and family and travel. Unaccoustmed to the combination of inactivity, heat, and alcohol, we both could have stretched out and taken a nap right there.

We spent the next day with Christel, walking the dog and shopping at the local market as we prepared for the second stage of our trip. It felt like being home.


Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a sweet morsel of a town, conveniently located on our route as we headed east towards Nurnberg. The "ob der Tauber" is often left off the name for brevity, but it aptly desribes its lofty position "above the" Tauber River. It is another medieval town surrounded by a wall and situated for safety on a hill with great views, we found it as "impossibly charming" as our guidebook said it was. The town was small enough to consume in a long afternoon of walking.

The ancient wall was rebuilt in sections after being bombed in WWII, and strict preservation laws dictate that the town retains its character.

Portals at various points along the wall provide access into the old portion of the city. At this particular entrance, hot oil was poured from the mouth of the face on the wall onto intruders unwelcome at the gate.

Our visit was a contrast from our previous night in the small town of Schrozberg. Delayed by rain we stopped at the local gasthaus to stay for the night. It took a few exchanges with the proprietor to establish that we needed a room and place to park our bikes for the night. I felt a bit disappointed that my German was not better until later when I found out that he was immigrated from Croatia. He had problems understanding my American-accented German, and I had equally as much problem understanding his Croatian lilt.

The establishment was clean and decorated in high 1960´s style. We seemed to be the only guests, and we were the center of attention when we came downstairs for a bit of dinner. As we ate, the locals enjoying an afternoon beer in the other room periodically looked our way as the German version of the Lawrence Welk Show played on the TV. We went to the bar to pay our meal, and they gathered around with questions about our trip. They were all already a bit pickled, but they brought out the pear schnnaps anyway and proceeded to pour us a couple of shots. I could not finish my portion, but John did, perhaps as a show of American pride. As attention focused away from us and to a discussion of exactly how many kilometers it was to Nurnberg, we made an escape upstairs to our room. The sound of accordian music from the TV drifted late into the night. We wheeled out our bikes out the next morning and cycled off without a stir from our hosts.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Neckar River

Can I take a moment and express my love of German bread? It is undoubtably the best in the world. Bakeries exist in most towns, and each sell several varieties, some deep, dark and grainy, some with leathery crusts and soft aromatic interiors. And rolls coated with a melange of seeds, like poppy, pumpkin, or sunflower. We buy a fresh loaf a day, and each loaf has its own character of the local artisan that produced it. As we left the Black Forest, and rode through fields of grain along the Rhine River, it made me think of all the great bread that those grains would make.

But let´s not forget the beer, with almost as many local flavors as the bread...cold, foamy glasses of it have recently been found on our dinner table. The best was the campground outside of Alpirsbach that gave free beers to arriving campers, from the former monastic brewery just down the street.

We had a couple of hot, humid, flat days getting to the university town of Heidelberg. A very scenic city sitituated on the banks of the Neckar River, we spent a couple of days there, visiting both the Schwetzingen (in pouring rain) and Heidelberg castles.

Unfortuantely, I visited the castle ruins in Heidelberg alone...poor husband had his turn with digestive distress. Please note...five months of traveling plus one water bottle plus seldom washing plus warm weather equals green and red bacteria that will make you ill.

We followed the Neckartal bike trail east along the Neckar River, following all its bends and curved. Clear skies, mild temperatures, great scenery, and flat terrain make for two happy cyclists.

And also elaborate engineered bridge structures, constructed just for a bikes. We do love Germany -- the best bread, beer, and bike trail system in the world.

The Black Forest

We turned north from the flats of the Rhein River into the Southern Black Forest. We followed the road north to the town of Wehr. As we do many days, we found a bench and spread out our tent to dry while we ate lunch, since we packed it wet with dew earlier in the morning. On this day our bench was near a bus stop and an intersection, and soon, as often happens, we struck up a conversation with a local curious of where we were and where we were headed. She was a teacher, also an avid bike tourist, and recommended we take a detour to see the Erdmannshohle, a local geologic feature. So we did, and under threatening skies, we took off on a road that became very steep. We were in the flats no more. The Erdmannshohle was located in th town of Hasel, and when we got to the town we saw a sign describing the site, and saw a sign that said 0.1 kilometers left to get to the site. But we never found it.

Ther afternoon consisted of trying to get back to the main road...our teacher friend desribed a route, not too difficult, she rode it just yesterday. But we found 15 percent grades and an exhilarating downhill in a light rain. This may be a lesson in listening to locals.

We met a fellow bike tourist from England at the campground, and spent the evening chatting about the differences between the US and Britian. He was a character, a bit lost after making a wrong turn in Switzerland, and trying to find the source of the Danube to get to Budapest. He thought he was in the Alps, and we set him straight with a gift of maps to get him to the right place. He was a avid pipe smoker, and was a bit concerned about the route for the next day over Feldberg Pass. Up to that point we hand not really looked at the map close enough to realize we were going over a pass next to the highest point in the Black Forest. As we were huffing our way up the road the next day, breathing like chain smokers, we thought of our friend and hoped he somehow hitched a ride over.

The view from the pass was wonderful -- all shades of green, from the bright greens of pastures to the deep greens that give the Black Forest its name. We spent a couple of days camping near Titisee, with a train ride to the university town of Freiberg, to experience the forest in all angles of sunlight.

We traveled for several days, immersed in Black Forest landscape and lore. And sometimes the intersection of the old and new, like a typical one-roof house modernized with solar panels.

We saw lots of cuckoo clocks, visited museums filled with Black Forest wood carving, clocks, period clothing and artifacts. But what we could not get enough of were the sweeping views of the green, green landscape.

And some of the bike trails were unpaved, and led us so deep into the forest were were surrounded by all those shades of green.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lake Constance

If it is one thing that can get my husband sneezing, its freshly mowed grass. And we had two long days of cycling the hills of Bavaria, surrounded by piles of the stuff. Poor guy -- we had a few steep climbs, too, and it only increased his exposure with breathing hard! It was sunny, dry, and it seemed like all the citizens of the land were out with their weed whackers, trimming growth from fence lines and walkways. And everywhere we saw people turning hay, drying it in the first sun in weeks. Some turned by tractor, like in the photo above, but many more were just out there in shorts and sandals and with a pitchfork. Hard, hot, itchy work -- it gives me appreciation for the saying "making hay when the sun shines".

This time of year, when the sun shines, it gets hot. And humid. After a couple of days we were on the shores of Lake Constance, a lake so big it has shorelines in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. We retreated into the confines of a supermarket in the afternoon, and lingered in the frozen food section just to get our operating temperature back down to normal. When we went back outside to load our groceries into our packs, we struck a conversation with a gentleman, curious about our bikes and travels. Bernd is a retired pilot and spoke perfect English, and offered us some assistance with planning our trip north. We followed him to his home, stopping along the way for some picturesque views of the lake (above). We spent a couple of hours sitting on his terrace with his wife Ursula, chugging mineral water and talking about bikes, Germany, skiing, and travel. We left with a portfolio of maps, cheered by German hospitality.

Lake Constance is a magnet for people from all over, but especially for the German people. A dedicated bike trail circles the entire lake, and it is a popular spot for cyclists of any ability since the path is flat. We heard the roads can be choked with traffic during the high summer season. We cycled the north shore on a Sunday, leaving early in the morning. It was quiet until about 11 am, then we saw droves of other cyclists going in both directions. The German people love to swim, and there are public bathing spots set up frequently along the lake, with grassy areas, snack bars, and play grounds. We saw lines of poeople waiting to get in, including families and their various inflatable water toys. By late in the afternoon people were drifting back to their cars for the drive back home...I have not seen so much scorched red skin in a long time.

Leaving Lake Constance we crossed briefly into Switzerland, and accessed the Rheintal, a bike trail that follows the length of the Rhein River. It followed the river, taking us around busy towns and winding along the shore separate from automobile traffic. Only occaisionally did it convert to a dirt path through forest.

Sights along the way include this wooden bridge, with flowers blooming in the window boxes.

We ate lunch overlooking Rheinfall, the largest (in width, not height) falls in Germany. From a distance we could see boatloads of tourists edging up to the base of the falls. In the middle of the river is a rock outcrop, and the boat drops off passengers to walk up stairs on the rock to the top.

The bike routes in Germany are amazing. The routes are all over, well signed, with directions and distances indicated at every intersection. We did not have a detailed map of the route we were following, but it was not difficult to navigate. When the routes intersect roads, drivers will stop to let us cross. And on more than one occasion, when we stopped to read a sign to make sure we were going the right way, people would stop and ask if we needed help.

We are heading to the mountains of the Black Forest, and between the signs and the nice people, we certainly won´t get lost.


We arrived in the campground on the shores of Froggensee. Glancing at the detailed weather report posted on the bulletin board, the forecast was for clear weather for the next few days -- the unusually wet pattern we had experienced for the last few weeks would be replaced by a high pressure system over the Azores. And by the time evening arrived, the clouds blew out, leaving us a clear view of Neuschwanstein castle from our campsite (it is the light-colored building at the base of the highest peak in the above photo, at the 11 o´clock position. ) In the skies above us paragliders were celebrating the clear skies with launches from the tops of the nearby ski lifts.

The next morning we biked up to the castle and looked down at our campsite on the edge of the lake.
Neuschwanstein is the castle that was the inspiration for Walt Disney´s castle. This castle was also built by the romantic Bavarian King Ludwig II. It was built nearby Hohenschwangau, the summer palace where he spent his summers in his childhood years, which is the reddish building just to the right of center of the above photo. We visited both castles on a brilliant day -- blue skies, puffy clouds, sunshine.

King Ludwig II nearly depleted his fortune building this and other castles, until his mysterious drowning at the age of 41. He never lived in the castle, and the interior is as rich, opulent, glitzy, and lush as it gets -- this guy loved to decorate. We felt lucky to have this view on such a pleasant day from the nearby Mary´s Bridge.

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