Sunday, August 30, 2015

Medow, Germany: The Comfortable, New, and Unexpected

Traveling in Germany is very comfortable for us.  We spent three months there in 2007 on our first major bike tour.  My parents immigrated from Germany after WWII, so there is family scattered all over the country.  I have an acceptable degree of fluency in the language, so engaging with people along the way and getting what we need is easier.  And since we were already on the European continent on this trip, we planned to spend the last month or so visiting family, crossing territory both familiar and new.

Ahh, German trains.  Comfortable, on time, and just wheel your bike on board.
Our first stop was to visit my dear cousin Eva and her family near Hanover.  We took the train from where we entered Germany in the little town of Emmerich, squeezed between the Rhine River and the border with The Netherlands, in order to arrive in time to see my cousin’s lovely daughter Lena graduate with her Master’s degree in architecture. It was a reunion, with extended family coming from near and far to celebrate.  Our four days there consisted of a bit of sightseeing and lots of eating, drinking, talking, and staying up late.  It was hard to wind down at the end of the day with a head buzzing with all the conversations of the day and the German vocabulary resurrected from somewhere deep in my brain.
No afternoon gathering is complete without three different cakes and coffee.
My cousin's daughter Birte baked a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Cherry Cake) which was a crowd favorite.
My Tante Christel now needs a wheelchair, and we spent an afternoon with her on a walk in the woods.
Our schedule was a bit more relaxed once we left my cousin, and we were able to cycle to connect visits to other relatives.  We stopped in historic Lüneburg to meet for the first time a cousin of my father, to Hamburg to visit with another cousin, and then across northern Germany to my second cousin outside of Anklam.  It is a feeling like a warm and soft blanket to be among family that is so nice and generous and welcoming.  Large family gatherings were not part of my childhood because family was something my parents left behind when they made a new life in the United States.  It gives me a feeling of completeness to experience it now.
My father's cousin Ortwin and his lovely wife Ute toasted our arrival to their home.

Paved bike trail along a canal in the countryside of northern Germany.

We took the underground (and underwater) route under the Elbe River through the St Pauli Elbtunnel.

Beautiful cycling in the German countryside.

Lunch with a view of the schloss in Schwerin.

Weatherbeaten but charming.

Bombing during WWII partially destroyed the St Marien church in Wismar.

Building ornaments in Wismar.

Wind machines are a frequent sight in the countryside of Germany.  Some folks don't like them, but we think they are graceful and smart.

The harbor in Stralsund where we boarded the ferry to Hiddensee.  This was my grandmother's home town.
A highlight was a visit to Hiddensee, a narrow 10-mile long island in the Baltic Sea.  We took a ferry to for a day visit with our bikes.  My father spent some time here as a youth and still recalls the geography of the island well.  No cars are allowed on the island, so people get around by walking, biking, or riding in one of the horse-drawn carriage taxis.  Most of the homes are summer residences and people are happy and relaxed because they are on vacation.  We had a brilliant sunny day, and that contributed to the general happiness and number of people sunbathing and swimming in the nude.
The sights on the beach on Hiddensee.

My aunt and grandmother on Hiddensee, probably in the 1930's, from a family photo album.  The wind blows there most of the time, which is why they decided to sit in this ditch.
Quaint vacation home on Hiddensee.

No cars on the island means luggage and other cargo gets hauled around by hand carts and bike trailers, here parked at the dock.

The horse-drawn taxi carts people around the island...
...and leaves traces behind.

The Dornbusch Lighthouse on Hiddensee, a landmark.

After our day on Hiddensee we crossed the channel to Rugen Island and watched the sun set on the lovely island where we spent the day.
We planned to stay in campgrounds, which was our normal routine throughout this trip.  But upon arrival at our first German campground the night after we left my cousin we were surprised to find out did not take overnighters.  It was a campground of “dauercampers” (permanent campers).  The other campground down the street was the same situation, and the next closest was over 15 kilometers away, not an option late in the day.  Pockets of forest are common in rural Germany, so we filled all our water containers and found a dirt road that took us out of sight amongst the trees.  It was so peaceful, not unlike the experience of camping in the wilderness at home.  No other campers watching us, no barking dogs, and no screaming children.  It was so nice and easy that we only paid for camping three nights for our entire month in Germany.

Our old tent leaks, so we had to buy a tarp to protect it on nights with rain.  Camping in the woods offers plenty of tie-off points.

The best thing about a campground is a warm shower.  But we found substitutes.  We camped near lakes a couple of nights where we were able to swim and rinse our clothes.  Many of the other people we saw swimming in the lakes didn’t bother with swimsuits, so neither did we. Schwimmbads are German institutions -- large swimming pools with diving boards and slides and areas with grass and tables.  Many larger towns have them and on a nice day families come and spend the day.  For just a few euros we were able to go for a swim, take a shower, wash our clothes before finding a secret spot in the woods.  And when either of these options are unavailable, then we looked for a public bathroom with hot water where we filled our water bag, which we could hang from a tree to take a shower, using a surprisingly small volume of water.
Schwimmbad heaven!

The unexpected part of stealth camping?  Ticks and slugs.  John had the first tick, no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence.  And then one day during our lunch break I took a look at my legs, and there were at least ten little guys that we had to pluck off with the tweezers from my Swiss Army knife.  Every evening from then on we did a tick inspection on each other before going to bed.  We had a concern about Lyme Disease, but a local pharmacist reassured us, saying it is more common in southern Germany, and that she gets ticks all the time working in her garden.  And the slugs.  Oh my, the slugs.  Big, inky black, and everywhere after a rain, including crawling up the side of our tent.  Harmless, but ugly.
Ughhh!  A slug!

Waiting out a rain event under a tree on Rugen Island.

A morning exploration with my cousins to the old fortified town of Spantekow, dating to at least the 13th century.

My second cousin Offried is a historian and antiques collector.  The live in an old farmhouse built in the late 19th century, and the top floor of one of the barns is his "museum" of artifacts.
One favorite memory of our time in Germany was at the end of the family gathering in the little town of Medow at the home of my second cousin.  It was the last day of August, the last day that we would all be together, late in the afternoon of a beautiful, warm, sunny day.  We piled into cars and drove to the Baltic Sea an hour away.  John and I ducked into the bushes on the way to the beach, and by the time we reached the water’s edge my family had already stripped down and wading into the water.  Buck naked.  It only took us a minute for us to think about it and join them.  I never felt more German than at that moment!
The Baltic Sea

My wonderful family after an afternoon of swimming in the Baltic Sea.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Eerbeek, The Netherlands: Connecting the Dots

It took us just two days to cross Belgium, a country that is not quite France, not quite Holland.  The landscape is flat enough, like Normandy with the river valleys ironed out.  And the language was a form of French that morphed into a form of Dutch as we migrated north, but it did not really matter because just about everyone spoke English, too.   We also seemed to have crossed the “muesli line”.  Our chosen power breakfast food was a bit elusive  in France, only randomly appearing in certain grocery stores.  But here packages stood proudly on the shelf in the first Lidl (the European discount store that defines adventure shopping -- you never know what you will find) with at least three varieties.
Somber cemeteries from both World Wars dotted our route through southern Belgium.  Many important battles were fought in the region with a great loss of life.
Our path took us through the surprisingly beautiful town of Ypres, through the countryside, and into the city of Bruges.  What was incredible is that John picked a route where we thought we would ride along the road with automobiles as we did all through France.  But once we got into Belgium, and in fact all of The Netherlands, we were on a dedicated cycle path alongside the road during our whole journey.

After almost two full months of camping, we finally had a significant rainstorm that drove us to find shelter in Bruges.  We landed dripping wet inside the tourism office, and the agent helped us find  a very reasonable B&B within walking distance of the old town for 55 euros a night.  We had a spacious room, a garage to park our bikes, and flaky croissants and perfect soft-boiled eggs for breakfast.  Our hosts had their own collection of bikes in the garage, and it was from them that we learned of the Fietsnet system.
Colorful windows brighten a dreary rainy day in Bruges.

Canals criss-cross the old town of Bruges, and foundations lie under water.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child in Bruges.

Definitely not the prevailing attitude in The Netherlands.

A series of treehouses as public art in the Beguinage in Bruges.
If you visit the Fietsnet website or use the smartphone app, you can pick a start and end point and the application will pick a route on dedicated bike paths.  And all you need to do is write down a series of numbers on a piece of paper.  And once you start your trip, you look for little signs along the bike path with numbers in green circles.  If the circle is solid green, you are at your destination intersection.  If the circle is just a green outline it will have a number and an arrow pointing to the direction of other possible intersections that can be reached from that location.  Ingenious.  And it works because there are so many bike paths that cover the country like a web.  John did some preparation and we were able to connect the dots across Belgium and The Netherlands, exclusively on off-road bike  paths. 
A typical Fietsnet sign.

Bike trails are EVERYWHERE in Belgium and The Netherlands.  You are never uncomfortably close to a moving tons of steel.
For this last month of our trip we are connecting dots of another sort, visiting family in various corners of Northern Europe.  Our schedule is a bit tighter now, and we found ourselves with too many kilometers to travel and too little time.  We decided to travel by train to The Hague to visit the husband of my cousin has a house that he visits from Canada a few months every year.  We were not too worried about where to catch the train, since the railway web covers the landscape nearly as well as the bike paths.  We singled out a town where we could get to by mid-morning, but it required a ferry ride across a canal.  We arrived at the dock downstream from a nuclear plant and next to abandoned buildings of the village with broken windows and graffiti everywhere, a rare site in tidy Belgium.  Finally someone came by and we found out it runs only on weekends. Time for Plan B.

Another in the "old and new" series.
The next two hours we wound around the inlets of the industrial and shipping center of Antwerp.  (There was a big, wide bike path through the whole complex, by the way).  We had to cross the river to get to the inner city and the train station, and we were concerned that we would not be able to take our bikes on the bridge.  At the foot of the bridge we asked how we might get across.  Oh, just look for the building with the flags flying on top, we were told.  There you can take a large elevator down to access a tunnel and then take the elevator back up.  And this tunnel is only for bikes and pedestrians.  And it is free.  Man, I love this country!  We rolled onto the biggest elevator car I have ever seen -- it could easily hold 20 bikes and as many pedestrians -- cycled through a big tiled tube, rode the elevator up, and then popped out into the beautiful city.  And what is more amazing is that the tunnel was built in 1933, and that they recognized the need for such a connector for self-propelled traffic as far back  as 1874. 
Within the bowels of the St Anna Tunnel in Antwerp.

Flea market in the square in central Antwerp.

Where's John?  In the train station in Antwerp!
Antwerp is a beautiful old city -- big massive structures and a large market square.  The inside of the train station was a renovated building of grandeur, of metal and glass and stone.  We sat and ate our lunch and watched people and trains go by, modern transport in a historical space.  A couple of hours later we arrived in The Hague, then merged with the many commuters on their bikes across town to Peter’s doorstep.  There we spent four nights and lived the life of an urban Dutchman.  We walked from his 100-year-old townhouse to fulfill all our needs -- bread from the bakery, cheese from the cheese shop, tea from the tea merchant.  One very long day we took the train to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum.  What an alive and vibrant city!  And bikes everywhere -- if I had to live in a big city, this is the one I would choose.
Perhaps the most photographed corner of The Hague.

John and Peter on our day trip to the dunes nearby to the Hague.

The btrain station both in Amsterdam and The Hague had pianos where anyone passing by could sit down and play.  It was amazing how wonderfully ordinary citizens could play.

Canals!  Boats!  Amsterdam!
A cargo-hauling bike, a design we saw frequently in the cities.  We saw a woman going down the street with a washer in one of these.  She was moving too fast for me to get a picture!
Rush hour in Amsterdam!
Two more days of cycling and connecting the dots took us across the Netherlands.  One day we clocked our longest day on this trip -- 104 kilometers -- all before 3 pm.  All I can say in our defense is that it is flat.  We spent a night at the home of some new friends, a Dutch couple we met traveling in France that invited us to their home.  We swam in their pool, ate their food, drank their wine, slept in a real bed.  It was nice (thanks Gerard and Giesela!)
Cows, green, and flat defines the countryside in The Netherlands.

Ho hum, just another lovely bike trail along a canal.

The second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings are in the Kröller-Müller Museum in The National Park De Hoge Veluwe.  The town of Otterlo at the west entrance has over-sized reproductions along the road.

Heath and grass of De Hoge Veluwe, bisected by what else but a lovely bike trail!
Just within sight of the German border we had one more punctuation point of Dutch kindness.  Rain forced us to seek shelter to eat our lunch under the canopy of a closed hair salon in a tiny little town.  The family across the street saw us and invited us over to their garden shelter.  We said thank you, no, we are done and ready to move on.  We went down the street a ways and the rain went from nothing to heavy within seconds.  We turned around and retreated to the salon once again.  This time the patriarch of the family walked over and insisted we come to their house.  We were set up in an enclosed patio, and within a minute we had steaming cups of coffee and tea in front of us and little cakes if we wanted them.  We had a nice chat and by the time we finished our drinks the rain had stopped. As much as we enjoyed traveling in France, we still marvel at the generosity of the Dutch people.  But even more The Netherlands has a true bike culture and that everyone rides bikes and knows exactly what a traveling cyclist needs.  And that is said with an exclamation point, and not just a dot!
We didn't see any wild roosters, but these signs coincidently occurred next to cattle guards.

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