Cycling Day 11:
Friday 30th July: Strasbourg to Colmar
5 hours 43 minutes in the saddle, 105 kilometres
Trying to find a way out of the town or city in which I had stayed the previous night was often the greatest cycling challenge that I had to overcome each day. Urban areas are built for cars and in France, the standard practice when exiting a town centre in any form of motorised vehicle is to follow the ‘Toutes Directions’ (‘All Directions’) signs which will, if you are patient, eventually take you to the road you need and send you off in the direction you want. The problem that I encountered time and time again on my journey south was that I wasn’t driving a motorised vehicle and let’s face it, I wasn’t that patient. In a car, in an unfamiliar place you are more than happy to be sent off on a circular route around the town until you get to your particular exit road. You probably don’t even realise that it’s happening. On a bike, that’s not the case and it was a source of ongoing frustration that I seemed to spend many, many minutes, literally going around in circles trying to find the right road out of town. Today however was stress free, or at least it was on leaving Strasbourg.
The Canal du Rhône au Rhin was directly linked to the canal over which the Hôtel Ibis looked. All that was required of me was to make sure that I had a channel of water beside me and the sun in the sky to my left. It worked a treat and I gleefully ignored all the ‘Toutes Directions’ signs that I passed. Within a few minutes I had found the unmistakably dead straight canal that I needed and I headed south. I decided that rather than have my usual continental breakfast in the centre of Strasbourg, I would wait a few minutes until I was on the Véloroute du Rhin and then pause briefly at the first boulangerie that I passed.
The southern suburbs of Strasbourg were just as grim as the ones that I had encountered in the west on my arrival in the city but at least they weren’t drenched in water. Indeed the sun flashed like the bulb on a paparazzi’s camera as it was repeatedly hidden and then exposed by the avenue of trees that lined the banks of the canal. I couldn’t really go wrong that morning. The Véloroute du Rhin was indeed well sign-posted; I just had to watch out for the occasional transfer of the route from one side of the canal to the other. There was only one slight problem and that was the complete lack of boulangeries or supermarkets at which I could stop and buy breakfast. I could have made a slight deviation and headed into one of the villages on either side of the canal, but once I was out of range of Strasbourg, these seemed to become more and more distant from the canal so although my hunger was building, my motivation for making an increasingly long detour was diminishing.
The canal had three kinks in it; one at Eschau, a second at Boofzheim and a third at Marckolsheim and it was here that my hunger had to be quelled so I left the security of the canal and headed into the town centre. I had made astonishing progress having cycled 6o kilometres in less than three hours but that was entirely down to the simplicity & flatness of my route. The buildings in Marckolsheim were even more Alsatian than they had been back in the old part of Strasbourg; high roofs, shuttered windows, many timber framed and even more painted in pastel shades of yellow, blue, cream & red. It was undeniably very pretty. And of course, being a small French town, it was almost deserted. Fortunately, the owner of the rudimentary patisserie had seen the light and decided to stay open in order to entice into his establishment any passing trade, or indeed passing cyclist who might be ravenous. I bought a baguette and a large slice of wobbly tart which I devoured with the table manners of a hyena while sheltering in the very large and ornate bus stop on the other side of the main street. I say sheltered because, you guessed, it had started to rain once more. As I munched away watching the shower develop into something more substantial, the local church clock rang out twelve bongs to indicate it was midday.
I successfully fought off the temptation to return to buy a second slice of the tart and perused my map for a while. I wasn’t too far from Colmar, my destination; it was only another twenty kilometres or so along a different canal – the Canal de Colmar – that took a sharp right turn heading west away from the Canal du Rhône au Rhin just after Marckolsheim. The rain, to my great delight and surprise, had decided to stop so I saddled up onto Reggie and sauntered out of town on my little trip to the not-so-wild west. Before I had got more than a couple of hundred metres however, I noticed a sign for something called Le Musée Mémorial de la Ligne Maginot du Rhin. I was up for a little lunchtime diversion so I temporarily abandoned my plans to trek west and instead headed east along the Route du Rhin and towards the museum. Even if the museum turned out to be closed I thought, I might get to see the majestic River Rhine which, despite having followed a cycle route named after it all morning, I had yet to even glimpse.
There was no sign of the river but the museum was open. Well, I don’t think it ever actually closed as most of the exhibits were in the open air just set back from the road at the other side of a large gravel car park. There was no security, no barrier or hut at which to pay an entrance fee, just a swing gate that Reggie and I managed to negotiate without too much trouble. On the left was a large fortified bunker with the name of the museum written in square, white letters on one side. It reminded me a little of the correction fluid graffiti back at Strasbourg Cathedral. Perhaps Shi Yeng had managed to turn an annoying anti-social habit into a career. On the grass to the right of the building was a small collection of military vehicles and heavy duty weaponry dating back to the Second World War including an American Sherman tank, a Russian canon and one part of a Bailey bridge. I wandered in between the various exhibits hoping not to step onto any unexploded ordnance before climbing the short flight of stairs that allowed me to access the summit of a small mound next to the bunker.
The place was riddled with retrospectively ironic health and safety signs from the post war period; ‘danger zone: access forbidden’, ‘do not climb on the roof’ and the most inappropriate which was accompanied by an arrow pointing at the main door saying ‘entrance’ in three languages, including of course German. I’m sure any invading Nazi would have been appreciative of the advice.
Explanatory panels drew me away from my frivolous thoughts and back to the seriousness of conflict. What I was visiting was the number 35 fortified gun emplacement of the third line of defence of the Maginot Line. Maginot was the French minister of war in the early 1930s and he persuaded the government of the necessity of building a defensive barrier along the course of the Rhine to stop the Germans invading. Tragically, when the Germans did decide to invade France, they marched through Belgium instead and in the words of the historical blurb at the entrance to the museum, after entering the country in May 1940, the Germans “…were at the gates of Paris by June 14th”. Almost to prove how ineffective the line of defence was, the Germans did send troops over the Rhine in June 1940 in the process destroying 80% of the town of Marckolsheim. I thought about the buildings that I had been admiring only an hour or so previously. All but a few of them must have lain in rubble only seventy years ago. A sobering thought and a testament to the abilities of the local post-war architects and builders who had managed very successfully to rebuild their town.
A twenty-kilometre reflective cycle is what was needed which is handy because that’s what I got, all the way to Colmar along the Canal de Colmar. On arrival I didn’t spend too much time in the town itself. I wandered around aimlessly for a short while to admire the views and soak up the atmosphere (and two Leffe Blondes). I was very suspicious of the Rough Guide’s description of the campsite in Colmar. It had used two adjectives; acceptable & inexpensive. Hardly a ringing endorsement but they would have probably got my business had my cousin (who was no doubt following my progress via the satellite tracker) not sent me the following message earlier in the day;
‘If you have any trouble in Colmar I would unhesitatingly recommend the campsite in the pretty little village of Eguisheim, a mere 5 km SW and supper in the tavern in the square by the fountain, which serves generous jugs of Alsatian wine.’
That endorsement was ringing more loudly than the church bells back in Marckolsheim so I set off for Eguisheim. At this point you may want to refer back to the first paragraph of this chapter of the book where I talked about how easy it had been to leave Strasbourg that morning. The contrast with my attempts to find the correct route to Eguisheim was stark. I initially wriggled my way through the suburbs of Colmar, and what interesting suburbs they were! A fascinating mixture of 19th century ‘grand’ houses in both the French and English senses of the word, interspersed with lots of very modern, architecturally interesting houses. I eventually found what I thought was the correct road out of the town but after a few kilometres of things not adding up, particularly at the point where I had to pause for a train to pass at a level crossing that, according to my map, really shouldn’t have been there, I realised that my confidence was misplaced. I knew that the further I pedalled along the N422, the greater would be the rectifying lurch back to the east and the D30. Good fortune intervened. I decided to take one of the small tracks to my right in the hope that it would lead me to the road that I should be taking and after a couple of kilometres of what at times was verging upon off road cycling, I was back where I wanted to be.
Eguisheim had never been part of the plan. Until earlier that day, I had never even heard of the place so I had no idea what to expect on arrival. The camp-site was well sign-posted but didn’t take me through the centre of the town; I skirted around the edge but was soon at the entrance of Camping Des Trois Châteaux.
First impressions are important so it would have helped if the owner (or at least the woman who seemed to be in charge at the reception) had been on the training course that involved learning how to smile. You would think it would be the first thing you’d do if you were in the tourist industry, no? And with it being the most expensive camp-site that I had visited so far – a shocking 13,50€ – I would have expected her to throw in a few jokes for good measure! I was allocated a patch of ground with barely any grass on it and was left to fend for myself.
What the camp-site lacked, the town and the people who inhabit it more than made up for. Famed for its wines (more of those in a second), it was a walled town built to a pattern of concentric rings. The tightly-packed houses were predominantly timber-framed (not the kind of place to choose to live if you have a reputation for not getting on with your neighbours) and painted in shades of blue, orange and yellow. Hanging baskets adorned most of the windows and the cobbled streets finished the whole thing off perfectly. Reggie was less keen of course on the cobbles so I pushed him around so that we could get a good look at the place, eventually pausing in the square at the centre of the concentric rings of streets to observe lots of fevered activity. It was time to play the guessing game again. I wondered what event I had stumbled upon this time. Surely not the Tour Alsace! Fear not, they were sensibly keeping their bikes well clear of the cobbles of Eguisheim. Lots of long tables were being set up, four booths being built, a stage readied with speakers & microphones and lots of crates being unloaded from small vans. It was clearly some kind of food or more likely, wine festival. I resolved to come back a little later when whatever it was had kicked off.
Rather than return to the tent and sit in a patch of mud, I stayed in town and found a bar in which to catch-up on some planning for the following day’s journey to the Swiss border. No sooner had I sat down than I was joined by a British thirty-something couple who were travelling on motorbikes and were slowly making their way in the opposite direction to me back home. Probably not that slowly come to think of it as the size of their bikes indicated they might get a few tuts from the local residents of Eguisheim should they decide to set off too early the following morning. We passed the time chatting, mainly about how disappointing the weather had been before they excused themselves to go and eat and I headed back into the centre to see if the mystery festival had livened up.
It certainly had and the square was now so full that I found it quite difficult to push Reggie through the crowd. We needed to find a corner where he could lean on a wall and where I could ask someone what was going on. I attached him to a drainpipe and lingered next to one of the booths that had been built. Many of the boxes had been unpacked and bottles of wine had been lined up on the table at the back. This was indeed a wine festival; La Nuit des Grands Crus: Eichberg et Pfersigberg. Try saying that after a few glasses. A chap in his early 40s was stood at the bar knocking back a glass of white wine. He seemed like a likely candidate to fill me in on the details so I asked him.
His name was Paul and I had chosen well as he seemed to be very well-informed. He first explained that I was lucky to be experiencing the wine festival on that evening; it had actually been scheduled for the previous Friday evening but the whole thing had been rained off. No surprise there I thought. Rather than just shrug Gallicly and look forward to next year’s festival, the organisers did the sensible thing and decided to try again the following Friday which nicely coincided with my arrival in town. Paul explained that the two wines being tasted that evening (‘tasting’ in the broadest sense; there was no spitting taking place here!) were from the two local Grand Cru areas of Eichberg and Pfersigberg. Both were white wines and to be honest, that’s all I can really remember about what he told me. The rest of the detail is lost in a happy mist of alcohol. I do remember being introduced to his mate Philippe who was working behind the bar next to where we were standing. Philippe worked for ones of the vineyards in the area and he explained the system that I needed to follow in order to taste some of the wine which involved paying at one point, receiving some tickets and then exchanging them for glasses of wine at the different booths. I must have understood this very well as I merrily chatted away for the next couple of hours to my new wine advisors while quaffing the local produce.
I can’t specifically remember arriving back at the tent but I got there, with or without Reggie’s assistance. That was about the only night of my journey when my ultra-thin, ultra-uncomfortable camping mat seemed to work perfectly well.
(c) Andrew Sykes 2011