Over the last ten years I’ve visited Germany on quite a few occasions; twice to Stuttgart, twice to Hamburg, once to each of Munich Berlin and Bonn. I have a very positive view of the country based upon prior experience and I think this high bar set by the areas previously visited is at the heart of my current mild annoyance with cycling along the Rhine. Aachen, Cologne and to some extent Düsseldorf are very different places compared to Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg and Berlin. They are much more like your ‘average’ European city; more chaotic, less planned and often visually challenging. The infrastructure is creaking (my friend in Cologne put this down to resources being diverted to support the former Eastern Germany) and – I find this very strange – you actually see social deprevation on the streets; the beggars, the homeless and the drunk. In some cases probably all three. It’s not the image of Germany that I have in my mind and it will be interesting to see how things change as I move further to the north to Munster, Bremen, Hamburg and finally towards the border with Denmark.
So, does this explain my frustration as expressed in the previous post? To a certain extent, yes. Had I been following the Rhine Cycle Route from the point it starts in Germany just to the north of Basel in Switzerland, I’m sure I would have considered the few hours of cycling along the river north of Cologne as a blip. But I hadn’t. The facilities for cyclists here in Germany are indeed good and if I were a commuting cyclist trundling to work every morning on my bike I would be a very happy man. I’m not a commuter however, I’m a long-distance cyclist and in that context the conditions can be frustrating, as expressed in yesterday’s post. Most urban cycling (and along the Rhine around Cologne and Düsseldorf there’s a lot of that) is pavement cycling. This isn’t great when you are travelling over a longer distance and carrying four pannier bags and a tent. Chronic transitions between pathways, uneven surfaces and a sense that that is where you should be. I do feel uneasy when cycling on the roads as the drivers will all be asking themselves “why isn’t that bloke on the cycle track?”.
On the positive side, things did improve later on in the day. The café in an old crane by the river was a quirky delight, the Rhine itself magnificent with great barges ploughing upstream with great difficulty and downstream with ease (despite the strong wind), and the centre of Düsseldorf was as dramatic as it was unexpected. The city is twinned with Reading back in the UK, the town where until earlier this year I lived, and as I weaved my way through the suburbs, I thought it was a good match (read what you like into that). Then I turned a corner and was confronted with an enormous glass office block and the even taller TV tower. The waterfront of the city follows a curve of the Rhine and is lined with bars and restaurants. On each end of the city centre, very similar bridges span the river giving the who panoramic vista a frame within which to be viewed. It’s an impressive skyline, even more so when viewed from the western bank of the Rhine where an affluent suburb is set back from the water by a wide corridor of park along the bank. It gives a sense of great space, much more so than in Cologne which like most big cities has crammed its buildings on the banks to the point where they are about to tumble into the water.
Accommodation on cycling day 44 was through Warmshowers – my first such host in Germany – in the comfortable house of Andrea, Matthias and their dog Harley a few kilometres to the west of Dusseldorf. Their daughter and her one-year-old son were also staying the night. You’d be hard pressed to find a more academic family on the Rhine; both Andrea and Matthias are lawyers by trade and their for children (equally spaced out by two years, boy, girl, boy, girl – that’s taking German organisation to a new level!) are all either doctors or training to be doctors. The whole family is not just anglophone but clearly Anglophile, all of the children having spent significant chunks of their education in the UK. However, of most interest to me were the family’s cycling experiences in Scandinavia and a significant amount of time was spent in the evening with maps of Denmark and especially Norway spread out on the kitchen table discussing routes and accommodation options. Very useful indeed and the conversation has given me much food for thought…