Cycling Day 8:
Monday 26th July: Luxembourg to Metz
5 hours 11 minutes in the saddle, 98 kilometres
Apart from giving me something to do as I waited to be served in restaurants, the blog had been invaluable in allowing me to make contact with people who were interested in my trip and very often able to offer advice through their own experiences. One topic of conversation that I had thrown out into the ether of the Internet a few weeks before setting off was the question as to which items I would take with me but would end up depositing in a bin in Strasbourg as they had proved themselves to be surplus to requirements. Well, I was only in Luxembourg but after a week on the road I had already come to the conclusion that certain things were going to be of little value. They were mainly to do with the camping element of my trip. I suppose I always imagined rolling up at a campsite, erecting the tent, getting a little stove out, boiling some water in order to cook some pasta, rinse my cycling shorts (although not in the same water I hasten to add) and hang them on a line that I had tied up between the tent and a nearby handy tree. It wasn’t quite working that way. OK, I had only spent two nights in the tent so far but it was fairly clear that faced with a camp-site bar and a nearby town full of cafés & restaurants, my cooking kit was not going to see much action. Neither was the washing line; there are many things upon which any self-respecting camper can drape his wet shorts. So the small gas bottle, screw-on burner, set of nested pans, plate, pack of spaghetti & washing line went. Or rather stayed in the hotel room when I departed Luxembourg. Goodness knows what the cleaners thought when they found the small pile in room 426 but I hope they were able to put them to good use and if you are ever wandering the suburbs of Luxembourg and happen to spot someone hanging out their smalls on a lurid fluorescent green washing line, you can probably guess where they work.
One day off the bike had made me eager to climb back on and reacquaint myself with Reggie. Luxembourg had been a fascinating little stop-over but I was on a cycling mission and needed to make progress. For the first time since Dover, I also needed to reacquaint myself with the Eurovelo 5; I was now back on it and would stay on it all the way to Brindisi; no more ‘Belgian kinks’ to iron out. My next day-off would be in Strasbourg where I had planned to meet up with a German friend, Claus who was going to drive over from nearby Stuttgart. That was pencilled in for Thursday or Friday and it was now Monday morning so I had three to four days to make it to the capital of Alsace. I reckoned on overnight stops in Metz and then, well… something would turn up. The bit between Luxembourg and Strasbourg was another section of my route plan that contained towns called ‘???’.
The first day back on the Eurovelo 5 was a bit clearer however and relatively straight-forward as it involved cycling first to the bottom right-hand corner of Luxembourg and then following the Moselle from eponymous Schengen to Metz and a municipal camp-site. I expected a fairly flat ride along the river after a gradual descent from the Luxembourg plateau. I would worry about the towns of ??? later.
I was correct about the gradual descent but I hadn’t countered on having to cycle directly into a cold wind that was trying to push me back to the capital of the Grand Duchy. It more than compensated for the gradient of the road and it was a relief, finally to arrive at a point where I could look down upon the River Moselle in the knowledge that I would soon be changing direction to head south and hopefully out of direct conflict with the gusts of wind. The Moselle Valley was exactly how I expected it to be; steep-sided with vineyards carpeting each incline leading up from the river, one in Germany, one in Luxembourg. Have you ever knowingly drunk any Luxembourg wine? The chances are you haven’t because the vines are only grown in this one, thin strip of land, 42 kilometres in length from Wasserbillig further north on the eastern bank of the Moselle to Schengen. Vines are not allowed to be planted anywhere else in the country apparently. In his Essential Wine Book, Oz Clarke tells us that “Luxembourg… produces a delicate, steely, green Riesling, quick to age to petrolly austerity, but absolutely straight and unmistakeable” which unfortunately only leaves me more confused as to whether I should try and spot a bottle down at Tesco’s.
I descended to the valley bottom through the smart rows of vines and as I did, the temperature rose. Or was it simply that down here there wasn’t a wind chill factor? It wasn’t long before I arrived in the centre of Schengen, a place made famous by a bit of paper. If you are not familiar with it, the Schengen Agreement is the bit of European legislation that allows people to travel from one country to another without having to show their passport. Border controls are maintained if you are travelling into the agreement area which is why, when travelling from the UK to continental Europe you still have to flash your passport at a stern looking official as the UK never signed up, but within the area itself all the controls have been removed. It was this piece of international co-operation that had enabled me to travel backward and forward between France and Belgian at will in the previous week and see all the abandoned border crossings in the process.
I wonder if there was ever any kind of bidding process to bring the signing of the agreement to little Schengen in the same way that cities bid for the Olympics or countries for the World Cup. Prior to 14th June 1985 when the document was signed, presumably no-one apart from a few wine growers in that corner of Luxembourg had ever heard of Schengen. Now it appears to live off the association. Certainly the modern quay next to the river had benefitted from a makeover which is where I parked Reggie and read the perspex plaques that use white perspex retelling the story of the signing. It actually took place on a boat in the middle of the river at the exact point where Luxembourg, France & Germany meet and the politicians came back in 1990 to sign it again. Perhaps the original hadn’t been spell-checked.
Just as Schengen has its agreement, Lorraine has its quiche and that was the region I entered when I crossed the border back into France. There was another voie verte to follow alongside the Moselle but it was a pale imitation of the one by the Meuse and disappointingly, the very promising Moselle Valley as observed from the vineyards back in Luxembourg all but flattened out after just a few kilometres in France. The Moselle meandered through unremarkable country dotted with sporadic bits of industry. The visual highlight of the morning was a large power station.
The economy of Thionville, the town where I paused for lunch about half-way between Schengen and Metz, is based around heavy industry which probably explains why the power station was situated so close. The heavy industry consists of an iron & steel plant, a chemical plant and a cement factory. Now fear not, I didn’t rush to the Thionville tourist office on arrival (if it indeed exists) and demand a list of the main employers in the area, I just looked that up now while writing. But it doesn’t surprise me in the least and if I had chosen to dwell upon such a question as I was sitting in a bar in Rue Georges Ditsch, drinking a 3,20€ glass of Diet Coke, I would have probably guessed along the right lines. It was all just a bit drab. The weather wasn’t helping as it was starting to rain again, off and on, but even the people seemed a bit disgruntled with life (although I have no good reason to assume that people who work in heavy industry should be any more glum than the rest of us). The barman who served me acted surprised when I asked for the menu; they didn’t do food so my large investment in the glass of cola had been in vain. I pushed Reggie through the increasingly wet streets to find somewhere that did have the temerity to serve something to eat but could only find a branch of Subway. I was hungry so I ordered a sandwich in the only chain of food outlets in the world that has turned ordering a quick snack into something akin to finding the Higgs Boson particle. Why make it so complicated boys?
I must have looked a real sight as I rejoined Reggie outside in the street. Not only was I sodden from head to toe but I had managed, unknowingly, to cut my leg quite badly when dismounting from him at some unknown point earlier. Blood covered the lower part of my right leg. Perhaps that’s why the guy back at the bar had told me they didn’t do food; he just wanted rid of me and my bleeding lower body.
As I had suspected, the voie verte didn’t continue after Thionville or if it did, it was keeping itself well hidden so I was forced back onto the roads. What’s more, the wind had returned and once again seemed to be working against me. The rain not only continued but got significantly worse. It was horrible, boring rain that depresses you, not the Wagnerian stuff that I had found so invigorating just a few days previously. I sheltered at a bus stop at one point until realising that there was no logic to my actions; I was thoroughly drenched already and with not a patch of blue sky around me, staying put was only delaying the inevitable. All in all, it made for an afternoon ride that I can only describe as a trudge.
Arriving in Metz itself was such a relief; it must have been as I didn’t even mind the cobbled streets of the city centre. Although I knew Metz had a camp-site, I hadn’t seen any signs so I popped into the tourist office which was at one end of the long square alongside the Cathédrale de Saint-Etienne. The lady who served me was wearing a badge upon which had been stuck four flags indicating the languages she could speak. One was a Union Jack of course, but I was in more of a mood for a linguistic tussle than I had been back in Luxembourg so I spoke immediately in French and, to my surprise & delight she replied in French, we continued in French and we ended in French! Her parting question to me, in French, was where I had come from – “pour les statistiques” she explained – and I was delighted to reply “je suis anglais”. I left the building feeling rather proud of myself for not being so obviously English. Perhaps her flags simply indicated where she had recently been on holiday.
It had now stopped raining and even the sun threatened to shine at one point. I made my way to the Camping Municipal Metz where to my relief I was allocated to a patch of ground without any dividing hedges preventing me from fraternising with the neighbours should I choose to do so. I didn’t but that misses the point. Tent pitched on my bit of very brown grass very close to the edge of the river, I wondered if the lack of green in the grass provided evidence of the sun being a regular visitor to these parts or was it just that the groundsman had run out of lawn restorer. Who cared? It was at least dry.
I sat for a few moments by the tent, watching the river drift by behind the sporadic trees growing on the bank. There was even a bit of blue sky up there. The scene was a pretty one from that angle and I tried to ignore the fact that if I were to turn and look behind me, my view would be of the municipal swimming pool cleverly disguised as a nuclear power station. But sticking to the positive, my first impressions of Metz had been generally good so I decided to have a shower and head back into the city centre.
Once there, my energy levels dropped and all I did was wander slowly around the sombre interior of the Cathedral before plonking myself down for a drink. It was still just as quiet as Thionville had been earlier in the day. I thought for a moment and realised that it was of course Monday, the quietest day of the French working week and the reason why so many shops and restaurants were closed. That, combined with the wet weather had presumably made your average Mr or Mrs Metz stay at home in front of the TV. I slowly made my way back to the campsite (worryingly passing a sign barely fifty metres from the gate informing me that I had pitched my tent in a ‘zone inondable’ or an area at risk of flooding), went to the lively bar-shop-restaurant, ate some chips and a packet of biscuits and hit the sack.
(c) Andrew Sykes 2011