Cycling Day 12:
Saturday 31st July: Colmar to Huningue
4 hours, 39 mins in the saddle, 99 kilometres
The cycle from the Canal du Rhône au Rhin to Colmar and then Eguisheim on Friday meant that the first thing I had to do on Saturday morning was to spend an hour or so cycling back along the Canal de Colmar to hook up once again with the Véloroute du Rhin. It did however have its advantages; I was cycling directly into the rising sun which helped me not only warm up after a night in the mud patch but also sober up after the evening at the wine festival. I felt like a meerkat as I tried to sit up on the bike and make the most of the restorative rays of light. And what rays they were! For the first time my morning ritual of slapping on a thick layer of factor thirty sun cream didn’t seem to have been in vain.
I had left the camp-site quite early, despite having woken up with a spinning head. Some thick black coffee combined with a couple of croissants eased me back into the real world at a café in the centre of Colmar. My phone, a vital link to my followers on the blog, was in desperate need of sustenance too and I spent more time than I would have normally liked examining the maps over breakfast while it was being recharged behind the bar. When we were both replenished, I headed to the Canal de Colmar to do my meerkat impression.
The plan was to head south to Basel, just over the border into Switzerland by continuing to follow the Véloroute du Rhin. Paul, who had so eloquently advised me on the qualities of the wines of Eguisheim (I think), had described Basel in a less positive way. I vaguely remembered him telling me that it was ‘une ville industrielle’ and nothing else before getting back to his pet topic of the relative merits of the two competing grands crus. He didn’t seem that impressed with the Swiss city but the views of the waiter in the café in Colmar were much more complimentary & informative telling me it had an old quarter and a lively atmosphere. I supposed that I would find out for myself later that day. Perhaps they would both prove to be correct. My chatty serveur also pointed out that the following day, the 1st August, was the Swiss national holiday and that there would be fireworks tonight. What a great way to be welcomed into a new country; I could at least imagine they were in my honour.
Arriving back at the Canal du Rhône au Rhin I turned right and kept going, the flat ride along the canal being very much a continuation of the kind of cycling that I had experienced the previous day along the northern section of the Véloroute du Rhin. There was still no sight of the Rhine itself which lay beyond the fields on my left. I just continued to pedal following the signs which depicted a yellow cyclist on a rudimentary bike consisting of two wheels of twelve golden stars. How very European! The scenery became increasingly stunning as I made progress south, especially on the German side of the still unseen river where the hills had developed into mountains. The industrial mite of Germany had also begun to rear its head. And it wasn’t an ugly one from my perspective on the French side of the valley; it mirrored the landscape behind it, and added to the drama of the view rather than detracting from it. I might have had a different opinion of course if I had been cycling on the other side of the Rhine, nearer to the fumes, traffic & noise of the factories and chiminies.
It seemed appropriate, while passing through the town of Ottmarsheim to stop at a big red sign that instructed me to do just that. It was actually for the benefit of drivers approaching on an adjoining road just after a blind bend but as it was around lunchtime, was positioned next to a small supermarket and had an area just to one side complete with bench, flower beds and a church bell on a plinth, I stopped anyway for something to eat and a rest. The sun was continuing to shine in the middle of a deep blue sky so after having purchased a sandwich and some savoury snacks from the shop, I positioned myself on the plinth so that the bell was protecting me from the sun and munched away. This was what I had come to find; great cycling, interesting, out-of-the-way places, freedom from the rat race and above all, sunshine. I was happy! My mind wandered lazily and I could quite easily have shut my eyes and dozed off had I not been conscious of keeping one eye open and on Reggie who was leaning silently on his stand just to my side. I examined the detail of the bell in a way that it didn’t really merit. I couldn’t understand the inscription but I managed to conclude that they – there was another one of the other side of the road – were from a long-destroyed church as they were covered in intricate religious imagery. The one I was leaning against had a large crack in its side so it must have sounded a bit flat; perhaps it had just been replaced with a newer, more tonal instrument… I was very, very relaxed. Sun, quiet, food in my stomach, lingering somnolence from the Eguisheim wine, bell trivia on my mind. Reggie would survive if I snoozed…
I could have been there, sleeping like an itinerant tramp (albeit one with an expensive bike to his name) for quite some time had I not been jolted back to life by the stark tones of a message arriving on my phone. It was from a couple of friends who had been reading up on my journey so far on the website and had decided to send me a message expressing their disbelief that I had actually cycled as far as I had. Smiling at the thought that people back home were increasingly aghast at the progress I was making, I decided that I had better crack on with the cycling lest they be disappointed the next time they looked me up online so I dragged myself off the bell, stumbled a little, stretched, yawned, reacquainted myself with Reggie and cycled out of town. Switzerland here we come!
Well, not quite. My plan had been to make it to Basel and stay somewhere in the Swiss city that evening. That would probably have been a hotel but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether this was an appropriate thing to do. On approaching the French town of Huningue, I paused at a small tourist office next to the canal for some advice and guidance. The lady behind the desk warned me that the centre of the city would be extremely busy due to the fireworks. It didn’t escape my attention that they seemed to be celebrating a day early; this was, after all only the 31st July and not the 1st August but who am I to question the wisdom of the Swiss, the masters of organisation and home to what I hoped would be the greatest cycle network on earth. It was recommended that instead of a hotel in Basel, I stayed in Huningue that evening and cross the border the following morning. What’s more, there was a camp-site on the banks of the Rhine in the centre of Huningue. Yet again a not-so-well-laid plan seemed to be coalescing in front of me as I chatted.
Huningue was modern, clean & tidy. It seemed to be one of those places that makes its living from being close to another country, or in this case, just like Schengen, being close to two other countries. The canal I was now following – the Canal de Huningue – cut its path through the centre of the town, emptying out into the Rhine just opposite the point where Switzerland meets Germany meets France. It was gratifying to see evidence that the River Rhine did actually exist and a little ironic that the first time I had seen it, despite having followed the Véloroute du Rhin all the way from Strasbourg was here at the very end of my journey along its path. I gazed across the wide stretch of water in front of me and took in the view of Switzerland beyond. It was a view of power, industry and wealth. It was also a view of the unknown. Cycling in France had been easy; although I had never travelled in the east of the country, the language, culture and people were all very familiar to me. I could understand the signs and have a conversation in the street with few problems. What I was looking at was a country I had only visited a couple of times before and on the one occasion when I had spent more than just one night in the country, it had been in the relative cultural security of the French-speaking west. I knew precious little about the culture of everyday life in the larger German-speaking area. It was a country, however, that I would be cycling through for the next week or so. I wondered to myself what little adventures lay ahead.
Camping au Peitit Port was not difficult to find and what a find it was. It was the kind of camp-site that every town in the world should have; compact, informal, friendly and most importantly, no bloody hedges! The place seemed to have been designed with the cycling camper in mind and it had certainly attracted them in their droves. I cycled down the short drive that lead towards the reception building. It was very quiet which wasn’t surprising as the reception didn’t open until 5 o’clock. I looked around me; a one-story timber-framed hut on my left, a shelter with barbeque and table to my right and beyond, a large open space that was refreshingly devoid of mud. What a contrast to the previous night’s accommodation. I must have been spotted because suddenly the door to the reception was flung open and I was invited in by a bearded gentleman who was keen on chit-chat. If he was doing it to vet the quality of his customers then I seemed to have passed with flying colours as I was soon being given instructions as to where I could pitch the tent, how I could access the shower block, when the snack-bar would be open and what would be happening that evening with the fireworks. The only question that wasn’t answered before it was asked was as to why I had never considered camping here in the first place. I’ll put that down to the usual excuse; lack of forward planning back in the UK.
As I pitched the tent, I was not the only one in the process of doing so; there was a Dutch contingent on the far side of the free-camping area who were doing exactly the same thing. Between us was a haphazard collection of small tents and bikes. Reggie had found his spiritual home but whereas he could feast upon the view of his new found metallic friends from the Low Countries, I needed a more practical feed. The camp-site facilities would not be opening until a little later in the evening so instead of waiting, I reasoned that it couldn’t be too far to the nearest shop or café in town where I could find something to eat & drink. Dragging Reggie away from his new two-wheeled mates on the camp-site, we went to explore Huningue.
After cycling around for quite some time I decided it would be a good idea to ask someone where I could find a shop that sold food. Huningue, or the bit of it where I was cycling, didn’t seem to have a café to its name let alone a restaurant or even the smallest of supermarkets. I spotted a lady with a brown paper bag which looked as though it might be full of food so it seemed logical that she would be able to fill me in on the secret that would enable me to solve the riddle of the location of Huningue’s food suppliers.
“Est-ce qu’il y a un supermarché ou un café près d’ici mademoiselle ? ” I enquired
“Il faut aller en Allemagne” she replied.
That wasn’t really the answer I was expecting – I had to go to Germany! It’s not every day that you get directed to another country simply to buy a bit of bread and cheese, but then again, most of us don’t live in towns that sit on international borders.
My helpful passer-by pointed me in the direction of a footbridge that spanned the Rhine. It was an elegant piece of engineering that I had seen from the banks of the river next to the camp-site and had something of the Sydney Harbour Bridge about it but much thinner, more delicate and just a little bit more squat. It also lacked an opera house to one side but would, I thought, make an interesting foreground for the fireworks that would be springing up all over the city of Basel beyond its long arch later in the evening. In that respect it would be fulfilling the same role as its antipodean big brother on New Year’s Eve.
I cycled over the bridge and into my fifth country of the trip; Germany. OK, it was only a very brief visit but the contrast with sleepy Huningue was stark to say the least. As I reached the eastern bank of the river I was suddenly plunged into a Germanic frenzy of people, cars and shopping. Welcome to the town of Weil am Rhein! It was overwhelming, and just a little bit bizarre. In a matter of moments I was seeing as many people as I had encountered during the entire day up to that point. On my right was a gigantic shopping complex complete with fast food outlets, a four star hotel and a supermarket called Marktkauf. If this was what neighbouring German-speaking Switzerland would be like, I was in for a roller-coaster ride in the next few days. I hunted around the vastness of the shop trying to find a few familiar items upon which I could dine al fresco back at Camping au Petit Port. I eventually succeeded but it was far from easy; this was a supermarket that catered for the family and everything seemed to come in boxes, packets, tins and cartons that you only normally see in the back of people carriers full of children. The young woman at the check-out spoke no French or English but I was saved by my familiarity with the single European currency and the digital display telling me how much I had spent. I walked quickly back to Reggie; he was cowering next to a bunch of teenagers who had taken up position well within his comfort zone, placed my provisions in the pannier, unlocked him and escaped back over the border and into the relative tranquillity of France. As I did so, my heart was beating just a little bit faster.
The supermarket had been no busier of course than your average supermarket on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in the World. The noise had been no greater, the hustle & bustle no more frantic and the teenagers no more hostile or threatening. In fact they could very well have been discussing the virtues of the latest work of Günter Grass for all I knew. What had been bewildering was the immediate contrast between the two countries and the two cultures divided only by a short stretch of water.
Back at the campsite I started chatting to one of the Dutch cyclists who called himself ‘Bob’. This was not his real name but an adopted one as he assured me that his birth name was unpronounceable if you didn’t speak Dutch. After some persuasion he did tell me what it was, I tried to repeat it and failed so was happy to stick to plain, simple Bob. Bob was heading in the other direction to me and had come from Siena so we passed quite a considerable amount of time looking at his maps. He didn’t seem that interested in my maps and my journey and I could soon see why he was travelling alone as he had yet to learn the ability of having a two-way conversation. I had falsely assumed that he was travelling with the other Dutch people who I had seen earlier but this was not the case. In fact the other two had left the camp-site already having decided they would be better off in a hotel. I wondered if Bob had played any role in their decision to do so. That said, despite his complete lack of interest in the lives of others, he was affable enough company and it did allow me to hear about some of the places I would be visiting over the few weeks to come.
At around 10.30pm Bob and I wandered down to the footbridge to watch the fireworks but we couldn’t see that much. The crowd around us didn’t seem to be dwindling however; perhaps they were easily pleased. There were a few coloured explosions in the far distance but it was nothing to get too excited about. If I had been Swiss and desperate to celebrate my Swissness, I might even have described the event as disappointing. After some time had passed and it was heading for midnight, I suggested we return back to the campsite so we left the locals to their star gazing still scratching our heads as to why they weren’t heading off home themselves. On arrival I said good-night to Bob, thanked him for his company and hit the camping mat.
I was on the verge of nodding off (which in the tent could often describe the entire night’s sleeping efforts), when suddenly there was an almighty series of very loud bangs and shrieks. The inside of the tent lit up with the bright flashes in the sky. Either one of the three countries has just declared war on the other two or, more likely, it was the start of the real fireworks, the ones everybody had been patiently waiting for. Bob came back over to my tent and asked if I wanted to go back down to watch them but I acted as if I was asleep and didn’t reply. It was never an easy procedure undressing in the tent, climbing into the sleeping bag and trying to get comfortable and I had just spent a good five minutes or so doing just that. The thought of having to do it all in reverse and then repeat the exercise later when the real fireworks had finished was too much to contemplate so I stayed in the tent and missed out on the display. The party continued with very loud music emanating from across the border until 3am. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a wink. Welcome to Switzerland! Almost.
(c) Andrew Sykes 2011