By Pete Martin. The book is available from Amazon.
Day 8: Wednesday 31st July- Neuwied to Widdig (c. 65 km)
The second leg of my ride starts off with one of my favourite train journeys in the world; along the upper mid-section of the Rhine, through the wonderful small towns of Rüdesheim, Loreley, Sankt Goar and Koblenz. I have taken this train ride a number of times and I’ve cycled this section of the Rhine several times too. Each time I’m in awe of how the river cuts through the vineyards on the hillsides that are dotted with medieval castles and quaint towns.
Most of the tourists leave the train at Rüdesheim, probably the biggest of the riverside towns but also the most commercial. My bicycle and I continue our train journey through the long river gorge towards Neuwied, where I will recommence my cycling journey. I chat to the conductor and he tells me he does this journey every day and still enjoys it each time. I have to agree with him as the train passes Loreley, the rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine that towers above the flowing waters. This marks the narrowest part of the river. The mole with the statue of the siren protrudes into the river here. In 1824, Heinrich Heine wrote the poem “Die Lorelei”, an adaptation of Clemens Brentano’s original story, of the siren sitting on the cliff face above the river, combing her golden hair and thus distracting the rivermen, causing their vessels to crash on the rocks below. Since these times, the rock has inspired many other works, from operas by German composers Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, to a Sylvia Plath poem and an oil painting by surrealist Edgar Ende, to songs by artists as diverse as the Scorpions, Blackmore’s Night and the Pogues. As recently as January 2011, the siren was active as a barge, the Waldhof, which was carrying over two thousand tons of sulphuric acid, capsized here, near the Lorelei rock, causing other shipping on the Rhine to be halted during the rescue operation.
It turned out that the family emergency calling for me to be at home was not an emergency at all, so I got the chance, whilst I waited for my bicycle to be repaired, to do some reading up on my journey. I have brought my notes with me on the train. It seems that I’ve cycled part one without knowing a thing about this historical river.
The Rhine, spelt as Rhein in German, as Rhin in French and as Rijn in Dutch, is the second longest river in Central and Western Europe after the Danube and has a total distance of 1,230 kilometres from its source in the south eastern Alps of Switzerland to its discharge into the North Sea beyond Rotterdam at the Hook of Holland. This distance was the generally accepted length of the river, but there is a fascinating story that, in 1932, the German encyclopaedia, Knaurs Lexikon, recorded the length as 1,320 kilometres. This new length was included in the authoritative encyclopaedia, Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, and thus it became the known truth and was copied into official publications and other texts. The error, which was thought to have been solely typographical, was only discovered in 2010, and the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat has since reconfirmed the length of the Rhine at 1,232 kilometres.
The River Rhine has acted as a border of lands for most of its history. Originally, the river was the boundary between Gaul and Germania. In Roman times, the Rhine and the Hercynian Forest, the dense woodland that stretched eastward across Europe, were considered the boundaries of the civilized world. Augustus began to exploit lands across the river and, in 12 BC, started the Germanic Wars in order to conquer the region and the tribes beyond. However, from the death of Augustus in AD 14, Rome accepted the Germanic frontier as the water-boundary of the Rhine and the upper Danube.
For a time, the Rhine ceased to be a border, when the Franks, a confederation of Germanic tribes, crossed the river and occupied Roman-dominated Celtic Gaul. So by the fifth century, Germanic kingdoms were established on the lower Rhine (Francia), on the upper Rhine (Burgundy) and on the high Rhine (Alemannia). By the tenth century, the Rhine was fully within the Holy Roman Empire.
The most contentious area along the river length has been the Alsace region on the left bank of the upper Rhine. (This is the region that is now in France adjacent to Germany and Switzerland). This area was sold to Burgundy in 1469 and then fell to France in the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648. The Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War provided for the border between France and Germany to be once again along the river.
In the nineteenth century, the length of the Rhine fell to the First French Empire, under Napoleon. As the language border was much further to the west than the agreed border of the river in the area of the upper Rhine, both Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte tried with varying degrees of success to annex these lands. The Confederation of the Rhine was established by Napoleon as a French client state between 1806 and 1814 and was formed initially from sixteen German states after he defeated Austria and Russia. During this time, the river served as a significant source of resources and military manpower for the Napoleonic Empire.
This land was returned to German (Prussian) control after the 1815 Congress of Vienna and it formed the area called the Rhine Province. However, in 1840, the French Prime Minister, Adolphe Thiers, announced a desire to reinstate the Rhine as the natural border. This led to a wave of nationalism on both sides. In Germany, the situation was described by Heinrich Heine: “Thiers drummed our fatherland into this great movement which awakened political life in Germany; Thiers brought us back on our feet as a nation.” The crisis led to the creation of fortifications in Mainz, Rastatt and Germersheim by the German Confederation. Luckily, before the Rhine Crisis could escalate into war, Thiers’ government was brought down and the crisis came to an end, but it did re-establish the importance of the Rhine in European culture and politics.
Of course, the great river has also played its part in the two World Wars. The Treaty of Versailles signed at the end of World War I, in 1919, imposed that the Rhineland (the middle and lower Rhine) would be occupied by the Allies until 1935 and then treated as a demilitarised zone. It’s said that this caused much resentment and the re-occupation of the area by Hitler’s army in 1936 was extremely popular in Germany. In March 1936, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, German troops marched into the Rhineland and other regions along the Rhine. This was the first of the aggressive military actions of Nazi Germany. Britain and France did not respond with force of any kind and adopted a policy of appeasement. The approach by the British Prime Minister at the time, Neville Chamberlain, was generally seen as positive and at the Munich Pact, in 1938, with Germany, Britain, France, and Italy all in attendance, Chamberlain prematurely announced that he had secured ‘peace for our time’.
Sadly, war was a reality. The Rhine would present a formidable natural obstacle to the invasion of Germany by the Western Allies. Britain had already unsuccessfully tried to take the bridges over the river of the German-occupied Netherlands in the three main cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. In early 1945, the Allies had been fighting the Battle of Aachen since the previous October and the German resistance to this and the need for resources for the Battle of the Bulge depleted much of the German army’s strength and paved the way for the invasion of Germany across the Rhine. Losses in the Rhineland also weakened the German Army, leaving spent units to defend the east bank of the river. The crossing of the Rhine was achieved at four points during March 1945. The first was an opportunity taken by US forces when the Germans failed to blow up the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen and this was exploited into a full scale crossing. The second was a hasty assault and traversing by the US army south of Mainz at Oppenheim. In the North, the British carried out Operation Plunder, which were the assault crossings at Rees and Wesel. This included the largest airborne operation in history and, at the point the British crossed the river, it was twice as wide, with a higher volume of water, than the points where the Americans crossed. The fourth invasion was made by the US Army between Mannheim and Worms. Later, a fifth crossing on a much smaller scale was made by the French Army at Speyer. The end of the war would see the Allies fanning out from these points and overrunning Germany from the Baltic in the north to Austria in the south. The Germans surrendered on 8 May 1945.
With my history lesson done, I pick up my cycling journey again in Neuwied, a little north of Koblenz. I start at a sedate pace to get back into the swing of long days in the saddle. The route stays close to the river, with only a short detour around a chemical plant in Andernach. The weather is English summer; overcast with a threat of rain.
My bicycle rides like it’s brand new. It’s clean, the tyre has been replaced, the gears are fixed and it almost rides itself today. My cycling gear is fully washed too and I feel good. After twenty five kilometres, I reach Remagen. Knowing the historical significance, I have to stop here. It’s a pleasant town. With café tables spread out on the promenade and a pleasant atmosphere, it’s absolutely impossible to think of this as a strategic river crossing or a major war location. There are signs for cyclists to dismount to avoid the promenade walkers and I duly oblige. I eat one of my sandwiches sitting on a bench on the riverfront. I’m tempted to stop and stay here for the night as the restaurants look (and smell) so enticing and there is such a nice vibe of quiet chatter, but it is way too early with not enough kilometres on my odometer yet.
My cycling continues right along the river, through Unkel, onwards to Bad Godesberg. I pass the rock and the ruin of Drachenfels, which is jokingly known as the highest hill in Holland due to the high volume of Dutch tourists. The restaurant has recently been re-opened and it looks quite busy from here. I will leave the dragon legend of Fafnir to continue to bath in his own blood and to prey on the Dutch rather than me. (There is a subsequent legend that has a Christian virgin holding up a cross to the dragon and, in fear, the beast jumped into the Rhine and has never been seen again).
My route leaves the river briefly to avoid some riverside construction on the way out of Bonn, the capital of West Germany before Berlin was reclaimed as the capital of the reunified country. I’m getting closer to the 666 kilometre marker on the river and I wish to avoid stopping too close to this demonic point. In the afternoon sunshine, from my river level route, I notice a sun terrace, with its colourful parasols, up ahead of me, high up on the river walls. It looks to belong to a restaurant and a hotel which has beautiful views out onto the river. Further along, there’s a small, steep lane, breaking up the high concrete walls, and it leads inwards and upwards to the village. After demounting and pushing my bicycle up, at the top I cycle back south for a hundred metres into the small village of Widdig. The small, quaint hotel sits high above the bend in the river. I reserve a room, take a shower and quickly find a seat in the sun on the terrace for my daily Radler. I have missed this. I follow a second Radler with a tuna salad and some white wine. As the evening descends, customers come and go enjoying the warmth of the evening and the great views of the historic waterway.
Day 9: Thursday 1st August – Widdig to Homberg (c. 120 km)
I make the mistake of leaving my window open overnight and I am woken sporadically by the noise of the river barges that continue to work through the night. In one of these lucid moments, I realise that, with yesterday’s distance, I have completed more than a thousand cycling kilometres for the month of July. This is something I could not have dreamed of three months ago.
I’m pleased I stopped in Widdig yesterday as quickly into today’s ride, at a town called Godorf, the route takes me away from the river. I check the map in Rodenkirchen and it seems that there’s a route along the riverside so maybe I have missed my first route sign. It’s been coming! Thinking back to the C2C in England, as well as the first part of the Rhine, even when the signs have been sometimes tough to spot, mostly I have found the right route and so eventually, I guess I would miss one. The remainder of the route is now back near the river and it’s a beautiful cycle into and out of the city of Cologne, right along the busy waterfront. I had planned a stop here, near the cathedral, but nothing seems to be open. The café staff are cleaning up from last night or preparing for lunch and evening beer sales, rather than morning coffee. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable ride through the busy city, under the huge steel bridges that span the grey waterway. The manic activity of the city contrasts with the peacefulness of my journey and the small towns I have cycled through so far. On my way out of Cologne, there is a long shady section beneath the trees which brings a respite from the heat of the day.
Past Niehl, I am diverted inland past the huge Evonik complex and again in Leverkusen past the Ford factory. The next big town is Düsseldorf and having spent a difficult year working here two years ago, my emotions begin to churn. My year in Düsseldorf was my first assignment after my daughters no longer lived with me and I was in a transitory state. I was in the process of moving full time to Germany but flying back to England every other weekend to see my youngest daughter. The project I was working on was perhaps one of the worst I’ve ever worked on, but this was tempered by the location of the office and my hotel that were in the regenerated and rejuvenated Media Hafen area of the city, right on the Rhine. I approach the city now, with some trepidation, happy to see a place I’m familiar with, but also remembering how I had walked the cobbled streets of the Altstadt in floods of tears when the emotions of my circumstances had got the better of me and I was incapable of being in the office and being near my work colleagues.
As I wait for the ferry to cross the river at Zons, a cyclist in tight, light blue lycra jumps the queue to the annoyance of the rest of us who have waited patiently and orderly. On the other side, I follow the signs towards Holthausen, an area I know well from my time here. As I see the signs for the manufacturing plant belonging to the company Henkel, the familiar smell of its washing powder permeates the air. It makes me smile. It’s interesting to think what characteristic smells different places have, based on the companies that are located there. I remember playing football in Liverpool near the Crawford’s factory with the smell of biscuits in the air and going to college in Widnes with the smell of crisps. Runcorn, when I drive through it, always smells of bad chemicals. I laugh out loud when I think that I have worked for consulting firms for more than ten years with their smell of bullshit!
Strangely, the Rheinradweg signs take me directly into town and away from the Media Hafen area. I’m a bit disappointed as I’m cutting out a large meander of the river to head, as the crow flies, directly into the city centre. I cycle along the main shopping street, Königsallee, and through the Hofgarten, only re-joining the Rhine near the museums in the north part of the city. I stop and assess my view of the city to the south. The grey buildings dominate here but, in the near distance, I can make out the Burgplatz of the Altstadt, the Rhein Promenade behind and Oberkassel on the other side of the river. I would be annoyed if I had not seen Media Hafen before but perhaps some things are meant to be, as the route has diverted me away from my past. I carry on north and enjoy how quickly the built-up town turns into fields and countryside.
The route brings me to Kaiserswerth, where the sign to Duisburg is via a ferry across the river. I know Duisburg is actually on this side of the river but having been to Duisburg before I can empathise why the sign sends you away from the place. The ferry is in and I cycle straight on. There looks to be a couple of cafés on the other side too for a stop. On arrival, both cafés and a hotel are all closed down. The ride is a long hard slog now in the heat of the afternoon through the industrial towns of Krefeld and Uerdingen.
Cycling past the Bayer factory in Uerdingen, I witness my third bicycle accident of the day. Two young lads are speaking with a motorist. The bike of one of the boys is completely crumpled in the middle of the road, the back wheel still under the car. When I stop, I’m amazed he only has scratches and grazes. I give him the last of my water to rinse his cuts.
I follow the route now inland to Rheinhausen and further north to Homberg. I cross the road bridge towards Duisburg. The riverfront here looks more likely to have hotels or, at least, somewhere for a drink stop. There are no hotels so I park up and stop at an outside café. The miserable barman serves everyone else but me, so, annoyed, I make a decision to leave Duisburg. I cycle back over the Rhine to Homberg. I have to be on this side of the river for tomorrow’s journey anyway. I do a couple of circuits around the very small old town and, even stopping to check at the Tourist Information board, there are no hotels that I can find. The last thing I want to do right now is cycle back over the bridge into Duisburg. The only hotel that I have seen on this side was on my ride into Homberg earlier; an ugly tower block building, which had the ‘T’ missing from its neon ‘HOTEL’ sign. I ride the short distance back to the hotel. However, all is not lost, as, once inside, the hotel is very nice indeed. The receptionist gives me the usual very warm German welcome, done in perfect English. Believe it or not, she tells me that it is ‘Flammkuchen Celebration day’. I ask what the celebration is for and, without a hint of humour or mischief, she says, “Because it is Thursday.” I am advised to book my riverside table on the terrace for later. My room is also great. It’s on a high floor with an amazing view across the Rhine. It reminds me of Karl Pilkington, in the TV show “An Idiot Abroad”, in his cave opposite the Treasury in Petra, which had a better view of the palace than the palace did of the cave.
Before heading back downstairs to the Flammkuchen celebration, I check some of my messages. One message is from a work colleague who has found out that I’m no longer in employment. Her voicemail asks how my sabbatical is going. The word intrigues me. Is that what I am on, a sabbatical? I thought I was just cycling.
I have a couple of my now traditional Radlers and a chicken salad. No offence was taken when I turned down the Flammkuchen. (There were plenty of potholes in the cycle paths of my journey today in which the Flammkuchen can be put). My chatty waiter then persuades me to have some cheese for dessert and I order a glass of red wine to go with it. I retire to bed early and watch the lights come on across the river in Duisburg. Despite my apprehension in Düsseldorf, it’s been a great day. I look forward to crossing the border into Holland sometime tomorrow.
Day 10: Friday 2nd August – Homberg to Millingen aan de Rijn (c. 105 km)
I don’t sleep too well again. This time it is because of the heat. I watch the sunrise across the river between four and five o’clock but then sleep again until eight o’clock. For the second day in a row, I have to remind the hotel receptionist to add my dinner to my bill. There is no such thing as a free lunch in my world! In reality, I just want people to treat me honestly and fairly and so it’s imperative to me that I act in the same way.
Today my ride zig-zags. There doesn’t seem to be a straight length and the sign posting is dreadful, just when it’s needed the most with the constant turns. There are no good stops for a coffee either in this section, which is now much more rural. This early in the morning, it’s already even hotter than it’s been over the last few days. The sweat is pouring down into my eyes and I will have to find my cap from my bag. Thankfully, up ahead, I can see an oasis of verandas and outside tables and the perfect stop for a cold drink. As I get to Ossenberg, I see the café is closed. There are a few cyclists standing around drinking from their water bottles, equally disappointed. Back on the move, with my cap on, my cycling rhythm is disjointed, as I keep slowing down and reducing gears for the frequent corners. I finally stop at a bakery in Büderich for a sticky bun and a Sprite, as it’s the only place I have seen open all morning.
Further past Vyvern, just beyond the Xantener lakes, the Rheinradweg signs disappear again. I circle around the first lake twice. I follow the shoreline of the first lake with its water ski machines and then the second lake with its wind surfers but then find myself back at the first lake. Not for the first time today, I scream at a bunch of cows for directions. Back on the trail, I follow the signs for Rees, but whenever I check my map I’m heading in the wrong direction again. Maybe in the same way the Germans mix up decimal points with commas, they have mixed up the name and Rees is actually in Wales, not in Germany. Maybe it’s still in camouflage from World War II. I’m struggling with the heat today and my knee, my arse and my finger all complain in unison. With more twisting and turning and more gesticulating and shouting at various farmyard animals to give me directions, I do finally get close to Rees.
Rees is across the other side of the river. I did not intended to cross the river here but the ferry is in and I need a break from the heat. It’s €1.80 for a single trip and €2 for a return, so I pay for the return. The ferry doesn’t look like it’s had any customers all day and I’m the sole rider crossing. There’s a breeze as we cross and it’s a good break from my cycling. To celebrate actually making it to Rees, I stop at a restaurant and order baked camembert and make the most of my time in this illusive town. The ferry actually makes another crossing whilst I eat leisurely, taking a few cyclists to the other side.
Feeling better from the break, the breeze and the food, I’m ready to go again. The ferry has been docked on the other side for a while and it seems it won’t return until it has some customers, so I decide to stay on this side of the river. From my map, the cycle route on both sides seems to be twisty but less so on this side. The signposts are also clearer on this side and it says it’s a straight seventeen kilometres to Emmerich.
I pass my first windmill just south of Emmerich. The town is lovely and I’m very tempted to stop on the Rhine promenade, either for the night or for another refreshment stop, but it’s only a matter of twenty kilometres to the Dutch border. I negotiate the cobbles of the streets of Emmerich and the wind on the high bridge over the river. I have to stop for another cold drink in Wardhausen as I’m out of water and it’s so hot. Another ten kilometres and I finally cross the border into the Netherlands. Millingen aan de Rijn is a lovely small town. I thought it would be bigger, being the first stop over the border. There’s not much here and not many small hotels. I try two of them. One is closed and the other is full. I’m too tired to keep cycling in the heat, so the only alternative is a big hotel which looks posh and expensive. There is a coach load of pensioners just checking in too, but luckily I get the last room available. The Dutch owner tells me it had been the hottest day in Holland since 1944 or something crazy like that. I can believe it.
I have no choice but to wash my cycle gear too, due to the heat of the day. Even now showered and clean, it’s so hot that I continue to leak for most of the evening. I will obviously have to replenish the liquids during the evening. I have a couple of Radlers hiding from the sun inside the hotel bar. (One is bizarrely made with Fanta instead of lemonade). I walk into town for food but there’s only a burger takeaway and a joint Chinese and Indian takeaway. I feel a few drops of rain and pray for more to take away some of this heat. A short, sharp thunder storm to clear the air would be good. I go back to the hotel to eat. The menu is as posh as the hotel, but it’s not as expensive as I thought it would be. I have sea bass on pork belly and an assortment of vegetables with some white wine. As I eat, a couple I saw earlier in Wardhausen, at four o’clock this afternoon, wander in, completely sweaty in their cycling gear. I wonder if they’ve been searching for a hotel all this time. I can hear the old folks singing karaoke somewhere in the back of the hotel and realise it’s close to my bed time. Thankfully, the night is a bit cooler.
Day 11: Saturday 3rd August – Millingen aan de Rijn to Zatlbommel (c. 75 km)
There are only three things to say about cycling in Holland: wind, wind and more wind. Mostly when I cycle there is a rhythm and it becomes meditative and therapeutic, but every now and then, it’s not like that at all. It’s shit. Today, every bone and muscle in my body ache and it’s been no fun at all. To put it bluntly, today was totally shit.
My plan was not to write about today as the above is sufficient to understand what it was like but now in the bar of the hotel my red wine has kicked in.
Firstly, this morning I didn’t know which route to take. In Holland, the river splits into various estuarial waterways: namely, the Waal, the Maas, the Lek, the Nederrijn, the Oude Rijn and the Rijn canal. My guide suggests going north to Arnhem and then to zig-zag around the Nederrijn, Oude Rijn and the Rhine canal towards Rotterdam. However, my online guide for all river-route cycling in Germany, bicyclegermany.com, recommends the Waal route via Nijmegen. My online guide is highly informative and, with the creation of his own cycling club called the ‘Over 50 with Bad Knees Bike Club’, the author is also very entertaining and amusing. (Well, as amusing as it can possibly get for an American man who has bad knees and is married to a German woman). After procrastinating over breakfast, I decide to take the Nijmegen route.
After just a few kilometres in, I hit the wind. In addition to the wind, there are a couple of tough hills to make it into Nijmegen. I haven’t done any hills since Switzerland and there aren’t supposed to be any hills in the Netherlands! Even though for three out of the last four weeks, I have been cycling a rough average of eighty kilometres per day, today feels incredibly tough already. I recognise Nijmegen from a previous visit and I cycle to the Tourist Information to buy a map. Strangely, it’s closed on Saturdays. I then have to carry my bicycle down steps to the riverfront as the cycle route signs have disappeared and I know I have to be near the river. I stop for a latte and feel fine at this point. Little did I know what was ahead of me.
The wind is unreal. I cycle inland for a while but the terrain is boring. There are good quality cycle lanes all the way, both inland and along the river, but my choice is always to be near the river if I can. Whenever I head riverside, there’s a better view, but when it’s so open, there is the wind too. It’s mostly at me, occasionally at my side but never, ever, at my back. At one point, a cyclist in front has his shirt billowing behind him like a sail (but in the wrong direction). There is hardly anyone going in my direction. Cyclists in lycra on road bikes fly past in the other direction, but my unfit mother would go just as fast as them in this wind. I’m not sure what is the worst; cycling into the wind or trying to stay upright when it’s from the side. No wonder they have bloody windmills all over this country.
I stop in Druten. I am so fed up. A toasty and a coke replenish me, but it’s only short lived. It is tough. This is the worst I have felt for a long time. At work, I was used to putting in lots of effort for absolutely no reward but this is killing me. It’s said that the wind is a poor man’s hill, but this is not like any hill I have attempted. Most of the time is spent stuck in first gear and I certainly do not remember being in top gear all day. I am tempted to stop altogether in Dreumel but I don’t have the heart to go the one kilometre off the cycle route into town to find a guest house in case there isn’t any. Instead I stop and sulk at a bus stop. I eat my cheese sandwich that I made at breakfast for emergency energy. What I would give to have the heat of yesterday back instead of the wind! I’ve always hated the wind. Playing football in the wind was just as bad. I much preferred the rain. My cap has nearly blown off a hundred times too, so I’ve given up wearing it. Every bone aches. My finger, which I thought was healing, is in agony as I have to grip so tightly to the handlebars to keep my bicycle upright. My chest and stomach ache in addition to my arse, thighs, knees, calves, shoulders, hands and elbows.
I get to Rossum and a hotel, but seductively there is shelter from the wind here and I push on as all of a sudden my efforts have traction. It feels great to move. What an idiot! Naturally enough, the shelter disappears and I eventually crawl into Zaltbommel exhausted. I have done less than seventy kilometres with an average speed of thirteen kilometres per hour. The cycle path signs disappear but after a couple of roundabouts too many, I find my way into town. The first Tourist Information I find is a large map on a board by a small lake. One hotel is marked, that I’ve just cycled past, but there seem to be more hotels in the town centre. I cycle around the lake, which has sculptures set in it. Usually, I would find them intriguing but now I just think they are stupid. I see a road sign for the Hotel Prins, which is a beacon at the top of the high street and so I head for my Eldorado. A grunting Chinaman outside directs me into the restaurant next door. Maybe I look like I need some nourishment. His poorly attired wife wants forty-five euros from me and does not stop poking and touching me. I don’t know whether the price is for a room or for some other service that I am clearly incapable of providing to her. She’s picked the wrong guy on the wrong day. I finally agree to see the room. The stairs, even without carrying my bags up, nearly kill me and the room is filthy. I leave the keys on the bar and run or, more precisely, stumble tiredly out to reclaim my bicycle.
I do another circuit of town. It’s bigger than I previously thought and I desperately search for a proper Tourist Information. I ask in the TUI shop – they are travel people, they will understand – and I’m directed to a building in the town square, which is throbbing with people. I guess everyone is here out of the wind. My bike falls over as I try to park it because I’m so tired. I spot the Tourist Information and inside I ask for a recommendation for a guest house. I can’t believe the first hotel the woman calls is the Prins and, while she’s on the telephone, I gesticulate wildly for somewhere else. She tries a few others in town and they are all full. She eventually gets me in at the hotel I had cycled past on the way into Zaltbommel and the only rooms left are luxury rooms at an expensive eighty euros per night. It takes me twenty-five minutes to cycle back there with several dead ends and wrong turns. The hotel is a ring road, car-friendly, standard issue hotel, perfectly appropriate for my bad day.
I am so worn out I take a bath in my luxury room to soak my muscles. I am alive enough now to visit the bar of the hotel but there’s not a chance I’m willing to cycle back into town for dinner. Over a Radler, I peruse the four meals available on the menu. I’m not sure whether the schnitzel, the one I have chosen, is pork, veal or plastic but the fries and the red wine do the trick of replenishing my weariness. Tonight’s hotel and meal is more expensive than the wonderful hotel and meal last night in Millingen. I’m struggling to decide whether to give up on my journey or persevere. I have eighty kilometres or so to go to Rotterdam tomorrow but I know I cannot have a day like this again. Will anybody know if I rob a car and drive into Rotterdam and throw my bike into the North Sea?
Day 12: Sunday 4th August – Zaltbommel to Rotterdam (c. 75 km) (Total 980 km)
I wake up late. My thighs are heavy and aching. I abandon my usually light breakfasts and go for scrambled eggs and bacon for the extra fuel I may need.
What! One kilometre in and I am flying in top gear! There are no signposts and there are so many dead ends, but I do not care. I am moving! I get to Brekal pretty quickly. I’m confused. This place was my fall back plan. Cycle here and if the wind is too bad, I will cycle back along the other side of the Waal with the wind at my back to Zaltbommel train station. I take the ferry across the river. I’m excited and my spirits are back up. There’s something about being on a ferry, crossing a mighty river. I can’t think why an exiled Scouser would feel that way!
On the other side of the river, there is the ubiquitous Dutch bike autobahn – a high quality, tarmac cycle path complete with road markings but usually with no signs. I think the Dutch have these because everyone is cycling in the same way, always using the wind and, because they only cycle with the wind, there is no need for signs. There are signs to ‘give-way’ or for ‘no entry’, just no directional signs. I get to Gorinchem quickly. My faith in cycling has been restored and I am here much quicker than I had imagined. I stop and watch the boats go through the canal via the sluice gates. I had thought to stop for coffee but it’s too good of a ride at the moment. I do manage to spot a sign giving direction and mileage to Rotterdam. It gives me such a fantastic boost. Then, of course, the signs disappear again. I cycle past a church and, at the end of the service, the congregation, dressed up in their Sunday clothes, come out and get on their big Dutch bikes. Together with the holy cyclists, I have to stop for a road bridge that is up for ships and boats to pass through.
Dordrecht also comes quickly and I plough on to Rotterdam. I cycle past de Kuip (FC Feyenoord’s stadium) and then across the Erasmusbrug and I arrive on the Maas river in the centre of Rotterdam, my final destination. I stop for a few photos. After yesterday I am tired, but it has been an enjoyable ride today, even though yesterday did leave its indelible stamp.
I organise my train ticket to get home tomorrow and then find a hotel on the Maas waterfront. I have a coke sitting outside watching the working boats on the river that I have just ridden alongside, for just short of a thousand kilometres. The New York hotel sits beyond on an island in the river. I have time for a boat tour of the harbour and it’s the perfect way to do the rest of the river out to the west beyond the city. I learn that Rotterdam is the third biggest port in the world after Shanghai and Singapore.
I have a club sandwich and a Radler in a Dutch pub behind my hotel. I then enjoy a couple of wines in a bar right under Erasmusbrug close to the Maas. It’s a weird ending. Yesterday, I was so close to not making it. I think about the whole journey however; I trusted it and I made it. It is also strange that the Rhine splits and I actually followed the Waal but now I sit on the banks of the Maas. I thought the water traffic may die down after the separation at the delta, but both the Waal and the Maas have been just as busy as the Rhine.
I think back to the stunning sections, those right on the river itself, and the wonderful solitude of my cycling. The ferry rides to cross the river were all amazing too, but there were some long slogs in the heat. The worst of all was the penultimate day in the wind, much worse than falling off and the frustration with the non-existent signs. I guess in the same way as Camino walkers must feel, I am glad it’s done, but right now I would not recommend anyone else be crazy enough to do it. What’s next?
Day 13: Monday 5th August – Rotterdam to Frankfurt
The long train journey back to Frankfurt is delayed. The first train does not go further than s-Hertogenbosch and so the planned connection via Eindhoven to Cologne will no longer work. With a Dutch couple who also have bicycles, I am instructed to board a train that will go back to Nijmegen and then hopefully via Venlo to Cologne. The couple are heading south to cycle the middle Rhine from Cologne to Mainz. I tell them that section is easily the best and I wish them well. They ask about the heat and I say that, having experienced the wind, I will never again complain about the heat.
With the delays and changes to my route and in synchronistic irony, I find myself again on the wonderful Rheingau train from Koblenz back to Frankfurt, through the delightful mid-Rhine beauty of Loreley and Sankt Goar. It seems to me the river has won. The faster train connections did not work and the Waal pulled me back to Nijmegen and now the Rhine has dragged me back here again. None of the other sections of the Rhine can compete with the beauty of this section. I’m glad to be here, as late as I am. The conductor recognises me from my train ride last Wednesday and smiles at me. When he sees my bicycle and that my one-way ticket is from Rotterdam, he says, “Oh fantastic, well done and welcome back.”