Friday, August 15, 2008

Austrian Danube

Austrian Donauradweg sign

Must be Saturday: St. Florian Abbey

St. Florian ceiling fresco

Austrian countryside

Melk ceiling fresco: beating back the Turks

Melk ceiling fresco: rejoicing in victory

Wachau Valley vineyards

Gruss Gott: Welcome to Austria!

I cycled downstream from Passau on the German side of the Danube for about 25 kilometres with Austria on the other bank. The pink line running down the middle of the Danube on my map then made a right angle north across my path, but on the road, no sign: another EU invisible border crossing. At the end of my first happy day, a morning of riding in the shade of steep treed banks and an afternoon of riverside rest under a tree at the Schlogen loop, a woman said to me with a certain formality, "Have a good time in Austria." I was startled--I had barely registered that I had left Germany. I had to keep reminding myself over the next few days which country I was in.

One of my excuses for this is the seamless continuation of the excellent cycling infrastructure along the Danube route. If anything, the services for cyclists stepped up another level. There were "Radler Info" stations where someone could help you make accommodation or transportation bookings. Numerous posters advertised luggage transfers and travel deals for cyclists wanting to take their bicycles on a bus, train, or ferry between towns along the route. You could even pick up the phone to get a ride from a "Radl taxi" (although bicycle breakdown is the only imaginable reason to want one--heading east, the route is better than flat, it goes slightly downhill). Even the bike route signs had extra flair: the universal bicycle symbol now carried a cyclist with a jaunty hat and a flower in his backpack.

Is the 330 km Danube Cycle Way between Passau and Vienna better than the 583 km stretch from Donaueschingen to Passau? Yes, and no.

With the river now carrying the combined forces of the Danube and the Inn, there was more drama in the landscape. The river banks steepened, and the landscape beyond became more contoured. More often I found myself riding by the river's edge, sometimes almost level with the water. A lot of this bikeway must have been based on old towpaths. I have fond memories of riding along beside vertical rocks on the paved track, with overhanging trees to absorb the heat of a summer afternoon. As the river widened, it resembled a small shining sea stretching to the far bank. Between Tulln and Vienna, the river kept its silty green brown look, but seen at a distance, its width allowed it to become almost blue. Now too there was more shipping activity to watch: instead of grain, wine and salt (the white gold of old), now stacks of shiny economy cars load the barges pushing water upstream.

Historic towns with baroque building facades appeared at even more frequent intervals along this stretch, just as meticulously maintained as in Germany. I picnicked less and stopped more often in old town centres for a coffee or "eis" (italian ice cream). I succumbed to the pleasures of a "Vienna breakfast": soft boiled egg with thinly sliced white cheese and ham; melt-in-your-mouth rolls and butter, jam and honey. I spent a few mornings under hauptplatz cafe umbrellas at sun-dappled tables, writing amongst my breakfast wreckage and still half-full pot of coffee. To complete this picture, you might imagine me listening to homeboy Mozart on the cafe stereo, but this wouldn't be accurate. The concept of the "nostagie cafe" is popular, but I'm not sure whose nostagia it is. When I stopped off in the centre of "atmospheric" Ybbs for example, I hummed along to "lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet," and "there's nothing I can do, I only wanna be with you."

In this stretch too there were days when it seemed that around every turn, there was another castle or abbey or church in the near distance, perched on a hillside or hugging the river bank. Durnstein had both these: the craggy ruin of the castle in which Richard the Lion-Hearted, King of England, was imprisoned in the winter of 1192-93 looms above the town, and a magnificent early 15th century abbey with baroque retrofitting dominates the river bank.

There were bits and pieces of history from every era along this part of the river. In Passau I learned about the history of the powerful Catholic prince-bishops in the middle ages, and medieval castle life. At Mitterkirchen, I walked around a reconstructed celtic village, on the site where 8th century BC burial remains were found in 1980. It was fascinating to think of life here 2700 years ago. (I planned to have a snack at the "Prehistoric Cafe," but decided to give it a miss when I heard "Highway to Hell" blasting out of the prehistoric kitchen.) I visited the great Benedictine Abbeys at St. Florian and Melk, with their amazing baroque buildings, courtyards, libraries and ceiling frescoes. I regretted the impracticality of lying flat on the marble floors to have a really good look at all the characters and scenes portrayed on the different ceilings (other tourists looking upward would have tripped over me) . One depicted the defeat of the Turks, who advanced up the Danube as far as Vienna. (As I go east, there is increasing evidence of Turkish occupation.) Forward to the 20th century, I climbed to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp memorial, the last of the Nazi camps to be freed by the Americans in May 1945. The grim camp and the survivors' stories of the evil and cruelty endured here (heard through an audioguide) are almost unbearable, but it stands on a beautiful site with views of rolling hills around. As I picked up more and more of these historical pieces scattered about the landscape, they started to cohere for me in a bigger picture that gets more complete as I progress down the Danube.

My social scene changed as I lost the companionship of the Donaueschingen to Passau crowd, but I gained new companions, most of them German: a couple from near Frankfurt, a man on a recumbent bicycle from the Bodensee who introduced me to "zander" (pike perch), a fish unique to Europe; two couples from Donaueschingen; a man from Heidelberg.

The Passau to Vienna route was mostly idyllic; there were, however, some lengthy stretches of riding alongside really busy roads--on a safe bike path, but nevertheless the stink and noise of automobiles spoiled slightly the otherwise idyllic Wachau Valley, for example. Also, here's a quibble that only an over-indulged cyclist could make: you had to keep choosing which side of the river to ride on. I misunderstood what I had read about the approach to Linz and came in on the south bank, which was scenic but with no bike lane. I was four kilometres into the eight kilometre stretch of busy road before I realized that I meant to have gone on the other bank which had a bike lane, but I was speeding along with a tailwind at 30 kph and just wanted to get it over with, so kept on, right into Friday afternoon bridge traffic in Linz. Horrible.

Coming into a city on a bike is often not pleasurable, and the approach to Vienna was no exception. I had enjoyed the first part of the day. Midmorning I stopped to have a snack and dry my tent at a picnic table, which turned out to be social central. Recumbent Man stopped on his way back from Vienna to ask how I had liked the Eis Palatschinke (ice cream pancake) he had recommended for dessert; the man from Heidelberg stopped to have a fruit snack, the two couples from Donaueschingen called out their greetings as they sailed by. My fellow picnickers were two couples from Holland who had rented their bikes near Passau and would be returning them in Vienna. (Take note: only 45 euros ($Cdn 75) for 13 days.)

The heat and wind took every last drop of moisture out of my tent, fly and groundsheet, and I packed them away and headed for Vienna. It looked so easy to get downtown on the bike map that I didn't use the GPS, and there were lots of other touring cyclists headed that way. I passed most of them . . . and then I was mysteriously alone. As the kilometres mounted up, I realized I had somehow missed the turnoff for the city centre. When I finally asked someone for directional help, he laughed. I was so far off I wasn't even on the map. He took me across the railroad tracks--"there is no traffic," he said, as he nimbly jumped over several sets of tracks with his light bike in one hand; I decided I would abandon my own unwieldy steed at the first rumble of a train. He pointed me back toward Vienna and said with more sympathy than before, "it's only 15 minutes to the bridge; now the wind is with you; good luck!" In another hour or so I was on Vienna's ring road and eventually found the youth hostel I had booked, clocking over 20 kilometres more than I had planned for the already long day. I had heat exhaustion and was dehydrated; it was a less than glorious end to this stage.

There was a little adjustment, waking up with roommates in a small room in the city after all those dewy river grass mornings, but Vienna has some compensations. My first afternoon I walked around feeling small beside the towering buildings of the museums and palaces and theatres. The decorative detail is Baroque--coats of armour, twirling ropes, but most notably, statues abound: standing atop, straining to hold up pillars beneath, muscles bulging; and everywhere, heads poking out of the facades, grimacing and frowning.

At the end of my introductory stroll I headed for a magnificent multi-towered building that I thought might be the cathedral, but turned out to be the Rathaus (City Hall). A huge screen stretched across its front, and in the Rathausplatz hundreds of people were eating and drinking; restaurant stalls surrounded the square. It was the Vienna Film Festival: free films of concerts, dance, and opera every night through the summer. The price was right--free! I had just got a plate of grilled fish and vegetables and a beer when I saw Nadine, my Parisien roommate from the hostel and the only person I knew in all Vienna. We had dinner together and then found seats in front of the screen among the thousands set out, which filled up quickly as the showtime approached.

The film started at 8:50 p.m., just after sundown: a concert of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra & Gustavo Dudamel live in Caracas. Different members of the orchestra apeared on the huge screen, now the brass, now the violins, the conductor with his wild hair; and behind the passionate musicians the Viennese sky deepened to a darker blue between the five floodlit towers of the Rathaus. The statuary on guard all along the balconies far above looked down, with feet forward as if ready to deal with such a huge crowd. A magnificent setting for a magnificent concert. The audience in Vienna responded almost as the audience in Caracas, clapping, cheering, turning to each other in appreciation and amazement, as Nadine did to me: "Magnifique!"

The next day, August 14, was a banner day: Trish arrived from Vancouver to join me for the cycle eastward on the Danube. She was ready to ride, but I managed to keep her in Vienna for a classical music concert of "greatest hits" of Mozart and Strauss in the Orangery Concert Hall at Schonbrunner Castle. In this concert hall Mozart and Salieri had competed in a musical contest. (Salieri won, but Mozart has won the contest of time.) At the Castle we also visited the apartments of Kaiser Franz Josef and Kaiserin Elisabeth, not remarkable in themselves but interesting for the glimpse into their personal lives--not so very happy it would seem. Elisabeth was ambivalent about the king (who adored her) and about marriage and was rarely there; she was murdered at the age of 60 on one of her many overseas trips. The king was lengendary for working long hours at his desk; he slept (and died) on a narrow cot beside his prayer bench.
The following day we picnicked in the huge square between the Natural History and Art History Museums, oblivious to the heads frowning down on us while we caught up on our news. Then followed a dreamy afternoon strolling in the picture gallery amongst the work of great painters of the 15th to 18th centuries: Titian, Breugel the elder (the biggest collection in the world is here), Rubens, Durer, so many greats in one place.

And next day, eastward to Bratislava, Slovakia: next post.

Budapest, Hungary, 4503 km (August 29, 2008)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

German Danube

Danube Valley near Tuttlingen: that's a castle up there!

Ulm Munster (Cathedral) tower

How I felt on the way up the Ulm Munster tower

This could be you on the Donauradwanderweg

Danube Gorge

Passau Castle

Zeltplatz on the Ilz River, Passau

Ihr Standort: You are Here!

"Germany! . . . I could hardly believe I was there." Exactly my thought, but it was an echo of Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1934, on his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople (A Time of Gifts, 1977). He continues, "For someone born in the second year of World War I, those three syllables were heavily charged. Even as I trudged across it, early subconscious notions, when one first confused Germans with germs and knew that both were bad, still sent up fumes; fumes, moreover, which the ensuing years had expanded into clouds as dark and baleful as the Ruhr smoke along the horizon . . ." My own place in history is sixty years distant even from the black clouds of the second world war, but wisps of war history did linger in my mind. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and this state, I have found, is best for finding wonder in a place, as I was about to do.

I spent most of my first afternoon toiling to get over the lump of land between the Rhine and Danube River valleys. As always, the climb was worth the effort: after the misty Bodensee, my first views of rural Germany were of rolling green hills dotted with colourful houses. The day was clear, but it became hot and heavy, in the oppressive build-up to a thunderstorm. I was out of energy as I neared the summit of the lump at the small town of Liptingen. Just as the first thunder cracked the sky I saw "Gasthof" in the typical Bavarian script on a cream facade with green shutters, and "moderne fremdenzimmer" on a sign by the door-''modern tourist room." Within minutes I was in possession of a room out of an IKEA catalogue: double bed with puffy duvets and a sitting area in flowered pastels. Later in the gasthof's restaurant I started my nightly Weizen beer habit: "it's fresh, for summer," the friendly waitress told me, and brought a tall foaming glass (50 cl). I was asleep a second before I wrapped myself up in the duvet.

The next day I rolled down the hill from Liptingen into Tuttlingen, the town where I joined the Danube near its source. And here I learned my next impressive multisyllable German word, "Donauradwanderweg, which I translated to suit myself: Danubebicyclewanderway ("wander" more accurately refers to hiking). From Tuttlingen, my plan was to follow the Danube all the way to the Black Sea, 2743.0 km away. As I started downriver, I tingled with the excitement of being in a place long anticipated. Through my iPod earphones Flying Mountain, a seventies folk group, sang to me, over and over, "Follow that stream down to the end, you just follow that stream down to the end." I laughed out loud.

The Danube Cycle Way is typically done in stages: in Germany from the river's source in Donaueschingen to Passau (I joined it at Tuttlingen, 36.5 km from Donaueschingen), in Austria from Passau to Vienna (said to be the most popular bike route in Europe), Vienna to Budapest, and the last, Budapest to the Black Sea. This fourth stage is clearly marked on the Eurovelo6 promotional website as being part of the whole route, but raised eyebrows and expressions of doubt about it are common. More on that in a later post.

Back to my first day on the German Danube. I spun along on the mostly flat green river valley with rocky cliffs towering on both sides, and very soon, saw my first Danube castle perched on a high crag. Along this stretch there were several encampments of large white tents: children's camps where I could hear the happy sounds of games and singing. Inflatable rafts were pulled ashore, indications of adventure to come.

After the first dramatic day of riding between the vertical rocks and trees, the countryside opened up into more conventional agricultural land--corn, in these early days of August, fattening; within arm's reach, tempting. As the days of August mounted up, more wheat fields were brush cut; in other fields coarse leafy greens were being grown (probably for livestock feed, suggested my informant from Stettler, Alberta). The cycleway was through these agricultural lands but also sometimes directly beside the river. On the riverside path there are numbers posted on large signs. These are the kilometre markers counting down to the Danube's end at the Black Sea.

And never too many kilometres down the road an historic town to explore, with a central tower and clock, often with the town's coat of arms, each building painted in crisp colours. I can't say if it's because this is a well-travelled tourist route that the towns are so well maintained, but I didn't see any that were run down with peeling or faded buildings. It's as if nocturnal workers toil on scaffolds with their brushes and paint while we sleep.

Some outstanding images: the huge castle in Sigmaringen, my first overrnight stop. Along its mass turrets poked the sky. In Ulm I climbed the Munster (cathedral) tower, at 161.6 metres, the highest church tower in the world. The tower seemed less substantial and skinnier as I neared the top but perseverance yielded a spectacular view of the Danube winding its green-brown way past the industrial area and train yards toward the clusters of white houses with red pointed roofs on streets curling in on themselves. In Donauworth, the Danube Cycle Way intersects with the "Romantic Road" leading to another series of towns with castles, including the one on which Disney modeled its own castle. . . At Weltenburg, a huge church (kloster) bordered the river where it became steeply banked again; the road ended, and a cyclist and pedestrian ferry took me downstream through the gorge about five kilometres to Kelheim, another town with a schloss (castle) high on a hill. Regensburg also had a magnificent castle, Thurn und Taxis. I approached it early on a quiet Sunday, new sun lighting the elegant facade. The enormous leafy park around it was peaceful with just the padding feet of joggers. And to top it off, beautiful Passau, the end of this stage. The old centre of Passau is where three rivers meet: the Danube, the Inn (only slightly shorter than the Danube, but wider--had it been a bit longer the Danube from henceforth would have been the Inn), and the Ilz, a smaller river where the campsite was located. Passau has a commanding waterfront. The houses are joined as one but are painted in different colours: creamy yellow, blue, orange, green. The castle climbs the steep hill above the Danube and dominates that bank. Tiny windows are painted around to look bigger, and the castle has a pristine look that it probably did not have before tourism became its main purpose. Not unlike other towns with such an advantageous location, Passau likely has 7000 years of continuous settlement, one long story of prosperity, changing fortunes and rulers.

I cycled this stretch from July 28 and ended up in Passau on August 6. During this time the weather pattern for each day was consistent: warm and sunny days, and rain almost every night. Heavy dew was also present on the nights it didn't rain. This meant fresh mornings. Some days I cycled into a white mist which dissipated by 9:00 into a blue sky. The river in the humid heat has the same smell, the familiar fug of the great Asian rivers I have been on--the Mekong, the Red River.

My days settled into a comfortable and easy routine--follow the river; follow the Donauradwanderweg arrows. Picnic frequently along the way. And as I picnicked, others rode by, calling out, "Guten morgen!" "Guten apetit!" Some mornings I even did some writing at my picnic site while my tent fly dried.

The quality of my wandering changed on this stage: it became more social from the first day. Germans (and after them, the Austrians) along this route were very outgoing and forthcoming with help. I needed only stop and look the slightest bit perplexed, and someone was there to advise. In Tuttlingen, my first town on the Danube, I was walking through the market square looking for the tourism office when a retired army colonel and a touring cyclist himself, asked if he could help me, and ended up inviting me for a coffee to talk about cycling adventures. On my second day on the river, a cheerful grandmother cycled up beside me and the discovery that I did not speak German did not phase her at all. With her ten words of English and my ten words of German, we chatted all the way to her doctor's appointment in the next town in telegraphic speech. One hand on the handlebars, she used the other to demonstrate with poking jabs what she was going for--a blood test, I think. Then we parted with a cheery "Tschuss!" (Bye!).

And there were scores of other cyclists on this bikeway. There were the streamlined lycra-clad ones on light racing bikes, as well as ones with wobbly butts and billowing t-shirts, laden for a tour. Lots of couples. There was the romantic who rode behind his sweetie, pushing her bike with one hand as he rode uphill. (Although I could swear I saw the thought bubble over the head of one raspberry-faced man as he pushed his bike up another hill: it said, "I get to choose the next vacation.") And I finally found "my people": these are the cyclists at the "zeltplatz," the tent site, usually a specific spot within a "campingplatz". Nightly reunions at the zeltplatz had us sharing stories of the road and life over dinner. I never felt lonely on the Donau.

On our last evening together in Passau, Herbert, Romy and I reflected on our journey down the Donau to this point (some 600 km). They were heading home to Switzerland the next day. Romy said, not sure she could believe it, "Everyone says the next part (Passau to Vienna) is the best! Can it be true?" Romy's question will be answered in the next post.

Kromarom, Hungary, 4294 km (August 21, 2008)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Switzerland: The Rhine to Lake Constance

Basel Rathaus (Town Hall)

Basel Rathaus

Industrial Rhine


I followed the Swiss Cycle Route #7 (Jura) all the way into downtown Basel, and reached the Rhine at Schifflande, where a great pedestrian and tram bridge spans the rushing upper Rhine. I was delighted to discover here the familiar sky blue Swiss cycle route signs, now pointing eastward with the number "2" on them: the Rhine route, and below, the EU yellow stars on blue with a "6" inside that indicate "Eurovelo 6". As I had entered Basel with some apprehension about my lack of German and how I would find my way, this was a gift. And as it happens, the Rhine route passes right by the jugendherberge (youth hostel), where I was headed. The location was ideal: just steps from the Rhine, on a small rushing stream powering a paper mill. If there were any urban noise to disturb my sleep by the open window of my bunk, it was completely shut out by the ongoing "shhrrr" of the stream. This peaceful riverine neighbourhood is also just a 15-minute walk from the old city centre, so I was set to park my bike for a couple of days. I spent a good part of a morning in a multi-level bookstore as big as a department store, where I made a blog post from a modern, fast computer. I visited the History museum (and wished I'd chosen the exhibition on the colour "Red", among so many possible museum choices in Basel). I finished this day with a circuit tour on a regular city tram, with the transit ticket provided free to all visitors during their stay.

My best memory of Basel is a picnic in the evening sun by the river. The Rhine here is a clear emerald green, different to the clear brown of the Amstel or the Doubs, or the muddy brown of the Loire. But like the Loire and the Rhone pouring out of Lake Geneva, the Rhine is moving fast. I had been intrigued as I first strolled on the riverfront by the bobbing bodies amongst the ship traffic. Now as I ate my take-out Greek salad on a picnic bench in the sun, I watched people take an after work float downstream. Most of the floaters left their belongings somewhere on the walkway along the bank and jogged or walked back, dripping in bare feet, but some floated with drybags, which also functioned as flotation devices. That's how I would do it. Not being so equipped and with no one to watch my stuff, I watched them, savoured my salad and studied my German phrase book. I was thus engrossed when a man stopped and asked me something in German. He switched to English without effort to tell me that he wanted a picture of my feet for his website, as he liked the look of them in my Teva flip flops. Our conversation was frank and interesting--I learned the German word for "impact," auswirkung, and he learned "breasts". I didn't get the German as there was no need after his demonstration. I let him take pictures and maybe one day my feet will be famous.

When I did get the chance to swim a couple of days later, I enjoyed the pull of the current and hung on to the stones on the river bed like a piece of kelp.

I had the romantic but unrealistic notion that my route eastward would be right on the Rhine as it was here, in the city. I was disappointed when the route left the river within minutes of my departure from the youth hostel, and made a tortuous way through Basel's suburbs. I was travelling without the benefit of a detailed map, so it was critical not to miss the signs, and furthermore, to know the intermediate destinations along the way as bike routes intersected and signs started pointing left, right and straight ahead. One advantage of looking foreign with a loaded road touring bike is that everyone else seems to know where I should go. On my way out of town I could see the cyclist in front of me watching me in the rear view mirror on his handlebars. He signalled left and right for my benefit (I was the only one behind him), and when our paths diverged (I thought), he stopped and called me back; I had chosen the wrong path. Thus aided, I navigated about 16 kilometres of suburbia until I got to Augusta Raurica.

Augusta Raurica is the remains of a Roman city which thrived from about 60 to 250 AD with about 20,000 citizens. There is an open-air theatre for concerts rebuilt on the original foundations, and the remains of an amphitheatre where gladiators fought to the death. The remains of several temples also are dotted around the area. This location would have been on the fringes of the Roman empire then; a kind of outpost.

Around 30 km from Basel, I was back on the Rhine on a relatively rough track for a road bike, high above the working river. Below me the river was being put to the service of hydro-electric power on the far bank, and dredged on the near one. By my second day on the Rhine I was in more rural riverside country.

By this time, I had figured out the Swiss German greeting that the first day I had heard only as a friendly but mysterious hiss from cyclists or walkers coming toward me. I knew for sure it wasn't "Guten tag" and I knew "guten tag" wasn't the appropriate thing to say as I had never heard it said by anyone except an American to me at Augusta Raurica. But by the second day I had it: I rode through a group of cyclists standing on the path and called out, "Gruezi!" in three syllables as I had been taught, and they responded in kind, a group hiss.

I stopped to add my body to the tourist crush at Rheinfall near Schaffhausen. There are several well-placed viewing platforms from which you can see the Rhine pouring out of Lake Constance (the Bodensee). Looking down as tons of water crash underneath you induces vertigo. It's also disorienting to see the equivalent of a "Lady of the Mist" boat, full of perhaps one hundred laughing and chatting tourists, skidding backward like a toy boat near the tap in a running bath.

From Schaffhausen to Stein-am-Rhein, my last Swiss town before entering Germany, the bike route ran directly on the river. I went through an arch into the centre of the town, and on all sides of the "Marktplatz" (marketplace) the buildings were covered in murals, portraying city fathers and their deeds. Inviting cafes stretched along the waterfront. I came back into the town before eight the next morning (a Sunday) when all was peaceful and I could stand and stare to my heart's content without bumping into anyone. The bakeries and konditoreis were open early too, so I spent the remainder of my Swiss francs on expensive but tasty apricot energy bars and still warm "brot."

The last bit of road in Switzerland was lined on both sides with sunflowers: sentries seeing me out. It seemed fitting after my sunflower greeting to la Suisse to be sent on my way from die Schweiz in the same manner. I was sad, having just learned how to greet people, to be leaving, but also excited to be entering Germany, for me a new frontier. And then I was cycling around the northern shore of Lake Constance in morning mist, having at some unrealized point crossed the border.

Next post: Donauradwanderweg.

Vienna (Wien), Austria, 4058 km

Friday, August 1, 2008

Up and Over: The Jura

Nantua Lakeside Monument


Swiss welcome

Swiss vista: French Alps

Swiss Jura

St-Ursanne, Switzerland

Over the few days preceding my anticipated arrival in Geneva, I took out my map time and again and tried to work out a back roads route, but no matter how clever I tried to be, it always ended up in a squiggly dead end on a mountain top. From Bourg-en-Bresse I could take a minor road for about 10 km, but then I would have to get on the main road to Nantua, another 50 kilometres. The route between Nantua and Geneva looked like it would also involve joining the cars for significant stretches. A rail line was marked on my map, and that was Plan B, but I wanted to try cycling first.

In the last village before I left the minor road, the church bells started pealing and I stopped to consider the reason. I didn't think it was Sunday. Two small boys were walking toward me. "C'est un mariage, madame!" one of them called out to me, nonchalant; right, Saturday.

At first the main road wasn't so bad. It was scenic, as Michelin had indicated with the green line alongside it on the map. Aside from the cheerful wedding guests honking and waving on their way into the village, the traffic wasn't heavy. It wasn't much different than riding B.C.'s winding and hilly Sunshine Coast Highway, which I have done a number of times. The trouble was, I had become spoiled by the idyll of quiet French country roads, and had no desire to have cars speeding by me. But I consoled myself that it was scenic. And I enjoyed the flying descent to the Ain River, and the river crossing, marked in large letters on the map, "Gorges de l'Ain". I had not noticed the tiny print beside the road as it left the Gorges; it read "15%". I discovered that I had embarked on a serious climb, 10 kilometres long with 15% and 10% grades most of the way. "Rock falling on road" signs were accurate; I had to manoeuvre around bits of cliff on the road, shakily struggle with my heavy bike up the 15% grade, and keep an eye out for overtaking, oncoming cars coming downhill. When I got to Nantua (a town on a lake), I was unconvinced about continuing further, especially since I had been unable to connect with Susan in Geneva. I went to inquire about taking the train back to Cluny so I could continue with my French idyll--take that enticing bike path north up the Saone River to Chalon-sur-Saone. But Plan B was a bust! I discovered that the French government had decided to take out the tracks, and there was no train to take either to Geneva or back to Cluny. Plan C was to stay in France and continue in the mountainous terrain north to get back to the rivers route. But in fact, I had set my heart on getting to Geneva; I wanted to be with an old friend, and I needed a reprieve from my own company.

Over the next two days I continued to try and reach Susan, leaving several messages by text and voice on four different numbers, and waited for my phone, diligently charged each night, to ring. I was stuck: I didn't want to continue east to Geneva without making contact, and I didn't want to go north in case I did make contact. In a cruel synchronicity of weather and mood, the sunshine I had come to take for granted disappeared, replaced by drizzle and dropping temperatures. Waking up in Bourg-en-Bresse, Nantua, and then Le Poizat in the mountains, I had a hard time getting out of my tent in the morning, dreading the wet exit.

In my successful efforts to procrastinate in going anywhere, I visited the museum in Nantua about the French resistance movement and the "Deportation". From the small department of Ain (including the town of Nantua) 1,301 people were captured in raids and taken to concentration camps by the Nazis, either Jews or people involved in the Resistance. One hundred and thirty four of these were Jewish children and their six caretakers, who had fled already to Nantua for their safety. They were taken on April 6, 1944. The tourism office today is the former train station where they were all herded onto those train cars we know from films. The resistance work was deadly but exciting: skiing into the mountains with messages, sabotaging the train tracks, hiding Jews or known resisters. All the while notices were posted everywhere in German and French describing your fate (and those of your near relatives) if you were caught--men would be shot, women and children deported to camps.

That afternoon I went up the minor road I thought I would take if I did go to Geneva, to a village called Le Poizat. It was another significant climb, but taking cars out of the mix made it an entirely different and more enjoyable experience. I feasted on tiny wild strawberries growing alongside the road on the way up. I had hoped to have a bed under a roof in a gite d'étape, but it was Sunday of the long weekend and a wedding party had booked the whole place. So I camped at a farm, the only camper there aside from the cows making cowbell music on the mountain slope near my tent. I also had more wild strawberries to myself. The next day, Bastille Day, I found a warm room in a "vacation village" called Les Clairmontelles. Still my phone, kept by me night and day, did not ring.

I enjoyed the family style dinner at Les Clairmontelles, and the conversation at table. I was also invited to join the other guests for the drive down to Nantua for the Bastille Day fireworks by the lake.

At breakfast the next morning, someone asked, "ce n'est pas dûr d'être loin de ta famille?" (isn't it hard to be far from your family?) ''Oui,'' I admitted, and my eyes misted-I was set to head north, not quite believing that I was abandoning the Geneva plan. Just minutes later, the hostess offered me the use of her office laptop. In my email inbox, there was a message from Susan with another phone number to call. Contact made at last, I headed off at once for Geneva. I was so excited I headed the wrong way down the road without a route plan and had to return to figure it out.

[Mes chers amis aux Clairmontelles, même si je ne m'ai pas bien exprimé en francais, j'ai compris 100% votre gentillesse, merci beaucoup.]

And in concert with my happier outlook, the sun came out, and the air was fresh. The way I had chosen was the long way back to the highway, but a gorgeous one, a touristic route called "Les Sapins" (The Pines). There was a little climbing, but then a long descent, as well as a viewpoint from which I could see the Jura Mountains, the Alps, Geneva and what I later learned (after going up it in a ''teléferique'', a gondola) was La Salève, which from my vantage point looked like a mountain sliding into Lake Geneva.

Then fast down to the town of Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, another river town, neat houses climbing the steep river banks. This was a day of friendly chats with cyclists from Annecy, workers on a lunch break at the river, and a man who stopped his gardening when I pulled up at his driveway, gasping for breath on my way up the hill out of town. He has some relatives who live in Canada; he didn't know which part. I resisted singing for him the Arrogant Worms' Canadian anthem, "Canada's Really Big."

As I got closer to Geneva hundreds of sunflowers beamed on me like a welcome team. I pedalled through the vineyards of Dardagny, wending my way downhill through the lanes of vines. I saw on my descent a sign flash by, warning me "franchissemente strictement interdit à la frontière". Something was strictly forbidden at the border and I wasn't sure what, but I continued on; then I huffed up a short steep hill and popped over the top: I was in Switzerland.

And then I was in urban traffic for the first time since Amsterdam. As I peered uncertainly down a six lane highway plunging into a dark tunnel, a man asked if he could help me. He said with authority that this was the way to downtown Geneva and that all I had to do was follow bus number 6 or 18. I asked him (incredulous) if this was the way for bicycles to go? And he assured me it was, I just had to follow one of those buses. Good grief, he was sending me to certain death. I thanked him and headed off; within 100 metres there was a bike route sign to Geneva's city center and I followed it off to the right, away from the tunnel of death, aware that he was watching me totally disregard his instructions. The bike path took me all the way downtown by a less direct route, but it got me there through treed parks and protected walking and cycling trails. People are eager to help, but they often have no idea about the bike routes in their own city. (Even tourist information staff give me car-appropriate (and vélo-inappropriate) directions.

I spent two happy days in Geneva, catching up with Susan, sightseeing with her brother and mother, and feeling like a normal connected person again; it was restorative.

And I started planning the next part of my route. I had thought originally that I would just zip back into France and get back on the rivers route (Eurovelo 6) from Geneva, but those Jura mountains were in the way. I eventually found a spot on the map where I figured I could get back into France at La-Chaux-de-Fonds. But I would have to make my way northwest through Switzerland first.

I started out along Lake Geneva, on the Swiss national bike route number 1, disenchanted with the suburbia I passed through. My standards for bicycle routes had perhaps become impossibly high after cycling in rural France. At Rolle, I stopped to camp. I put my tent right on the edge of the lake, with blue mountain views and lapping water at my feet, a couple of boats tugging at moorings and swans swimming by. Except for the swans, I could almost have been on Kitsilano Beach, looking at the North Shore mountains. And it was as crowded as Kits Beach on a hot summer weekend too: the tents were a foot apart. The only reason I got so close to the water, arriving as late as I did, was the tiny footprint of my tent which allowed me to put it between the walking path and the water's edge.

I left Lake Geneva and Camp Kitsilano the next morning to join up with Swiss national bike route number 5, the "Mittelland" Route. I had to do a long and steep climb, and was rewarded with views of the mountains in France; on my road, green agriculture and small towns with houses spilling geraniums from shuttered windows. I camped near the town of Orba. The ancient Romans occupied this site (Urba) and their mosaics are still here.

Then I aimed to intersect with Swiss route number 7, the Jura route, which involved a gruelling climb to about 1345 metres on a hot day. After this I came to the conclusion (yet again) that I must be made to ride: the hours of struggle and sweat were forgotten in the exhilaration of the cycling that followed. (When I arrived in Le Locle, near La-Chaux-de-Fonds, I had dinner at a sports bar and watched some of the Tour de France. Wusses! I thought, try doing that with 20 kilos packed on your bike.)

The Jura route was often off road, and the long climbs were in shaded forest. The mountain meadows were trim from munching cows; in the as yet unmunched fields, purple clover awaited their pleasure. The music of their combined bells filled the valleys I rode through, even when there were no cows to be seen (they were perhaps sheltering in a stand of trees up the mountain). The bells are large and attached under the cows' jaws with a wide leather strap. I can't imagine why it doesn't drive them demented to have the bell clanging with every movement, but they look more perturbed if I stop to try to take their picture. I thought of them as I sipped my "Heidi Drink" (Swiss milk and Swiss chocolate) and thanked the Swiss for their dairy cows.

I found my formerly urgent desire to get back into France fading; Switzerland was my new love. I remembered the Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, about whom I had read just a month earlier (International Herald Tribune, June 14-15, 2008, 18). He had carved into his car tires the sentence, "actually, your destination can be somewhere else." At La-Chaux-de-Fonds I decided to continue on the Swiss Jura route all the way to Basel. Au revoir, France.

The highlight of the Jura was an exhilarating ride through the Franches Montagnes, culminating in a 12-kilometre descent into St. Ursanne on the Doubs River. I soared into the village, steady as a bird coming home; the green expanses of hills and the little cows and trees slid past in the deep valley on my left. All regrets about having to leave France had completely gone. Euphoria reigned.

Then, on riding into the village, enchantment: it's a well-preserved medieval town on the river, with multicoloured shuttered house fronts, the requisite church, and a cliff-side grotto where St. Ursanne was believed to have lived with his bear back in the 7th century. I decided immediately that I would stay a couple of nights.

The day I left St-Ursanne was my last day in the Swiss Jura, and my knees started to complain a little about the long ascents. But life was just about perfect as I made my way along the Lucelle River, downhill through forest, entering and leaving France several times along the way. At one point, there was a man standing in the middle of the forest road signalling me to stop--the Grenzpolizei, border police. He asked me if I had any merchandise. Our exchange was in French, probably because I greeted him first with "bonjour", but from this point, I entered the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and all road signs were in German. I was suddenly out of my language comfort zone, and into a new stage of the journey. As I cycled into Basel, it occurred to me that I would need to know the German for "Office de Tourisme". I was dismayed to discover in my phrasebook several options and all of them big mouthfuls for the beginning German speaker: "Fremdenverkehrsburo" is one. More on my German progress next post.

Ingolstadt, Germany, 3375 km