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

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