Friday, April 1, 2011

Hoboventure: Train to Train.

Maastrict to Strasbourg

We woke early clambered down the four flights, then packed and loaded the bikes.  We had a long way to travel and Liz had another 7 kg of clothes to mail. 
After waiting for the post to open, and paying through the nose, we left centrum looking for a cafe to get breakfast in. We found a nice place in front of the Maastrict train station.  I was worried about all our things (securely fastened to the bikes) being left outside unattended, so we got our breakfast to go and sat on a fountain and ate.

Back on the road, we followed the river south into the country along empty lanes and on bicycle specific tracks.  About an hour after leaving we had reached Belgium. No sign, just a change of language and different bike route signs.  A bit perplexed as to where to go next, we eventually figured it out.  We followed the river into Vise and up a small hill to the train station.  Purchased our tickets and started the task of unloading the bikes of our gear to get them down to the platform. After a brief period and some confusion as to where the bikes board the train, we were on our way to Liege. It was cheaper than the Maastrict train. 

Arrival in Liege was easy, the bikes were fully loaded, so we were able to "throw" them down the stairs onto the platform and head off. Liege has a beautiful new station, all glass and white painted steel. The sun was shining and it felt like summer. Our next train was over an hour away so, with time to kill I found a stand that sold coffee. Then we experimented with taking the bikes up and down escalators and rocked out to some sweet tunes on the iPhones.

Back on the train, this time to Luxembourg, we were on our own to find a place to store the bikes. After training all the way through Belgium into Luxembourg, the conductor decided our bikes had to move. Ten minutes of unloading and futzing about, the bikes and gear were stowed to his liking. We think.

This is where things got a bit hairy though. As we were approaching Luxembourg city, the train filled up and the car we were in was overflowing with people. Trying to get unloaded in just a few short minutes in these situations stress us both out.  A bit excitable on exit: glasses were broken and bikes dropped, but we had arrived.

The station in Luxembourg is an older station from the looks of it.  It's currently under renovation. I didn't get a chance to look around much, we were only here for 30 minutes. There is the start of what will be, a curvy steel structure clad in glass over each platform.

However, the journey wasn't over yet.  Whilst I sat with the bikes and fussed with my bent glasses, Sissy was off sorting the tickets for Strasbourg.  Again she came through and after a brief confusion as to which platform the train was leaving from, we were sitting in a proper bicycle car on a "short" hop to the French city of Metz. I say proper car because all day we had just been stuffing the bikes into the spaces between cars. These cars have spaces specifically allotted for bicycles.  It's really just a hook to hang the front wheel on and a slot to jam the rear wheel into.  Both bikes being incredibly heavy in the rear were easy to hook up into the top. Sissy's, being Dutch, was just too long to fit, so she had to sit crammed next to it for the journey to prevent it from sliding about and falling down.

After we arrived in Metz, we realised the train to Strasbourg wasn't for another 1.5 hours. We headed outside, spotted a nice looking restaurant and grabbed a quick bite.  The plates were huge and our bellies full. Matt wouldn't let me stay for coffee because he kept looking over my shoulder at the bikes. That, at least, was better than the previous seating arrangement, where he was twisted around searching for possible thieves.

Back on another train, this time to Strasbourg - which sits on the border of France and Germany. We headed off the empty train, through a dark train station (it was at least 2130 by now). On the bikes, the Naggy gave us cycling instructions to get to our hotel. It sent us through the heart of town, along cobbled streets ad past busy cafes. Suddenly, the cathedral exploded into view as we turned a corner. It was lit all around, and seemed like a lone sentinel in the city. Unhindered by annoying instructions, we found the hotel. Booked in with a helpful young lady. Cooked our dinner and went to sleep. Train travelling was as exhausting as cycling. 

Strasbourg to Basel

Day 5
We took breakfast in front of the Cathedral, still as imposing as the night before. We spent a few moments getting lost in the town core, as Strasbourg has a main island and many small ones. However, through luck and engineering, we found the canal side route out of Strasbourg. In some suburb we got lost, but the handy-dandy compass gave us directions. Or rather, our lack of caring where exactly we went gave us a direction. There was a swearing and bell-dinging incident with an angry French hag driving a hatchback. After some colourful houses and abandoned villas, Matt found us a nice park that we went through for a few kilometres. The pathway was dirt, but not too rocky or difficult for our bikes. It led us to another off-road route beside a hydro-power reservoir. This one was a bit more frustrating as the effort required to keep slogging along was way more. The day was getting hot, and our breakfasts weren't providing energy anymore. Finally, the off-road portion ended at some minor village. 

After some roadside travel, and a map conference with a German man, we found another canal route. We kept finding the canal side as our journey was taking us through the Rhine Valley.To the east of us, we could see mountains rising in the haze. To the west was the Rhine itself, and then Germany and its hillside. At no point did we actually see the Rhine. The canal we followed sliced in a straight line through the countryside. Instead of having to continue turning left-right-left to go south along the roads, we only had to follow the pathway. The riding was dead easy - flat and windless; and navigation was clearly simple as well (options were to go forward, or stop). We did encounter a problem in the late afternoon. After having ridden along a paved section, we hit a hard-packed gravel stretch. The gravel turned into dirt, which turned into soft dirt and gravel. Going was tough again, and we were pooched. As we approached an official looking vehicle, we were asked to stop. In a garble of Frengerlish, the nice gents told us that the section was actually closed, and that there was a large machine further down. We may possibly have understood the "No Access Except for Official Vehicles" signs - even if they were in French; but we also may have ignored them (like many of the locals). No worries though, the gents let us pass and we exited the canal path. It was only a few more kilometres along the D468 to the next majorish town on the road. There, we played the "find the Coop store" game. Which started with following signs and ended with asking for directions. We bought our requirements (water!) and pressed onwards. After some nifty bike / farm vehicle routes, and a quick look around we found a wooded region. Twas a national park that seemed utterly abandoned. So we went into it about a kilometre, found an appropriate spot and set up camp. 

Since this was to be our first night stealth camping, every noise seemed like a park ranger. At one point, we even hid under a tree, quiet as mice, as a low flying plane went overhead. Paranoia much? Yes. All was well. We made dinner, and fell asleep - after looking up at the starry, starry night. 

Matt says he woke up a bit cold, especially at the feet. I say bully to him, I woke up at least half a dozen times throughout the night, frozen like a popsicle. Perhaps it had to do with the sleeping bags - I have a liner bag that is only meant to be used to increase the rating of an actual sleeping bag. Matt has a Dutch bag that is rated for comfort of about 10 degrees Celsius. Perhaps it had to do with the tent, which is a three-season Tarn 3 from MEC. Fantastic size (it's huge, why did you let me buy it Tara?), but not meant for hovering-around-zero temperatures. Perhaps though, it has to do with my personal thermo-regulation. 

Day 6
Anyway, because of some personal paranoia, Matty woke up at 7 am. I'm not sure why I think he was on the lookout for people travelling to work (or that was what he muttered at me the night before). He did jumping jacks to warm up and de-thaw his shoes, proceeded to make coffee and wake me up. We were out of the campsite by nine, with no trace left behind. Good timing too, as we left the park proper (placing our garbage in the receptacle) there were 30-or-so hikers coming in. All ready with hiking poles and extra jackets. 

We rode through the continuing Alsacian farmland - past freshly plowed and fertilised monster fields. These are the types of fields that feed the world: mono-crop, machine worked, enormous sprayers. The area has probably been farmed since the dawn of mankind in the region. Now, it is perfectly flat, treeless and rockless. And kind of boring to ride by. 

This time while riding, we found the large shipping canal that runs beside the Rhine. The pathway was too difficult to ride, so we had to follow along road, the D52. Not the happiest cycling of our lives, but manageable. We meandered on and off this road throughout eh day, sometimes heading off it into villages, sometimes on a bike path. At one point, our map gave out on us, and Naggy came out. It was idiotic, first leading us through a closed park with full-on potholes doubletrack (7 clicks was enough of that), then leading us east instead of south (we ignored). We'd found the Eurovelo Route 5 the day before, and today had picked up Eurovelo 15 and 6. Compared to the Dutch routes, the signage was incomplete and difficult to understand.

Lunch was had a bar somewhere, and consisted of a hot Alsacian sandwich - basically a baguette with two wieners and tonnes of dijon. Enough to make the back of my skull hurt. popping back onto the D468 we kept southward. The D468 kept coming back. I think we went on/off it a half-dozen times. It was going where we were going, but we didn't want to go on it. 

Slowly, we were reaching the tri-nation area, where Germany, France and Switzerland share a border at the Rhine. The last few kilometres towards Switzerland were along the Rhine and then a small canal. At one point, we met a chappie coming home from India. He'd started travelling in June, rode his bike to India, spent a while there, then flew to Zurich to train to Basel. He was now heading back home through France and the Netherlands to England. He looked thinned out from his travels - clothes hanging off him. He was well equipped with front and read Ortlieb panniers, and the matching duffle bag. Giving him our map, we wished him good travels. I hope he makes it back home happy and fulfilled. 

In Basel, we passed the imaginary border line through the imaginary customs. The train station was so annoying to find - partly because we were exhausted and broken. Basel is filled with one-way, parallel, altitude differing laneways. When on a slight grade with a huge rake, dude. By the bus ads, Baselworld was on. That's … nice. Train station arrival. Tickets bought. On train, gone. With an unknown 3 minute transfer in Bern. So we sat in the compartment door's stairwell. 

Off, down, chicane, across, tilt, push, in, away. Another train, now to Milan. Nice clouds in the sorbet sunset, entering the Swiss Alps from the plains. A few Guiarda di Finanzia chappies with dog. We eventually got seats on this train. We dozed. Arrived in Milan and found a hotel. 

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