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Post-holiday update

Postcard stand in Obernai

Well, we’re back from Alsace after a whirlwind tour lasting some eleven days, and my memories and images are in some ways a bit of a jumble, rather like the postcards shown in the picture. I’m grateful for the old-skool pen-and-paper logbook I kept on a daily basis – that and the (not very many, admittedly) photos I took should help me to piece it all back together in due course.

This year’s tour was in some ways more arduous than previous ones. For one thing, I was a lot less fit when we started, my time in recent months having been rather occupied with non-saddle-related sedentary activities. A further factor was that we had planned almost exclusively to spend only one night at each camping site, which meant that we had the daily task of putting up and packing up our camping gear and were travelling with full luggage (him: a largish rucksack and trailer with ~20kg of gear; me: a small rucksack, two large saddle bags and the tent) almost all the time. On the other hand, experience has taught us how to pack effectively and efficiently, so we didn’t actually encounter any problems with the bikes or what we were transporting on them (with the exception of some saddle-soreness that I’ll spare you the details of – the moral of the tale being that you shouldn’t do a long tour with a new saddle until you are completely sure that you have broken it in…).

Our overnight stops were: Gieswasser – Cernay (2 nights) – Eguisheim – Scherwiller – Erstein – Kehl (2 nights) – Obernai – Rhinau. We cycled about 500km in all, an average of 50km a day for the ten days we were actually cycling; our main tours (but not smaller-scale local pootling about) are recorded here, in case anyone’s interested. We met lots of other touring cyclists, some of whom travelled a whole lot further on a daily basis, but we wanted to strike a balance between the cycling and the more relaxing holiday elements such as sightseeing and sitting around in the sun (or the shade: for the first few days the temperature was around 35 degrees) in front of the tent.

There’ll be a few pictures to follow on Flickr, in due course [update 3 September: a few are already up!], but I’m not going to attempt a full-blown account of everything I did. Just a couple of quick summaries…

Occasional frustrations

  • The rubbish corkscrew on my (el cheapo imitation) Swiss army knife was beyond frustrating and provided unwanted extra roughage in our wine on more than one occasion. We bought a new one in the end.
  • Once again, I failed to speak as much French as I could have.
  • Eguisheim, which I’d been really looking forward to looking around, was completely overrun with tourists – we’d coincided with the annual wine festival.
  • Also in Eguisheim, the plot I’d determinedly selected as “perfect” for us to pitch our tent had such hard ground that we wasted an hour trying to get the tent pegs in, only to have to admit defeat and move it ultimately (the silver lining to this, however, was that we ended up with neighbours that couldn’t have been nicer, and a quieter spot).
  • We got awfully lost in both Colmar and Strasbourg, despite good maps and GPS. In Colmar it was because a large logistics company had plonked its new plant right where our map said there was a cycle route, while in Strasbourg I have to confess that it was our fault for choosing unsuitable roads in an attempt to cut corners.

Unexpected highlights

  • The storks wandering around the camping site in Cernay, completely unperturbed by anything else that was going on.
  • A bottle of local white wine provided by the lady at the camping site in Scherwiller, after we arrived soaking wet and bedraggled.
  • Showers with temperature control AND without either a timer or coin-operation in Rhinau.
  • The stained-glass windows in Strasbourg cathedral – some of the finest I’ve seen.
  • Grapes on the vine ready for harvest right outside our tent in two of the places we stayed.
  • I managed to hit on exactly the right (minimalist) combination of clothing for the tour – didn’t run out of anything or return with unworn items.
  • I already knew that tent-pegs were called Heringe (herrings) in German, but I was highly amused to discover that the French call them sardines.
  • The infrastructure of cycling paths and lanes in Alsace is a million times better than what we encountered further south on our previous tours.
  • On two occasions we experienced the deep satisfaction of getting the tent pitched before the thunderstorm begins, and we managed entirely to avoid having to either pitch or pack up the tent in the rain.
  • Chocolate eclairs – not unexpected as such, but amazingly good from every bakery we got them from.
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Getting set for France

This summer’s bike holiday is going to be another French one, but rather closer to home. We’re planning to tour around Alsace, as it’s practically on our doorstep but an area I know woefully little of, apart from the stretches between Neuf-Brisach and Colmar that we’ve cycled numerous times. I don’t know the exact route yet – M is busy planning that and we still need to get one more item of map material – but it’ll be a combination of nature sightseeing, some city stops (Colmar, Strasbourg), a bit of hill climbing (eek!) and exploring some of the picturesque villages and wine-growing areas (yum! No drinking of wine until we’ve finished cycling for the day, though ;)).

This is our third such summer tour and by now we’ve got almost all the equipment we need, but there are a few things I musn’t forget to check, do or get…

  • Some basic food supplies: We’ll be camping, which means there’s quite a lot of clobber we need to take as it is, so clearly we’re not going to be lugging a ton of heavy foodstuffs all the way from here to there. Even so, we’ve found a couple of things to be excellent in terms of light-weight provisions. One is sweetened condensed milk in a tube, which M can put in his coffee, meaning we don’t need to carry milk and sugar separately. Another is that thick, sticky balsamic dressing you get in a squeezy bottle – it’s great for whipping up a quick salad dressing and also goes well with cheese, ham, bread etc.
  • Bike bits: my bike’s in good working order and has recently had a new saddle, brake pads and chain, and it’s been taken to bits and fully cleaned. I definitely need to get new tyres, though, as certainly one of mine is looking quite worn. I always procrastinate this step for some reason, but good tyres are an absolute must. The Schwalbe Durano range is really good (though I need to remind myself exactly which model it is I’ve had previously) and – touch wood – I’ve rarely had a puncture since having them. Which reminds me: check the puncture repair kit in case anything is missing. We encountered a forlorn looking cyclist somewhere in the middle of nowhere recently – he’d suffered a puncture, DID have a full repair kit with him, but the glue had dried up.
  • Suitable clothing: The hardest bit is deciding which clothes to take, because again, we have to travel really light. The main thing, I think, is to have enough comfortable cycling gear. I’ve just bought a new pair of (3/4 length) cycling shorts as a duplicate to my favourite pair, so I think I’m pretty well covered here. We’ve encountered a range of different weather – everything from hot and sunny to hailstorms – on previous tours, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what it’ll be like this time round. The least rain, the better, in my mind.
  • Stocktake the other equipment, bits and pieces: It’s all tidily boxed on shelves in the cellar, so there shouldn’t be any problems finding things. Nevertheless, having heard tales of other people’s equipment having rotted, gone mouldy or rusted, it all needs to be checked carefully.
  • Re-stock the medicines bag: We’re extremely fortunate that neither of us has to take prescription medicines, so the medicines’ bag is pretty light. Obviously the basics must be there, though, so I need to check what has run out / expired or gone funny. We’ve been told that anti-mosquito stuff should be VERY high on our list of priorities this year…

Now that I’ve written all that down, it seems a bit less daunting. But although we still have time before we’re actually due to leave, I need to be organized in advance, as we have a visitor from Paris coming this week and I also have another very full work schedule…

We’re also still collecting information and tips on where in Alsace to go, so do please leave a comment if you know the area and have some suggestions.

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A wayside worth falling by

Alsace flowers

“Alsace flowers” by missusdoubleyou on Flickr (click image to view source) (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND)

Yesterday two friends and I made our first foray this year into France by bike, travelling the by now well-worn route that goes from Freiburg-Umkirch-Bötzingen-Wasenweiler-Ihringen-Breisach and on into Alsace over the Rhine. It was the first really warm day we’d had for weeks, following a period when it rained A LOT; not surprisingly, the arable fields, meadows, orchards, vineyards, riverbanks and woods we passed (through) were looking in fine form, extremely green and lush – all in all, a great advert for nature’s astounding range of fertility, which I have enthused about before here.

Most of the route was in Germany – our actual destination, a supermarket near Neuf-Brisach, may be 35km from Freiburg, but it’s only about 5-6km beyond the Rhine border. You always do notice quite profoundly that you’ve crossed into another country – quite apart from that fluvially based feeling of crossing over to the other side (via several bridges, I might add), the road markings, signs and cycle paths immediately take on a different quality, and the style of building is also rather different.

What bowled me over on this occasion, though – and I suspect this means that we haven’t done this tour at exactly this time of year before – was the sheer variety of wild flowers to be seen in the waysides and verges on the French side of the border. Yes, just as much land (if not even more) is given over to organized agriculture over there, but they obviously don’t trim the edges as assiduously (at least in Alsace – I don’t know whether this is “départemental” policy or a general French thing) as the Germans (or, I would venture to say, the British) do. And it really does make a difference. On the German side, my heart did soar when I saw the poppies dotted among the barley fields – clearly no farmer is going to go through an arable field removing them summarily and selectively – but THIS explosion of hip-high random colour and variety west of the Rhine was beyond compare.

I’m a little sorry to say that we didn’t take the time to stop and actually examine the flowers, but I did look as carefully as I could and spotted cornflowers (in blue, pink and dark red), dog daisies, something (white and frothy) akin to meadowsweet or cow parsley (I will probably never learn the difference), calendula (orange and yellow), not just red poppies but orange and yellow ones two, and a proliferation of other pink flowers that my flower book suggests were probably crown vetch (I’d never seen this flower before so didn’t recognize it at first). If anyone recognizes any of the other varieties that can be seen in the picture I’ve used here, please let me know so that I can look out for them next time…

The whole experience has left me feeling rather thoughtful. I had rather come to assume that floral displays of this kind were largely the preserve of the past, childhood memories, old photos, kitschy films, far-away places, idyllic hidden oases, or of cottage gardens sown with “mixed meadow flower” seeds from a pack to make them look quaint and rustic. The discovery that they are there to be seen in such natural abundance so close to here fills me with wonder and gratitude on the one hand, but on the other hand with disappointment that this biodiversity has been so widely suppressed by policies of orderliness or environmental “control” in so many areas that would not so very long ago also have boasted such a rich variety of native flora.

 

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Exploring Neuf-Brisach

Plan of Neuf-Brisach (c. 1697) (image via Wikimedia, out of copyright)

I’d whizzed past the fortified town of Neuf-Brisach (New Breisach) in the car on numerous occasions many moons ago, on the way to Colmar, but I’d never managed to actually stop and take a look at it. This changed on Tuesday when it became the destination for a cycle tour.

The name, Neuf-Brisach, might seem misleading to some as the town in fact dates back to the years around 1700, but it distinguishes the location from the ancient city of Breisach over on the other – German – side of the Rhine. Neuf-Brisach is, today, in Alsace (France), but it owes its existence partly to Austria.

In the 17th century all of this area, also including Breisach and Freiburg to the east of the Rhine, was under French rule, but according to the terms of the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, the now German areas were to be surrendered to Austria, which was under Habsburg rule back then. The French king, Louis XIV, felt the need for a new fortification close to the Rhine border and commissioned his military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban, to build Neuf-Brisach. The plan shown above dates from this period.

Vauban upgraded and built a great many fortifications and military harbours during his lifetime, including Freiburg, Besançon, Maastricht and Dunkirk. A cluster of these were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. He favoured the star fort design, not because it looked baroque and pretty, but for the military strength it offered. Unlike most older round or rectangular types of fortress, the walls of the star fort did not present easy perpendicular targets for attackers. From older designs it was hard to open cannon fire on potential infiltrators who had come close to the fortress walls, whereas the star fort offered defensive firing options from a range of different and overlapping angles, again not just perpendicular to a main wall. In other words, there were no dead zones. The diamond-shaped points allowed no hiding places for attackers, while an elaborate system of walls and ditches lured them into so-called “killing grounds”.

It’s odd thinking about all this today when you walk around the outside of Neuf-Brisach. There was a herd of sheep fenced in and sheltering from the sun next to one section of the walls, some sort of playground-cum-modern-art thingy on another side, and the only noise came when one approached one of the four city gates, which provide the only road access to the town.

Inside the walls, the chessboard layout of the original street plan has largely been preserved, and the central square, once a parade ground, is now a spacious market place in the centre of this now sleepy, quaint little town. The square’s vastness and the plain gritty surface do serve as a strong reminder of its original purpose, though.

Neuf-Brisach may not be the most monumentally impressive or best known of Vauban’s works, but it’s a wonderful destination for a day out and it’s given me a great excuse to delve a bit further into the history of this area.

Outer wall detail, with pigeon flypast

Epilogue: One interesting thing I found out while researching this entry was that Michaelangelo engineered the building of a star fortification for Florence in the sixteenth century. Who knew?

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