Cycling Down the Rhine - 2000

In 1999 we cycled across France from Bordeaux to Narbonne, in 2000 we needed a new adventure. We chose to make a trip across Europe, following the course of the Rhine.  The European Bike Bus will drop you off at a cheap hotel near Basle just outside Switzerland while DFDS ferries will carry you home from Ijmuiden in Holland across the North Sea to North Shields near Newcastle. Between Basle and Ijmuiden lie France, Germany and Holland with a series of towns and cities with evocative names just waiting to be explored. Ever tried shopping in Koblenz, or Cologne, or fancied a visit to the European parliament in Strasbourg, or maybe visiting the site of that "Bridge Too Far" in Arnhem? They are all on the route.

Cycling in France

We have already expressed our love of France in our pages on the Bordeaux to Narbonne trip. This part of France, adjacent to Germany, brought some surprises. We had visited the area about eight years ago, and had taken the free ferry across the Rhine crossing from Germany. At that time we observed a marked contrast between the super pristine German towns and the slightly seedy, but attractive, French settlements. This time we could not distinguish the two, this area of France has become more prosperous, and householders clearly try to outdo each other with regard to the quality and quantity of floral decoration appearing about their property. Another welcome change was the provision of signed cycle ways and even more remarkable, separate, high quality tarmac cycle paths.

One thing that tickled us was the fact that, as we approached Germany, all of the road signs and other public information appeared in, as you would expect, French. This included the menu and signage within the small restaurant/bar in which we took a cup of tea - but everyone we encountered spoke German! My wife is the linguist and can tackle most European languages. Speaking in French, she asked a likely looking chap for directions. He replied in German, asking if she spoke that language. Even though I have a very meagre knowledge of foreign tongues I realised what was happening, but Carol was obviously tuned to French and looked at the person as if he was talking Martian. Rarely can I make a useful contribution in these matters, but every dog has his day!

Cycling in Germany

First let me mention the war. Germany was devastated during the years 1944 and 1945. In one town we visited 87% of the buildings were destroyed, and I suspect that was typical of many of the larger settlements. You can conceive of a scenario in which towns throughout the country would  look like 60's concrete Coventry, which suffered a similar fate. Fortunately that is not the case, the Germans have carefully and sensitively reconstructed their cities and they are typically both pleasant and prosperous, while many of  the old buildings have been rebuilt in the original style. Nevertheless, a lot of places have a certain predictable sameness about them, there is a predominance of very solid 50's/60's architecture that is bland rather than inventive. Get away from the bigger cities and you find very attractive smaller towns that either escaped the fighting, or have been lovingly rebuilt as they were, and have interesting buildings covering a wide range of styles.

Cycling is generally far safer and more comfortable than in the UK, with many separate cycle lanes and a law that puts the onus of proof on the motorist in the event of an accident. This, together with a high percentage of drivers also using, and hence understanding, the needs of bikes, ensures that motorists stay well clear of cyclists.

Cycles are not allowed on many major roads. Sign posting of cycle routes is poor, with only the major routes marked using smallish signs. You can buy maps, published by the German cycling organisation, that show the cycle routes in colour, with the conventional roads in grey. We found these more difficult to follow than UK OS maps, which are truly excellent, but they were helpful nevertheless.

Many German cities have superb public transport systems that include trams. Trams are relatively quiet and produce no exhaust emissions in the streets, but they are not good news for cyclists. Get stuck in a tram line and you will probably fall off. In the worst cases, e.g. parts of Essen, there is a tramway system and many roads do not have a cycle path. In addition, cars park on the relatively narrow cobbled streets creating a very narrow passageway for bikes between the tram track and parked vehicles.

Stand up cafe

If, like me, you enjoy eating, there is nothing to beat a German lunchtime meal of a healthy salad sandwich and an unhealthy piece of apple tart. I have never encountered such wonderful breads, and those deep filled apple tarts with sultanas and a hint of cinnamon are truly mouth wateringly good. Many towns have a stand up coffee bar that also sells delicious food, it's just as well that cycling burns off lots of energy.

Quite a few people speak some English, but you can't depend upon it, and it is as well to come prepared with a knowledge of how to ask the way and understand the key elements of  the reply. Throughout the trip people were only too pleased to stop and give advice on directions, while on one occasion a club cyclist left his friends in order to guide us through the maze of cycle paths on the way to Heidelberg. We must have ridden about 10 miles with this guy, unfortunately we did not get his name. On another occasion we had just reached our hotel after having suffered an incident which involved mud and we were anxious to clean the bike as much as possible before wheeling it indoors. A man came from across the road and offered the use of cleaning materials for the bike and oil for the chain - another member of the international guild of cycle tourists.

There are more, better stocked, cycle shops than in the UK, with a much wider choice of bikes and accessories.

Accommodation can be had in minor hotels for about the same price as UK B&B, while some "Pensions" charge less. Hotels will accept plastic, and that is generally the cheapest way to pay. Larger restaurants will also take plastic, but we found that a largish bike shop would not - maybe the margins are too small.

One thing, the women all wear trousers, skirts are out of fashion.

Cycling in Holland

This is the land of the bicycle. There is a huge network of cycle routes, although the path surfaces can be mediocre. A typical path is constructed of block paving, perfectly usable, but not as comfortable as tarmac. Cycle routes are generally well sign posted, with characteristic large and clear white signs with red lettering. There was evidence that new signs have recently been installed. The signage is generally better out of town, in some cities it is difficult to find your way. As in Germany, cycles are prohibited from using some major roads.

Clear Cycling Signpost in Holland

I guess a higher percentage of Dutch people cycle than Germans, and the traffic laws are similar, so cycling is a stress free and safe activity. In Holland they tackle the roundabout problem by providing a  cycle track at, or separate from, the perimeter of the roundabout. Vehicles on the roundabout have priority over those joining and cars do give way if bikes have priority. The speed limit in built up areas is generally 30 km/hr, and traffic speeds are kept down by humps or chicanes with cycle friendly escape lanes. The worst hazard is probably that associated with the little motorbikes that are allowed to use some of the cycle paths, they are often driven by teenage males who have little common sense and go everywhere on full throttle.

Holland has both commuter and leisure cycle routes. The leisure routes wander a bit, but find the most picturesque villages, or take you through forests, or along canal banks. It was gratifying to see that the locals use both types of route, cycling to school, work, or the shops during the week, and cycling for pleasure at the weekend. If you want a nice easy cycling holiday, possibly with the kids, you could do much worse than explore one of their national touring routes. With large acreages reclaimed from the sea, much of the country is flat, but there are some fairly harmless hills. While the direct cycle routes are signposted using red lettering on a white background, the leisure routes employ green lettering.

The cycle shops are just wonderful, they have a huge range of interesting bikes and cycling accessories. The Dutch cycling market is clearly much more sophisticated than that in the UK, the ubiquitous stripped down mountain bike hardly features alongside the wealth of lavishly equipped city bikes and tourers that are demanded by the people of the Netherlands. You hardly see a bike without dynamo lighting, mudguards, bell, a stand, lock and a carrier. The latest town bikes are lightweight aluminium framed jobs, with a choice of either 7 speed hub gears or derailleur mechanisms, some featuring suspension.

Most major railway stations have large subterranean cycle parks, normally featuring a small cycle shop and repair facility - you pay a small fee and leave your bike in  secure accommodation- the storage area is staffed during opening hours. We also saw secure bicycle cages at a smaller station.

This bike has two child seats, and a basket for the shopping.

All classes and ages of people cycle. You see men riding wearing business suits, possibly carrying an umbrella; a dog being taken for walk alongside a bike; youths using their bikes to go out for the night; a retired person taking a leisurely ride. A common sight is that of a young woman carrying one or two children on her bike, with the folding child buggy also being transported. This is truly the way cycles can and should be used.

I regret to say that the food in the coffee shops that we visited was not up to the best German standards, but the female trouser culture was thankfully less well developed. After the day is done there are plenty of interesting old bars/restaurants that will serve reasonably priced food and rather expensive beer in atmospheric surroundings. Every town has at least one Italian restaurant or take away.

We found that the hotels were marginally more expensive than in Germany and it was more difficult to secure bookings in advance, but they still represent very good value by UK standards.

Down the Rhine

The Rhine - Not a place to swim!

Having seen the river in stormy weather conditions it is easy to understand why it is a source of legend and provided inspiration for the music of Wagner. This is a majestic river, a natural barrier that divides the continent. In places the swiftly flowing murky waters swirl by in a series of dangerous eddies. It is not the place to paddle or swim! The Rhine is a commercial river, it carries a huge quantity of freight in large powerful barges and container vessels, while elegant passenger steamers also ply its waters. The character of the river changes as it flows, along some stretches there are flat plains on either bank, along others the river valley is narrow with high steep sides. Along most of its length there is relatively little industrial development, but there are stretches that host massive industrial complexes, such as the chemical works just after Mannheim, or the huge Ford factory near Dusseldorf (it boasts three, yes three, railway stations). Much of the way is through flatish farmland, but the central section has chiselled itself a path through tougher strata, and has vineyards along its banks, with those famous romantic castles on stony outcrops high above the river.

Overall I would say that the Rhine is awe inspiring rather than beautiful - we also cycled part of the way up the Ruhr valley and that was surprisingly green and pleasant, "nicer" than than the Rhine.

For much of its length the river is accompanied by roads and railway tracks on both banks, and there is a cycle path most of the way. If you are patient and prepared to wait you can take a photo of the ICE streamlined passenger train threading its way past one of several lovely old villages with road and river traffic also in the shot. Only in the narrowest part of the valley does the cycle track expire, and you are forced to use a footpath along the side of the busy narrow road. (OK it's not legal but when in Rome you take your lead from the locals). Even here there was work in progress to provide an elaborate cantilevered cycle path adjacent to the road - no expense is spared for the cyclist in these parts!

We were able to follow the path reasonably well, except where there were wide reclaimed flood plains and loads of un-signposted choices. We decided to strike out away from the river on two occasions, to visit Heidelberg and Essen, when navigation became much more problematic. The river dissipates into numerous small waterways in Holland, but you can still follow a canal whose name roughly translates as the Old Rhine and which passes through a town named Alphen a/d Rijn. As previously mentioned, the sign posting in Holland is generally very good with the exception of within the cities. We found Utrecht to be particularly bad and at one point found ourselves riding in a large circle, a Dutch guy on the ferry told us that the place was notorious for lost cyclists!

When planning the trip we deliberately restricted the daily mileage in order to allow some scope for unscheduled exploration, or just mooching around. Armed with a CD version of an interactive world atlas, we fixed our overnight stops at distances of around 40 miles per day, and booked accommodation accordingly. But the best laid plans were swept away when we realised that the computer calculated distances must have related to the route as flown by the crow, and we averaged something like 60 miles per day, including one day at 82 miles. Some of these miles were due to navigational errors, the lack of proper signs being a major problem. Our total mileage, measured as we arrived home, was just less than 800 miles. The cycling was for the most part easy, with few steep gradients, and then only when we strayed from the river valley.  It was too much really, not allowing enough time for sight-seeing, but we managed, and we did sleep very well!  

The Bike

The bike is a 1992 vintage Dawes Galaxy Twin tandem. We have had it from new and it has had quite an easy life, doing perhaps a bit more than 1000 miles per year.

As bought the stoker's handlebars were too low for comfort, so we asked Dave Yates of Steels Cycles to make us a fitting to raise them. The padded plastic saddles were replaced with Brooks leather jobs, the stoker's having springs to help absorb those inevitable jolts from unseen potholes. The only other modification has been the replacement of the original plated socket head screws with stainless steel equivalents, when the originals started to rust. Tandem owners beware, try to adjust the eccentric bottom bracket when the attaching bolts are rusted solid! A combination of stainless steel bolts and Copperslip paste is the answer.

The only real niggle about the bike is the fact that there is no screw adjustment on the rear cantilever brake cable.

It has proved to be a quite a reliable machine, letting us down on just two occasions during its life. Once the freewheel packed in, fortunately near to home, and more dramatically, we had a tyre explode.

It is fitted with Mavic Module 4 rims, and although they are strong, I think that they are a bit hard on the tyres. The original Continental Top Touring tyres were difficult to fit, and developed circumferential cracks near to the point of attachment  to the rims. We did not know this until one of them exploded - it sounded like a gun going off! This could have led to a nasty accident, but we were going slowly at the time and were able to come to controlled stop. We replaced the Contis with kevlar belted Panaracer Paselas, which had the advantage of easier fitting to the rims, but after about 1500 miles they also developed circumferential cracks. This is particularly annoying because the tread was hardly worn. (The bike is always stored hanging from hooks - there is no load on the tyres). The Panaracer tyres will see out their time on the rear wheel of my tourer.

For the Rhine trip we decided to fit Schwalbe Marathon 700x35c tyres. They are a largish tyre for the size (tyre sizing seems to mean something different to every manufacturer!) and are a neat fit on the tandem. This means that they give a comfortable ride over the paved surfaces beloved by cycle track builders in Holland, but there is not much clearance in the mudguards - evident when passing through mud! Hopefully these massive tyres will prove to be more long lasting than their predecessors.

Over the life of the bike we have replaced one brake cable, one sprocket on the block, and one chain - oh, and we have had new handlebar tape and a new inflator.

We have toyed with the idea of buying a new bike, but cannot see what real advantage that would bring. The frame flexes a bit if you try really hard but under normal conditions this is not noticeable. It is coming to the stage in its life when a refit will be necessary. This will involve new rims, chains, chainwheels, block and cables - but a good deal cheaper than a new machine!

If you have not used a tandem here are some pros and cons


For hardware freaks, our luggage is a motley collection. The rear panniers are Carradice, the rear trunk is a nondescript Halfords item, the front bags are Thorn, while the bar bag is by Freedom Bikepacking. All of the bags were lined with bin liners, possibly unnecessary with the excellent Carradice panniers. We have used a Carradice saddle bag in the past, but due to the small frame size at the rear of the bike, it would get pushed up by the panniers and intrude into the stoker's space!

Day One - Basle to Mulhouse (pronounced Mullooze) [25 miles]

After a 20 hour journey we staggered off the European Bike Express at 2 a.m., loaded up the bike and cycled the short distance to the Formule 1 Hotel that we had booked, clutching the bit of paper that had our special code number to get through the digital door lock. Following the instructions carefully, we inserted our credit card and pushed buttons. Nothing happened - we tried every possible way of inserting the credit card and pushing buttons, still no joy. We considered sleeping in the porch. Adjacent to the digital lock was an emergency button, once shielded by glass, but that had long gone. A long press resulted in a tired but helpful voice which told us our room number and then caused the door to open by remote control. Once inside Formule 1 hotels are great - very basic but clean, functional and cheap, we will use the service again (less than £20 for B&B for two).

Inside the Railway Museum

We got up to face a fine warm day, the digital thermometer outside a chemist's shop was registering 27 degC. Our destination was the French National Railway museum at Mulhouse, a pilgrimage that I had been intending to make for a number of years. I won't bore you with the details, but it contains some truly great steam locomotives - the French produced the most efficient steam locomotives built anywhere in the world, although they were also the most complex. The museum is not as large as the UK equivalent, but is a must for all true steam buffs. Carol had a quick look round then sat outside in the sun as I drooled over the machinery.


Mulhouse City Centre

We had been warned that Mulhouse was "like Middlesbrough in winter", and it is the home of the Peugeot car company, but we were pleasantly surprised by this fine old city, the central square is particularly attractive.

For lovers of the infernal combustion engine, there is also a large motor museum in Mulhouse - which we managed to avoid.

Day Two - Mulhouse to Entzheim [78 miles]

Towpath alongside the Canal of the Rhine
We set off hugging the river bank, but there was no cycle path and the traffic was quite heavy. After a little while we decided to follow a marked cycle route called the Route Des Fleures, that uses minor roads between the attractive flower bedecked villages, at some distance from the river. Eventually we were able to follow a good cycle track along the bank of the Canal of the Rhine.

We had tried to book accommodation in Strasbourg, but could not find anything reasonably priced within the city, so we ended up at the Pere Benoit in the small village of Entzheim.

Hotel Pere Benoit

The hotel was really nice with the characteristic floral decoration of the region, but nothing was open in the village, and then the heavens opened. We checked bus times into Strasbourg, but they were very infrequent and stopped early.

Wine  bottle label

We were forced to buy our evening meal at the hotel, which we enjoyed very much, although we hadn't bargained for that level of expenditure.  I am no connoisseur, but the white wines of Alsace are amongst my favourites. Frugality would be the order of the next few days!

Day Three - Entzheim to Karlesruhe [66 miles]

Rain in Strasbourg

The day started grey and it was raining as we entered Strasbourg. The centre of Strasbourg is a jewel, with half timbered buildings covered with flowers and built on the various waterways that run through the city. Even in the rain the place was really attractive, well worth another visit some other time. There were plenty of good quality cycle paths in and around Strasbourg, but precious few signs.


Even trams can be attractive

We felt that the trams in Strasbourg were amongst the sexiest of any we had seen.

We were now nearing the point where we would be entering Germany by crossing the river on a ferry. Entering a small bar/restaurant for a cuppa, we were amazed to hear all the patrons speaking in German, despite the fact that we were still in France and all of the written language French.

The ferry provides a free service, but was not very heavily used. It was notable that there were very few German registered cars in France or vice versa. Perhaps when the Euro becomes the coin in the pocket, the situation will change.

The cycle route continues alongside the canal of the Rhine, but you don't get to see the water because of the raised river bank on your left, while on your right is a raised levee to provide flood protection. Boring, if safe, cycling.

The high point of this stretch of the journey is the boat lift at Iffezheim that can handle four or five huge barges. The river is dammed here to preserve the level for navigation upstream in the Canal of the Rhine, and there is a step down into the river itself. There are two massive basins lying alongside one another, I guess that they transfer the water between the two; as one empties, the other fills. I got the impression that the entire floors of the basins were moved. This is engineering on a huge scale. 

Boat Lift

Karlesruhe could not be described as a beautiful city, but they have banned motorised vehicles from the city centre allowing only trams, people and bikes in. This means that you can sit at a pavement bar or restaurant and enjoy your meal without being gassed by exhaust fumes, or deafened by trucks and motorbikes. Well done Karlesruhe!

Day Four - Karlesruhe to Mannheim Via Heidelberg [58 miles]

Day four started rather wet as we searched for the path that runs north out of the city. According to our cyclists' map, there was a single track heading radially out from the grounds of the Schloss and into the forest beyond. We found the spot, but there were two paths at a slight angle to one another and there were no signs. We asked people who were out walking their dogs, and opinion seemed to favour the leftmost path. That's the one we took, and there followed an 17 mile ride through the forest, unfortunately in slightly the wrong direction, we should have taken the other path. There are plenty of cycle paths in this area, but signs are at a premium and we spent a lot of time trying to interpret our map.

We eventually arrived at a small railway station, which gave us a positional fix, and while examining our map a small group of club cyclists came over and asked if they could help. We explained that we were going to Heidelberg. They told us to follow them, and then one of the group broke away from the pack and became our personal guide, riding alongside for about 10 miles. We would never have found the route he used, which incorporated abandoned sections of roadway and numerous different cycle paths. He guided us to a point from which he reasoned it was straightforward and left. We never found his name, but we were very grateful for his help. He did tell us that cycle touring has a healthy following in Germany, and that his club normally hires a van to carry the luggage between stops. They had travelled to Berlin the previous week.

We found that the named major routes are sign posted, but our journey was not on any of those.

Passing through a village we heard the sounds of live music and followed them to find the local brass band giving a concert with catering being provided by volunteers. The home made food looked really good and was quite inexpensive, we couldn't resist huge pieces of cake for about 50p. The band was quite competent, playing jaunty airs, but I don't think that they would win if pitted against the outfit from my birthplace, Boldon Colliery. We set a high musical standard in what was a part of County Durham.

Brass Band and Beer

There were a few bicycles parked outside Heidelberg railway station  

Bikes outside Heidelberg Railway Station

While the old University town is well worth a look.

The Castle at Heidelberg

Manheim Water Tower

Mannheim is a prosperous modern city, if a bit dull. That evening we discovered Movenpick as the place to eat. A self service restaurant with food at reasonable prices and lots of choice. After our meal we were able to walk around the old water tower and admire the fountains behind it.

Day 5 Mannheim to Mainz [61 miles]

The Rhine to the North of Mannheim is heavily industrialised on its western shore, with a series of chemical works including the famous BASF works.

Chemical Works Near Manheim

The cycle route that we were following crosses the river onto the east bank and then is faced with the problem of crossing a tributary of the river. The map makes no mention of the fact that the crossing is actually by a chain worked ferry, nor does it say that it only runs once per hour, or even that the first crossing is not until 10 am! At about 9:45 a person we took to be the landlord appeared from the local hotel to tell us that the ferry would be starting at 10. I said jokingly to Carol that he would double up as the ferryman, thinly disguised by a captain's hat. Sure enough, out he came with the appropriate headgear! We were the only travellers on that first ferry of the day. The last one is at 17:00 incidentally.

Waiting for the ferry!

The ferryman/hotelier did advise us that the next crossing of the Rhine marked upon our map was no longer available for bikes.


Entrance to Worms
The next opportunity to cross the river occurred at Worms, where there is a most impressive gateway into what turned out to be an interesting town. Note the protected cycle path to the right of the roadway.

Leaving Worms there were two signs, one telling us that Mainz was 53 km and another indicating 50 km. The 53 km route appeared to follow the river so we took that thinking that it might be more straightforward. Not so, the signs disappeared and the path deteriorated - we probably took a wrong turning. Eventually we headed away from the river on minor roads which allowed us to make much faster progress. We rejoined a signed route at Guntersblum which lead us through vineyards above the river to our right. The path looks to be pretty good in the photo and so it was - until we encountered a one metre wide trench right across it. I assumed wrongly that the mud in the trench was dry and hard but after falling off the bike and having become coated with the stuff, concluded that I was mistaken! I can honestly say that this was the only major defect that we encountered on these paths, they are generally very good. It was fortunate that we were climbing a slight hill at the time, had we been travelling faster it could have been nasty.

Cycling Through Vineyards

We managed to find some cleanish water by walking down a ramp into a dock just beyond Oppenheim and removed the worst of the mud. The track was difficult to follow through Nackenheim but local assistance came to the rescue. After Nackenheim the path returned to its place on the river bank, but we found ourselves passing beneath a taped cordon that had been placed across it. The track was a bit muddy but quite passable, however there were quite a few branches and other debris from the the adjacent trees lying on the ground. I suspect that this was the reason for the cordon. Had the path been unusable at this point we would have been in real difficulty, as cycles are not allowed on the main road.

We were glad to arrive at the Hotel in Mainz Mombach but we missed seeing anything of the centre of Mainz. The hotel did have a restaurant but it was shut. A take away pizza washed down with red wine soon cured all ills.


Day 6 Mainz to Koblenz [64 miles]

This proved to be the most scenic part of the journey, especially after the town of Bingen. The valley is at its narrowest and deepest there while the castle count reaches a maximum in those parts. Unfortunately the weather was not particularly good.

Dark Clouds Over the Rhine
Our journey started on very minor roads through orchards but after Bingen there was a good quality paved cycle path adjacent to the river for much of the way. At one point the valley narrowed and the path climbed up the valley side to be right next to the main road. This cycle path was being widened as we passed, with a new section being built by cantilevering it out from the side of the road. At one point the cycle path disappeared but we observed that all other cyclists then took to the narrow footpath - there were no pedestrians and the road was narrow and busy. I guess that in the fullness of time there will a good path all of the way along this stretch.

At one stage we got involved in an imaginary race with a Rhine steamer, and found that we could beat it on the straights, but the path meanders and we had to concede defeat!

We entered Koblenz with the intention of finding a laundrette, it was now noticeably cooler and it started to rain. We just made it to the laundrette when the heavens opened, and we saw the rain bouncing high off the pavement outside. It was cosy to sit in the warmth of the washing and drying machines, watching the torrents of water come down outside.

The worst of the storm over, we set out to find our accommodation, Pension Wilde, high on the side of the valley above the town. This bed and breakfast establishment was in the charge of a delightful old lady, and we noticed a framed newspaper cutting on the wall indicating that she was over eighty year's old and still in business. It made a change to stay in the more homely surroundings of this pension, with great views across the city from our bedroom balcony. It was possible to watch the frequent trains far away on the other side of the valley, looking very much like those on a model railway.

Day 7 Koblenz to Koln via Bonn [81 miles]

We had some difficulty finding our way out of Koblenz, and ended up crossing a bridge on what proved to be a footpath, with a longish flight of steps at the end of it. We knew that we had a fair way to go, and tended just to get on with it. I have a note in my log saying "Bonn nice!" but we took no photos.
Protected cycle path
Part of the trip passed by a heavily industrialised area, but, as you can see in the picture there was a protected cycle path on both sides of the road.

Approaching Koln we found that our hotel was situated on the other side of the river and about five miles upstream. Had we checked earlier we could have crossed the river before Koln and saved a fair few miles. It's as well that we don't bicker! We therefore had to cross the river and could see the bridge, but not the way onto it.

We wasted a lot of time looking for the way, not helped by a suspicious character who claimed that he would show us, but then lead us in the wrong direction along a deserted path. I was giving serious consideration to the choice of a weapon, discarding the inflator and deciding that the bike hurled chain wheels first might be best! In retrospect I guess that there was probably a misunderstanding over the language as he did not seem to know much German considering that he lived there! It transpired that the way onto the bridge was by means of stairs, up which a channel had been laid in which to wheel the bike.

Our trusty tandem began to show her age during this long trip. A nasty clicking sound began to emanate from the front bottom bracket. I felt the cranks for slackness and concluded that the situation was not critical, but that it would be sensible to have the assembly dismantled and checked. The bike is fitted with caged ball bearings, they tend to give warning signals long before disaster strikes, not like these new fangled sealed cartridge bearings that are fine one day and collapse the next.

Our hotel was situated quite close to the airport, and after a longish ride we felt justified in dining out. We had a fine meal at a Yugoslavian Restaurant. The goulash was wonderful.

Day 7 Koln to Essen [82 miles]

We decided to stop at the first bike shop we saw to have the tandem looked at. A helpful man examined the front crank assembly without dismantling it and pronounced it in good health. I was relieved, but still had my doubts! I decided to strip it down as soon as we get home.

Later, in Dusseldorf, we visited another bike shop as my trusty Carnac touring shoes had come to the end of their long life, the sole of one of them about to part company with the upper. The years spent kicking broken glass off cycle tracks in the UK finally came home to roost. It appears that you can no longer buy these comfortable lightweight soft leather shoes, they have been superseded by the dreaded SPD click on system. I bought a clumsy pair of Shimano boots that can be used without the clip on bits. Meanwhile Carol dug in the bargains box and unearthed a pair of old style Carnac shoes in her size - they were the last pair in the shop and they only wanted £10 for them. I was green with envy! While in the shop we also bought a couple of quick release clamps for our Carradice luggage - it's ironic that you can buy this British manufacturer's stuff in Germany but not in our local bike shops! I could have spent a fortune in that shop, it was full of interesting bits and pieces.

We had to travel up the Ruhr valley to get to Essen and could have continued down the Rhine until we encountered the Ruhr coming in from the east, but we decided to cut across country, shortening the journey. Surprisingly enough we did not get lost on this stretch, where we encountered our first real hills, although nothing very severe.

The Ruhr valley is much smaller in scale than that of the Rhine, and it is pleasantly green. I had been taught at school that the Ruhr valley was the industrial heartland of Germany, but that is no longer the case. The old smokestack industries have closed and nature has largely regained control of the landscape. There is a series of industrial monuments and a trail between them. Some are really impressive, with the old pit head from Zollverein colliery, the last of Essen's mines to close, amongst the best.

The photograph does not do justice to the historic small town of Kettwig, which we saw on first encountering the Ruhr.

There was evidence of a move up-market for this area, we saw warehouses being converted into luxury apartments, while a damn across the river has created the Baldeney lake, 8 km in length, allowing a sailing club to flourish in beautiful surroundings.


Steam Locomotive

I can sniff out steam locomotives wherever I go, and this trip was no exception. Here a preserved tank engine awaits its next turn of duty.

Essen was one of the least cycle friendly cities that we saw during our trip, it was almost like being back home, except that we don't have to put up with tram tracks in Sunderland (yet!). There were fewer dedicated cycle tracks in Essen than we had grown accustomed to, while we managed to find the steepest hill in town (Steel Road I think it was called).

We do have friends in Essen and were very glad to make the comfort of their house after a long day's ride. After a shower we indulged in the comfort of motorised transport to take us to an excellent Chinese restaurant in the city centre.

Day 8 Essen to to Xanten [57 miles]

We were treated to a full English breakfast in the morning, which was very thoughtful of our host, and prepared us very nicely for the day ahead.
I have to admit that we got seriously lost coming out of Essen, to the extent that we spent about forty-five minutes going round in a large circle. Eventually we decided to follow the direction of flowing water, something that rarely fails, and kept us right in this case. Eventually we found ourselves on the Emscher Weg, a reasonably sign posted cycle route that largely followed the course of the River Ems to the Rhine. This was a safe level track, but it contained a number of barriers that involved getting off the bike where the path crossed roads.

Emscher Weg sign

Reaching our old friend the Rhine we found a well sign posted and easy to follow route that used minor roads through pleasant farmland.

Farmer Using Bike to Drive Cows

"Vorsprung durch Technik" A German farmer uses appropriate technology to urge his cows back to the fields.    


Xanten turned out to be the most appealing German town that we had stayed in, although our luck did not change with regard to the weather. It boasts Roman remains and, despite wartime devastation, has been rebuilt in the traditional style. Standing in the large and impressive church I felt that something was not quite as it should be. Walking up to one of the lofty pillars I noticed that the "stones" were actually formed by painting the mortar lines on the monolithic column. Presumably it too had been a victim of the war, and had been rebuilt using modern techniques, while trying to preserve the original appearance. We searched for documentation on the history of the building, but could find nothing.

We had booked all of our hotels over the net, or by fax, so had no real idea what they would be like. Amazingly enough this strategy was 100% successful, they had reserved our room in every case, while we did not stay in a bad hotel. In the case of Xanten, we found that the stylish Hotel Neumaier to be associated with the butcher's shop. Deciding to eat in the hotel's restaurant we ordered the "mystery dish" comprising of three different types of meat, along with the normal accompaniments. Now cycling does give you an appetite, but I had to concede defeat with this meal, there was just too much to eat!

We left the tandem round at the back of the hotel, under cover but not in secure accommodation. There were several other bikes parked there and I judged the situation to be safe enough. The following morning I found that the hotel staff had actually brought the bike into the building, despite the fact that it had its rear wheel locked. Full marks to the Hotel Neumaier!


Day 9 Xanten to Arnhem [52 miles]

We did our trick of cycling in a large circle leaving Xanten, we must buy a compass! Eventually we found a good route along the top of a dyke with the Rhine on our right and some very attractive properties to our left. We crossed the Rhine at Rees and then followed minor roads to Emmerich and so on to Arnhem. We suffered another set back in the outskirts of Arnhem, becoming embroiled in a large retail park and being unable to find a way to cross the river into the town. We were forced to ask for assistance in order to find the way.

Once in Arnhem we found that the market was in full swing, and that part of it was devoted to the sale of fish, both wet and cooked. The smell of cooking fish was too much to resist, so we each bought a fried fish that was probably haddock, but had an unrecognisable Dutch name. Whatever the type, it was delicious, and we ate it with our fingers while sheltering from the rain beneath the fishmonger's canopy.

Hartenstein Hotel
If you have seen the film "A Bridge too Far", you might recognise the white building shown to the left. It was the Hartenstein Hotel that became the headquarters of the embattled allied forces that were surrounded by heavily armoured German troops. It is now the Airborne Museum, devoted to that battle, and it contains a large collection of wartime relics. In addition, the museum uses a a very effective tape slide presentation, supported by a three dimensional model of the area on which coloured lights are used to show where the action took place. Even though I knew the story, I found that I had a lump in my throat as the presentation ended with the defeat of the allied soldiers.

One aspect of the story that I did not know was that the Dutch railway workers had all gone on strike in support of the invasion. This effectively restricted the movement of troops and equipment by the Germans. Unfortunately their action prompted the Nazis to cut off all food supplies into northern Holland, with the result that many Dutch people died of starvation during the winter of 1944/5. 

The famous bridge has been replaced since the war, and the new one is named after the British officer who held on to his position there until the bitter end, John Frost.

Arnhem is not a beautiful town, it boasts a handsome cathedral and some attractive buildings, but a very ugly 60's railway station, thankfully the subject of a major rebuilding programme.

They run trolley buses in Arnhem, it seems to me they are a better solution than trams - certainly as far as cyclists are concerned!

Day 10 Arnhem to Amersfoort [58 miles]

Our host at the Inn we were staying at gave us good clear instructions as to how to leave the town, so we had no difficulty in finding a well sign posted cycle track that lead us across open heath, through woodland, and by a series of minor roads, through farmland. This was very good cycling indeed.

One feature of the journey was the number of small paddocks, situated at the side of the road, that contained an attractive mixture of unusual farm animals. You see miniature horses, geese, deer, goats and various types of pigs and sheep. Intrigued by this we stopped to take a photograph when the entire contents of the paddock rushed towards us - ever seen a flock of geese running towards you, phew! Fortunately they were all safely contained within the paddock, the only real hazard was the goat who reached across and started to chew the panniers.

We made the illogical decision to go via Utrecht - we would have to cycle through that city on the way out the following day. We were a little disappointed by Utrecht, although the area around the cathedral, where there are canals, is interesting and attractive.

Leaving Utrecht behind we headed for the Tulip Hotel at Amersfoort where we had managed to obtain a discounted booking. Now we had made it our practice to let all of the hotels know in advance that we required secure accommodation for the tandem. At the Tulip Hotel the receptionist took all of this in her stride, handing us the key of a room in which we could store the bike. I opened the door of this place to find it crammed full of bikes of all types and sizes - the hotel allocates a room the size of a small dance hall to the storage of bikes. Could you imagine that in the UK?



The hotel was situated at the top of a hill outside the town - yes they do have hills in the Netherlands, so we decided to ride into the town to have a look around and find something to eat.

Amersfoort is a very attractive small town with characteristic canals and traditional buildings. We managed to get a table at an Italian restaurant that was doing a roaring trade, later we saw people being turned away. Another excellent meal, but then the climb back up to the hotel!

On our way up the hill we noticed a number of passenger- carrying hot air balloons floating overhead. Near the hotel we came across the place that was being used as the take off - area (apparently Amersfoort is the ballooning centre of the Netherlands). Having led a sheltered existence, neither of us had previously seen a hot air balloon being launched. Their silent ascent is really quite spooky, something you have to witness to fully appreciate.

Day 11 Amersfoort to Leiden [66 miles]

I do appear to be suntanned here, it was in fact rust.

We had to negotiate Utrecht again, and had major problems finding our way out of the city since we lost the signposts for Route 4 at an early stage. Eventually we found ourselves on the slip road of a motorway and had to take avoiding action. We picked up Route 4 again, purely by chance, and thought we were on our way, until we came to the same junction as we'd encountered an hour previously. After taking advice in pidgin Anglo-Saxon from a helpful old lady, we finally hit the direct route for the day. This ended up adjacent to a picturesque canal, bordered by up-market villas with private boats and gardens filled with hydrangeas in deep shades of red. By-passing Alphen a/d Rijn, we entered Leiden through the commercial centre.

Lieden boat    


Atmospheric old bar in Leiden

Our hotel was some way out of the picturesque city centre, but a good bus service allowed a brief evening visit, where a "dish of the day" was eaten in a typical old Dutch bar for £4.

Day 12   Day off - The Hague and Delft

New buildings at The Hague

Older Building at The Hague

We left the tandem at the hotel and set off by double decker train to The Hague. Train tickets could be purchased from a machine using credit cards - on the return journey we were told by a friendly ticket inspector that the transaction had not actually taken place - our "tickets" were in fact reject notices, and we could incur heavy fines. He took it on trust that we would pay the correct fare later, which we did.

The Hague is not particularly beautiful, but Art Nouveau department stores survive between impressive modern developments.

Delft - notice birds nesting in the foreground.

We took a tram to Delft, much more of a tourist attraction with its canals and churches. The sun came out as we sat in the main square, and we found a Halfords which bore no resemblance to the home-grown variety - it stocked a wide range of well equipped cycles, and spares which just could not be found in the UK.

As it was near to the end of our journey we thought we might buy a small souvenir to remind us of our trip. Right next to the bar in which we were sipping beers was a shop stocked with Delft porcelain. Looking from a distance we spotted an attractive small plate, not much larger than a saucer, and decided that would be it. On closer inspection we discovered the price to be about £120. We saved our money for a meal on the ferry and the down payment on next year's holiday!

Day 13 Leiden to Ijmuiden [35 miles]

Under a steady stream of aeroplanes on the approach path to Schippol, we headed west again, picking up the coastal route through sand dunes and finally reaching the North Sea at the resort of Zandvoort. We had originally intended to stay there one night - luckily we hadn't been able to find a hotel in this rather forlorn town. We turned inland for a detour to Haarlem, which is quite pleasant.

Along the way Carol spotted the same shelter in which we had taken refuge from the rain during our last visit to Holland!

Almost there!

The last leg took us along the dunes once again, then along the main shopping street of Ijmuiden to the port. There we were joined by Dutch and German cyclists who were about to dice with death on British roads, armed with nothing more than a road atlas.        

South Shields

As we waited to board the evening ferry, the sun finally made more than just a token appearance, and stayed with us next morning as we made a breathtaking approach to the River Tyne, with the Cheviots easily visible more than forty miles to the north.      

North Shields Fish Quay

   The circle of our holiday was completed when Bryan cycled alone to Middlesbrough to retrieve the car from the Bikebus compound.

Advice to others thinking about making the trip

Allow enough time to enjoy the places that you are passing through. Take a compass and some decent maps as you can't rely on the cycle way signs.

Swot up sufficient German to allow you to exchange pleasantries, ask directions, and understand the bones of the answer. In Holland most people we encountered could speak either English or German.

The most dramatic scenery occurs in the stretch immediately after Bingen, if you have limited time concentrate on that. On the other hand we particularly  liked the smaller Dutch towns and could have happily explored some of the Dutch national cycling routes, while Strasbourg and the area around that city was also attractive.
Carol and Bryan Attewell


(Photography. Pentax MZ50 with Kodak Gold 200 negative film, most images re-scanned using an Epson 4990 7-10-2008)

If you would like to ask any questions about this article, feel free to get in touch with Bryan Attewell

For details of more cycle tours that I have documented, please look here

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