"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

When the hills became too steep, and the town too crowded, these bicyclists in Europe switched gears

By on November 29, 2017 in Travel with 0 Comments

Lief thought a liter of German beer did wonders for his German fluency.

By Lief Carlsen

Mary and I have never bothered to make elaborate travel plans.

“Better to follow one’s nose upon arrival in a foreign land than to be hemmed in by inflexible schedules and commitments” is the way we looked at it.

Our informal approach has often served us well in the past, allowing us to immerse ourselves in local culture and meet a variety of people that a more rigid schedule would have insulated us from. On the other hand, there are certain penalties to be paid for such a carefree attitude — as we learned in early September of this year in Freiburg, Germany.

The seed of our most recent European vacation had been planted two years earlier when we rode our mountain bikes from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. On that ride, we fell in with a Dutch couple, the Maiwalds, who told us of a wonderful bike trail connecting Amsterdam to Rome.

Captivated by their descriptions of German castles, Alpine valleys, and Italian vineyards, we decided we would do the ride.

Toward that end, we bought special folding bicycles that could be shipped as standard airline luggage. An added bonus, once we arrived in Amsterdam, the suitcases in which the bicycles had traveled could be converted to bicycle trailers in which we could stow our gear.

Mary, with her bicycle suitcase that became a trailer, watches some tourists pedal a “rail bike.”

Our plans, (such as they were), called for us to ride the 500 miles to Freiburg with all the gear required to live for three months in Germany. At Freiburg, we would make arrangements to store all but our essential camping gear and, thus lightened, ride over the Alps and through the splendors of northern Italy until we reached Rome.

After touring the essential sights of Rome, we would catch a train back to the charming university town of Freiburg where I planned to enroll in a language school to work on my German. The trip would take about one month. It promised to be a glorious ride.

After assembling our bicycles in our Amsterdam hotel, we headed south through the flat Dutch countryside. There was a lot to see: thatched roofs, tidy little farms, a network of canals, and always paved bicycle paths in every direction. In fact, there were so many bicycle paths in Holland that our problem was one of finding the correct path to follow.

Flat Holland gave way to a rather hilly Belgium and the “bonus” bicycle trailers became albatrosses around our necks. Mary’s enthusiasm for the ride seemed to dwindle with each new hill we had to climb.

But the fatal flaw in our plan, we learned upon arrival in Freiburg, was that Freiburg, especially in September, is bursting at the seams with tourists and returning university students.

Despite three days of frantic searching, we were unable to find an available apartment for the three months we would be needing it — at any price!

Additionally, without a drop-off point for our gear, crossing the Alps, which had previously seemed merely challenging, now seemed insurmountable with all our gear in tow.

Mary’s tone changed from discouraged to exasperated to mutinous. She refused to go any farther.

Reluctantly, I said goodbye to our long-anticipated ride to Rome. Those gorgeous Alpine vistas and the sensuous hills of Tuscany that I had so often daydreamed about would have to be shelved for a later date. But where to go from there?

What had originally been the secondary part of our European vacation, German language study, now took center stage. If Freiburg wouldn’t have us, we would find another city that would.

Main Street, Wilferdingen, Germany, where Lief and Mary lived for two months.

And what we found was Karlsruhe, an unassuming city 90 miles north of Freiburg with reasonable rent and several language schools.

Prior to our on-the-fly change of plans, neither of us had given Karlsruhe and surroundings any consideration. But Wilferdingen, the suburb of Karlsruhe where we actually lived, turned out to be a comfortable and affordable little town that was an excellent place to experience everyday German life.

I wasted no time immersing myself in language studies at the local language academy while Mary busied herself with keeping house, hiking through the surrounding hills, and Zumba classes at a fitness studio.

Nor were our bicycles underutilized. My commute each day encompassed 25 miles of scenic bicycle paths into and out of the city. Bicyclists comprise a significant fraction of commuters in Karlsruhe and the city provides excellent avenues for that mode of transportation.

Indeed, Germany as a whole has gone to great lengths to meet the needs of bicycle riders. Just about anywhere you want to go in Germany, you can go on a paved path built specifically for bicycles.

I purchased a map of bicycle trails in and around Karlsruhe and every weekend, weather permitting, Mary and I visited the numerous castles, museums and scenic towns within riding distance without ever being hassled by speeding cars and trucks.

So what was my impression of everyday German life?

German homes are built to last — centuries, that is. No wood-framed houses around Karlsruhe. Everything is stucco-covered block with tile roofs and massive doors and windows.

German bacon has almost no fat, much to its detriment. German bread is delicious and Germans buy it fresh-baked every day.

German cars are smaller than American cars and their streets are much narrower. Gasoline is very expensive — about $7 a gallon.

Germans are friendly but only once they get to know you. Greet a stranger and you get nothing but a blank stare in return.

Germans are industrious — they seem to always be working and vagrancy is nearly non-existent. The hardest thing about learning German is that they have about 100 ways of saying “the” and a liter of German beer does wonders for one’s fluency (or so it seemed to me).

In summary, what had been conceived as a challenging bicycle journey through some of the most historic and scenic places on earth evolved into a prolonged case of cultural immersion.

Have we learned a lesson and is our next vacation going to be a packaged tour of bus rides to tourist landmarks and museums? NOT A CHANCE!

Lief and Mary Carlsen are retired. When not wintering in Arizona or bicycle trekking at summer’s end, they are enjoying their mountaintop log home in Chelan.

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