Now in the North Rhine-Westphalia area of Germany, and trying to follow the Industrial heritage route for cyclists. My phone died just twenty minutes after setting out, so I’m on a higgledy-piggledy quest to find the way towards who-knows-where. Real cyclists would have the full kit of maps and apps. They would have done some reading and planning. Instead I fiddle with photos, painting and writing, then collapse into bed by nine.
The 2500 km mark popped up directly in front of a raspberry farm stall. It was a happy moment after a tough, hot and smelly day of riding through industrial parks and road works. I was negotiating yet another “umleitung” which took me off the canal cycle track and through a farm. Britta Jakobi offered me some of her fresh raspberries to taste. Heaven!
The air there is not good. If you look on the map for Marxloh, Oberhausen, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund…you’ll see a lot of tall factory towers. It took me three hours to ride through. My eyes burned terribly from the chemicals. However the community have built these amazing cycle routes in the area. Römer-Lippe river
Coffee stop, recharged phone, but it lasted another twenty minutes and so wandered lonely as a cloud until I found a yacht club where I ordered lunch while it charged again. The waitress pointed me in the direction of Henrichenburg, but I decided to follow the signs in the opposite direction instead. To Henrichenburg.
Very interesting place, Henrichenburg, where the ships are taken in and out of the water.
Grey sky day. I have a super invitation from friends of ours Hans-Georg and Birgitta to overnight with them. They sent me a digital map but I soon took the wrong turn. Thinking it was simply a matter of following the canal I went on for most of the morning but found it was the wrong canal. No wonder there were no people.
A lock, front and back.
A long way later, in Lüdinghausen, found out I was supposed to be Lünen, so had to change plans… but first a visit to a medieval expo at the castle. Fascinating walk and conversations in the park there filled with characters from the past. Well worth the mistake.
This is the path I frantically took to reach Ascheberg. “Googly girl” told me go through the farms which involved some bushwacking.
Birgitta kindly came by bike to fetch me in Ascheberg, and we rode together to their hometown Drensteinfurt. I was given a lovely welcome, great food and enjoyed the afternoon and evening in their comfortable company.
Famous Hans-Georg giant waffles with strawberries and cream.
The sun gradually dragged the billowing sky down to the smoking chimney stacks. A giant storm growled through dinner, but not a drop of rain fell on my Erdinger sponsored umbrella at the factory food place.
Getting here by cycle track from Monheim am Rhein took me through Düsseldorf, where an enthusiastic young man at the central bike shop sold me a stretchy gadget that looks like a condom with strategic holes. He wrapped the phone onto the handlebars with it, making it possible for me see the screen while riding. You are probably rolling your eyes and wondering why I didn’t get that sorted out at the beginning of the trip. Two reasons would be – I’m a slow organiser and I have a ‘make do’ attitude left over from the war.
Düsseldorf surprised me with it’s simplicity, and I had no problem at all getting into town, and out of it again. Doris, who we met doing the Francigena in Italy, had kindly invited me to stay with her here. At the time I didn’t know exactly where the city of Düsseldorf was. So it is quite surprising I made it here at all. Would be nice to know if she ever reached Rome and what she thought of our complex home city. Unfortunately she’s not in town at the moment.
North of Düsseldorf, the cycle path takes me into a poem.
So beautiful. Huge old trees line the road, many old people pedal along too, some in wheelchairs, some on roller skates. You can go for miles and miles through the fields without interruption. The wild ancient forests are all gone, but what remains is a stunning hint of what was there before.
A lunch place popped up with tables set out under a dark canopy of trees. Alte Rheinfähre.
The waiter dressed in black and white had a special look about him, he stooped down to get my order, and I nervously pointed at the middle of the menu. The surprise plate was …matjes, with roast potatoes and a creamy dill dressing. Marinated fish, really delicious.
Afternoons on the bike tend to get a bit hot and complicated. Most of it is done standing on the pedals. My right hand is certainly not well. After the googley girl told me to go around the same field twice I switched her off and just road willy-nilly. That’s the nice thing about not knowing where to go is wherever you go is ok. It’s not wrong at least. I went through many small towns, mostly very quiet. On the skyline begin an ominous line of enormous factory towers and billowing chimneys.
Flammkuchen is a thin pastry crust with high edges. It is smeared with a thin layer of sour cheese, and usually served with traditional onions and speck sprinkled on top, but I opted for the veggie version with sliced tomatoes and rocket. Eat it fast while it’s hot.
Losing sight of the Great Emotional River Rhine.
The route will take me slightly eastward and away. It is a moving goodbye. I will miss the scintilla, thedark swirls and reflections. The whole thing rushes into the Netherlands and merges with the sea at Rotterdam.
Thankfully there has been a great effort over the past few years to clean it up. Fish are beginning to return and the stinky chemical slime has moved on. The only trouble is the e-coli from sewage processing plants and the heavy boat traffic but some good people are working on improving that.
A small bottle of water cost me Euro 5 this afternoon. More expensive than beer.
While being lost in the town of Duisburg, I found myself doing a u-turn in front of a police station. It looked approachable, so I went in and declared the theft of my glasses. An officer wrote up the report..
Typing intently on his old clickitty-clacketty computer keyboard at high speed, after about fifteen minutes he printed it out for me and stamped it. Astonishingly he only managed three sentences. Seriously, this report will be sent to the police in Linz am Rhein, where I have declared the thief stole my bug glasses and sun hat. There they will investigate the matter further. I’m sure they will, this is Germany. What a bother.
Spent the night in a hostel Jugendherberge, Duisberg, Landschaftspark…in a rusty restored Industrial zone.
The girl at the hostel desk has given me their special handicap room, most likely because I’m the oldest guest by far and I look like I could use a walker. It is sparkling clean and comfortable with a chair in the shower, and a red switch next to the bed, which I pressed thinking it was the light switch. It blinked for a while, then I blinked off to sleep.
Malò gave me a big breakfast and little bottle of rescue drops. I gulped down the rescue drops then read the instructions. Two drops under your tongue to absorb slowly.
She also gave me a bright chrysanthemum which clipped onto my bicycle handlebar before slowly waving me off. She looked so lovely standing against a background of roses and blossoming olives. It was quite a heartfelt goodbye, the two of us under the cloudy Tuscan sky. Then a last smile before turning to face my fate.
Exhilarated anxiety reduced me to thinking nothing more than the air in my nostrils. The highly concentrated present loomed up around me. Each leaf on each bush type of experience.
The quaint winding roads drew me along, unfolding like a pop-up story book as I rode downhill to Bagno Ripoli. The white-whale bell that Megan gave me rang -ting-ting at a farmer who turned to wave. Stopped for a moment on a small ‘farmers’ bridge that crosses over the great A1 highway which runs down the spine of Italy. Found myself waving at the three-lane traffic below and some bored truck drivers tooted in response before vanishing.
“This isn’t so bad after all is it?”
The sun was shining, and the rescue drops did their work.
“I’m having my very own adventure, what fun!”
Checked the directions – Poggio alla Croce, right at pizzeria, follow straight, keep right at houses, keep right at bivio, sharp corner to left, down to intersection, other paths turn right, keep right, at house go left…. And so on, for pages and pages in my moleskin pocket diary.
I realized this style of navigating was not feasible for the long haul. Not even for half a day.
The Arno river like any big famous river is a geographic pointer to show the way. It rushes fresh and clean into Florence but soon accumulates toxic chemicals from the textile and leather works on it’s way to the Mediterranean Sea.
We rolled into Florence together. Glimpsed Brunelleschi’s remarkable dome but kept riding. Crossed over the Ponte Vecchio – Golden Bridge – between a mass of tourists and immediately turned left along the river. A busy market in the park was a shamble of food and clothing.
My bike crashed down on a marble step.
I was standing next to it munching an energy bar when it happened. The only damage was my precious bell lever snapped off. The inner catastrophist voice told me I was ridiculously irresponsible and I felt sad that one of the most precious things I had was already broken.
The opentopomap that Simon printed out for me shows a path along the river. I followed it under the Viadotto del Ponte all’Indiano, the solid concrete pylons decorated with graffiti. Felt a bit uncomfortable travelling parallel to what seems to be the wrong side of the train tracks. There were solitary men hanging about.
At S. Donnino Badia I popped out of the underpassage and took the wrong road in front of ristorante Angiolino. Lunch would be most welcome at this point. But a bunch of grizzly pirates sat around the door. They all stared at me, one of them was picking his teeth with a knife. My feet made a quick backward pedal in hesitation, but the wheels moved forward and so I regretfully gave lunch a skip.
The remainder of the long hot afternoon was spent crossing over and getting lost amongst the higgledy-piggledy streets of San Donnino – San Piero di Ponti – Campo Bizenzio – Confini – and so on. I felt like crying.
I eventually collapsed into a bar in Prato, grateful to escape the roar of trucks on the busy roads. A motley group of friendly old men sitting outside offered to watch my bike. They asked questions and discussed my plans for the ride, saying “Accidenti” a lot, which doesn’t translate well but means WOW.
Navigating all day using my old cel phone was proving impossible. It needed recharging much more often than anticipated.
Soon the inner voice was nagging about a place to stay. Booking.com app offered me some choices. So while recharging the phone the next bar, I booked a Bed & Breakfast in Montale, suitably close to the Apennine mountain I would need to ascend tomorrow. There was no way around it, I had to go over it.
Lesson 1. Communicate a lot more.
Montale is a suburb of Pistoia languishing at the bottom of a hump in the Apennine mountain range, the upper vertebrae of the spine of Italy. It took me another hour and some wrong turns to reach the immaculately clean B&B Belvedere.
Lina and Michele kindly showed me where to hide my bike around the corner of the house. When I told the elderly couple of my plan to cross over the mountain tomorrow they reacted in complete horror. Mouths open and hands to their cheeks “O no Signora no! no! no! non puoi andare! Ci sono i lupi” – you cannot go – it is very, very dangerous Signora, very steep, way too steep for a bicycle, and there are naughty boys who do naughty things up there in the forest. There are wolves, and hunters who shoot moving things and drive fast jeeps!
My knees were jelly from the ride but I managed to wobble myself to a nearby pizza restaurant.
It was open but closed to the public – opening night for invited guests only. Not keen to go in search of another place, I blabbed my sorry little story about “riding for eight hours today”. They rushed to fetch a chair for me to sit on while they made “una pizza molto speciale” a very special pizza, which the invited guests all admired. It was a Margherita with four basil leaves perfectly arranged. The lovely owners invited me to stay for the evening, but my eyes are pink and puffy, and I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. They carefully put the beautiful pizza in a box and handed it over, refusing payment – “it’s a gift”.
I wobbled back to my huge spotless room and wolfed it down.