Back into Germany

2 08 2007

26th – 27th June, 2007

I really, really like German people. I’ll tell you why in a moment – but first, here’s a picture of me saying goodbye to Switzerland from the rear deck of the ferry over Bodensee (a.k.a. Lake Constance):

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(Note – I really, really like Swiss people too, particularly my fine friends in Zurich, but I guess you’ve already noticed that)

Yesterday, I had the remarkably good fortune to meet a guy named Peter. I had just stopped in Ravensburg, and was looking around for an evening meal (most likely a pizza or kebab) and a place to sleep, when this guy rode up next to me and said something friendly in German. I’d noticed him a minute earlier – as he was unlocking his bike, he’d given me a slightly surprised or inqusitive look (as I often seem to get, hauling all this stuff around with me) and I’d returned a little ‘nod of respect’ I trade with fellow cyclists. When he spoke to me, I used the (by now standard) ‘Sorry, I’m from Australia – my German is pretty bad…’ line, and he responded in perfect English. After a bit of chat, I asked him if he knew of a cheap place to stay in town, and he offered to take me up the hill to the local youth hostel. Some ‘hill’ – a 13% gradient all the way up, a serious climb on my over-loaded beast, and I was thoroughly slaughtered when I finally got to the top. Wiping my brow, I caught my breath and checked the reception, only to find that the place was fully booked… out of luck. I also noticed that the diner area was choc-full of screaming British teens (13-15yr olds), so it was probably just as well.

While I contemplated my next move, he said something about making a call and pulled out his mobile phone – I figured he was checking another place in town. It turns out he was getting the ‘all clear’ from his wife, before inviting me to stay at his place! I was completely shocked, as I’d only known him for about 10 minutes, so I politely resisted (I thought he just felt guilty for dragging me up the hill, then having to dump me there) – but he was quite genuine and insistent, and in the end I gratefully accepted.

So off we rode to his place, which happened to be in a town about 10km back in the direction I’d already come from. While riding I learned that he was also in the I.T. industry, holding a similar type of job to myself (though in a much larger company), and that he had two kids aged 10 and 13. He also had a very nice house, complete with a huge downstairs guestroom and shower area – lucky me! I met his lovely wife Margit and the kids, then was fed a delicious German-style dinner – Leberkäse (a type of fine meatloaf) with potato salad and tomatoes, and fresh cherries and Italian wine for desert. It turned out to be Margit’s birthday the following day, so she was baking herself (and her friends) a cake as we talked. I wish I’d had something to give her, but I don’t carry many spare gifts on this trip…

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We chatted till midnight, then hit the sack – though I stayed up a bit to hand-wash some clothes. Up at 6:00am for a hot breakfast, to the sound of incessant bell-ringing from the local church (they ring the bells continuously every morning for about 3 minutes, to get everyone up and ‘to church on time’). Then a hasty thanks and farewell, and off we rode into the morning cold at 7:00am…

I met another friendly-type that day – this attractive and curious lass was quite forward about making friends with me, and came right up to me at the fence line while her mates egged her on in the background. I had nothing to offer, unfortunately, and when I made a move to leave she reared up alarmingly on two legs and stuck her head right over the fence at me, nearly knocking me off the bike. Silly girl.

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To cap it all off, as I cycled through a small country town much later in the day, I stopped at what I’d hoped was a small grocery store for a bite to eat. In fact it was a bottle-shop, selling only local beer and mineral water, and a few ice-creams. I was starving, and in serious need of energy, so I grabbed an ice-cream and had a chat to the guy working at the register. We talked about all the various brews (biers, pilsners and weizenbiers – most of them made within 10km of the shop) and I asked him for his recommendations. He reached over and grabbed a bottle of what he considered his ‘best beer’, an Allgäuer Furstfabt Hefeweizen bier, and he presented it to me as a gift! A great guy, and a great brew (weizenbier is ‘wheat beer’) – I’m drinking it now as I write this. If you love beer (or goodies from bakeries for that matter), be warned – you’ll never escape Germany…

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By the way – that’s my new Swiss Army Knife I received from Alexandra and Erika in Switzerland, as a ‘gift for the road’. I guess I mentioned a little disagreement I had with a tin of spaghetti at a Danish campsite – I wound up stabbing it to death with my Commando Combat Knife (TM) to remove the soft, juicy innards – and they thought I might do better with the right tool for the job. They even got me the blunt-tipped ‘My First Swiss Army Knife’ (a.k.a. ‘kiddies model’) to make sure I don’t get into any more spaghetti-fights. Very thoughtful – and extremely useful. Thanks again girls!

(Quick quiz for the Foulkes – who makes this particular little red multi-tool?)

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Interlaken

2 08 2007

21st June, 2007

I was told by many that I couldn’t leave Switzerland without visiting Interlaken, and having seen the photos my parents took there a year ago I could hardly argue. As the name suggests, Interlaken is situated between two lakes (Thun and Brienz), in a very mountainous area of central Switzerland. The views are truly incredible, with the mighty Swiss Alps dominating the skyline in all directions. A favorite spot for adventure sports, Interlaken hosts non-stop hiking, canyoning and para-gliding in the summer season. It also sits at the base of a trio of famous peaks – Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, for some serious climbing action.

Jungfrau has the distinction of holding the highest railway station in Europe – 3,454m above sea level, with an observation station above it. I decided to take a look.

Given the extreme steepness, altitude and complete lack of roads, I opted against the bicycle, taking the cog-railway up to Jungfrau station instead. Absolutely amazing views on the way up – real picture-postcard views of rolling green fields, alpine lodges and rugged coutryside as we chugged and clanked our way to the terminus.

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Walking through the heavy glass doors into the lobby, I was blasted by a wave of excited Korean & Japanese, all trying to out-slur and out-position each other – apparently a couple of tour groups had just finished up, and they were crowding the bar, killing time and brain cells waiting for the train to arrive. Five minutes later they departed, and silence suddenly ruled the complex, with the softly wistling winds and echoed footsteps being the only misfits.

The rapid change of altitude had really affected me, having gained about 3000m in two hours, and I felt a bit googly and impaired as I considered my viewing options. Two seconds of deliberation found me at the bar, ordering a ‘Jungfrau Coffee’ – coffee with schnapps, which hit me like a Zurich tram. Perfect.

I then ambled over to the Ice Gallery, which promised all sorts of amazing ice carvings and works of frozen art. In fact it was rather crap, with only two or three half- melted ice statues, poorly lit and uninspiring for the most part – though these blue crystals were kind of nice. 20070621-ice_palace01.jpg
The walk through the ice tunnels to see the ‘amazing art’ was scary stuff in my cycling shoes – the floor was as smooth as a skating rink, and my steel cletes offered exactly zero grip. White knuckles on the handrail, I half slid, half stumbled out the door. 20070621-ice_palace02.jpg

I then decided to go outside, where I could get an unimpeded view of the magnificent peaks and glacial valleys around me. Despite the reportedly frigid temperatures, I didn’t feel cold at all, and quite enjoyed the massive dose of UV rays I received while staring into the blue infinity above.

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I visited the Sphinx, an astronomical observatory built atop the station, and was surprised at the number of birds that glided and wheeled above it. If I were a bird, I’d certainly consider a vacation here…

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Then it was time to catch the last train out of there, or I’d be forced to walk 45 minutes to an alpine lodge to stay the night, traversing a ridge along the way (or so I was told by a staff member – on a mountain bike!). Last train in this case was only 6:00pm, which seemed a little early to me, but I was glad to get back down to a normal atmospheric pressure and oxygen content.

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I wish it hadn’t been quite so cloudy, but overall I had a fantastic time in Interlaken and up on Jungfrau – the views, the experiences and the people I met at the hostel in town – all added up to a really great detour on my trip. Highly recommended!