My impression of Germany prior to cycling through it was largely based on their football team: admirably practical, tactical play, if on the dull side. My first impression of the country itself was formed by the villages along the border. It suffered in comparison with the instant bicycle-heaven which the Netherlands presented: practical, reliable, but fairly solidly dull.
Why? In practical terms, I suppose that the cycling infrastructure budget is more stretched. The paths are often shared with cars (the Netherlands wouldn’t allow this…!), the sign-posting isn’t as sharp, and, of course, there are a lot more hills – nothing to do with the infrastructure, but perhaps means catering for cyclists is less of a top priority. While cycling is only one specific aspect of life, from the perspective of someone who has just learned to ‘think as a bicycle’ in the Netherlands, the cycling scene understandably formed my first impression of the country as a whole. Of course cars and bikes can share the roads – they’re going in the same direction. Why shouldn’t they?
Germany’s almost defiant practicality does, however, grow on you. If you open a map, someone sees a lost person and comes to give you directions, because that’s why you do with lost people. Passing cars give you an invariably accurate 1.5 metres space, because that’s the amount of space a bicycle needs if it falls over sideways. Roads are clean, ‘cause everything is recycled – rubbish is, after all, rubbish. And as you cycle through the impressively industrial vineyards along the lower Rhine, you can almost hear the conversations of the original farmers: “Oliver, there is a hill in the way of our vineyard!” “Well, Karl, build a vineyard with a 40% gradient, then.”*
While in the Netherlands and Italy people reacted to my long-distance solo cycling adventures with a mix of admiration and terror, there was a refreshingly practical response in Germany. “Need to get 100 km away? Okay, pedal for 100 km. Then you’ll be there”. Although I appreciate both responses, it is nice to talk about the practicalities rather than the justifications of doing such a trip.
And amongst this practicality, there is beauty. Or perhaps this practicality actually lends itself to beauty. Particularly in Barvaria, which I am told is the richest area (so perhaps has more money to invest in frivolities such as paint), the streets are stunningly colourful. All the houses are different hues, yet they also complement each other perfectly. Karl and Oliver seem to have discussed, as civil neighbours should, what colour to paint their adjacent houses for the good of everybody. Because why wouldn’t you?
These elements took me a while to appreciate, but their consistency grew on me. There wasn’t a day in Germany I didn’t see a landscape and a town that I admired. And it’s nice, as a cyclist, to be able to rely on things: a water fountain in a village, a public toilet in a square, a local bakery open on a Sunday morning.
It was also in Germany that I parted ways with my initial companion and alternating camping and couch-surfing. This may also have accounted for how Germany grew on me gradually. After the first few days, following my companion and doing little else but cycling and sleeping; I felt like I had existed in Germany for four days, but not actually been to Germany. When I had the freedom to stop and explore places and meet people, I started appreciating the landscape and the culture properly.
The first city I explored was Cologne or Koln. The famous cathedral is awe-inspiring, as is the view from its top spire. A few stops down the line was Worms, the city with a fantastic name, an invisible (read: bombed) medieval past, and a generous couchsurfer with four cats. In Speyer, I experienced my first Eiscafe (a café dedicated to ice-cream. Winner.) – which served “spaghetti” ice cream. The cycle paths were reliable; the weather was warm. By the time I was greeted by my second Couchsurfing host in Karlsruhe, I was hooked on the country.
In Karlsruhe, my couchsurfer’s two bright, polite and energetic boys didn’t let me leave until I had played football with them. I should have been prepared for this: two German boys, aged approximately 7 and 10, would most likely be very good footballers. But I am equally predictable: if there is a way to my heart, football will seal the deal. By the time I left Karlsruhe, I was very much in love with Deutschland.
Sadly, that was my second last day in Germany: one stop opposite Strasbourg and then it was in to Switzerland. But I can reliably predict that I will be back.
* I apologise for any racial stereotyping seen here. Names taken from the 2002 German National Football Team…