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Cycling from the Baltic Sea to the Alps

Karl Brodowsky, cycled 1983, written in German 1995, translated 1998


This translation has been made by me, Karl Brodowsky. If you don't like my translation please try reading the German original instead. Or let me know of errors, so that I can correct them. My mother tongue is German, not English. Anyway the spelling wording in this text is meant to be American English, or more precisely the variant of American English used near the Atlantic coast. Any measurements are based on the metric system, as in the German original. Especially I am not sure about the geographic names that I used and that I simply copied from the German original unless I knew of an English translation.

Part 1

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The summer in which we went on this tour was great, very little rain and very much sun. At least it was like that on a long rowing tour on which I went before this bicycle tour. Every day we thought that the weather had been good for so long time that a little bit of rain would not be so unexpected. But it started to rain when Rüdiger and I started from Kiel heading to the south. One day of real heavy rain. But who cares, we had good rain clothes and that was pretty much all the rain for the whole trip. It took some time until Rüdiger got used to the idea that I did not keep a minimum speed of 25 km/h regardless of any hills and that we had our first break before having completed 100 km. We took highway N 404 southbound from Kiel heading for Lüneburg. This has the advantage of not passing many villages. Having passed Bad Oldesloe we came through a nice area with many small lakes, small woods and a good overview of the landscape because the highway was located on a dam. Having passed Lüneburg we found a farmer who tried to sell his strawberries near the highway, but not many customers came because of the weather. At least we enjoyed some strawberries and then we continued to Bispingen, which is a small village with a youth hostel. This area is called "Lüneburger Heide" in German, which would translate to "Lüneburg Heather" or something like that, but actually it is more woods than heather.

On the next day we continued from Bispingen to Bielefeld, where we arrived in the evening after having cycled 200 km (with some breaks). We stayed with relatives for one night. Between Soltau and Nienburg (highway N 209) the landscape was typically meadows and grassland. From Nienburg onwards we came through densely populated areas, fortunately not accompanied by heavy car traffic because we did a minor detour by crossing the Weser river in Leese-Stolzenau instead of Minden and taking highway N 215 and N 61 to Minden.

Between Minden and Bielefeld the area is quite hilly, if not mountainous, but the highest elevations (Wiehengebirge and Teutoburger Wald) can be passed for free, because highway N 61 follows a valley that makes them almost flat.

From Bielefeld we went together on highway N 61 to Stromberg, where we visited my grandmother for lunch and then continued to Beckum, where Rüdiger went on till Lünen in the Ruhr Region where his trip ended. My intention was to go to the Alps in the south. But in Beckum I found it logical to turn to the north. This would enable me to bypass the Ruhr Region with its motorways, bicycle paths, heavy traffic and less pleasant landscape. In Lüdinghausen, somewhere quite a bit north of Dortmund, I found a nicely situated camp ground. It was in the vicinity of some canals, actually one canal which had been duplicated in order to keep it operating even if bridges on one branch are destroyed. This gave me a dead branch (not regularly used by ships) for swimming. The camp ground was for free, because I was traveling by bicycle.

When I slept in my tent I woke up being still quite tired. Fortunately it was 3 am giving me some more time to sleep after having realised that the cars arriving at that time had waked me up. At a more conventional time I really got up and actually passed the whole Ruhr area on highway N 58 and crossed the Rhine arriving in Venlo in the Netherlands.

But I did not stay long but rather continued to Kaldenkirchen, which was in Germany again and offered the chance to stay in a youth hostel. Unfortunately my rear wheel started feeling a little bit shaky. The rim was no longer in a good state so that I considered buying a new rim or a new rear wheel in Kaldenkirchen. I did get some other spare parts, but for the rim I had to continue to Mönchengladbach, where I did get it. With the new rim it was no problem to continue to Aachen and again into the Netherlands where I stayed for two nights near the location where Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet.

This point has an altitude of 300 meters above sea level. That does not seem much, but considering the fact that the Dutch experience in building roads in mountain areas is not so extensive, this did mean quite an effort for me.

Part 2

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On the next day I had a closer look at Aachen crossing the border several times again and on the day after that I continued into Belgium. Because Belgium has three languages (German, French and Flemish which is somewhat similar to Dutch), I could find many different road signs for the same places during the day. First it was "Brüssel/Lüttich" (German), next it was "Bruxeles/Liége" (French) and finally "Brussel/Luik" (Flamish). Fortunately the highway had as well numbers which remained the same regardless of the local language. In the evening I arrived in Leuven (whatever it is called in English) near Brussels where I stayed on the camp ground for two nights.

This gave me a chance to have a look at Brussels without having to cycle all the city traffic. I simply took the train into the city and back again. On the camp ground some people told me that I would be surprised when I crossed into the French speaking area. The Flemish people would all know German, French and English apart from their native language, but the French speaking people would know only French. At least I had to agree that I hardly ever met anybody in the Flemish part of Belgium who did not understand and speak German quite well.

On the next day I found out about the French speaking part. By mistake I assumed that there might be a shortcut from the camp ground to the highway I wanted to take. But this shortcut was not a national highway and in Belgium this seems to imply that it is in such a poor state that it can be hardly used by a tractor. Anyway this shortcut took me a little bit through French speaking areas and then back to the Flemish speaking areas to the highway to Namur. Unfortunately my bicycle had some problem again. Some nice people tried to help me repairing it. Off course they did not miss to tell me that the people some kilometer south with their square heads would not have helped me at all. Anyway I did need some spare parts and it took me till 5 in the evening until I had it all fixed because my bicycle was not very compatible with typical Belgian bikes and I had to check many bicycle stores.

But at 5 PM I was cycling on the southbound highway again having much less fear of the square Walloon people because my bicycle was operating again and everything was just fine. Even the landscape that I came through. Somehow I changed my mind and decided not to go to Namur but rather to Huy, which is a small village in the valley of the Maas river. Indeed I found somebody who claimed at least to know English and who wanted to help me for the way to the camp ground. His English contained 90 percent French words but anyway I was able to find the camp ground after I had given him a piece of paper and a pencil. I must admit that I did not know any French at that time. Checking in worked out somehow without many words because I gave them my ID-card which held all the information that was needed for filling the form.

Next to my tent I found a group of Flemish cyclists. They had succeeded in taking along as much luggage as possible, especially chairs and a table for having meals in the camp grounds. I did not even take a mat underneath my sleeping bag on that tour, but I must admit that I have become a little bit decadent on this item until now. Anyway it was nice company and I am always interested in meeting other cyclists. The next day took me across the Ardennes mountains. This was not so easy because I had a three speed bicycle and a small sprocket that was optimised for flat land. Somehow I made it to highway N 4/E 9 which took me to Bastogne. This showed again the bicycle friendliness of Belgium where such a four lane highway is open for cyclists, while in many other countries they would have declared this as a motorway forcing cyclists to go on long detours, if they exist at all.

In the evening I crossed the border to Luxemburg having the intention to cross through this country from almost from north to south. Luxemburg proved to be not so small even though it looks small on the maps. The landscape in the north was very scenic. I went through narrow valleys between mountains. Very soon I found a nice camp ground near a small river where I could even stay for free because it was my birthday.

The next day took me through the capital of Luxemburg which is called Luxemburg itself. From there I followed the highway into France and through the Mosel valley to Metz. There I could profit from the French habit of providing cheap camp grounds in the cities, close to center and railroad station. This one was nicely situated near the Mosel river. Unfortunately swimming was prohibited so strictly that they even bothered putting the sign for this in German.

On the following day I had to leave the valley and this gave me a chance to get acquainted with real French highways. They tend to cross valleys and hills in the most inconvenient way, with a tendency to have a dam on the top of the hill to increase the differences in altitude. But this was not so important since I had taken good advice for crossing the Vogesen mountains in the simplest place. This should be the location where the railroad and the Rhine-Marne-Canal cross it. The national highway seemed to fit to this description quite well, but I was surprised to encounter quite heave slopes even though, maybe not much more than what I had got used to in the hilly area before. On the other side the slope was even quite steep, but going downhill that was acceptable. What I did not know is the fact, that the railroad and even the canal use a tunnel for crossing the mountains. Next time I should go by boat to see the tunnel.

In Zabern (Saverne) I found a cheap camp ground which was quite close to Strasbourg. The next day I had a long lunch break in Strasbourg that gave me some time to look at the city. Being in the upper Rhine valley in July it was quite hot, at least in this summer. I every village I had to stop for filling my water bottle, drinking half of it immediately and the other half on the way to the next village. And the highway which I used for cycling from Strasbourg to Basel near the Rhine river really encountered many villages. One of these villages was Neu-Breisach, where I stayed on the camp ground. The people in the neighbouring tent where from Switzerland and gave me some advice for their country. That was quite useful, because I did not know exactly which route I would take. But with their good advice there was no need to bypass Switzerland.

Part 3

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When entering Switzerland for the first time they cared checking my ID-card sincerely and asking me about the amount of drugs and explosives in my luggage. Anyway they trusted my answers without ripping everything apart. In Basel I saw people swimming in the Rhine for the first time, even though it is well known for its dirty water. But that applies to the northern parts. Thus I thought it might be a nice idea to keep this in mind for the camp ground in Zurzach, where I spent the night. The water was really clean enough, but the current was so heavy that I did not dare to swim.

Taking the shortest way to Neuhausen and Schaffhausen took me for some kilometers through Germany again. Obviously the number of shops near this stretch of highway N 27 in Germany was far beyond the local requirements. I did not worry about the fact that eating is not advisable before swimming since swimming near the Rhine Falls is much less advisable than swimming in Rotterdam, Cologne or Zurzach. Heading for the Lake of Constance with many good swimming opportunities this did not seem to hurt very much. This was quite disappointing. On the Swiss side all the lake shore was covered by Hotels, camp grounds, beaches collecting entrance fees and what not, not giving me any free swimming opportunity. Only one spot had been forgotten, which was a 3 m wide concrete ramp leading into the water for inserting boats. At least the camp ground in Rorschach where I stayed in the evening was one of the facilities occupying the lake so that I could swim there.

On the next morning I was in the uppermost part of the Rhine valley coming from the alps and running into Lake of Constance. I did some detouring through the small country Liechtenstein. In the evening I arrived in Landquart which seemed a little bit too early for the night. Therefor I continued on highway N 28 heading for Davos which was supposed to have a camp ground as well and which would be only as little as 35 more kilometers to go. Because of the slopes these 35 km proved to be quite long. Exchanging the rear sprocket enabled me to go uphill without problems, but at a very low speed. So finally I found myself in a situation of the Monopoly player who arrives on one of the two most expensive streets (whatever they are called in your local Monopoly version) with hotels everywhere. The most expensive one would have been Davos, if there had not been the camp ground, but the second one was Klosters without a camp ground. In spite of being a Swiss hotel it was not really so expensive and I got a nice bed and good breakfast in turn.

The remaining distance to Davos was no longer so much and after that I came through unpopulated areas heading for the Flüela pass (2388 m). This altitude was high enough to be without trees, even without grass, but with some snow and off course rocks. Maybe there where a little bit too many cars for the optimal enjoyment of the landscape. Going downhill was not so easy either. I had to break before the hairpin curves because I did not want to go down the very fastest way. Before the trip I had installed a third break for my bicycle because of the mountains. From the Inn valley I went uphill again heading for the Ofen pass (2155 m) which had regular trees on top. The difference between these two altitudes was quite amazing. Back in the valley some Italians checked my ID-card and after that I was in the Etsch-valley (Adige) in the German speaking part of Italy (South Tyrol) where I intended to stay for two weeks. I had to find the village Stilfs, which gave its name to the Passo Stelvio. Fortunately I did not really have to go all the way to Stilfs but rather only to Stilfserbrücke, which was a few 100 m less in altitude. I was tired enough anyway.

Part 4

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Staying in Stilfs I went on many walks in that area of the Alps. But I did some bicycling as well, taking me to Meran and to the top of Passo Stelvio.

On my way back I was lacking the time for many great detours. I just cycled across Reschen Pass and Fernpass on the first day, crossing Austria on one day and staying on the camp ground in Füssen for the night. From there I went to Augsburg which was so busy with tourists that I had to find a place for the night somewhere else. Some kilometers north of the city I could get the permission to pitch up my tent on a meadow. In the local inn I met many nice people from the village with whom I drank quite a lot of good Bavarian beer.

In Dinkelsbühl I remembered again that I could stay in youth hostels as well. After having passing Rothenburg and Würzburg I spent the next two nights in Gemünden and Bebra with my tent again. From Göttingen I took the train back home.