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BASEL TO KARLSRUHE
April 10 was the day the group split officially for two days. Roy, Russell, Denis and I were headed for Mulhouse, in France, while Louise, Elaine, Kim and Mary headed for Titisee, in the Black Forest. We arranged to meet up again on the morning of April 12, at Kehl, back in Germany. Elaine had refused to obtain a French visa (the only one required by Australians in Europe) on principle, and when the Mulhouse group passed from Switzerland to France just outside Basel, with nary a border guard/passport stamper in sight, we were a little peeved at having forked out our money for nothing! At least we were legal if anybody ever bothered to check.
We followed the road to Mulhouse, through Bartenheim and Rixheim. It was pleasant riding through the flat Alsatian countryside, and it was fascinating to note the differences between Swiss, German, and French rural architecture.
Our goal in Mulhouse was the French National Automobile Museum, which houses the largest collection of Bugattis in the world. Denis and Roy are both car enthusiasts, so were really looking forward to the treat; I'd chosen Mulhouse for two reasons - I'd paid for my visa, and it looked flatter than the Titisee terrain.
The city traffic in Mulhouse is pretty hair-raising, compared with the super-tolerant Swiss drivers, and the French roads looked familiar - just like home: broken edges, a few potholes, a bit of dirt and grime. The only thing we don't have at home is the white stencils on the gutters showing dogs where they ought to do their business - I wonder if French dogs are trained to read these signs?
The museum is enormous, and everything is beautifully presented. Denis and Roy's eyes glazed over and they were off in a world of their own. Twenty two photographs later Denis decided it was all too much to take in at one visit, so we'd just have to come back next time. There were a few other thing in there besides cars, but the Bugattis definitely dominated the scene.
After Mulhouse we headed for Colmar, where we intended to stay the night. The afternoon was wearing on a bit, the 30k from Basel to Mulhouse had stretched to about 45k, and we weren't really sure which bend we were at on the map. So, as I also have a little French, I asked - you guessed it - a little old man who was riding past. He told us Colmar was about 20k away, but he was going in that direction, so if we would follow hime he would guide us. He must have been in his mid seventies, but we poked along steadily at around 16 kph, and his knowledge of the roads meant we didn't have to do any of our regular backtracking.
In this part of France the minor roads do not form crossroads with the more important ones, they join the major road at a T junction, you follow that road for a hundred metres or so, then you turn off on to the next minor road. We zigzagged like this for about 1 1/2 hours (you can understand how 30k on an auto map easily becomes 50k on the minor roads and bike paths). When we reached the village of St Croix en Pleine he stopped. This was his village, he explained. Colmar was 8 k further up the road, we couldn't miss it. He was right, we couldn't miss it, but the road got narrower and narrower, and we were afraid that the ever increasing traffic wouldn't miss us =:-o
On the outskirts of Colmar was a city map, which seemed to indicate that the youth hostel was way off to the west in another town, not in Colmar as we expected. Denis got a bit panicky (as he always did when we seemed to be hopelessly lost around 17.30 of an afternoon) and decided he wanted to stay in a hotel. Well, the route we took didn't pass any hotels until we reached the centre of town, but even he agreed that 320 (French) francs a head was too expensive. I asked a group of young people for directions to the youth hostel, they conferred a bit, argued a bit, then told us to go along to the square and keep turning left. We followed these vague instruction to the square where, thankfully, there was a bookshop. While I purchased a "plan de ville" (city map), Roy was given instructions in English, and we were off again. It wasn't very far out of town, and wasn't hard to find now we had a map. The manager of the hostel wasn't particularly jolly, and claimed he couldn't speak English (though he managed to learn overnight - I heard him on the 'phone next morning!), but we managed to get by with my rusty French.
We had a couple of beers in a very odd bar just round the corner from the youth hostel, then wandered in the general direction of town looking for food. The first restaurant we came to looked quite appealing, but we were politely told it was set up for breakfast, not dinner. There wasn't much open so we kept heading towards town, crossed under the railway line, and found a rocking little pizza and pasta restaurant at the far end of a dim, dark alley. Mmm, delicioso!
We were concentrating so hard on finding the right road out of town next morning (11/4) that we missed the turnoff to the old town centre, which had looked quite appealing the evening before. Just as well we did, because it ended up being a very long day.
We rode through some delightful forest, past timber getters and charcoal burners, and then along the Canal du Rhône a Rhin (Rhône/Rhine canal). We had our lunch sitting on the edge of the canal, watching the barges slide past. The weather was perfect, cool but sunny, with very little wind.
Our entry in to Strasbourg was rather inauspicious -we seem to have come in through the back door. We went past gravel pits, garbage dumps, recycling depots, and took a "shortcut" through a huge industrial park. The smell of the area was quite overpowering and we were glad when we entered a residential area, only to find disgruntled looking guestworkers and burned-out apartment buildings. We decided not to stop in that part of town and just kept heading north. We knew that the youth hostel "Parc du Rhin" was close to the river, and only 1k from the German border, so as soon as we saw the sign <Kehl (Allemagne)> we turned right and followed that road to the river. One problem though, there seems to be two rivers between Strasbourg and Kehl - I guess one is the canal we had followed earlier in the day. So we turned off a bit too soon and found ourselves down in yet another smelly industrial area (I mean really smelly, rotting garbage and stuff). Denis went through his normal panic routine, we consulted the map again, and decided to go back up to the bridge and try again. Second time lucky, we found the Parc du Rhin, then found the youth hostel. The outside air still stunk, but the hostel was an oasis. Very civilised it was, with a three course meal for dinner, table service, and two carafes of red wine. The dorms were also very pleasant and had the added attraction of possessing an ensuite bathroom - what luxury.
We arrived at Kehl station at 9.05 the next morning (12/4) to find the others already waiting for us. They had caught the train to Titisee and had ridden down (and up, and down) through snow to Breisach via Freiburg. They rode from Breisach to Kehl the next day along the banks of the Rhine. They had to turn around a few times when they reached dead ends (they had decided they didn't need a map), but they had a pleasant time of it.
We made good time up the bicycle path (once we found it) as far as Freistett where we decided to call in and buy lunch supplies before the shops closed for their midday break. Problem #1: find Freistett; Problem #2: find the supermarket. Navigational problems are not usually diminished when shared amongst a number of people, you usually find that two irreconcilable factions form, and at the end of the day at least one person always feels justified in wanting to say "I told you so". But enough philosophy!
We eventually found the supermarket in Freistett, bought our lunch, and headed back to the river. Mistake. After about 20 minutes riding we came to a dead end - the path ended in a peninsula between the river and a riverside ditch/canal. We headed back to Freistett. There was a heated discussion as to whether we should turn left and follow the main road, or continue straight ahead. We continued straight ahead, and 1 hour and 24 k later we stopped for lunch outside the Pussy Cat strip joint in a small village just 4k from Freistett! We had come around in a big semicircle, and great was the temptation to say "I told ...."
It was a pretty cold lunch spot, but the guys seemed to warm up considerably when they noticed the photos of the naked ladies in the glass case outside the bar.
Karlsruhe was still a long way away. After Rastatt we stopped yet another old fellow out for his daily exercise. We asked the way to Karlsruhe and he told us we were approaching Steinmauern, we had to turn left at the White Hart Inn and head for Elchesheim, Bietigheim and Durmersheim. It was obvious to him that his instructions on how to get through Steinmauern were not exactly getting through, so he took us in tow and guided us through the place until we reached the road to Elchesheim. From there it was plain sailing to Karlsruhe - except that Louise had 2 more flat tyres.
Denis and I had hoped to call in at Mörsch, just outside Karlsruhe, to have a drink or two with the brother of one of our Canberra friends, but the detour and the punctures meant we had no time to spare - we were desperate to reach Karlsruhe and the youth hostel. The entry in to Karlsruhe from the south becomes confused once you pass the outskirts to the city. We stopped to consult the map, and were given directions by (yet another) old fellow hanging out his window. He knew a little English and vowed and declared that he had always wanted to go to Australia, but had never quite made it. I can understand why - if his instructions on getting to Australia were anything like his instructions on how to get to the youth hostel, he would have ended up in Timbuctoo - we almost did! My advice to anyone travelling by bike through any city in Germany is to follow the signs to the "Zentrum" (city centre) no matter how out of the way it looks.
We eventually arrived at the hostel about 19.00. When we asked if they had room for 8 people we were comprehensively ticked off for not booking ahead, and told that they were full. However, full or not, they managed to find a 4 bed dorm for the women, room for 3 men in another 4 bed dorm, and room for the 4th man in a larger dorm.
After those with cyclocomputers did their tally that night, it was discovered that we had done about 312 k in 3 days, and it was no wonder we were tired (and we hadn't had any time left over for sightseeing). We had a bit of a confabulation after tea and decided that the printed itinerary was far too ambitious; we would have to either cover shorter distances, or stay 2 nights in more places; or another option was to catch more trains.