As we leave Munich for the border with Austria it seems barely a couple of days since we first put rubber to German tarmac, and yet so much has happened, we’ve seen so much and met so many people. In only a dozen days we’ve traversed diagonally across a country high on the euphoria of the post-World Cup era, a country of beer and pretzels, where the sun shines and men are not afraid to tan their bellies over a stein.
Germany began with inhumane plus 40°C temperatures. This led to 6am wake ups (something I personally am not a fan of) and several hours of afternoon stops in cafes with beer, Wi-Fi and shade.
While looking for somewhere to pitch our tent on the first night we came across a rather bedraggled looking fellow sat on a park bench next to huge rusty iron gates, clutching a bottle of wine. He recommended us to enter the gates into the dark trees beyond… Tired and in need of rest we did and found a clearing suited to our needs. Later on that evening, upon further exploration we found that we had pitched our tents in the grounds of stately home. We kept quiet until the cafe had shut up shop and decided we might as well stay put.
The next day as we cycled into Cologne we stopped at a kiosk in the suburbs. Wi-Fi, water bottle refill and beer are our usual rest stop requests. On this occasion we didn’t need beer! The kiosk owner, a Mr Folker, after introductions, offered us Powerade, a quick five minutes each in his walk-in freezer and tales of his school trips to England as a boy. His kindness and hospitality set a precedent for what was to come throughout Germany.
After visiting the cathedral in central Cologne we headed south towards Bonn. Suddenly in the distance we could hear loud music and saw to our astonishment a tractor and trailor clad with balloons and flags. So we chased it. Through the fields we pedalled until we caught up with the tractor. It held a dozen people all in black, drinking, and singing to the music pumping out of the speaker strapped to the back. Getting close enough Nick was handed down a beer and in exchange we passed up a name card. Over the microphone they sang for us and wished us luck. We partied in this surreal environment until our paths diverged. We then found a quiet place to set up camp in the corner of a field. As the sky darkened, in fields around, farmers were spraying their crops. A car pulled up, this field’s farmer’s daughter who said we could stay but the field would be sprayed that night. We waited and waited until it was too late and we guessed the farmer wouldn’t come. Slightly concerned that a green tent on a green field might not be seen at night we fell asleep. Not much after Nick and I were woken up by immensely bright headlights and the deafening sound of approaching doom. Wearing only boxers we ripped open the tent as a monster of farmyard machinery hurtled past. As it stopped we went over to ask if we needed to move. A giant of a man, dwarfing both Nick and me stepped down from the tractor. This seven foot something BFG was our first non-English speaker. As translator I employed what was left of my 7 year old GCSE German to ascertain that our field wouldn’t be touched that night.
As we made our way to Bonn we stopped to ask for directions from a man cycling towards us. Nick complicated with him for a few minutes with lots of pointing going on and repetition of the word Bonn. Then the man beckoned us to follow him, he turned 180 and cycled off towards Bonn. Not a slim man nor on a good bike, but he rode like the wind. He lead us the 20km all the way to Bonn. Pointed us over the bridge, smiled, waved, turned around and went back the way we had come.
That night we stayed with our friend Alejandro’s stepmother Madeleine in her beautiful house by the Rhine. We are most grateful and thankful to her for her fantastic hospitality, great food and drink that were provided, much needed showers and comfortable beds. Thank you for allowing three smelly, dirty, skinheads to even step through your front door!
Refreshed we proceeded down the pleasantly flat Rhine, enclosed either side by mountains with castles perched on top and villages nestled below. We camped on the bank of the Rhine before heading east.
This time it was my turn to get a puncture. With a split in the tyre as if it had been run through with a blade new inner tubes were doing little to keep the shape of the back tyre. I hobbled to a bike shop where we spent a good few hours over a few bottles of beer. As night fell we turned round to the fields and trees we had come through and camped between the runways of Frankfurt Airport. In the morning we found a herd of deer near the tents. A man biking with his dog approached to say we went allowed to camp there, then proceeded to say that dogs weren’t allowed either so not to worry!
We pushed through the 1000km barrier only to be greeted by hill upon hill as we entered Bavaria. The climbs seemed relentless and were made the more difficult because of the heat. You know you’re in trouble when you’re cycling slower than you can walk! “It’s all good preparation for the Pamirs” we said. “You’ll be doing these hills backwards in a few months” Will said. I’m not sure whether hill climbs in sweltering heat or in the snow are worse!
More than half of our nights so far seem to have been spent camping on village football pitches. In Marktheidenfeld (Mark in the field as we named it) this was no exception. Again in the morning we were approached to say that we shouldn’t have been there. “Zis is Germany ja, und, normally it’s not allowed to camping here.” We moved on.
We refuelled at Pizza Hut in Wurzburg before carrying on towards Nuremberg. Stopping in a village I was invited into a farmhouse to fill up with water and were, not for the first time, pointed towards the Sportplatz (sports field), such we were now translating as campsite – another night on a football pitch. It was also the first Lobby’s Noodle Night, with many expected to come!
We arrived in Nuremberg and like clockwork made our way round the cafes and restaurants in search of Wi-Fi. In position we took it in turns to explore the centre and the castle overlooking the town. In the evening we made our way to the Nazi Party Rally grounds. Dilapidated and overgrown, now with several football pitches in the middle, they are an ominous reminder of a time not so long ago. Imposing socialist realist architecture brought to mind previous trips to North Korea but this was closer to home, this is the history we had learned over and over again at school. Standing in the exact spot where Hitler had stood brought a torrent of indescribable feelings and emotions.
After a few pints in the beer garden next to the site to lighten the mood we aimed south towards Munich. Cycling in the dark is little fun at the best of times, but losing our way in a pitch black forest, which on the map looked like a potential site to camp added a little stress to the proceedings. As we debated which way to take at the crossroads, out of the darkness came a middle aged man, dressed in a suit pedalling rapidly towards us. We called him over. He introduced himself as Chief Helmut and said we could sleep on the village football pitch (again!). We followed this complete stranger 5km through the dark woods. Thoughts of how likely it was that this could turn out badly for us flashed through our minds, but as with spiders, we reasoned he had more to fear than us. After pitching tents we went down to meet Helmut in the village as it was the first night of the Village Fest. Litres of beer, shots of Jackie’s (JD) and new friends were in abundance. We were invited to stay the next night as well as they were having their annual father-child camping day.
We woke up baking in our tents. As the afternoon progressed all manner and sizes of tents were erected around our small pair by the clubhouse. The children played while the dads drank. We had a BBQ and roasted marshmallows on a bonfire. Bellies, forged through litres upon litres of Bavarian beer, were on display throughout the day. We were fed copious amounts of meat and gallons of beer. Another much needed rest day.
The day we were scheduled to arrive in Munich was 28 July, my 23rd birthday. Another day of over 100km, 120km to be precise. We stopped for a breakfast lunch and ate food from the supermarket in the covered car park to avoid the midday sun. We rolled into Munich that evening, exhausted and anything but smelling fresh. We made our way to Nick’s friend’s cousin’s apartment, which would be our base for the next few days. Kim and Felix were possibly slightly taken aback by the state we were in. In the supermarket the girl in front in the queue then pointed that the other till was free (not sure whether it was the smell or her just being nice). Wandering around that night looking for a birthday dinner we were told that restaurants in Munich close at 10pm! Fortunately a Vietnamese place was still open – Subway and McDonalds had already shut up shop!
From our new temporary base we explored what Munich had to offer, we put our bikes into a shop to be serviced and we clubbed Bavarian style.
After the fun, accompanied by new friends Kim and Felix, we went to Dachau to visit the Nazi concentration camp. The museum info boards made for horrifying reading and seeing the reconstructed sleeping quarters as well as the crematorium complete with gas chamber and furnace really hit home the cruelty and inhumanity of the place.
My lasting memories of Germany will be the strict rule abiding nature, the ‘I speak a little English’ only to find out they’re fluent, and the warmth and friendliness shown by so many people. Beer, bratwurst and bellies are king in Bavaria. And Lidl has become our sole provider of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
From Munich we’re heading first to Marktl, the birthplace of Pope Benedict XVI, then into Austria to Vienna. Catch up with us again soon!
Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland!