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A 2800 Km bicycle tour of NE France and SW Germany,  August 2015

Zurich to Nancy and return, via the mountains

My Route - deliberately through the mountains.
route map france & germany

This trip was made to attend a Geology conference in Nancy, France. I chose to fly to Zurich and cycle from there and back to enjoy the "black forest" of SW Germany and also the Vosges mountains in NE France, made famous by several recent race stages of the Tour de France. A stage finished at the ski resort of  Planches des belle filles in 2012 and also 2014 and the TV coverage showcased the scenic beauty of this area. But the Black Forest mountains are part of the same geology as the Vosges mountains (separated by a Graben) and are just as scenic and rugged as the Vosges mountains. My route was never intended to be direct and i sought out scenic, low traffic roads in the mountains.

A detailed interactive route map is here,  (Google map, opens in a new page, large file, 800Mbyte)

Kingsley goes cycling again

It is time to go to 2 more conferences, with some cycling also of course. The first conference is in Singapore for 5 days, not the most exciting conference geologically, but it is en-route to a good conference in Nancy, France just 2 weeks later, giving me the opportunity to attend both conferences and spend 4 weeks cycling as well on the one trip.My hotel in Singapore was a 30 minute walk from the conference location, but less than 10 minutes by bicycle. The traffic was not an issue as Singapore does not really awaken until 10 am and my conference started at 8:30am. On one afternoon, i rode out of the downtown area and the traffic was heavy, but manageable. I did accidentally ride through the cross-harbour tunnel on the expressway for about 2 km, initially scary, but there was a wide road shoulder and it was actually safe. After 5 conference days i rode to the airport to catch a 01:30am flight to Zurich, but it was delayed and left at 04:00 am instead. This was my first flight on a double-deck A380 aircraft and it seemed to me that it did not accelerate fast enough to get off the runway!

I arrived in Zurich 2 hours later than expected at 10:30am, planning to spend the day cycling, despite limited sleep. Hey, the cycling would keep me awake! I had used Zurich airport before so i knew there was bicycle access to the terminal, but there was a surprise in store. They were expanding the terminal and all the bike access was blocked off with construction activities. The only access was now on the freeway where i fought to cross 3 lanes of traffic to reach the exit while trying to remember to ride on the opposite side of the road to usual. Soon i was heading north towards Germany and there were many bike paths to use on a warm sunny day. Most bike paths have good signage and i relied on that for navigation including some off-road routes through some forests. These paths took me to Schaffhausen, where there was a big music festival. I contemplated stopping there for the night, but even an out-of-the-way hotel wanted A$300 a night, well beyond my budget, so i continued on to germany. To avoid the worst of the climbs, i ignored the prohibition signs and rode on a freeway for about 20 km. There was no problem as there was almost no traffic. But part way there were 2 toll booths i had not expected. Noone seemed to be watching as i rode slowly uphill past both of them. Eventually i reached Donaueschingen around 6 pm and found a gasthaus for a much needed rest after a long double-day.

It was now sunday, so i rode out into the countryside in a big loop as i waited until monday. There were numerous bike paths, and cyclists everywhere, because this town is the start of the Danube (Donaue in German) river bike trail network. Sundays are a problem as few businesses are open and you cannot even buy a drink. I eventually found a McDonalds where i could quench my thirst on this very warm day. At least the cycling was pleasant, except when i missed a turn and ended up arguing with an unfriendly dog and finding myself on a dead end in some farm fields, having to walk my bike along some ditches to find a way out. It's all part of discovering a new country.

The important task on monday was to get a Sim card for my phone so i would have internet access in Germany, France and Switzerland. This is harder than you might think. I had done some research and wanted an Ortel card, the only telco that worked properly in all 3 countries. But it was not available here. I eventually bought a supermarket chain card (Lidl), which only had instructions in german. Despite help from the local Information office, i could not make it work. Eventually i gave up and rode off into the mountains, a pleasant sunny afternoon discovering the extensively farmed valleys, great cycling.I stopped at St. Georgen for the night where i again sought help with my phone sim card in vain. At the Chinese restaurant that night, i was served by a pakistani who spoke good english. I asked about his language skills and was amazed to hear that he spoke 2 Pakistan dialects, hindi, some punjabi, english and german. He was about to sit for an exam on his German speaking skill, which is required for him to get citizenship here. I complimented him on his skills and when i paid the bill, he gave me a bottle of plum wine. Quite a pleasant surprise.

To solve my internet issues i returned the non-functioning sim card to the supermarket and went to a nearby large town, Villingen to get a T-mobile card instead. As the main telco here, with many shops, i hoped their system would work. However, i would have to buy individual cards in each country as roaming is not an option, weird as the next country is merely half a bikeride away! It took a long time to organize the paperwork, but eventually i had a german phone and internet service for 30 days for 10 euros.

Now i could return to some serious cycling and headed into the hills for more great cycling. I found the cute township of Hausach at about 4 pm and decided to stay there. The guy at the information centre scared me and claimed that accommodation was tight, but found me a nice gasthaus for the night despite his pessimism. I noticed next day that there was plenty of accommodation in the next village of Wolfach, just a few km away. I found a low traffic road north up a long valley for a great ride over a high pass to Freudenstadt. But now my internet service had stopped working. Grrr, this phone technology stuff is aggravating. Although i was now on the eastern flank of the ranges, i was surprised at the deeply incised topography here. It seems that this is the divide between the Rhine, Danube and another major river system.

the black forest mountains

Tidy valleys in the Black Forest

I was now quite far north in the "Black forest" (Schwarzwald) and it was a short 80 km ride to cross the range, although there was a long climb through the forested mountains, with an exhilarating descent to match. Achern was an unexciting town so i found some back roads through hilly orchard and vineyard countryside and continued to the large town of Offenberg. Here i found a T-Mobile shop, but they could not resolve my internet access issues. Late that evening i fixed the problem myself. It was a confusing mess with multiple variations of conflicting settings provided by T-Mobile. You have to guess the correct ones yourself!

Although overcast and cool, next day i rode a loop up into the mountains and back, discovering more ancient walled towns, tidy villages, forests, steep climbs and bakeries, yet more great cycling, despite getting lost for part of the way. It is common to see whole families out cycling, with kids as young as 5 riding confidently. People ride because they learned to do so from an early age. Unlike children in Australia who only learn to be car passenger!

I have noticed that many people ride electric bikes here, but none of them have motors in the wheel hubs as seen everywhere in China. Here they use a Bosch system with the motor in the pedal axle. It does make sense, but they are astonishingly heavy bikes and sell for 3000 Euro, almost A$5000 each!!!!!!

It is time to cross the Rhine into France to ride in the Vosges mountains, and to change to using a French telco. At least the great cycling compensates for the aggravation of dealing with the telco jungle!

Kingsley arrives at the conference in Nancy

From Emmendigan, my last stop in Germany, it was a pleasant sunday ride through gently rolling hills westwards to reach the Rhine river where the quaint border town was filled with tourists from the many luxury cruise barges that travel along the Rhine river. The Rhine river was big, but nothing like the Yangtze and i was unimpressed as i rode across the bridge into France. My destination of Colmar was only 20 km away and i found some well marked bike paths which promised to lead me there. But the bike route was a meander through boring flat farm fields of corn and seemingly uninhabited small villages with no bakeries in sight. Eventually i abandoned the bike route and used the road, which was much more direct. Colmar is an ancient city and a minor tourist attraction, but it was extremely confusing trying to find places as the streets were a complete tangle, as is true of most medieval towns. I had chosen not to have breakfast at my hotel and rode off next morning to find a boulangerie and coffee. Ooops - in France you cannot have coffee with your croissant at a boulangerie, and the coffee bistros dont open until 11 am and do not serve croissants! Eventually i found the only morning coffee cafe where i met 2 Thai engineers who were here to escape the tourist hoardes in their original destination of Strasbourg, about 60 km away. We compared our experiences of having no interaction with french people, perhaps because english is not easy for them. Now i had to sort out a french SIM card (Orange, mobicarte) for my phone. I was surprised that this was not difficult to organize, and they were happy to help me in english. It was time to escape the city and cycle up into the foothills of the Vosges mountains and i passed through vast fields of grapevines and into the hills. But none of the rural villages had food for lunch, so i returned to the city outskirts for a late lunch. As i sat on the grass beside the bikepath, 3 touring cyclists with much luggage passed by, then turned and came back to speak to me. They were germans and had seen my website bicycle stories and recognized me. We were all surprised to meet here in France with our only connection being their anonymous reading of my website. I rode another short afternoon loop into the mountains before returning to Colmar for the night.
Next day it was time to travel deep into the mountains and i started early, but sadly without coffee. As i began a long climb, i passed a group of 6 cyclists standing by the road and expected them to soon ride past me. A few km onwards, these cyclists did catch up to me and for the next 8 km uphill we rode slowly together, without speaking. We were all working so hard that it is normal not to try and talk on such hillclimbs. But as we parted at the top, they did not acknowledge me, until i said "au revoir", to which they then responded. They did not want to be friendly. But the mountains were great for cycling, with forests and little traffic on my devious route to reach St Die de Vosges. I stopped at a bicycle shop to see if they could make suggestions for overnight accommodation, but they were not interested in a foreign touring cyclist. However the tourism office helped me find a hotel.
The trick now was to find low traffic roads each day, with mountains to enjoy. This led to a very circuitous but also pleasant route. At lunch time i saw 2 cyclists sitting on the grass at a hilltop and i sat with them and chatted. They were Belgian and came here to enjoy the mountains like me. As I continued i noticed that there were old mines in the region and lead, silver and copper had been mined from this area back in the 17th century. I had some trouble finding a hotel next night as i was in a rather small village, but rode on another 30km and found a nice place for the night in the even smaller village of Rupt-sur-Moselle.

One reason i had come to the Vosges mountains was because of the Tour de France TV coverage of the race here some 3 years ago. It climbed to a ski resort, "Planches des belle filles" and i decided to do the same, despite the fact i was carrying 20 kg of luggage. I found quiet forest roads, all paved, through very undulating countryside of rhyolite volcanic rocks, before starting on an extremely steep climb, so steep that i had to walk the last 250m. I had taken the wrong turn and this was not the same road used in the race. After another 10 km i reached the start of the climb to the ski resort. There were many cyclists riding this now-famous climb, which had signs every km and information about the race that day 3 years ago. It took me 1 hour to travel that last 5.6 km which climbed 500m in altitude. At the top some french cyclists were very surprised that i had ridden up with such a heavy load. We chatted, but their english was only survival level (like my french) and a normal conversation was not possible. The signs stated that the race winner had ridden this section in just 16 minutes, so i am obviously not a race quality cyclist! But i enjoyed the challenge - and the fast trip back downhill. Despite the abundance of cyclists passing through this area, there was nowhere to get food, drinks or coffee and it was some distance before i found an open supermarket to get refreshments.

I was now at the southern limit of the mountains and crossed pleasant farmlands planning to find a hotel in the small town of Lure for the night. But this busy town had no hotels, tourists apparently dont ever come here. After some confusion trying to avoid a big freeway, i found the secondary route to Luxeuil les Bains, some 25 km away where i found a hotel for the night after a long and interesting day.

Now i headed north again to reach Epinal, a quite large town where i hoped to get help with my phone SIM card, which had stopped working. En route in Remiremont, i found an Orange telecoms shop at 11:50am. But they were just closing the door as they closed at 12:00. Well, it seems they close whenever they want. I argued and stuck my foot in the door and made them let me in, but they were not happy. However, they could not help me and referred me to their shop in Epinal, some 40 km away. Late that afternoon i sought help again, but the guy claimed my phone was faulty and quit without fixing it. Once again, i fixed it myself. My phone is a bit weird, but i suspect this happens often with dual-SIM phones, which are uncommon, although they are incredibly useful on international travels. At the hotel that night i met a group of scottish motorcyclists who were on their way to ride in the French alps. France certainly does have some great scenery and mountain roads to travel on, but they really do need to fix their spotty customer service, lack of decent coffee and absence of convenience stores! (The stores they do have all "conveniently" close whenever you need to buy anything.)

Although i was now in the gently undulating plains, i diverged back into the mountains on a fine sunny day and enjoyed the forested hills en route to Sarrebourg. It was now the last day of my trip to Nancy, but it was Sunday and i tried, unsuccessfully, to reach Nancy before the supermarkets closed at midday. I found wide open farmlands and a canal path now used for cycling, but after a short while flat canal paths get boring for me. I arrived at my apartment-hotel at 1pm, but was not allowed to check in until 3 (how convenient is that) and as i rode around the city and waited it started to rain. I was fortunate to have reached Nancy before the rain started, but it was still cold and uncomfortable.
I had now ridden 1600km through the forests and mountains, although the direct route from Zurich to Nancy is just 350 km. Never waste your sunshine by taking the short route. Now it was time to quit cycling and attend the conference for the next 8 days before commencing my return to Zurich.

Kingsley returns east to the mountains

The conference in Nancy was fair, but sometimes lacking good technical content. And i had fun riding along the tram tracks to get to the conference from my hotel. It is not really legal, but is accepted practice and meant i could ignore all the one way street limitations. And the tram is quite slow, it could never keep up with me! After the conference i went on a geological bus tour with 18 geologists to the massif central, some 600 km away, for 5 days and collected too many rock samples. Now my luggage is very heavy.

Lake Gerardmer and the route des Cretes (Pilgrim's route)

lake gerardmereroute des cretes

Now it was time to cycle back east to Zurich and enjoy more mountains. Despite a late start, i made good progress to Bruyeres, but the only hotel in town was not accepting guests. The tourism office found a B&B some 10 km away in a tiny farming village, but the host did not speak english and i would have to use french. This turned out to be a most pleasant stay as the host sat with me as we spoke simple french with occasional english words. She and the other 2 guests were helpful and tolerant of my poor speech. She also provided a magnificent 3 course meal which was beyond gigantic. I also learned that the vast fields of corn being harvested nearby were only for cattle feed during the winter. It seems that people dont eat corn.

Next day i found quiet mountain roads to the major tourist resort of Gerardmer beside a lake in the mountains. But it was full of tacky souvenir shops and i did not stop as i could not find a coffee shop that was not also a bar full of cigarette smoke. Back in the mountains i found fresh, clean air, and great cycling up a long climb to over 1000m altitude. Here i followed a road along an original pilgrim pathway, (route des Cretes) following the mountain ridge for many km. with great views down many valleys, before an exhilarating descent into Guebwiller. I had completely crossed the Vosges mountains from west to east in one day, and it was not even difficult. To read my map and make plans i stopped at a McDonalds for an afternoon snack, something small. The smallest was a children's "happy meal". The staff person was confused and surprised that i was ordering this for myself - apparently adults dont eat "happy meals"! Because of my pleasant experience with last night's B&B, i found another one to stay for 2 nights. Again my host was pleasant and kind and we chatted using my infantile french, which was rapidly improving.
I had chosen to stay here another day so i could ride a loop up into the mountains without carrying my 20 kg of luggage. I found great cycling on quiet but well paved forest roads, over 2 ranges before my main goal of the Ballon d'Alsace, the second highest peak in the Vosges at about 1150m. I saw many other cyclists en route, but none were friendly. It was a long 150 km day with some 1500m of climbing, but an excellent, albeit masochistic, day of cycling. On my return i stopped at a bakery for a coffee and cookie, but after waiting a long time for non-service, i gave up and left. Service is a foreign concept in France! That evening i returned to McDonalds for an evening meal. As i was not very hungry i again ordered a child's "happy meal". The staff person recognized me immediately and this time they did not give me a hard time about my strange (and very cheap) meal choice. Nor did they now attempt to give me the children's toy that always comes with this menu.

I was enjoying the mountains and contemplated staying longer, but that evening my internet connection through Orange telecom stopped, claiming i had used all my credit. Nonsense, i had paid 20 Euro and had only used 20 mbytes of data. It was obvious that the 10 euro recharge i had bought had not been applied, although they assured me it was. As i was just 30 km from Germany, i decided to leave France and its stupid telecoms system behind, and next day i crossed the Rhine river and left France.

Carbonatite - A volcanic breccia of mostly carbonate minerals

carbonatite at Burkheim

In this part of germany there are some very unusual rocks, carbonatites. I wanted to find these and collect samples and rode north along the levee bank of the Rhine river, a most pleasant ride. As i turned off the levee i saw a quarry in the carbonatite rocks alongside the bike path and spent time studying the rocks and collecting samples. There was a small village (Burkheim) nearby, and some of the buildings were made from these rocks. There was a low-key food and wine event in the village and as i bought a coffee and apple tart, a bunch of 10 cyclists arrived to do the same. They were all older cyclists and only one spoke english, but we exchanged stories briefly before i continued looking for more carbonatite. This is the famous Kaiser Stuhl vineyard area with wineries everywhere, but i was only interested in the rare rock outcrops between the vast vineyards.
After collecting even more rocks, i found a gasthaus in Bahlingen for the night. Here i expected trouble with my phone as i changed back to my T-mobile German sim card. But it worked immediately with no hassle at all. Amazing, it seems many of the troubles i have had were due to idiosyncrasies within the french Orange telecom system, while the german system just plain works. If you are planning a trip to France, go instead to somewhere else where the telecommunications system works properly!

I have a week remaining to ride in the Black forest mountains again. All i need is sunshine!

The Kaiser Stuhl vineyards on the carbonatite rocks

kaiser stuhl area

Kingsley heads back to the sunshine

Now in Germany, on a cool sunday i left Bahlingen for a circuit ride up into the mountains where i found a festival with bands and antique farm machinery before returning to the plains to Denzlingen to find a hotel. But this town is close to Freiburg and merely an uninspiring satellite township and all 3 gasthouses were closed, so i had to continue to Freiburg. This ancient city has a large central zone designated for pedestrians only. Usually one can cycle in such zones but here cycling was banned because there had been too many accidents with the trams. Nevertheless i cheated and rode to the central market area to find a bookstore and buy a map. I escaped without being caught and fined! Now i traveled east up into the mountains, enjoying the forests and high altitude farmlands. My plan was to reach a major road junction and turn to use a minor road to reach Titisee-Neustadt. En route i saw a cycle-route sign and left the main road to meander through well manicured farmlands, eventually returning to what i assumed was the correct road. But cycle-routes do not state their destination, and this route caused me to bypass the road junction where i needed to turn. Despite using my GPS i was not quite sure of my location and proceeded along the road down a long and steep hill. Here i realized this was the wrong road and i was now about 30 km west of my planned destination. I either had to return up that very steep road or use a very busy main road. I chose to use the busy road which was along a very scenic gorge, but the heavy traffic was stressful, although the road was wide enough that i was not really endangered.
Late in the afternoon i reached Hinterzarten, a surprisingly cute town, so i decided to stop there for the night. But the town was full of tourists and there were no hotel vacancies. A helpful gasthaus owner told me about an out of town gasthaus 3 km out into the countryside, where i found a room for the night. In tourist season, the Schwarzwald is very popular and accommodation is often hard to find.
Next day i used some back roads to ride through pleasant hilly farmlands in the too-cool-for-me morning mist. As i reached Titisee-Neustadt i saw a touring cyclist ahead. Daniella was on her first bicycle tour, planned for 4 days, using only bicycle paths. She stopped in the town for a meeting and i continued on to Lenzkirch on a pleasant rail-trail bicycle path. It was time for a relaxed coffee and route planning stop at the bakerei and while i was there, Daniella arrived, so we compared our plans over more coffee and rode together on bicycle paths about 20 km to Bonndorf. She had detailed strip-maps of the numerous bike paths and it was pleasant to completely avoid roads, although the paths are often unpaved. We parted as i turned back to Schluchsee, a favourite tourist spot on a picturesque lake. Although there were numerous hotels and gasthauses here, most were full and i again had some trouble finding a place for the night.
I found a quiet secondary road southwards to Waldshut-Tiengen on the German-Swiss border next morning. But this meant descending to the Rhine river and that afternoon i had a long but scenic climb back up to Loffingen, a historically interesting village just 20 km from my start after a 110km ride. I was now near Donaueschingen, the town where i had commenced my tour several weeks ago, so i planned to skirt around it and leave the mountains and travel east to more populated farming areas where i hoped accommodation would be less of a problem. My route to Fridingen was long to avoid using main roads, but made even longer when i followed a cycle path which went to the wrong destination. The paths are well signed, but only with arrows, not destination names, and where paths intersect it is difficult to know which path to take. The last 20 km was along a forested valley and was very pleasant as i could use the nice paved bike path without fear of misdirection. This path came to a railway crossing and the barriers were down. An old man was waiting to cross the track and i also waited for a while but there did not seem to be any train approaching, so i sneaked under the barriers and continued. Perhaps the old man is still waiting at the crossing for a ghost train! Fridingen is on the Donaue (Danube) river and many cyclists were staying here on the popular bicycle route along the Donaue river to Vienna. Once again i got the last room in the gasthaus.
That evening i spoke with a Russian and a German who were in the area to service complex Russian made machinery in local technical factories. There are many high-tech industries in small towns spread all around the region which i had thought was only a farming area.

As i traveled further east to Heiligenberg next day i found more medieval towns and extensive farmlands and great cycling, but again i got the last room in the gasthaus in this small town. I hoped my luck with accommodation would continue for my last day in Germany. It was now time to travel back westwards to Radolfzell near the Swiss border for my last night en-route back to Zurich and i found ancient townships and pleasant cycling through extensive farmlands on a sunny day. Along the way i came across a cycling event with riders being timed over a 15 km long course on the road. I found i could ride almost as fast as the participants, despite carrying my luggage. And in Radolfzell, on the Untersee (lake) shoreline, i roamed around the extensive ancient city centre. This lake is one of several, including lake Constance (Bodensee) which form part of the Rhine river source.
It was time to travel to my last destination of Zurich and i started off along the lakeshore, which soon became the Rhine river where i crossed into Switzerland. It was difficult to find a direct and low traffic route through the mountains, and i could not use my GPS to help as it did not have map information for Switzerland, a foolish oversight i had made! After 100km and some small rainshowers i reached Volketswil from where i thought i could easily reach Zurich. But there was now a maze of roads to confuse me and i was actually still 20 km from Zurich city centre. Although it was sunday it was stressful dealing with the traffic even though it was light. I assumed i could follow a railway line or lakeshore for an easy ride but the roadsigns all directed me up and over a nasty and unexpectedly steep mountain. At least i eventually had a long, fast downhill outpacing the trams into the city, which was busy with many pedestrian tourists. Once again i rode on the tram tracks to avoid the pedestrian congestion. It was another 10 km along the lakeshore to reach Thalwil where i met my friends Christoph and Angela who very kindly accommodated and cared for me before my departure back to Singapore and Darwin in 2 days time, giving me a day to visit old downtown Zurich and clean my bike to pass Australian quarantine controls. It was now early September and the weather was becoming rather cool so it was clearly time for me to return to the tropics. I took the train to Zurich airport to avoid trying to cross the city traffic at peak hour and folded the bike in the departure area for checkin. Even including my rock samples the weight was still less than 20 kg.

It had been a long and eventful journey of 2800 km in 4 weeks of cycling (and 2 weeks of conferences) to discover many mountains, ancient cities, vast farmlands and even a few rocks. And i also renewed and made new acquaintances at the conference, where several people remembered my bicycle adventures from the previous conference in Sweden. The Vosges mountains are certainly a nice place to go cycling, but so is the Black Forest region 60 km away across the graben (and Rhine river) in Germany. I did feel slightly more alone in France than in Germany and getting decent americano coffee in France was close to impossible. The German bakerei stores were far nicer places to rest during my cycling than the smoky French bistros which i found to be quite unpleasant. And i remain annoyed at the un-intuative french telecoms system.