Last day and returning home

I’m sitting in a pleasant rest area by the roadside, shaded by woods. I’m sure I caught a waft of brewing coffee just then. The air is thick with the sound of invisible motorbikes like mosquitos, their riders drawn to the magnet of the Nurburgring race track that just now I rode by – but not on. My first youth hostel was ok-ish. There’s something about being alone but pressed up against crowds that is a bit depressing and makes me prone to feeling more self-conscious than I like to be and rather uptight. I like being alone but the environments so far I have not found relaxing.

Its midday and I’m already half way to the second hostel back in Monschau that I drove through on the way down here. As I ride, too introspective as usual, I ask myself ‘Why is this enjoyable? Is this enjoyable?’ Well, yes, is the answer, when the road is nice and winding with a nice surface (a group of 6 bikes just roared by sounding like a race-track) and the sun is shining and the breeze is cool and there’s nothing behind me. My GPS does its best to stop me riding on the best roads.

Lessons to learn for my next trip: 1. work out how to use the GPS properly to avoid autobahns; 2. proper pacing: neither too little or too much mileage. Two 250 is maybe too much and 100 is definitely too little. Between 150-180 could be ideal. I’m wondering about tomorrow’s journey where I have to press on to reach the ferry terminal by lunchtime. I think I will surrender to the GPS come what may. Another first for this holiday (and for someone who has only recently passed his bike test) will be riding in the dark – from Harwich to home. I’m so pleased I took the trouble to sort out the headlights on the bike before I left – now both lights come on at the same time and I have changed to much brighter xenon bulbs. I remember I had to dismantle the whole front of the bike to fit them – but it was worth it to get to know the bike.

I wish I had a gripping novel with me instead of this introspective analytical book on Houdini. German church bells. Bring back my memories of childhood holidays. I remember on Sunday mornings, lying in bed staying with our relatives, they rang and rang, sometimes, I think, more than one church joining in. It was so good stopping by the Mosel river yesterday and taking my boots off in the sunshine. I started the day tired and a little anxious but the day has turned out well… Now I’ve finally arrived at the last youth hostel at 4.15 only to find that its reception is closed until 6.30 and I was looking forward to a shower and getting changed. I’ve come out to lie on the grass in the shade to escape the screaming children. My good humoured contentment I gathered from successfully ordering and eating Bratwurst and chips with Mayonnaise (on the ferry some bikers warned me never to ask for vinegar on my chips in Germany) has evaporated by arriving here hot and tired to find no one to let me into my room. I’m not sure about the accommodation in the future. I have learnt that I don’t really like youth hostels. There are too many families and children. Maybe next time I will chose nicer hotels or camping. Or travel with a couple of other people.

By the beautiful Mosel

According to the GPS, tomorrow is 176 miles and time is 2 hours 47 minutes: so realistically, with a short stop, 3 1/2 hours including time for a break.

Finally I get into my room at 7pm. These youth hostels seem to specialise in employing unfriendly young men working in them. (Actually it was my days as assistant warden in a YHA hostel in Dorset in the mid 1970s that first introduced me to riding motorbikes – as a pillion of course). I have a six-bedded room to myself – I have the key. The assistant warden gave me a pile of stiff sheets, pillow slip and duvet cover. No towel – so I use my dirty t-shirt. The shower is down the hallway and the toilet even further. After showering and changing into anonymous wear after my biking costume, I walk down 25 minutes into the town, looking (maybe I could say ‘desperate’) for a drink. It is a long but beautiful walk and the town is absolutely beautiful.

Germany seems sympathetic to smokers. Phew. Things are more pleasant than an hour or so ago after a flood of drugs (the booze and fags) into the system and escaping the hostel. After reading, musing, smoking, looking around from my table, I set off back up the hill through the tall woods and characteristic tall German houses. I write this on my bed in the gloom. The scent of a wood fire is coming through my large open window. The sheet is crisp. The shouts of teenagers in the beautiful green grounds are starting to quieten. Its half past 9. Is it too early to get my head down? Shall I set my alarm? There’s probably no need. Breakfast at 8 then I zoom off on a route I’ve been through on the GPS but still can’t make sense of. I’m a bit daunted by tomorrow’s branching motorway drive but I will feel great to get onto the ferry….. I am on the ferry and I do feel great! Now seven hours to amuse myself. The GPS was worth its weight in gold on that ride full of complicated motorway branches, turnings and ring roads. I don’t know how I would have managed without it. I would have got completely lost. But it was such a windy ride. In the end I was sticking to 65 mph, though overtaken by one or two bikers going much faster.

My mileage today was 176.7 miles. A bunch of five ‘Chimera’, riding Lithuania plates on real old customs, brownish leathers, matt black helmets, really noisy bikes pulled onto the ferry ahead of me. The are sitting with their shaved heads and cans of Heineken almost in silence, over on a table near me, just looking around. Are they criminals or just hard? Lithuania is a long ride from Holland. They certainly are cool and forbidding. Then there is a tall German and his shorter rather lovely partner riding a big R1200gs (he told me it weighs 280kg unladen but I don’t think this can be right). They have a huge amount of luggage strapped on the back including a camping table and chairs. In contrast to them is a very down to earth, old school Englishman on an ancient Honda 250, wearing an old hoodie for a jacket, also carrying camping equipment including a tin mug strapped to the back. I wonder how far he has gone.

I saw my unshaven face in the mirror here on the boat and thought for a few seconds about growing a beard, then decided not. Now I feel sad I have to leave this disheveled chin behind and return to normal life. Am I escaping anything? A realisation, a fear that I might not be making nearly enough of my life. I could do with a drink. Back downstairs I am surrounded by families playing noisy board games.

Summaries: total miles 788 Fery: £180 accommodation €85 petrol €85 (that was a cheap trip). Here I am back home after riding through dark Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. H was there cooking for Gam and took this triumphant photograph.

I made it back in one piece – my first ever trip

First day riding in The Netherlands and Germany

Total mileage on day 2 is 258.7 Its grey, almost frighteningly wet and grey with rain and water all around as we approach Holland. I seem to get a free breakfast by ditheringly answering ‘yes’ when asked at the counter whether I was ‘with the biker’s group’. They meant was I one of the 72 cyclists who for an inexplicable reason are also on this boat? Which I am not. Down on the car deck, for some reason my bike takes ages to start and I feel a mixture of physical anxiety and mental assurance that I have cover for almost any occurrence. I drive down the ramp and queue up to show my passport, then its on to unassuming roads out of the town and onto the network of motorways that is Holland. Its dry thankfully but the sky is very grey. I’ve set the address of my first night’s hotel into the GPS and am happy to be told how to get there – at least for now. There is not a huge amount of traffic and various smells, most of them agricultural. Eventually, a couple of hours later, it starts to rain and I find that by tipping my head sideways I can encourage the raindrops to run off my visor but when it starts to pour I realise I can’t see a thing and rather desperately pull onto the hard shoulder and start the bike’s hazard lights. I fish into my luggage to pull out the rainsuit I bought but I am really dithering here in the hope that the rain will ease off. I can’t work out why I couldn’t see. I think my glasses steamed up. With this ballooning suit on it seems to take longer to accelerate. I note that I’ve got 2002 miles from a tank (no that was meant to be 202). Once I get to the end of the motorways of Holland, near Aachen, I start to disobey my GPS seeing the name of a town I recognise from the map and so opting for nicer routes.

the totality of my luggage

Unfortunately, as I reflect later, this is not a clever option. The thing with GPS is either to do exactly what it says or not use it at all. Taking my own route and expecting it to know what I want to do is hopeless and I wasted so much time and energy literally going round in circles and taking useless detours as my downloaded route told me after I got home.

Detours and useless loops

I finally arrive at the hotel Kylburg at about 4.30 after driving off the boat at 8am and swing the bike into the garage underneath – along with some company of bikes (local number plates) but with no riders in sight.

Who’s the fairest?

I am exhausted. Interestingly its my hands are forearms that are tired and twitching but not my back which is real tribute to the bike. After 4 ½ hours sleep on the ferry, I rode for nearly 8 hours. This isn’t a formula I want to repeat and luckily I won’t have to – on this trip.

I shower – the realisation that there is no soap in this cheap hotel does not put me in a good mood with the place (maybe they just forgot it). I lie down flat on my back and fall asleep. There is something mysteriously staid and artificial about this so-called ‘bikers’ hotel: plenty of artificial plants about 9 inches tall with wooden ladybirds attached, a significant lack of motorbikers and leathers, a lack of the rock and roll on the juke box that the website says they (the bikers) ‘like to hear’. Instead are a quiet collection of silver-haired hesitant guests who wear money belts and walk around with their hands behind their backs. Everyone else is part of middle aged couples.

Today’s riding, on reflection, had a number of phases. 1: a relaxed early time when the GPS guided me nicely on motorways from Hook of Holland across the Netherlands 2; a crisis when it poured and I couldn’t see anything and rode on in my cumbersome suit getting aware that I was rather tired. 3: the nicer roads in Germany when I started my helmet World War II conversations with imaginary friend Douglas – modelled on legless Douglas Bader of course, barking at him to ‘drop a cog, Douglas’ where appropriate (oh dear). 4: Getting tired and frustrated with the GPS leading me around in circles when I tried to combine its route with my own ideas.

After walking round the town, I opt for dinner here not feeling up to a lonely evening in the town’s only other eating establishment. But it could be a school dinner; a passing chicken curry but served not only with rice but with boiled potatoes and peas and carrots. Germany and good food rarely go together. For pudding there is, believe it or not, Arctic Roll. We can help ourselves to beers from the fridge at least.

Just up the street

Looking out from my balcony in this town built into the sides of a steep valley, later in the evening, I see houses and gardens ranged up the steep side of the hill opposite, topless fat men and fat housewives standing with their fists on their hips – as my step grandmother used to do in her blue nylon housecoat. My disappointment about the hotel fuels a distaste with this complacent small town as a whole. Having lost my novel earlier my book on psychoanalysis and Houdini does not lighten my mood. (Older self to my 2008 self – Lighten up.) And chose a better book to take travelling, Being and Time for example.

Only 96 miles today along the Mosel, most of it beautiful riding.

The high points of the day are brief though, starting off this morning in cool sunshine on nice winding country roads, an easy wave to some bikers coming the other way. I head toward Koblenz via Wittlich and Cochem a little before which the route joins the river valley.

It should be a straightforward ride but always is the inevitable getting lost, driving into a town then there’s no signpost toward where you want to go. I stopped at an Apothecary and buy soap, looking up the word in my phrasebook before I went in. In German you ask for ‘a’ soap. ‘Anything special?’ she asks. Luckily I remember the word for special from my youth for some reason. The assistant seems a little bemused by me. Later I turn on the GPS but again get into problems, missing a turning or two, then once in Koblenz, it whizzed me onto busy fly-overs and took me out toward my destination – here.

Walking around Bad Ems I can see that it is probably a resort for the older stouter person, either that or the town is full of grumpy older people. The women remind me of my step grandmother, slightly sour.

I buy a coffee in a cafe (there are definately no american chains here) and the rather formal young waitress reminds me of learning a little while ago about how in Germany young people have to decide which trade or training they want to commit themselves to while young, and that people who have tried two or more different things are viewed with suspicion by employers. If this were some other countries – like the UK – , this waitress would really be doing something else with her life, maybe studying, or saving up to do something she really wants to, or filling in. Here, she is a professional waitress, and from what I could see, faintly resents it.

This Youth Hostel is quiet at present and seems genuinely welcoming. I notice there is a ‘bistro’ – a bar downstairs that sells drink. I make a note to make a b-line there after dinner. The only other residents are two fat ladies and a child.

I have covered 208 miles since I filled up.
Its raining and donner und blitzen outside. The bike’s GPS cradle is wrapped up in a very British Tesco bag. Now I will venture down to dinner.

Here in Germany, on this holiday, I am being placed as single: in the last hotel the lady set me a single place to eat, separate from all the couples. Here, I sit at a table reserved for Einzel-Gäste, as opposed to the various labels for ‘Familie Schmidt’ or ‘Family Braun’. After a dinner that is impossible to begin to describe, I went to the ‘Bistro’ (open 7.30 bis 10.00hr) and bought a glass of Riesling. It was small but crowded with parents having got their children to bed chilling out by playing cards or scrabble. I go outside with my wine into the thundery night looking for somewhere to have a cigarette. I find a sheltered set of tables and benches to smoke. A couple of down-to-earth families are talking intently. I sit in a corner and smoke 2 cigarettes, then retire to my small room to brush my teeth and read a little more, leaning my sunburnt shoulder against the cool wall, thinking of going to sleep shortly after 9 with the sound of small children’s feet and laughter in the corridor outside.