Through it may prove to be a kind of narrative suicide that ties me up in knots later, I cannot begin without waxing, briefly, about the wonderful French town of Gambsheim, which I now believe to be the greatest town in Europe.
I awoke in the town, at the far eastern edge of France where it meets the Rhine and swans swim to and fro between it and Germany, in the middle of a thunderstorm that continued for the next 18 hours. I was, thus, marooned in the municipal camping ground of Gambsheim, and forced to take a rest day.
A hardier cyclist might have packed up, ridden on and made camp again that night in the monsoon, but with three supposedly clear days of weather ahead I didn’t see the point. A cyclist who had studied the map of Gambsheim, and discovered that it offered almost nothing in the way of sightseeing, might also have bungeed their posessions onto their bike and hit the tarmac as fast as their legs would carry them.
But those cyclists would have missed out. For Gambsheim, a tiny hamlet consisting of modern suburbs, old French country houses and an inexplicably large music school, boasts an enormous branch of the French supermarket Super U; a DIY store that still sells Essence “C”, a sort of extremely volatile cleaning fluid that burns wonderfully in camping stoves – sadly now banned, but presumably no one has made it as far as Gambsheim to enforce this; a lakeside campsite that costs five euros and two cents per night; and a restaurant named after a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It was an unscheduled day off that followed a few days of playing fast and loose with the old guidebook. Back in Germany I’d taken the weekend off in Rudesheim am Rhein at the southern end of the Rhine Gorge, and on Sunday left my baggage in my tent and rode my unloaded bike, responsive and skittish, up the steep hill to the abbey of St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelth-century mystic forever associated in my mind with toasted almonds, because my parents played CDs of settings of her ethereal hymns before dinner parties when I was old enough to be entrusted with the aperetifs. I battled up the hill in a thunderstorm so monumental – I could hear it roaring through the valley behind me – that I took shelter in the overhang of a multistorey carpark.
I reached the top to discover that St Hildegard – rather, her relics – were not actually in her abbey; large groups of German tourists, however, were. I sat dejected in my pilgrimage, trying to enjoy a glass of the nun’s homemade Riesling between being trampled by hoards of small children playing Pokemon Go, and reading a leaflet that revealed that St Hildegard was in fact in a completely different church, downhill, right beside the carpark in which I’d sheltered from the rain. As the children around me were reabsorbed into a larger, multi-lingual group that descended wholesale upon the abbey church, I decided that overall she’d made the right decision.
From Bingen I cycled on out of the Rhine Gorge and towards the higher Rhine, through Mainz and the sunsoaked vineyard slopes around Oppenheim.
I spent my penultimate night in Germany sitting on the banks of a lake on the eastern side of the Rhine – a last second decision to ditch the guidebook’s route and strike out into open country – drinking what I can only describe as German Special Brew with the elderly groundsman. It was beautiful and still and spacious: fuelled by beer, I wanted to tell Tomas that the treeline and its reflection in the water looked like a seismograph, or that the ripples raised by the wind looked like music staves, but thankfully I could not. I speak no German and what English he spoke disintegrated as we drank; he taught me to count to ten in German by watching how long ducks could hold their breath underwater. I practised later on as the stars came out.
I cleared my fuzzy head the next morning by jumping into the – extremely cold – lake, then set off to rejoin the Rhine at Worms, whizzing through it and Mannheim with the customary failure to take any real interest that seems endemic among long distance cyclists: I met another cross-country rider in the nature reserve that banks the stretch between the two grand historic cities and asked if he’d seen any of Worms beyond the riverside cycle path. “No,” he admitted, sheepishly. “Did you?” “No”.
Mannheim – supposedly the city that invented the bicycle – was a nightmare of spaghetti junctions that culminated in an overpriced campsite opposite an industrial chemical plant that worked through the night, occasionally punctuating the silence – and my sleep – with a siren that sounded like a telephone’s engaged tone played amplified and repeatedly.
Perhaps it was this that drove me to speed west in searing heat through the south of Germany and into France and Alsace, passing a night just beyond the border behind the toilet block of a caravan park I Lauterbourg where the residents told me tents weren’t allowed. The next morning I was all set to Trojan Horse my way out past the barrier the way I had Trojan Horse-d my way in – wait for a car to force it to rise, then sneak out behind it. But the barrier rose for me; someone was in reception. I was across the exit before I had a pang of conscience – Miranda, I remembered, always insisted on paying for camping even if you could get away with it, figuring it was bad form not to – and I turned elaborate Serpentines of bicycle dressage in the driveway that mirrored my inner conflict.
Eventually I gave in, went into reception and began an elaborate and defensive explanation in bad French – “j’ai restez ici pour la nuit”, I began, “parce-que une famille m’a dit que c’est possible pour moi de…” I stopped. She waited. We both knew I’d reached my limit. “… Put up my tent,” I finished, sadly, in English. “Behind the bathroom?” She finished, knowingly, in French. “Nine Euro.”
A day’s peaceful riding through woods and nature reserves brought me to The Greatest City in Europe (Gambsheim), where I passed a day doing very little, then rode on into Strasbourg accompanied by a French cyclist who insisted on showing me a better route. We dodged families and dog walkers and clicked through our gears as I struggled to find the right tenses to express my opinions about Brexit.
A night in a campsite on an orchard broke up two days riding through rural France, the kinds of towns and farms where you don’t see anyone for hours and wonder how it all works.
The next morning a fond farewell to the German couple who moved in next to me in a campervan – I liked them immediately because this first thing they did on constructing their home was to unleash two sprouting flower pots from the back window – speeds me south along more country roads and to Basel. Two kilometres from Switzerland – and, for that matter, Germany – I can’t bear to leave France yet, and spend one last night eating supplies from Gambsheim Super U before making a significant left turn, to ride east towards Istanbul.