Archive for May 25th, 2010

The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (3)

May 25, 2010

Dawn broke with a crash – literally.  A few of the guys were outside playing a pick-up game of soccer in the back yard and one of them kicked the ball a little off center and sent it through the window in our dorm.  There is nothing like being awakened by the crash of glass, and the screaming of girls (and, to be completely honest, some of the guys; not me, of course).  Nobody would fess up so we all chipped in to pay for the window.

Since we all woke up at the same time, there was a decided crush to get into the WC and take care of business.  Once that was done it was time for breakfast.  No huge breakfasts this time as all that was offered was small broetchen, various jams and jellies, and pieces of bacon.  Strong coffee was also the norm.  What you didn’t drink you could lube your chain with.  If they didn’t use very heavily plated spoons, they’d melt.

Today we had a fairly easy day planned.  We were going from Wittlich to Mühlheim.  Well, not entirely all the way to Mühlheim but to a small camping ground right on a peninsula on the bank of the Mosel River.  It was pretty much downhill all the way.  Something we could definitely use right about now as our muscles got used to all the activity.

Since there was no real hurry because we had only eight or ten miles to go, we took the time to tune our bikes up a little.  They’d taken a pretty good beating in the muddy field and needed to be cleaned and oiled somewhat.  We brought out the big toolkit from the station wagon and set to work.

We gathered a few spectators from among the other transients staying at the hostel.  Most of them had never seen the type of bikes we had as most German bicycles had at the most two gears.  Ours were set up as touring bikes and as such had three gears in two ranges for a total of six.  It made climbing hills much easier.  We showed off the gearing system and let some of the kids ride the bikes to see how they liked them.  One fellow offered the equivalent of almost a hundred dollars for Jim’s bike.  It wasn’t for sale.

A word here on the bikes themselves.  They were called English Touring Bikes and had narrow tires with tubes in them.  The braking systems were a right and left-handlebar caliper that caused a clamp to ride on the rim of the front and back wheels.  Very similar to bikes nowadays, but definitely not what you would call ‘mountain-style’.  They were very susceptible to punctures from stones and other sharp objects; plus the little rubber stoppers were prone to jumping out at the most inopportune moments.

Finally we loaded up our panniers and straggled our way in double file down the road.  The first section was pretty much on the level.  We rode past fields of grain, potatoes, sugar beets, and corn (nope, we didn’t stop this time).  We skirted Wengerohr and Platten then started down a very long canyon that would eventually bring us to the Mosel River.

On one side was heavy forestation and the other, across huge fields of grass we could see fledgling vineyards.  Some of the finest German wines come from the Mosel River (in my opinion anyway) and in ten or fifteen years these small vineyards would be producing great vintages.  For now, however, they were just very junior vines.

Vineyards are placed on the north side of the valley and the river so that they faced south and absorbed as much sun as they could.  If we thought these small vineyards were expansive, we really got a surprise when we entered the Mosel valley itself.  Finally, as we swung around a huge curve the entire river valley opened up to us.  It was a great sight.  We stopped for a snack and took loads of pictures.

After one final curve we approached a huge traffic circle.  We whirled around it and exited on the road that led to a very old bridge over the river.  Zeltingen was on the other side.  This bridge, as well as most of the Mosel River bridges, had been heavily damaged during the war.  It still had some pockmarks and shrapnel damage.  It was very hard to imagine what conditions were like back only twelve years earlier.  It took us twenty minutes to cross as we kept taking pictures of boats as they navigated up and down the river.  The girls called and waved to the crewmembers and they waved.  Several captains tooted their horns at us.

A very small café that resided right on the bank of the river seemed a great place to stop for lunch.  The two very pretty servers seemed a bit apprehensive as a load of Americans began to fill the small dining room, but warmed up very fast when they realized most of us spoke German well enough to discuss what would be best for lunch.  Soon, they were bustling to and from the kitchen, setting down plates and bringing copious amounts of lemonade.  The girls both enjoyed having their pictures taken with some of our group – mostly guys.  Virginia clamped her fingers on my knee and kept them there virtually all during lunch.

We settled up our bill, tipped the servers, and filled our water bottles with more of the delicious lemonade.  Not too far down the river road, we saw what appeared to be a dam.  As we got closer we could see it stretching all the way across the river.  We got to wondering how boats could get past it until we realized that there was a small barge sitting on what appeared to be dry land on the opposite bank.  Using zoom lenses, I could see that there was a lock system.  If we had stayed on the south bank we would have ridden directly past it.  On this bank, we could barely see it.

We watched as the barge cleared the lock and maneuvered around an oncoming flatboat pushing two other small barges upstream.  It was a tight fit, but they made it through also.  We walked out as far as we could on the dam and took some more pictures.  Finally, we started out again for our camp ground.

We pedaled slowly down the pathway next to the river.  No cars to worry about so we took our time and bunched up.  Off in the distance we could see a small finger of land that extended towards us and enclosed a little bit of water.  As we got closer we could see several tents and small camper vehicles.  That must be our spot.  We passed it, crossed towards the river even more, and rode back to the campground.

It was a pay-by-the-day campground and collected in advance.  We were assigned adjoining slots and began setting up our tents.  While we were doing that, the two vehicles that kept pace with us arrived and unloaded the cooking items.  Since it was early afternoon we were in no rush to fix anything yet, so we all just scattered and walked around.

Virginia, Cleo, Roger and I went back towards where the peninsula left the north bank.  We did it with enough stealth that none of the chaperones saw us leave.  Roger and I had noticed a small Gasthaus up the road opposite the one we had gone down to the camp.  That was our destination.

They had a very nice little six-table vine covered garden area set up as a Biergarten.  What does one order in a Biergarten?  Bier, of course.  We sat and relaxed to the sound of a fake water wheel slowly turning in the current of the river.  It wasn’t connected to anything so we figured it was decorative.  It was apparently a slow day so the proprietor joined us and asked, in halting English, if we were on tour.

I answered in German to his visible relief that we were camping down the road with a few more of us.  We talked of this and that for almost an hour.  He seemed very pleased that we had stopped and kept bringing us snack foods to try.  We did, of course, only to be polite.  Cleo and Roger excused themselves and wandered down one of the paths through the garden.

Suddenly, a huge outcry of honking geese and shouting guy and girl began behind some bushes.  The proprietor jumped up and shouted to Cleo and Roger.

“Nein.  Nein.  Kümmern Sie sich nicht die Gänse.  Sie werden angreifen!”  (No.  No.  Don’t bother the geese.  They will attack!)  “Können sie nicht lessen Deutsch?”  (Can’t they read German?)  He asked me.

I turned to look where he was pointing and, sure enough, there was a white sign with red lettering warning everyone not to mess with the geese as they would get nasty.  I told him I guess they didn’t notice it.  And, as an afterthought I offered to write the warning out in English for him.  He grinned hugely and brought a piece of paper and a pen for me.  I wrote an appropriate warning that added somewhat to the terse German warning by way of telling parents to keep an eye on their kids.  When I explained my addition, he laughed and said he’d have to add that to his sign also.

After a very pleasant afternoon the four of us reluctantly readied ourselves to leave the little bistro and walk back to the campground.  The owner pressed a bottle of wine into Virginia’s hands and winked at the two of us.

“You have for later,” he explained.  I thanked him profusely and we bowed our way out.  It was a very good vintage.

Back at camp, we smuggled the bottle into my tent and went back to help with dinner.  We brought out the ears of corn we had liberated from the cornfield, dropped them into a huge pot, and salted the water.  One woman from the neighboring camp introduced herself, in French, and asked what we were doing to the corn.  Virginia was better at French that I was (which is to say she wouldn’t get her face slapped) so she explained as best as she could that we were boiling it to eat.  The woman looked a little askance at us and pressed for more details.

Virginia told her that Americans are what we called ‘corn on the cob’ with lots of butter and salt.  While she was talking, she fished out an ear and poured melted butter and dashed it with salt.  With a flourish, she handed it to the woman.  She took a tentative bite, took several more, and then began to run her teeth down row after row of corn kernels.  Finally, with butter dripping from her chin she pronounced that it was an amazing thing to do with corn.  I’ve explained before that most Europeans didn’t do anything with corn except to feed their pigs and barnyard fowl.  I guess nobody had thought of boiling it.  She shyly accepted two more ears, with butter and salt, for her husband and son.  She left calling their names and encouraging them to try this new food.

Dinner was wonderful.  Fresh bread that our motorized crew had bought in town, lots of corn and butter, plenty of grilled pork chops, and greens loaded down our tables.  We chattered all through dinner, washed up, and wandered back out from the dining fly – mostly two by two.  In some cases, four by four.  The chaperones called to us not to stay out too late and then settled down by one of the fires to have a beer or two.

Virginia and I wrapped our gift bottle of wine in her sweater and went down to the riverbank.  As darkness fell completely, we lay back and watched the river traffic as they muscled their way upstream or drifted down.  Cheery little toots of horns as they passed sounded very friendly.  Like the Dutch, most of them had dogs aboard who barked as the vessels passed each other.  They were used when fog obscured the river.  The dogs would alert a captain of an approaching boat that he may not see.

I opened the wine and poured into our plastic cups.  She toasted me; we clicked rims, and sipped.  It was definitely a good vintage.  She rested her head back on my arm and snuggled in close.  We talked of pretty much anything we thought of.  We had really nothing we wouldn’t discuss so we never lacked for conversation.  I quoted some poetry, which she loved me to do, and we just sat and watched the stars come out.

With the bottle half empty now, and the fire at the chaperone’s camp gone low, we figured it was time to go back to our (separate, darn it) tents.  Tomorrow we would be taking a ferry back across the river and climbing up and out of the valley.