The Rhineland on 75 cents a day (4)

The next morning dawned later than normal.  Overnight, clouds had moved in and a chill had settled on the campsite.  I noticed it around four in the morning and simply piled on another blanket.  Several others did the same.  Hot coffee was the order of the day when breakfasts were being built.

One by one our tour members struggled out of their warm bags and into the chill air.  Up on top of the mountain on either side it wouldn’t be so bad, but down here in the river valley it was cold.  We sat on logs around a larger than normal fire and poured hot drinks down our throats.  Once warmed, the rest of breakfast didn’t seem so grim.

I felt refreshed after several smallish butter rolls and a large Danish.  The sugar wound its way through my system and got me up and moving.  My tent mate and I tore down our tent, folded it, and lashed it to my pannier.  He took the poles and stakes in his.  Others did pretty much the same but nobody moved very fast.

Today we were to travel down the north side of the river, curve around a huge bend, and cross using a ferry system.  Originally, we were to spend the night in an inn at the center of Mühlheim, but there had been a mix up in reservations and ours didn’t exist.  We were now booked into a tiny little Gasthaus in Maring; just across the river.

With stiff limbs and our breath condensing in front of us we puffed off like a whole brace of steam engines.  Slowly we warmed up as we pedaled along the trail on the river bank.  Talk was desultory and carried on in subdued tones.

We passed the little Bierstube the four of us had visited the previous evening and waved to the owner and his wife as they swept the porch and steps of the building.  They paused to watch us stream by.  Just minutes later, the first touch of sun reached the valley floor and put animation into our attitudes.

Conversations began to pick up a little more volume, and people would speed up or slow down to join with friends instead of poking along with their eyes straight ahead.  A wonderful thing, the sun.  It warmed one not only physically, but emotionally.

Off to our left were vast vineyards staggering their way up the slope.  Numerous threads of dirt roads connected them with switchbacks appearing everywhere.  Even this early, trucks were laboring up the slope with workers who kept the vines in top shape.  Directly ahead we could see a fairly large valley leading off to the north.  When we reached it, in the middle of the small village across the river from Bernkastel-Kues, a sign told us the road lead up to Monzelfeld.  A quick look at our topographical map and we could see that this town was almost three hundred and ten meters higher than us (1016 feet).  Nobody even mentioned wanting to take a side trip.

The road up the canyon divided the village and swept over the river to the larger town of Bernkastel-Kues.  Small homes dotted the hillside in between plots of pine trees all the way to the crest of the hill.  When we stopped to take some pictures, Virginia came over to me, put her arm around my waist, and leaned close.  She said it was a beautiful place and we’d have to drive over here some day and go church hunting.  She was quite a lover of churches – all types and denominations.  I agreed that the trip would be nice indeed.  With time for no more than a peck on the cheek, we mounted up and went on down the street.

Once past the town, our road plunged into a deep green tunnel of mixed trees.  Some pine, but primarily larch and maple dominated overhead.  Traffic had picked up somewhat.  Huge, stinky, diesel busses blatted past us on their way to town filled with morning commuters.  We pulled into the trees and rested until most of them had passed us for the day.  It was hard to take a breath when the air was filled with fumes.

It was during one of these rests that one of our group was sitting right next to his bike when the tire gave out with a bang.  He rose up about two feet from a sitting position and landed about five feet away with a very startled look on his face.  He’d had no indication of any trouble before the moment it popped.  We helped him remove the wheel, pull the tire off and patch the tube.  Fortunately, it was the front wheel and easily changed.  He, and everyone around the bike at the time, were charged with a little adrenaline.

Lunchtime came and we found a very nice picnic area just outside the town of Andel.  An enterprising vendor or two had set up their pushcarts on the grass and were minting money selling bratwurst and big, salty, pretzels with loads of hot mustard.  All thoughts of field rations left us as the smell hit us from completely across the green.  We parked our bikes and walked en-masse to the carts for our fuel.  We noticed that the chaperones were between us and the guy selling beer in the normal bottles with wire and rubber-covered ceramic snap-caps.  This was the kind that let you take a swallow or two and reseal the bottle to keep it from going flat.  American beer brewers could take a page from the Germans here.  Anyway, we didn’t, actually, weren’t allowed to approach the vendors.  I didn’t try because I still had half a bottle of wine in my pannier – so there!

On our approach to the town of Mühlheim we passed through vast fields of produce.  We identified sugar beets, lettuce, beans, and potatoes.  Most of the fields were populated with people whacking at weeds, setting up large sprinklers, or generally wandering around so we didn’t try anything.

We arrived at the ferry landing just in time to see the churning at the stern signifying its return to the other side.  A posted schedule said the next run was in an hour, but according to the board, it was supposed to arrive on this side at the current time.  Nobody appeared to be around to ask about the discrepancy so we just decided to sit and wait.  Some of us walked a little ways into town and took pictures or shopped.

Five of us managed to slip the chaperones and duck into a dark cellar bar.  Refreshed with a quick Schnapps, we went back to the landing.  Mints were passed around before we got there.

About half an hour later we heard the faint toot of the ferry’s horn and three minutes later it moved away from the dock and started back to us.  Nosing carefully upstream, the driver balanced thrust against current to put himself right at the ramp on our side.  Now we knew why the ramp was at an angle to the river.

There was room for six cars and lots of bicycles.  Three more touring groups had joined us while we were waiting.  One of them was French, but they seemed to stay away from the rest of us for some reason.  The other two were German and they moved freely amongst us and asked loads of questions about our rides.  We took a lot of pictures of each other and the riverine traffic as we slowly motored our way across the river.  At this point, it was about a half-mile wide and the current was fairly slow.

When we got to the other side, they didn’t lower the pedestrian gate until all the vehicles were off the ferry.  I guess this was a safety move so that the sudden appearance of many bicyclists wouldn’t scare the drivers; or something like that.  Anyway, once the gate was us, we trooped off and headed for a lemonade stand.

Now, for all of you who are keeping track of our little jaunt, we have just completed a twist in the river which started with us in the campground on the north side of the river.  We cruised down that bank until we were waiting for the ferry on the south side of the river to go back to the north side.  A neat trick.  It was accomplished because the river made a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn.  Also, while I am explaining that one, I might add that Google Earth now shows nothing of both ferry landings except for what appears to be a boat ramp on the south side and a gravel spot which could have held the north ferry slip.  A small boat yard appears there now.  A very nice bridge spans the river here now.

Refreshed by a tart and zesty lemonade, we mounted up and started along the road that led to Maring.  We picked up some speed once we left the river because we passed along the city sewage plant and the wind was coming off the settling tanks.  Not a very nice smell.

We went through Maring and crossed a small stream.  Our inn was immediately across the stream and looked wonderful.  After checking in and getting our room assignments, we went out and found a couple of very nice nature trails that led along the stream.  Since another of our group had given up (muscle cramps that wouldn’t go away) there were only five guys and four girls left; plus, of course, the two chaperones.  The other two chaperones were back on the base lining up our next campground supplies.

Virginia and I eluded the chaperone (more easily done now that there were only two of them) and left to wander the trails along the stream bank.  Stone and log benched were places at strategic places where one could contemplate nature, listed to bird calls, or just plain neck.  We chose the last one.

We couldn’t get too heavily involved because the ground cover was pretty sparse, but it was enough to get me fired up a little.  And that was as far as I got too because another couple walked along the path and sat at the bench about fifty feet away.  They weren’t with our group so that inhibited Virginia a little; which, of course, inhibited the hell out of me, darn it.

Daylight began fading soon and we reluctantly started back.  Dinner consisted of a very nice veal dish, with the inevitable potatoes and/or noodles.  The salad was one of the best ones I’ve ever eaten and when I asked about it, I was told that the components came from their very own garden.  I asked for, and got, a second helping.  We were also allowed one small beer (hooray!) to help wash it down.

After dinner, most of us gravitated to the large room set up with several stuffed couches and chairs arranged as conversation centers.  I sat in a chair that was big enough for two.  Virginia proved that by sliding down and lying across my lap with her feet hanging over one arm, her shoulders resting on the other, and her head on my shoulder.  It was our favorite sitting position as we could talk in low tones and nobody could hear us.

Once again the chaperones were being sharp-eyed so we kept it decent even though both of us were getting up a good head of steam.  We murmured to each other for an hour until Virginia suddenly yawned.  It was one of those yawns that no power on earth can stop.  She giggled, apologized, and then waited.  Sure enough, she’d made me start yawning.  We gave up and went our separate ways to bed.  It took me a while to get to sleep.

T.O.M.

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