Sandra’s European Odyssey

Sandra at the Rheinquelle
Sandra at the Rheinquelle
Sandra, our Christchurch branch manager, spent part of last winter exploring Europe by bike. She sent us such detailed, informative emails of her travels, that we thought you might like to read about her adventures too. Here’s part one…

Stage 1: London to Istanbul – The Rhine Route

When planning my route from London to Istanbul I had decided I wanted to find the most efficient way to get through Northern Europe to reach the Mediterranean and to explore the parts of Europe I’ve never been to before. It was fantastic to find there is a big European initiative to create a number of long distance cycle ways, and it seems that the first one to be completed, with well marked, mapped and designated cycle trails, is the Eurovelo 15, The Rhine Route.

The Rhine (English), also spelt Rijn, Rhin and Rhein depending on which country it is flowing through, is 1232km in length from its source in the Swiss Alps at the 2046m high Oberalp Pass near Andermatt, to where it reaches the North Sea at Hoek van Holland. The route can follow either the east or west banks and the guide book I used took me along what it said were the best parts of both!

London calling

I took the train to London on Monday 8 July and arrived at 2.30pm into London Kings Cross. Armed with free cycling maps thanks to London Transport, I was able to navigate my way through the maze of streets, cycle ways and parks to my starting point at Buckingham Palace. I didn’t think it sounded quite right to bike all the way from London Kings Cross Railway Station to Istanbul, whereas Buckingham Palace to Aya Sofya has a much better ring to it!

After waving goodbye to the Queen (I’m sure she was home as her Union Jack was flying), I made my way across the monopoly board of sites such as Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, along Embankment and out towards Dagenham. I followed a new, cycle super-highway that has been created to allow cyclists to ride in and out of London quickly and safely. Awesome London! I then headed north through Essex to get to Harwich, from where I got the overnight ferry to Holland.

Following the canals of Holland

As I was collecting my bike from the car deck at dawn on Wednesday morning, I met Yair, a young racing cyclist from Santiago, Chile who was heading though Europe and cycling the Rhine Route as well, so we decided to bike together. We bike at a similar pace, want to cover the same distances each day, and where I lack speed and strength on hill climbs, I make up for in navigation and bike maintenance! Most people ride the Rhine in the opposite direction, but despite the very last section being uphill, we’ve had tail winds all the way and the scenery is constantly getting better each day. I figure this is the best way to bike it!

The Kinderdijk
The Kinderdijk
We spent one and a half days biking though Holland along cycle ways, following dykes and canals, past the fabulous Kinderdijk (an area of old windmills) into Northern Germany. Here the Rhine is immense, and since it’s a major transport route there are huge barges carrying all kinds of goods, coal and shipping containers. The Ruhr region of Germany is industrial; huge petrochemical plants and power stations lined the banks of the Rhine as far south as Bonn. But at the same time we were still passing through beautiful old towns dating back to Roman times such as Xanten, Zons, Koblenz, Worms (great name!) and Speyer. A highlight was cycling through the Rhine Gorge between Koblenz and Mainz, with steep sided valleys covered in vineyards, castles and medieval villages.

Heading south

The Rhine then winds its way south into the Alsace region of France and through Strasbourg, and we followed the Rhone Canal for a day (running parallel) before reaching Basel at the intersection of Switzerland, Germany and France. From Basel it turns north and forms the border between Germany and Switzerland. Our bike path kept criss-crossing the Rhine and the only way we could tell which country we were in, was whether we paid in Euros or Swiss Francs on our many ‘kaffee und kuchen’ stops!

The Rhine Valley near St Goar
The Rhine Valley near St Goar
After 1000km the Rhine flows into the massive Lake Constance or Bodensee, forming the border of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which was so busy with holiday makers that it felt like the Riviera of Germany. Once reaching Bregenz on the eastern shore of Lake Constance, the mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere. The route until now had been flat, and then suddenly the Alps were ahead! The last two days were spectacular: climbing up the narrowing Rhine valley and through the Swiss resort of Chur, with white mountain peaks in the distance as the Rhine became a mountain stream. On Wednesday evening at 6.30pm, and after a long climb (a total ascent of 2360m) to the summit, we reached Oberalp Pass and the official Rheinquelle (source). My odometer shows 1680km from London to here.

Now I’m staying in the ski resort of Sedrun just below the Oberalp Pass for a couple of recovery and maintenance days! I’m planning stage two of my trip, which will take me over the Alps (via the infamous hairpin bends of the St Gotthard Pass) and into Italy. I’m torn between wanting to get to Croatia quickly and my love of the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites, so am tempted to take a more ‘interesting’ route via St Moritz, Merano and Cortina, which will certainly involve lots more climbing!

The weather has been fantastic, hot and sunny most days. My diet has been a healthy mix of cheese and salami bread rolls or pasta, washed down with a good German beer! Have camped most of the time, with fantastic campsites on the banks of the Rhine, was introduced to the “warm showers” concept and had two nights accommodation provided by friendly cyclists.

This Rhine trip in itself would make a great bike tour for any of you with three weeks to spare! Interesting landscapes and history, beautiful towns, easy riding following off-road cycle friendly paths! But now, let the real mountains begin!

Look out for more installments in coming weeks…