From France to Germany
It was an early start this morning with Michel. He had opted for an old bike (rather than a shiny road bike) as the night before I kept telling him I wouldn't be fast. People often think I must be fast after all this cycling but I'm really not. I was trying to keep his expectations low. I need not have worried because Michel was very patient and understanding and I had a great time chatting in a mixture of English and French (his English was far better than my French) as he navigated us to Strasbourg via Marlenheim (the way Thomas Stevens went).
Stevens arrived in Strasbourg at 1.30 pm so we were ahead of him. The fortifications he saw aren't so evident today but the railway station is. He described as "one of the finest in Europe" and it is still quite magnificent with the addition of a modern glass frontage.
After the station, Michel became my tour guide and took me to Petite France - a part of the city that keeps a traditional feel. We then visited the cathedral, saw the astronomical clock, and went to the top of the tower. The height was incredible and I was fearful I'd drop my camera down to the square below.
After leaving the cathedral we'd hoped to catch up with Thomas but he was busy at work so we headed down to the Rhine. The "pontoon bridge" has been replaced by a more substantial pedestrian bridge (which also had a scale-model solar system) adorned with padlocks. As we took photos, an American tourist from one of the river cruises came over and asked me what the padlocks were for. I explained that it was becoming the custom amongst young lovers the world over to signify their love for each other.
Across the bridge we had cycled into Germany. It was the first time I'd cycled across an international border and, surprisingly, the first time Michel had cycled to Germany too. We ate a leisurely lunch and Michel asked if it was OK to accompany me to Oberkirch. Of course it was! I was glad of the company and also having someone who could say more in German than "I am 13 years old" - a now useless phrase I had learned in the four weeks of German I did at school.
As we were asking for directions from a German man who spoke no French (yet lived just across the river from France!) I spotted a touring cyclist. He was from Switzerland and was heading to Norway. After a short conversation I wished him bon voyage and waved him on his way north.
Michel and I were now relying on my Garmin with Open Street Map but it was struggling to choose a route. Presumably there were too many roads or the nodes in Open Street Map are a little broken.
After a few stops and starts we made it to the foot of the the Kniebis Mountains and the little village of Oberkirch. Michel and I found a "camp site" which turned out to be for camper vans with solid ground unsuitable for tent pegs. Nearby was a grassy area near a sports field and we decided I might be able to camp there. Michel wished me well for my travels and presented me with a running top from his local club. I'd had a lovely day with him as my guide and was sorry to see him cycle back to France.
I decided to find some dinner and whilst looking around the town I managed to find the Tourist Information Office. In I went to ask if there was an actual campsite nearby. "There is no camping here" I was told by the lady at the desk. "Is there anywhere I'd be able to camp?" I asked. I explained that I was cycling to Istanbul following a person who had arrived in Oberkirch on this day 130 years ago and he had remained the night here. Suddenly the other people in the office got interested in the story and I showed them my route and list of places/dates. Inspired by the undertaking they rang around the local accommodation to ask if anyone would take a cyclist with a small tent. One vineyard said they would and I was given directions. The lady in the office said "it is up a hill but...", looking me up and down, "...you should be OK". As I got ready to leave, the boss presented me with a sticker for my bike and a bottle of local wine!
Across the river and out of Oberkirch I cycled up to the vinyard stopping briefly to buy a punnet of strawberries from a road-side stall. Delicious. It turned out to be up a very steep hill indeed. It must have been a 20% gradient! A couple of times I had to stop and push my bike with every sinew straining. Eventually I reached the top and was welcomed by the German lady who ran the vinyard. She told me I could pitch my tent between the vines. What a glorious view I had back over the Rhine to France. The effort of the climb had definitely been worth it.
My wonderful host invited me to their family/workers dinner too where I had some great food, wine and conversation with the younger members of the family who spoke excellent English depsite their protestations of "No! My English is terrible. I haven't used it since high school". We Brits are really put to shame by the language skills of the rest of Europe. They warned me that there was a big hill out of Oppenau but said there was no avoiding it if I was going to Freudenstadt.
The sun set over France and the stars came out. What a lovely day I'd had. I'd enjoyed the company of wonderful, friendly, people in two countries. Perfect.