Saturday, 26 May 2012

Day 8 - All downhill from here

Eltmann - Muhlhausen (using
I had been sleeping really well since starting the journey but having very vivid dreams. They never made any sense, but usually seemed to have some vague connection with the sights and sounds of the previous day. As someone who hardly ever remembers dreams, I found it very surprising.

As was becoming usual I woke up looking a complete mess, with swollen eyes from the hayfever reaction. Eyedrops and a wash usually made me look a little more presentable but I still wondered if I really looked like somebody who could actually cycle another 500 miles.

A good breakfast in the pension and then off along the next stretch of the Main Radweg. It was a beautiful morning and I made good time, averaging over 12 mph along the riverbank.

Lock on the River Main
There were noticeably more cyclists onto now. Most of them were riding sophisticated looking bikes with butterfly handlebars, which seemed to be a German preference. They all had these clever pannier systems and looked very smartly dressed. I felt like some scruffy intruder in my increasingly worn shorts and again somewhat smelly cycling top. Bitterly I reflected that if they had been cycling where I had been cycling they would not look so smart, either. So there.

After an hour or so I arrived in Bamberg. This is a beautiful old town at the point where the River Main and the canal join.
 I reflected that as I had done absolutely no research about where I was going I had no expectations about anything that I saw. Finding a lovely place like Bamberg was such a delight, with its old town straddling several islands in the river, all connected by different bridges.

This time the tourist information office was very helpful and they explained to me how to find the Main-Donau Canal towards Nuremberg. I took time to push my bike through the pedestrianised centre of town where there was a large and bustling street market, with everyone selling asparagus and strawberries. I wondered if I would arrive in Budapest in time to catch its own strawberry season?

The canal towpath out of Bamberg started off as tarmac, but after a few miles gave way to good-quality gravel. However, the surface then deteriorated and I decided to follow the main road that runs parallel to the canal for a little while. This gave me the chance to buy some lunch in a Lidl, and as I set off again heading south I realise that the wind had shifted a little and that the easterly that had been pushing against me all week was now coming more from the north and that I now had a good tailwind. I sped along the road at over 15 mph.

At Forchheim I rejoined the canal and found that there was a good-quality gravel surface. With that and the tailwind I was able to speed along again and maintained a good 13-15 mph for the next hour or so until I stopped for lunch at one of the massive lock gates on the canal. Sitting there with my bread, hummus, tomato, bread and chocolate in the sunshine with a flat canal towpath ahead of me I felt pretty good again.

All through the afternoon I battered on down the canal apart from a brief detour around commercial premises at Erlangen. Nuremberg was next, and I passed its distinctive pylon as the canal took me through the outskirts of the city. I was rather worried about whether or not my tyres would cope with the gravel surface, and initially feared for punctures, but nothing happened and I just kept on going.

Barge heading down the Main-Donau Canal
It started to become somewhat hypnotic. The canal was built in a series of largely straight lines with gentle curves, and I focused constantly on the narrow line of smooth surface on the path that lay between the loose gravel. For hours all I was conscious of was the crackle of the tyres on the stones, the occasional "zit!" as a small stone shot up through the gap between the tire and the mudguard and the occasional twang as a stone hit one of the high tension spokes. The routine only changed when I came to one of the enormous locks that lifted the canal ever higher up towards the watershed.

The feeling of hypnotism was magnified by the physical isolation of the canal. Occasionally I could see villages in the distance, but essentially I was travelling through empty countryside, surrounded by forests and big fields of green wheat. Occasionally a recreational cyclist would pass my way, but I did not see a single pannier-laden tourer.

At one point I could see in the very far distance a point of light, apparently moving towards me. After some minutes I realised it was another cyclist with a powerful front light and eventually we crossed. It reminded me of be seen in one of my favourite films, "Lawrence of Arabia", where Lawrence, sitting at a water hole, sees Omar Sharif appearing out of the desert haze, slowly getting bigger and bigger.

After some hours of this I realised that both the bicycle and myself were covered with a fine white dust, and again my thoughts drifted to Lawrence of Arabia. I imagined that after more hours of this that I would suddenly emerge on the Danube, and as in the film, a ship's funnel would suddenly appear above the embankment. But that would only happen when I reached the Danube, and I realised that by six o'clock I was becoming very tired and that I would need to stop for the night. Where roads crossed the canal the local villages had erected noticeboards advertising accommodation and at one of these I rang the Brunnerwirt Gasthof in Muhlhausen. They had a room available and I cycled the last few miles to get there.

I unloaded the bike and put it away in their lock-up garage and threw everything on the floor in my room. My evening routine, when finishing the ride for the day, was to lie on my back and pull my knees up towards my stomach, staying there reflecting on the magical stillness of that moment. After the non-stop intensity of cycling all day this was truly a wonderful few minutes.

The Rhine-Donau watershed (Rhine to the right!)
It had been a good day. Along the canal I had passed a large concrete monument which signified the Rhine-Danube watershed, and I had now passed the hydrological halfway point. This was the second watershed sign that I had seen, and it made me reflect about how Germans are conscious about their physical place in the world and the pride they take in their environment.

The evening meal was very satisfying, helped by two glasses of Glossner Neumarkter beer, a particularly fine brew.

Up until today I had been cycling away from the North Sea but from tomorrow I would be cycling towards the Black Sea. I had now done 612 miles and was over half way to Budapest.

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