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Notes on a short tour on the mainland of Europe

Notes on a short tour on the mainland of Europe

This September Ulli and I took a well deserved holiday on the mainland of Europe. We took up the invitation to visit France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Here are a few things I noticed on my travels. First off, arriving at EuroAirport (Basel Mulhouse Freiburg), you clear passport control to enter the Schengen area, collect you bags and then have a choice of two exits through customs, you can either clear Swiss customs or EU customs to enter France/Germany. The airport consists of two separate parts, a French part and a Swiss part, and you can pass between the two parts without a ticket (but you must carry a passport or ID card, in case you are asked to show it). This caused us some confusion as we weren’t sure which side our host was waiting for us, also we didn’t know at that time you could just walk across the border within the airport.

Having exited into the Eurozone, we wandered out into the late summer heat of the Alsace, looking at views across the Black Forest to the northeast (more of which later). We were staying in a small French village with views (on a clear day) to the high mountains of the Bernese Alps halfway across Switzerland, ~140 Km away.

On a clear day you can see the high mountains of the Bernese Alps

Driving though small French towns to get there, I noticed there were zebra crossings everywhere, they seemed to be every 100m. Also where there were cycle lanes, they were separated from motor traffic with just solid lines, nowhere did I see a car parked on a cycle lane, or for that matter on the pavement (Footway).

Although we were staying in France, we spent most of our days out in Germany, visiting Staufen im Breisgau whose most famous resident was one Dr Faust who died there in 1539, having allegedly sold his soul to the Devil. The other thing the town is famous for is geothermal drilling controversy. Back in 2007 there was a plan to utilise geothermal energy from the depth of the Rhine valley for heating and cooling purposes. However, things didn’t work out as planned, in 2008 it was noticed that the centre of the town had sunk by about 8mm. This is thought to have been caused by disruption of the water table, as a result drilling was stopped. But this wasn’t the end of the story. In 2009 it was noticed that parts of the town had started to rise and by September 2010 some parts of the town had risen by up to 30cm. This uplift has been caused by water seeping into a layer of anhydrite, so causing it to convert into gypsum which swells when wetted. All the geological activities have caused massive cracks to appear in many of the buildings, some of which now have stickers which read “Staufen must not break”.

“Staufen must not break”

There is also a ruined castle on hill above Staufen which was burned down by the Swedish army in 1632 during the 30 years war. These days it is a pleasant to walk up to the castle though the vineyards.

Castle Staufen

The following day we went for a walk in a range of hills called the Kaiserstuhl (literally: “Emperor’s Chair”) in Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany, but I think that deserves another blog post. After our walk we visited Freiburg, which gave me more opportunities to observe the urban environment and particularly the cycling infrastructure. Freiburg is a cycling city. That said, the first thing that caught my eye after we left the underground car park next to the station was the display of air pollution data.

Air pollution monitoring station in Freiburg

Coming from a country where the powers that be prefer to ignore the issue of air pollution rather than facing up to it and taking real action to tackle the problem, this openness is surprising. But then maybe there is a reason, back in the 1980’s people started to notice that large numbers of trees in the Black Forest were dying. People started to put a visit to the Black Forest on their bucket list, to see the Black Forest before it died. The Black Forest wasn’t the only forest to suffer such damage but it was the most iconic, seeing so many trees in so much trouble caused waves of protest across Europe which resulted in EU directives to reduce air pollution. As a result the levels of long range pollutants were massively reduced and the Black Forest recovered. . Of course it isn’t just trees that are damaged by exposure to air pollution, people are, too, and local air pollution in cities can be very damaging. Maybe it was the experience of seeing the Black Forest dying that has made the people of Freiburg more aware of the issue of air pollution. Certainly they have chosen to do something about it, there is an extensive tram network in the city (powered by renewable energy) and active travel is encouraged, this is, as I have already said, a cycling city.

In the UK we are told that our roads are too narrow to accommodate separate space for cycling, here they just take the space away from the more polluting means of transport. It works!

Who says bicycles and trams don't mix?

Cycle lane in Freiburg

Who says bicycles and trams don't mix?

Streets of Freiburg

It’s not just in the city that you see lots of people on bicycles, you see them up in the mountains of the Black Forest, too, although the older folk sometimes need some extra assistance.

E-bikes are getting more popular with older cyclists
E-bikes are getting more popular with older cyclists

Following our trips to the Black Forest, we set off on the next stage of our tour, moving to the Austrian end of The Bodensee (or Loch Constance as we took to calling it). We were based in Lochau for a few days, the original plan had been to head off and cycle all the way around Bodensee. However we found we didn’t have the time to go all the way round (as we had been warned not to try it on a weekend because the paths get very busy), so we just went part way and took a ferry as a short cut. I think to do this ride justice, it needs to have a blog post of its own. Needless to say, cycling through three countries in one day (or rather half a day) was easy, as the infrastructure was seamless and the signage easy to follow.

On an Austrian cycle path, turn left for Germany, turn right for Switzerland.
On an Austrian cycle path, turn left for Germany, turn right for Switzerland.

A trip across the Arlberg (a famous pass) showed that going up hill was considered no barrier to cycling either, no matter what your age. Ten years ago, Vorarlberg was the federal state (Land) which had the highest cycling modal share in Austria. Since then, it has been overtaken by the states of Tirol and Salzburg, partly as these states have latched on to the economic benefits of getting people to ride bicycles for transport and/or leisure.

The next stop on our multi centre holiday (I mean tour) was the Tirol (or Tyrol if you insist). To get there we took the scenic route over the Arlberg pass rather than taking the tunnel. After all, once you have seen the inside of one alpine tunnel, you have seen them all, and the Arlberg tunnel is 14 Km (9 miles) long which is rather dull. You miss out on the views from the top and the chance to look for blaeberries (Vaccinium myrtilis) which are also called Arlenbushes, and there is a theory that the pass thought the mountains is named after them.

Of course, those who chose to travel by bicycle, have either to cycle over the pass or take the train, as they are not allowed to use the Arlberg tunnel (not that you’d want to). We passed a dozen or so cyclists on the way up the 1,793 m pass, even though it was mid September, outwith the main tourist season.

Having arrived in the Tirol, the weather then proceeded to change which rather limited our opportunities for more cycle trips (lack of mudguards). However, we did manage to get a couple in, including one from Ötztal to Absam along part of the Inn Radwag (the Inn cycle route), but I think that is also best covered in a blog post of its own, as this one is getting rather long.

A few final observations, in all four of the countries we visited, the bicycle was used by all sections of society as a way of getting about. Cycling on the mainland of Europe is normal, most people don’t wear helmets, I don’t think I saw a single child wearing a helmet. Most of those who were wearing helmets were adults engaged in serious sports, also the Austrian mountain bikers only wear their helmets for going down hill, when riding up hill or along the roads their helmet is mounted on the handle bars.

During the three weeks we were away, we crossed international borders over 20 times, although we carried our passports with us, we were only required to show them when entering the Schengen area at EuroAirport, and when leaving it again from Munich Airport and to get back into Scotland at Edinburgh Airport.

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Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 2)

Down Dumfriesshire way (Part 2)

If you haven’t read part one (Saturday to Tuesday), it is here.
Which brings us to Wednesday: it rained, so we watched the Olympics on TV and made just one brief foray out to the Lockerbie Truck Stop, to get a paper.

On Thursday, we had two objectives: one, to visit a Historic Scotland property so that we could use our membership card and two, to meet up with a fellow blogger. Given these requirements, the obvious places to go to were Caerlaverock and Dumfries. The ride down to Caerlaverock was fairly straightforward, riding along the pretty, quiet roads of Annandale, although it was somewhat into the wind. At Dalton we had the novelty of finding a village with a pub (which hosts a Thai restaurant), but it was too early for lunch so we carried on south. Apparently, Dalton also has a Pottery Art Café, which is the sort of business which I had hoped to see more of, but we didn’t, because we took an even quieter road (and there were no signs for it in the centre of the village).

Further along the road, before reaching Ruthwell, we missed the opportunity to see the Ruthwell Cross, one of the finest Anglo-Saxon crosses in the UK. I think there was a sign for this, but it wasn’t until I did the research for this post that I realised it was worth a detour. Oh well, next time. We also missed the Savings Banks Museum, this one was clearly signed posted in Ruthwell, another thing to visit next time round. It was at Ruthwell that we picked up the NCN 7 Lochs & Glens (South) cycle route. For few miles we were side on to the wind for a change rather than a head wind, but it wasn’t to last. At Bankend we turned straight into the wind once again, I took the front forging forward allowing Ulli to shelter behind me. It was hard work but didn’t mind, well until the road started to rise up I started to flag, at which point Ulli promptly nipped out and dropped me. That girl watches too much pro cycle racing on TV… *Sigh*. (She tells me she was doing a Froome, to my Wiggins being left behind, without the race radio calling her back.)

Arriving at Caerlaverock Castle, I was relieved to find that Historic Scotland has a lovely little café with friendly staff and good food. The castle was the seat of the Maxwell family, and in times past would not have been a comfortable place for a member of the Johnston clan, but those days are gone. In the August sun I rather enjoyed wandering about taking photos of this relic of the past in complete freedom.

Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock Castle

It was also interesting to take the short walk through an area of wet woodland to the site of an earlier castle, it was fascinating. There is very little of this type of woodland left in Scotland today, but at one time it would have covered large areas of southern Scotland. So much so that the Romans thought that Northern Scotland was an island cut off from the south by a sea of bog and swamp.

The other good thing about visiting Caerlaverock Castle is that it has a café (have I mentioned the café already?), which is probably why the cycle parking was also full. As it was now late lunchtime, we took full advantage of the café facilities, before setting off for the place a blogging friend of mine calls Big Town, yes, the mighty metropolis that is Dumfries. To get there was simply a case of following the NCN 7, but some of the signage is rather interesting in its suggested routing.

The NCN 7 cycle route goes where?

Once you have found your way across the Nith, it is a straight forward ride into Dumfries.

Riding the NCN 7 beside the Nith

Riding the NCN 7 beside the Nith

Once in the great metropolis, we looked for the café where we had agreed to meet the lovely Sally Hinchcliffe AKA Town Mouse, who is not nearly as disgruntled as she likes to make out (unless you leave a cheeky comment on her blog). The café in Dock Park would make an idea cycling café, if they went to the effort of adding some cycle parking.

It is one of the ironies of Dumfries and Dumfriesshire that with a little effort it could be a cycling paradise, if they invested in decent infrastructure and made it more welcoming. This is an economically fragile area which has great tourism potential but, they really are missing a trick. A recent European study found that cycle tourism is worth over €44 billion per annum. That is a very big cake, and it is growing. It is also one which Scotland should be trying to take a large slice of, an argument I am sure Cycling Dumfries is making to the powers that be on a regular basis.

After a wee infrastructure safari around Dumfries, looking at the bike hire scheme, some of the pedestrianised centre and some badly congested roads which could easily be sorted out by a Dutch traffic engineer, we could easily see what great potential Dumfries has. If only the town council could see it, Dumfries could be a true cycling town and a very much more pleasant place to live and visit. Interestingly, there are quite a few bike shops in Dumfries, which suggests that bicycle ownership is fairly high. As I was having a wee bit of bother with getting smooth changes on my rear gears, we were taken to probably Dumfries’s best bike shop: Kirkpatrick Cycles. New gear cable fitted, we wended our way home.

Friday: as this was our last full day for touring, we chose to have a relatively flat day, taking in Ae and Lochmaben. The day was punctuated with threats of rain, this never really came to anything (if you discount one short shower where we took cover beneath some trees for ten minutes). This however did offer the opportunity to take a dramatic landscape photo.

Storm clouds over Ae Forest

The Forest of Ae is a part of the 7stanes (a network of eight mountain biking centres in southern Scotland), and as such I had expected to find a café and shop. But no, the 7stanes website tells me that “Ae, Scotland’s shortest village name is only 20 minutes from the M74 motorway” and “No catering or bike hire available onsite until further notice. Nearby Dumfries has plenty of food and drink options” which says a lot about how this area is failing to capitalise on it cycle tourism potential, they don’t actually expect people to cycle there. Riding up to the village of Ae, there is a pub, but it is only open in the evenings, great.

So onwards, next stop the Barony Country Foods farm shop, or at least that was Ulli’s choice of next stop. However as the Carse of Ae is on a rather good downhill run, I shot straight past and didn’t stop until the road flattened out. Ulli wasn’t best pleased as we pedalled back up the hill. Shopping completed, we carried on to Lochmaben in search of a café for lunch. Fortunately there is a baker’s and café in the middle of the High Strett which served the purpose, sadly no cycle parking outside.

Lunch over, we headed off to see Lochmaben Castle which is now much ruined. It has had a long and turbulent history until the mid 17th century, by which time it had seen its last siege and was gradually abandoned. Originally build by the orders of Edward I of England in 1298, it should not to be confused with an earlier castle built by the Bruce family a short distance away, which is now one of the greens of a nearby golf course. This Lochmaben Castle consists of a few substantial ivy covered walls which could pass for a lost temple in a rain forest. To make sense of it, you really need to read the interpretation boards.

Lochmaben Castle

Lochmaben Castle

It changed hands throughout the wars of independence. At one time it was under the control of Archie the Grim, 3rd Earl of Douglas. Sometime later during a lull in the wars between England and Scotland, James IV stopped by for an evening of cards with Lord Dacre, Warden of the English March. According to the Lord Treasurer of Scotland, James lost 46s 8d that night. Another royal visitor was Mary Queen of Scots who slept there, well she did get around a lot. A relative of Mary’s, the Earl of Bothwell, captured the castle in 1592, after he entered disguised as a woman and left a door open for his followers. It also played a role in the bitter feud between the Johnstons and the Maxwells, as did most of Dumfriesshire. At some time after 1628 Lochmaben Castle fell into disrepair and stone was robbed out to build Annandale House on the High Street in Lochmaben.

Saturday: We had to be out of the cottage a couple hours before we were due to catch the train we had a reservation for, so we took the long way to the station. Due to a slight disagreement over route, it ended up shorter than intended, however this did mean that we had to fill in time by going to a bakery in Locherbie and putting more money into the Dumfriesshire economy.

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