Ad break – Visit France! Visit Switzerland!

We’re awfully sorry for writ­ing less and less; this afflic­tion comes nat­ur­ally with hav­ing just too much to cycle and to look at and too many people to talk to and drinks to down.

You people keep ask­ing us about pre­cisely the spots we haven’t covered in detail, so here’s a quick recap of what we’ve been up to lately and what not. We’d wait for the end of the year with the review, but by then we won’t be cyc­ling and you won’t be read­ing, for hope­fully we’ll all be too busy cling­ing the glasses and mar­vel­ling at the fireworks.

Nantes: Nelson and Jorge with their early hol­i­days dive head­long into the sea of castles. In one of them they even find a host. Someone else hosts them dur­ing her birth­day party, and the Château in Chambord is pretty bor­ing on the inside. This is what they usu­ally tell from there. Alright: Most of the time it’s only about being hos­ted in a castle.

I get some­what close to that, at least, after Paris, where I join them. I had got my bike ready in the last minute, quite lit­er­ally – the entire day before tak­ing the mid­night bus from Münster I had been try­ing to put the new rack onto my bike with totally inad­equate tools and know­ledge, con­vinced that it would break with­in a few hours. After lots of para­noia (“Guys, wait for a moment, I think I’m hear­ing a noise!”), relief sets in (“Dammit, Nelson, it’s only those use­less cara­bin­ers of yours hit­ting each oth­er!”). As of today, it’s still hold­ing my bags, though the fix should make any bike per­son cringe who risks a closer look.

While in Paris we delight in Juanjo’s Andalusian hos­pit­al­ity, the even­ing in Provins could­n’t pos­sibly be more French. Vin, fro­mage, pas­tis, pétanque, and a nice cup of sleep in the garden of the castle’s oran­ger­ie. Never have we stayed in a place with more chapels. The meta­phor­ic­al one beneath the wil­low tree is the most idyll­ic break­fast place to date, the real one in the vaul­ted sou­ter­rain provides an ancient instru­ment whose sound would have suited Vlad Țepeș.

The next day we start to get lost: Every time we cycle in a new coun­try, nav­ig­a­tion has to slightly adap­ted. The same dot­ted blue line in the map can indic­ate smooth asphalt in the Münsterland, a sea of sink­holes in Sachsen, a gravel path in Poland, lava streams in Sicilia and the absence of any path in that corner of France. Stranded near Nogent-sur-Seine we wade through radio­act­ive mud and cycle along the mal­aria-infes­ted rain­forest along mias­mat­ic chan­nels, only to even­tu­ally land on one of the smoothest and straight­est bike lines the world has ever seen, occa­sion­ally doub­ling our usu­al aver­age speed.

Beyond Troyes, there is a vast noth­ing­ness. Still, in all that loneli­ness, 80 km (!) from the next town, we still man­age to find a host, in the lone­li­est and most isol­ated place of all, a small farm between nowhere and nev­er. Beautiful it was.

Dijon sees us camp­ing for the first time. Ironically, just dur­ing the days we’re passing through there is a National Week of Cyclotourism, and every single bed or couch is occu­pied. We find a stay for one night, the second has us search­ing for a quiet forest. After a bit of hes­it­a­tion, of all people it’s Jorge, not exactly the most adven­tur­ous of us, who gets excited enough about the pro­spect to pull us along.

A note on French roads: If only they exist, they are the best. Even small coun­tryside paths are suited for the thin­nest, unsus­pen­ded racing tyres. Truly, they should per­haps stage some France-wide bike race or so. Should get a pat­ent before any­one else gets the idea.

The moun­tains start around Besançon, prob­ably the most beau­ti­ful place we get to see since my start in Paris. Soon we take up endeav­ours like climb­ing 900 meters in one day from there to Pontarlier, and, what’s most sur­pris­ing, we sur­vive it. Still Jorge leaves us in Pontarlier, just in front of the Swiss bor­der, not in fear of the moun­tains but for his over­full cal­en­dar, in which he man­aged to cram not just the move to California and all the pack­ing and pre­par­a­tion asso­ci­ated with it, but also a hasty ten-day trip through Italy. On the one hand, way too much pro­gramme (if you ask me) for too little time; on the oth­er hand, though, the poor sod is going to leave Europe for five years, and bloody sure in such a situ­ation I’d try to take as much of it along with me as I could.

The two remain­ing war­ri­ors, Nelson and I, cov­ertly climb into Switzerland. In the most expens­ive coun­try we man­age to keep our wal­lets sur­pris­ingly heavy, for there is almost no need to search for hosts. Nelson has friends of friends in almost every place there, through straight­for­ward con­nex­ions and pro­foundly obscure ones. That small dent in the route you see in the map felt pretty sub­stan­tial to us, prob­ably just because we stayed for days almost every­where after hav­ing rushed through France so quickly. We have already writ­ten about cross­ing the Jura, let’s jump right ahead to Bern. The sis­ter of the friend of the uncle of my com­pan­ion (not even close to being the weird­est and word­i­est rela­tion we had to a host) hos­ted us there, but saw pre­ciously little of us – sorry once more! –, for we were too busy flirt­ing with Patrycja Łódzka, the most beau­ti­fully pla­ton­ic even­ings you could ima­gine – sorry, boy­friend in Canada!, but don’t worry too much! When not busy with mis­chief like that, we swam in the River Aare, or rather: let us be jet­ted away by its scream­ing tor­rent, hop­ing to get out before the next water­fall. To a Westphalian, there is little worse than to have your body dragged out of the water in Köln, but that pro­spect did of course just add the spice to the dare.

After Fribourg and the Lac Léman, we sub­ject ourselves to that tor­ture that is the Grand St. Bernhard pass. So far, you know only Nelson’s account, which, while accur­ately describ­ing the high of stand­ing on top and the mad frenzy of zoom­ing down the 2000 metres to Aosta, some­what neg­lects the ter­rors of climb­ing the same amount on the Swiss side, where the phrase of noth­ing but blood, toil, tears and sweat can be taken very, very lit­er­ally. Fortunately, the scream­ing down­hill winds wash it all away.

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