- Categorized in: October 2011
I was in a curious sort of a mood when I set out from Zurich. It was already lunchtime, and raining quite lightly. I only had 70km to go, to the city of Basel where I would stay the night with another friend from my professional past, called Olivia, with whom I used to work in London.
Perhaps it was the greyness of the day, but I had to contend with a lot of negative thoughts throughout the afternoon. Anger and frustrations from the past came back to trouble me, and serious questions about the future hung unanswered in my mind. What was my plan once this was all over? Had I really had my “light bulb” moment about what I would do with my life? Was I really to be in the same emotional place in which I’d set out from Hong Kong? What had I really achieved by pedalling from one spot on this planet to another?
The rain continued to fall quite gently and with it, and the undulations of the landscape, along rivers, over high-spanned bridges, up over maize-covered hills and down wooded roads, these questions fell through my head, creating a kind of melancholy in my heart as I drew closer and closer to Basel.
Upstream of Basel
I suppose with any endeavour, is there not always to be a voice of discouragement that accompanies you? “You haven’t come that far.” “You’ve haven’t really overcome that much, have you?” “You’re no different from how you always were.” “You’re following this path but do you actually know where you’re going?” “Does any of it really matter?”
You can listen, but you don’t have to believe. This voice will always be with you, but it can and must be answered. Maybe this is what I’ve been learning. This voice is not my Master. Just an opinion. And not the opinion that will come to define me or what I do.
Despite the lessons I’ve been learning, in this mood, I don’t think there could have been a better person to spend time with than my friend Olivia.
She is married to a Swiss-Italian publisher, having followed a number of professions herself. Before she decided to train as a lawyer, which is how our paths crossed, she worked in human rights, for Amnesty International in different parts of the world. You could say she is a woman of the world. She has seen a lot. But if one is able to create an image that tries to capture the essence of a person – I would begin to describe her as a pool, one that is not far from one side to the other, and is yet perfectly still, filled with crystal clear water and of fathomless depth.
Colourful houses on a drab day
I don’t know Olivia well, so this is just my impression. But I have always found her company nothing but refreshing. Her eyes are as bright as they are dark; they somehow convey a warm enthusiasm for whatever it is you’re about to say next with a mischievous glint like she’s already guessed. All her movements are nimble and elegant, hinting at her training as a dancer, and her short black hair completes the picture of a kind of incarnation of vital positivity.
She now lives in a big house on a quiet street in Basel. Her husband was away, but her two children were there, whom she now looks after full time. Her little son, Enzo and his younger brother, Savuka are the definition of cute. Enzo, aged 3, is already speaking I think 4 different languages. In this he’s taking his cue from his mother. To say Olivia is gifted in languages is a bit of an understatement – along with 7 other languages, how many other people do you know who can speak Jamaican Patois?
Although Enzo was apparently very excited to see my “big” bike, he gave it a run for its money in a series of races against his little wooden “balance bike” along their street the morning I left them. I hope he remembers his victories – after all, it’s important to encourage the next generation of cyclists. Someone has to go out and see what’s out there.
The evening before Olivia had had a reprieve from looking after the kids, which gave us a chance to go out into the city and talk.
Olivia has a deep capacity for empathy. She is wise beyond her years and has been through some of the same experiences as me, and she shares a similar faith to me. On this basis, it was very easy to lay out most of what I was feeling at this bitter-sweet part of the journey, have an honest and open conversation and come away feeling better. So three cheers for Olivia.
Central Basel on the Rhine (though not my shot)
Basel the city came and went in an evening: the pharmaceutical capital of Europe with its rather stern-looking public buildings surrounding a handful of old squares in the city centre. One could imagine officious Bürgermeisters of bygone eras steering about its old streets like galleons, sporting great stovepipe hats, checking their fob watches as in their mind they calculated the best rate of exchange for their business that morning. Or so I thought. Basel was also the first city I had come to that spans one of the two great rivers of Western Europe: the Rhine.
Basel waterfront (not my shot again)
It sits right on the boundary between Switzerland, France and Germany and this, together with its seat on the Rhine, has of course influenced its history since as far back as the Roman times. But it has more or less operated as a city-state for most of its history. You could say that is still true today, given the way the Swiss Federation of cantons is organised.
I’m afraid I didn’t get to know much about the place. But it was the launch point for the last really sizable obstacle between me and my home – the Black Forest or Schwarzwald.
Bidding Olivia and her family goodbye, I set off for the north, almost immediately crossing the border back into Germany for the second time on my route through Europe.
The road into the Schwarzwald
The road soon took me higher and higher away from the Rhine valley, into the sharpening folds and ridges of the southwestern edge of the Black Forest. This woodland region stretches about 200km northeast from the southwestern tip of Germany along its border, in the state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s about 60km across and more or less rectangular in shape. I was just cutting across one little corner of this area, but it was enough to give me pretty tired legs for the day, and produce some of the most spectacular views I’ve seen in Western Europe.
View back towards Switzerland
In fact the Black Forest represents the continental divide in Western Europe, with water from its western slopes running off into the Rhine (and finally the North Sea), while its eastern streams empty into the Danube (which makes its way to the Black Sea).
Looking northwest towards France
Although the villages one passes through are small and rustic, they lack the purely picturesque charm of the Austrian mountain hamlets. But the surrounding woodland is quite dramatic, and the woods well-deserve their Black name. The trees grow tall and thick - a mixture of evergreen firs and spruces and pines, with the deciduous oak and elm and beech (to name a few) which were already well on the turn into their autumnal colours.
A long way down to the vineyards of Baden, and beyond to France
This ride was hot, and I was surprised how hard it was to break over the watershed, but when I did I was treated to a breathtaking view to the west and north – into the first valleys of France, where Alsatian grapes were now, at last, being harvested amongst the foothills of the Vosges mountains.
The road through the Black Forest
The land fell away for thousands of feet from the serrated black-green ridge at the summit, down and down into the yellow and orange woodland where the slopes curved into the valley, and on into the patchwork of rolling vineyards that stretched off into the blue and golden haze, where far away I knew the Rhine to be flowing steadily by. Quite a sight – and on an afternoon like that, the land in the distance well deserved to be called La Belle France.
Pinot Noir Vineyards
But as any student of history knows, the Rhine needs to be crossed, and for that you need a bridge.
The nearest one was another 30km to the north, once I’d descended all the way downhill and out of the forest into one of Germany’s lesser-known wine-producing regions where various Pinots and Riesling make up most of the grape production.
Sun-ripened and ready for picking
But I came to the bridge over the Rhine at Breisach am Rhein with a few hours left in the day. And at this point, I have to admit, I felt quite emotional crossing over this historic waterway and setting foot for the first time in France.
I mean, let’s not get carried away here. It was still France. But…..well… one cannot help feeling a certain resonance as you cross the borders of this grand country. Certain ideas and characters and impressions start forcing themselves on your mind. Like a kind of badly-organised and rather noisy pageantry.
France: land of blood and wine. Of the glory of Napoleon and the shame of Robespierre. Of the genius of Victor Hugo and Dumas, of the emptiness of Sartre, the biting wit of Voltaire. The relentless reason of Pascal, the thundering cries of Danton. The bloody streets of St Bartholomew and the golden sunflowers of Van Gogh. Cheeses, perfumes, L’Oréal, Dior, the miracle of bread, perfectly tailored shirts, fashion models dressed up like peacocks. Jeanne d’Arc, and the Marquis de Sade. Cognac, hot chocolate and Normandy cider, the popping corks of Champagne and the slender bottles of Burgundy. Flying buttresses and clanging cathedral bells, projectile cobblestones, and wooden barricades. Drooping moustaches and sour breath, Gitanes and body odour. The roaring defiance of eternal revolution; Vichy, La Résistance. Asterix, Lucky Luc, Le Canard Enchaîné. Etiquette and esprit; effrontery and elegance; of chivalry and rudery. Mud and poppies; cowardice, bravery. Burning cars and Haussmann; the Eiffel Tower and the Pere LaChaise. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Or death. Towering mountains, rolling vines, fields of golden corn, burning sheep and shaded canals. The 36 hour working week, Le Tour de France, Johnny Halliday and the Divine Right of Kings. Madame La Guillotine and the artistry of Renoir, Monet’s lillies, souvenir stalls along the Seine, Rue Monsieur Le Prince, movies that make you want to end it all, laughter. Romance. Heartbreak.
France – in a word: Life.
France is a land of contradictions on the wildest of wild scales. I’m sure any of you could come up with a list of your own. They would all be true.
The crossing of the Rhine
As the pageantry continued, at the end of my day, I came to the city of Colmar. A little Alsatian town, full of charm at its heart, where I sat in a warm restaurant, adorned with wooden beams, wooden bar, wooden table and stools, and wooden waiters, which offered traditional cuisine from the region. Everyone seemed to be eating different versions of the same kind of stew out of little orange pots, called Baeckeoffe – a name that betrays the considerable Germanic linguistic influence that remains prevalent throughout Alsace.
Aside from burning off the roof of my mouth with my first bite, I was quite content, enjoying a pretty healthy-sized carafe of a local vintage, which went some way to taking away the pain.
As I walked home, I passed a sign, which read, “Bienvenue à Notre Beau Pays”.
I thought, “Why, thank you very much!”
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