It was a proud moment, the first conversation of the trip that I had held entirely in French where neither side had resorted to using any English or had given up entirely.
Me: “Excuse me, is it possible to have the key for the toilet?”
Shop Assistant: ”Yes. Bring it back here when you have finished.”
Me: ”Thank you.”
It was far from complicated dialog but it had stretched my basic linguistic abilities to their limits. 30 minutes after this momentous occasion however we were in Drusenheim, on the banks of the river Rhine, about to board the little ferry that would carry us on the 5 minute crossing to Germany where my newly-honed skills would be rendered of little use and the process would need to begin all over again.
As I write this, in a little camping cabin on the shore of Lake Garda in Italy, I can barely remember those first few days of cycling in Germany even though they were only two and a half weeks ago. Believe it or not, so much happens in a single day of cycle touring that the days and weeks all seem to blur into one hazy memory. I remember the gradual change in landscape and in architecture, the hills that came out of nowhere after we left Stuttgart, the big refreshing lakes, the forests, the increasingly ornately painted houses of Bavaria, the friendly people, and the curtious drivers. The bicycle infrastructure in France was mostly excellent, however the infrastructure in Germany was exceptional. There is a network of roads, just for bicycles and pedestrians, that connects cities and towns all over the country – the distances you can travel without spending much time with cars is really amazing.
Our destination in Germany was the area of Rosenheim and Prien am Chimsee to the south of Munich – this is the area where my gran grew up before moving to Guernsey in her late teens. It seemed to me that for dad, who was joining us as far as that point of the trip, this was a kind of pilgrimage, a chance to slowly experience and connect with the landscapes and tracks that his mother would have experienced as a child – as we got nearer and nearer, cycling through the countryside that the motorways of previous visits wouldn’t have come near, the names of villages and places seemed to become increasingly familiar, maybe echos of stories and overheard conversations from his childhood days.
The welcome by family in Bavaria was, as usual, warm and enthusiastic. We spent a lovely few days catching up, chatting, lake-swimming, and constantly eating with so many people who we hadn’t seen for a few years. Before we knew it though our time was up, with our 90 day European limit always in the back of our minds we had to say our goodbyes and get back onto our saddles. It was here too that we had to say a difficult farewell to dad who, not feeling ready to finish his adventure quite yet, had decided to cycle his return leg to Guernsey alone instead of catching the train or hiring a car. And so, we headed off in opposite directions, both destined for home but each following different paths, dad via the hills to Stuttgart and canal paths of France, Lucy and me via the mountains of Austria and maybe the deserts and plains of Asia and beyond.
From Rosenheim we followed the river Inn all the way to Innsbruck. The mountainous scenery that we were passing through was breath-taking, made even better by the fact that while we followed the river the gradient was relatively shallow as it weaved through valleys and mountain passes. We arrived in Innsbruck early in the afternoon on the 2nd day and although we had it in us to continue on we knew that the going was about to get tough and so we checked into a hostel and spent the evening in a nice little Irish pub drinking Guinness and wine.
The ride out of Innsbruck was, as expected, tough. The hills were steep, the rain was heavy, the road was busy, and most of the Austrian drivers were in need of taking another glance at their Highway Code. It was a bit of a contrast from the preceding days on the Inn. After the initial few km though we were mostly off the busier roads again and although the hills were still steep and the rain still heavy at least we didn’t have to dodge so many incompetent drivers. We planned to take on the mountains over a couple of days but with the weather being so wet we didn’t feel any inclination to stop for long at lunch or to stop early to camp so we just kept on going until suddenly we found ourselves in Italy, the fifth country on our trip (if you count Guernsey, which we do) and beginning the decent that would eventually bring us here to Lake Garda. With no campsites on the horizon though and with nightfall approaching we set up camp in a bicycle tunnel a few kms out of Brenner where we lit the stove and made some warm porridge out of the last of our muesli and settled in for the night, disturbed only by an old Italian man out walking his two goats and, just after midnight, by a German cyclist who was on a 250km overnight cycle ride to meet friends for lunch in Verona the next day.
We now have more than 200km under our wheels in Italy and as my brain tries its hardest to figure out just which words to use to talk to people here, not helped by the fact that the majority of people until around 30km ago were still using German as their primary language, I realise that it is going be like this for most of the months ahead. As we head to Croatia, Albania, and further afield, I get the feeling that we are going to be increasingly out of our depth. Lucy has sensibly decided to spend some time on DuoLingo trying to get to grips with some words and phrases, where as I am hoping that a few of the very basics and a little bit of sign language will get me by.
Tomorrow we continue south as we head for the ferry port of Ancona. We haven’t figured out our route yet, but we still have time for that this evening over a glass of Prosecco or a beer as we pack our newly washed clothes and load up our bikes. Arrivederci!