Neuf Brisach – Strasbourg

Neuf Brisach is a pretty interesting little town, built at the beginning of the 18th century on a distinct plan specifically to keep the Germans out. It’s reminiscent of a Roman fort, with gates at the centre of each of four edges, and earthworks outside. It’s nearly perfectly preserved and oh so French.

It was a short day’s ride, only about 45 miles, because we wanted time to explore Strasbourg. And 45 dead straight and flat miles, alongside the Rhone-Rhine canal and its backwaters. But surprisingly interesting, looking for wildlife: a lizard crawled across the path, skinny and fat fish in the water, wagtails, a possible crane. Human life occasionally diverting, like the office boat trip where the staff were all made to wear silly paper sailor’s hats and each given the name of one of the seven dwarves. Go figure!

Before we knew it we were approaching Strasbourg, first with out of town kitchen showrooms and storage rental, but then, on crossing the river into the old town, a superb mediaeval centre. We are staying more or less next to the cathedral, and climbed the 332 steps to the viewing platform with views to the Vosges mountains and Black Forest.

Bad Sackingen – Neuf Brisach

Given the forecast, we were congratulating ourselves on making it through Basel with only one brief downpour. But when we passed into France, making good progress along a canal-side cycle path, all hell broke loose. Thunder, lightning, shards of ice flying out of the sky, dinking on helmets and stinging bare legs, branches falling from trees, rain forming deep puddles in seconds, visibility down to feet. Ahead, a bloke in a vest was having an even harder time of it. He sheltered under the next bridge, which would have been a good option if it wasn’t already ankle deep in water.

The good thing is, after this experience we are immune to ordinary rain, so a little drenching doesn’t bother us.

We’ve been dodging between Switzerland and Germany so much we don’t know what day it is, so when the lady in the coffee shop said ‘Prego?’ I thought we’d taken a serious wrong turn. But I think she was just impressed by my elegant cycling attire.

Arriving finally in Alsace, that part of France that, judging by place names and family names, ought really still to be in Germany (apols French friends), Caroline declared it “like East Anglia but with better cycle paths”. It’s true, since entering France the off-road sections have become harder and smoother; we had come to dread the bumpy, broken Swiss forest tracks.

Stein am Rhein – Bad Sackingen

RheinfallHot, hilly and headwind, the miles came hard today, especially as the scenic passes of the Rhine banks took us on a lot of rough off-road trails.

Outstanding breakfast at Nelly and Roman’s B&B in Stein. The area seems to be some kind of new age enclave, N&B weren’t the only ones whose house is decorated with Buddha, crystals and wind chimes.

20 CHFAt Schaffhausen, I exchanged a 20 SFR note I had saved since 1995, a type out of circulation since 2000, but still exchangeable at a small number of agencies of the Swiss National Bank. Just as well we got the ‘free’ 20 SFR because we felt exploited when we had to pay 5 SFR each for a view of the Rheinfall, the biggest waterfall in Europe by volume of water.

All this faffing made us quite late so we just had to trundle in with a short break to eat the sandwiches we made with Nelly’s bread and blessings. Reached Bad Sackingen at 1830.

Bregenz – Stein am Rhein

Crossing BodenseeThree countries, two coffee stops and one ferry. Firstly let’s celebrate a warm evening in Bregenz enjoying the rather surreal ending of the Bregenz jazz festival. After the headliners (including Flook) had departed, there was a junior talent show, with pre-teens Front Page picking up the honours for their note-perfect My Sharona. Monday dawned bright and sunny and we quickly left Austria for Germany. Coffee in Friedrichshafen, opposite the Zeppelin museum as it was starting to get hot. More elegant resort towns along the banks of Bodensee, then a real live Zeppelin hovering over the mediaeval centre of Unterstadt. With good timing, we rode straight on to the ferry at Meersburg and enjoyed a pleasant 15 minutes crossing the breadth of the lake. Second coffee stop at a bakery in Konstanz, where C used her best Duolingo German to charm the bakery lady. She is also basking in the glow of her profound tweet “yesterday’s snow melt is tomorrow’s river” going viral. 7 likes and 5 retweets and climbing! Speaking of climbing, back in Switzerland, a tiny boy on a tiny bike staged an attack on a short, steep climb in Mammern, but C simply snorted “See you in Rotterdam, sonny”.

Chur – Bregenz

IMG_20160605_100958361_HDRRiding at the foot of mountains and alongside the Rhine in spate for a drizzly morning. Rob took a detour to test the depth of a ford. Answer: about 3 feet. Gritty trails and lubeless chain made for a noisy day. Long straight lanes through Swiss dairy farms. Sundays in Switzerland are quiet, and half-expected to find no lunch, but after enquiring at the British Biker Pub in Ruthi (that’s Norton and Triumph, not Raleigh and Claud Butler) we were directed to a lively village restaurant in Oberriet with veg/vegan options. After lunch the sun came out and we were soon in Austria, which seemed breezier than Switzerland. But I kindly broke wind for Caroline. Last time here I said Lake Konstanz was like Windermere, this time it’s like Windermere with the Radio 1 roadshow in town. Threaded our way through the pedestrians on the bike path in Bregenz to reach our charming Pension and applied much-needed chain oil.

Rheinradweg: Oberalppass to Chur

20160603120005-COLLAGEHairpin descent from Oberalppass down to Disentis (this is Caroline’s track – the even more cautious descender – because I forgot to start Strava). Curiously-painted and wooden buildings in villages along the way. Highway 19 became quite busy as we approached Ilanz so we took the off road route and then stopped for coffee. Then a biggish climb where I punctured and fixed at second attempt. Promised rain started up, though not the heavy thunderstorms we feared. Fell in with David and Judith, fellow Rheinradwegers from Norfolk, heavily-laden with camping gear. Great views over ‘our’ Vorderrhein, now cutting a great gorge, and then merging with the Hinterrhein at Reichenau, in a swirling vortex. Rolled down to the big city of Chur and our trickling snow melt is already a hefty river, less than 100km from its source. Chur was having a festival of street theatre, regrettably no Circus Fudge.

Leaving thoughts on Orkney Folk Festival

On the MV Hamnavoe, sailing back from Orkney to Scrabster, surrounded by performers and sessioneers, some unreasonably lively considering their sleepless night (yes you Jeana Leslie), others slumped and dozing (The Hot Seats). A most excellent send-off, with a pair of pipers on the dock, a blue sky over sunny Stromness, cheers and waves all around.

Orkney Folk Festival is an EVENT… something magical about the combination of deep-rooted Orkney musicians, a select few visiting performers who commit to the event for the whole long-weekend, and a welcoming local community. The sessions seem great; many – like our Glaswegian hostel-mates – don’t bother with ticketed events at all, just drink and play and wish (granted) for a chance to play a few tunes with Sharon Shannon on the pier outside the Ferry Inn. If I have one personal regret about this marvellous weekend, it’s that being a non musician puts one in a passive role. Far better to be in the gang of musicians.

Brown’s hostel is just steps from the Town Hall and the pub sessions, and having a nice comfy room and kitchen made for a lovely stay.

The Gathering at OFF 2014

(c) Sean Purser 2014

Personal highlight was The Gathering, an afternoon concert by a massed Orkney all-star band led by the admirable Douglas Montgomery of saltfishforty. Apart from the thrill of hearing twenty fiddles burning into some gorgeous Orcadian tunes, there’s the implicit bond between the generations, from the elders like ‘Moothie player’ Billy Jolly through the mature stalwarts of The Chair and saltfishforty, to the young generation who have upped and gone away to take advantage of the folk degree course in Glasgow, but return home for the festival and are welcomed back into the community.  In folk there’s a lot of talk about The Tradition but here the tunes and techniques are genuinely passed between generations. You might think that would lead to stagnation, but there is no apparent resistance to innovation in harmony and rhythm.

But maybe I’m romanticising. So thought the charming young barman at the Stromness Hotel, who gave me a that’s-what-you-think look when I expressed admiration for the Orkney community.

I could have done without big name visitor Seth Lakeman, but it was great to hear Sharon Shannon. Findlay Napier from Glasgow writes and sings great songs, very much in his own voice. And he took our snoozing at the first night song session in good humour. Fara, the Kirkwall Grammar girls gone to Glasgow, are bursting with energy and enthusiasm and skill in playing and arranging. The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc have some stunning settings of Shetland, Norwegian and Swedish tunes and original compositions.

As you can tell, we love spending time in Orkney and hope to return soon.

Stromness: Journey’s End

Spectacular breakfast by Theresa at the Hawthorns B&B in Mey, then a quick roll down the hill to catch the ferry at Gill’s Bay. It’s an hour’s crossing to St Margaret Hope on South Ronaldsay, a southerly island among the Orkney archipelago. As forecast, it was a wet and windy ride to Kirkwall, where we had lunch at The Reel, Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley”s cafe / music school / recording studio.
Then another wind-beaten crawl westward to Stromness, Journey’s end. Stromness still as lovely as ever. The same “how do they keep a business like that going here?” shops. An African clothes shop in a remote Scottish island community, anyone? But big news: the Co-op has a gigantic shiny new store!

Mrs Brown of Brown’s Hostel showed us to room in cheerfully zany and hyperactive way. It’s a great one; en suite and spacious (hostels are a lottery).

Opening concert last night was terrific: Tim Edey, the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (good humour from Sweden/Norway/Shetland) and finally Sharon Shannon.

This morning enjoying the pleasant change of a lie-in! Oh and rail strike cancelled on Monday… despite the obvious logistical nightmare of rescheduling sleepers and bike bookings, there was a small part of me that was longing to call in to work and say “sorry, can’t make it, stuck in the far north of Scotland.”

Bettyhill – Thurso – Dunnet Head – John O Groats – Mey

John O'GroatsGlorious sunny day, tailwind carrying us along, great views, boxes ticked.

Leaving the slightly posh Bettyhill hotel, there were some long hills to climb and then descend, among sheep farms in a still-rugged landscape. But from Reay (site of the Dounreay nuclear power plant) suddenly it was gently undulating, arable farms, more populated. After lunch in the giant metropolis of Thurso, C had had enough and pedaled the last 10 wind-assisted miles to our final mainland B&B in Mey.

Meanwhile I went off bagging landmarks on an increasingly brilliant sunny afternoon.

The sublime: Dunnet Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, a beautiful and inspiring uphill ride to 360 degree viewpoint across Hoy and Orkney to the north, and the rest of Britain to the south. The ridiculous: John O’Groats, self-appointed end of the road, with no particular geographical claim; just a giant coach park surrounded by souvenir shops.

A Welsh cyclist took my photo under the JOG sign. At first I thought he said he was cycling the Holocaust; pretty weird I thought, but there are Commonwealth war graves nearby, I guess associated with Scapa Flow. But then I realised he was cycling “the whole coast”, clockwise from Pembrokeshire.

Tomorrow, 35 miles across Orkney to Stromness and the Folk Festival. Forecast more normal: heavy rain.

Bonar Bridge – Bettyhill

Crask Inn

Thawing out at The Crask Inn

Be careful what you wish for. After my slight disappointment that north of Inverness is quite civilised, we found our wilderness. As the road headed north from Lairg, all human life vanished. The biting westerly wind blew in all the way from America, slowing us to a crawl. Then the rain rolled in. We doubled up on raincoats and pressed on into the rain. Even the trees had given up the ghost; broken stumps, heather and tussocks all the way to the horizon. We had planned morning coffee at the legendary Crask Inn. For so long it was nowhere to be seen, then finally a small white building appeared on the horizon. The Inn *is* Crask. It’s the only habitation for 10 miles at least. (You can buy it if you want!). Morning coffee had become lunch, so Cheese and Pickle toasties and hot drinks revived us.

Despite the dreadful weather, the landscape was extraordinary. Awful and awesome, unearthly swathes of yellows, browns and oranges. We reached Altnaharra with some relief: I knew the name as the weather station here regularly records the most extreme conditions in the UK… including the record low temperature of -27.2 C in 1995.

But after Altnaharra it was still another 16 slow and difficult miles until we returned to civilisation at Tongue. We were excited to see on Strava that we had recorded the 4th fastest ride this year from Lairg to Tongue, until noticing that was 4th of 4, and more than 2 hours slower than the 3rd!

We sit here, warm and comfortable at the Bettyhill Hotel, on Britain’s northern shore, with just a simple Easterly (hence wind-assisted) ride to Mey ahead of us, then boat to Orkney on Thursday.