And now for something different… James Candon is an Irishman living in Brussels, this is the second of his new columns for IrishCycle.com with a different take on cycling than usual for this website. Also check out part one, which covers from Brussels to Aachen.
I metamorphose from cyclist to pedestrian and, in less than ten minutes, I become an urban hunter gatherer. I seek out breakfast supplies in the shopping mall while keeping an eye out for a dinner location. The locals still throng the city centre in the hour before the shops close. All is orderly. What queue there is outside of the Rewe supermarket moves at almost walking pace as masked customers wait their turn to take a trolley after it has been wiped down with disinfectant by one of the two security guys. There are no bare faces anywhere indoors.
I deposit purchases back at the flat and return to the city centre. A few minutes past eight the place has emptied out almost completely following the shop closures. I wander on to the Münsterplatz. No raving red rugby heads here, this is the place of the Minster or Cathedral. It is calm and cool on the cobblestones under the trees and being a pedestrian again after so many hours in the saddle feels strangely luxurious and almost lazy. The pace of the day has dropped several gears as muscle groups pair up differently as to when on the bike. I decide to circulate the Cathedral clockwise in gradually growing circles to try and take in the old town as efficiently as possible.
The Cathedral is said to house the remains of Charlemagne in the Karlsschrein (a shrine). It is not large but it is very old, one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe, started in 796. The squat octagonal palatine chapel at the centre of the cathedral has seen the coronation of 31 German kings and 12 Queens. They would have first been anointed at the Altar of Mary before ascending the throne of Charlemagne to be coronated. Looking on the building now it feels somewhat underwhelming, located just a few hundred meters from the galleries and outlets in the shopping area of the city.
On the north side I find myself in an open square known as the Katschof before disappearing into a side street which hosts an odd fountain: the Puppenbrunnen has several puppet type figures with movable parts cast in bronze, the extremities of which are polished bright by the passage of many hands touching them for luck. I suspect they are beginning to lose their lustre in these times of plague.
I am beginning to fade rapidly and opt for just one more circulation of the old town where I stumble on the Mannekin Pis of Aachen which is the Fischpüddelchen. A small statue of a naked toddler stands upon a stone plinth as the toddler grasps a fish under each oxter while the fish spew a gentle trickle of water either side. The statue was first installed in 1910 but was melted down for the war effort in WWII and only reinstated in 1954.
I can do no more and bring a takeaway meal to be inhaled out on the fire escape of the flat. Bats flit between the trees in the neighbouring yard and there is a distant hum of an occasional car. About 2,000 calories in and 7,000 out today, but I will never know for sure. Sleep soon follows for a solid 10 hours which sees me heading out of the city at 10am in mercifully much cooler weather than yesterday.
Germany may have a green image internationally, but it is still very much the land of the car. The road taking me out of the city is eight lanes wide at one point and the bike lane is mediocre. I am climbing for a quite a bit as I head southeast. I realise too late that I am mistaken to be blindly following the GPS. Northeast would have been practically flat and about the same distance.
A motorway east splits the two possible cycle routes like a wide dry river only fordable by occasional flyovers for local roads. I ignore the mistake and plow on into the Eiffel, as the Ardennes are known as this side of the border. Soon enough I am out of range of the city commuter bus links and things quieten down. The city and its suburbs were quite battered during the war but some of the outlying villages survive intact. Occasional fachwerk houses line the streets to leak some medieval atmosphere into the place despite the buzzing traffic.
In the valley of the Inde I find some peace for a while. The river flows on into the Roer which eventually joins the Meuse/Maas in the Netherlands where it empties into the north sea. The road snakes along the floor of the wooded valley and a separate greenway snakes along with it. A peaceable bucolic feeling oozes over me and I forget the sore muscles from yesterday.
A squirrel stares at me from a tree trunk before dashing to lose itself in the canopy. All around birds are calling over and back to each other in their own style of synchronicity. This is how I like to cycle. Abruptly the forest goes silent. A distant howling draws rapidly nearer. Screaming around a bend they come, nine of them, Nazgul in all but name. Clad from head to toe in black, their eyes shielded behind mirrors. They come on weekends to check on what remains of the natural world out here, safely separated from it in their cult of false power and prowess on two wheels, sold to them by their American deities. Poor engineering generates the noise which is disguised by marketing as a potent sign of virility. Eventually the awful mordant throbbing subsides and the birds cautiously resume their calling. Another squirrel eyes me carefully from on high but doesn’t scamper off. We both know how the story ended for the Nazgul.
A phone call with my Cologne correspondent shifts our meeting point to the Kuiper belt of Cologne commuters that is the town of Kerpen. I am not sorry. The distance I set for myself yesterday combined with the heat was over ambitious. I reset my guidance system and it draws me a picture of doable kilometers with virtually no more climbs.
Germany is lauded as a renewable energy giant but it has large skeletons in the closet. In the distance I spot the open scar on the land that is a strip mining operation for lignite or brown coal as it is sometimes called. This is burned to produce electricity. It is expensive, inefficient and horrendously polluting but the lobby for it has a firm grip on government here which provides absurd subsidies. Huge protests have failed to curtail it and it looks to continue until 2036. Climate emergency my open-hole-mine. With large member states backing this sort of nonsense, the EU can hardly censure countries like Poland which are desperately battling to keep their own coal mines and their associated jobs alive.
Nevertheless Germany is a leading light when it comes to renewable energy so one most hope that it will all work out well in the end.
Further on as I draw near to Kerpen a multi coloured methil is stooped over the green of a field. A single tractor and trailer draws their pickings to the road. I stop to take a photo, bemused as the people could easily belong to another century and continent at this remove. I continue a little until the tractor driver drops down and jogs out in front of me. Here we go I think – showtime! He doesn’t want me photographing them because they are illegal workers or something.
Our conversation starts out friendly enough and when he learns I am from Ireland the tension drops a little. When I find out he is from Romania I let drop the names of cities I have cycled through there and spout a few of the Romanian words I picked up and all is rosy. He wants to shake my hand but settles for a fist bump when I recoil given the Covid risk. He checks out the bike and gives the brass bell a ring and signals for me to wait as he dashes back to the field for two handfuls of strawberries that I cannot refuse so I hold the pannier open and let him drop them straight in. I can wash them later.
I make it to Kerpen in time to appoint a bakery as the meeting point. It has seating outdoors for coffee and cake. My correspondant arrives with the car and we take the time for a chat as I breath in three cream buns. The ordering process was Covid cumbersome. I ordered at one point, filled out my name and details for contact tracing at another counter and paid at a third where my order was handed out on a tray. All participants including myself were masked and separated by a plastic divider. This was 5km and different world away from the strawberry fields.
We disassembled the bike and stuck it into the car before I dropped my man to a train station and made the 2 hour drive back to the Brussels I had left 34 hours and what felt like a lifetime ago. Travelling by bike often accordions time like that.
Next up: Four days in Schleswig Holstein on the Schlei with a man from Galway who should not have been there.