September 7, 2007

Bike Riding in Bavaria

I used to have a bike back in Boston. I bought it because I thought it would make my commute to work more enjoyable. After about a month, I realized that cycling in the city is no fun at all: The rush hour exhaust along Harvard Ave. is enough to make you gag and pass out; and the other drivers are so incredibly pushy and self-absorbed that it’s really only a matter of time before one of them knocks you off the road.

Cycling in Europe is a whole other matter, as I’ve already mentioned, but it wasn’t until this summer that I made it part of my own daily routine. Now it’s my passion. A few months ago, Kevin’s boss gave me his wife’s old bike. He was getting her a new one for her birthday and needed someone to take the “old one” off his hands. Turns out, the old bike was a nearly new, purple-violet Conway city bike without a speck of rust on it. It is by far the nicest bike I have ever owned. In part because I wanted to make good use of such a nice gift, and in part because there is nothing to do in Bavaria on Sundays, I started taking long Sunday rides on my new bike. They changed my whole perspective on Sundays and Germany.

Sundays in Bavaria had long been a tedious time for me. By law all shops are closed. Only churches, museums and a few cafés are allowed to stay open. But I don’t go to church here, I’ve seen all the museums a dozen times, and there are only so many hours you can sit in a café sipping espresso before you get a little restless. In retrospect, I’m kinda surprised how long it took me to figure out how to make good use of my “day of rest.”

On previous trips to Corsica and Jamaica, I learned pretty quickly that if you want to get along in a foreign culture, you have to adjust your schedule to fit the local customs. Taking a siesta from 11 to 2 in Corsica, for instance. Or in Jamaica, using the hours between 6 and 9 am for all major activities. Even though you’re on vacation, it’s just too hot to do anything later in the day. This must seems pretty obvious. “When in Rome …” right? But as an American and a young adult, I guess I had one or two things of such clear-eyed cultural understanding. It took six months before I began noticing the Sunday exodus from town to the country of whole families and gangs of retirees (the latter wear matching “team” T-shirts) – an all of them traveling by bike. And another month or so had passed before I finally joined them.

The Main River, which bisects Würzburg, runs almost the width of Bavaria, and boasts some of the prettiest bike paths in all Germany – hundreds of kilometers of them. Vineyards, orchards, wheat- and cornfields, and hundreds of tiny walled villages that only appear on the most detailed maps: Sommerhausen, Winterhausen, Margetshöchheim, Veitschöchheim. Over a number of Sundays I began exploring them all, without a map, just riding the Mainradweg first in one direction and then the other. There’s something so satisfying about finding your way to a new city without a map, and once you’ve “discovered” a place, it becomes part of your permanent lexicon, and you feel a sense of ownership for its church steeples and town squares in a way that you just don’t if you’re plopped into a town by car or train.

Lately, with the help of my friend Sergey, a Russian student from my German class, I’ve been expanding my territory. Sergey is a hard-core cyclist, and within months of his arrival in Germany, he’d already ridden the length of the Main and all along the northwest coast of Germany to see the primeval forests and chalk cliffs of Rügen. A daytrip covering 80 kilometers (or about 50 miles) of mountainous terrain is nothing for Sergey. But I must confess, it was a first for me.

One Sunday in August, we biked South from Würzburg, over the steep mountains and valleys of Höchberg (literally, “the high mountain”), and then through miles and miles of the prettiest little farmlands you’ve ever seen, right up to the old Gothic city of Tauberbischofheim – and then back home again. It was seven hours of back-braking riding, and it took me two or three days to recover. But once I did, it’s like I’d been initiated – or rather infected. I’ve caught the biking bug. No destination seemed too far nor any road too treacherous. I’ve been back to Tauberbischofheim several times since then – by myself – and now I’m planning even farther journeys to Rothenberg ob der Tauber and Bamberg.

I’ve heard that exercise can become addictive, that intense physical energy releases adrenalin and endorphins that create a “high,” comparable to drugs or sex; however, I had never thought so myself. Jogging just leaves me with shin splints and a painful stitch in my side. I am completely un-athletic. Last summer I spent a weekend at the New Hampshire lake house of a friend of a friend. When I arrived, the patriarch of the family, a 65-year-old lawyer, asked me, “So, Sarah, what sports do you do?” I had to confess that I didn’t do any sports. This came as a shock and a disappointment. “Well, by the end of this weekend, we’ll having you doing something!” he promised. Every member of that family, from the grandparents to the 30-year-old daughter who’d just had a baby, were fanatic about sport and exercise. In one day alone, I tallied that they’d run 20 miles, bike another 30, and then take a hour-long swim in the lake. Afterwards, they were still as geared up as sports fans on game day. But the enthusiasm wasn’t catching. I spent the weekend in the hot tub.

But now, I understand at least part of the appeal. I still hate running and my swimming is pretty pathetic, but I just can’t get enough of cycling. I don’t know so much if it’s the endorphins or rather that spicy scent of manure and river grass that hits your nostrils as soon as you leave the city limits, but it does feel like a “high.” I now go cycling almost every day, not just on Sundays, and a day without it is a very bad day indeed.

Here are a few photos taken on various bike rides in recent months. Sergey is the tall, lanky fellow posing by the sunflowers.