Around the Bodensee
May 6 - May 13, 1998

Steve Maas
Long Beach, California, USA
 

 Part II
Impressions and Suggestions for Bodensee Bike Tourists

Back to Part I: The Tour

Links to Interesting (and even relevant) sites


Crossing the "Old Rhein" from Austria into Switzerland.


Impressions

Touring by bicycle gives you a genuine sense of the countryside. You get nothing comparable from a car or a train. On a bike, you smell the fields, the wildflower blossoms, the hot asphalt. You notice things. You see the hawk in a tree and the rat on a fence. You smell the cows and hear their bells. You hear the cuckoo in the distance. You feel the boards of the wooden bridge creak and clatter under you, and you smell the old, woody dust raised by your tires. You drink ice-cold water from the fountain in the town square. You see the old man sitting by his front door watching everything and nothing. You get bugs up your nose.

A bicycle’s relationship with the countryside is different from a car’s. In a car, you see a grain field. On a bike, you see the field, the individual stalks of grain, the clods of earth, the invading weeds, the insects, the small birds eating them, the hawks eating the small birds. You smell the grain when it’s cut and drying in the sun. In a car you get the big picture and think you understand it. On a bike you get the details and you know you understand them.

On a bike, the road has meaning. It has a reality that you experience every moment; you feel its granularity, you respond to each of its changes, and you respect its breadth and solidity. In a car, the road is almost an abstraction; you follow it like a video game as it twists under you. It’s unreal. Not so on a bike. On a bike, the road has power and it has intelligence. You push against it and it responds to your effort, carrying you uphill or sending you smoothly downhill. It knows where you will go. You have to deal with it and negotiate with it. You and the road must come to an understanding.

Like a hiker, a bicyclist is part of the environment, not insulated from it like a car, bus, or train traveler. This is both good and bad. It is an essential and inevitable part of the sense of closeness to the land, but it does require that you protect yourself from the extremes of heat, cold, sun, rain, dust, and the drying effects of the continuous 15-MPH wind in your face. You must anticipate and prepare. You must, again, negotiate with the environment.

Bugs

Bugs can be a real problem. In a car, you just wash the windshield at the next gas stop. On a bike, you are the windshield. Coming out of Bregenz, I rode through several swarms of gnats and God-knows-what other types of flying critters. Riding through  farmland, I repeatedly encountered large numbers of black hovering insects that looked like wasps. Fortunately, whatever they were, they didn’t sting. Still, there were a lot of them, and they got under my helmet, under my shirt, in my eyes, in my mouth and up my nose. There were huge swarms on Reichenau; some were so large that I could hear them buzzing 50 yards away. When they get in your helmet or clothes, you have to stop and free them or they drive you nuts. I made a lot of debugging stops.

Fortunately, I encountered few mosquitoes, bees, or other stinging or biting insects. I saw a few hornets and bumblebees, but these left me alone.

Farms

In the spring, most of the fields in Switzerland have a cover crop of some type of grain. In May it’s being cut, dried, raked and collected. Probably for silage; I don’t know. There are also fields of a plant that has bright yellow blooms. I was told that this is rape, for canola (rapeseed) oil.

The cows all have cowbells! How quaint! Mostly they are the traditional cup-shaped Swiss cowbell, but there are also large solid brass bells, quite heavy. I wonder if they give the cows neck-aches?

In the US, we are accustomed to having farms in one place and the town in another. It ain’t that way here! The barns are usually along the main drag through town, sometimes with a manure pile proudly displayed out front. I’ll bet it gets really ripe around June or July. The animals are kept from wandering into the roads, usually by electric fences, but I suspect that they are sometimes driven down the main roads and perhaps watered at the city fountains. I have even seen farm animals, sheep and cows, within the city of Zürich.

One of the most common crops is apples. The apple orchards usually have a large number of small, closely spaced trees, severely pruned. The orchards have trellises, but the trees are not actually espaliered onto them as they seem to be in Holland; I suspect that the trellises are used to support the relatively weak branches on which the apples are produced. There are also some pear trees and some stone-fruit trees of some kind; I’m not sure if the latter are serious fruit producers or are mainly for decoration and personal use. They are not in big orchards, as are the apples.

Outdoor Restaurants

Man, do these folks like to eat outdoors! If the weather allows it, dinner is outdoors, even if the area is not especially pleasant. The Sunday of the bike trip was the first really nice Sunday in a long time, and everyone was outside. In one case I saw a couple eating at what appeared to be a card table in front of the barn, right next to the manure pile. Most people were more civilized, however; many were setting up large tables for Sunday dinner, often under a large tree. They used good linens and crystal, and often had a dozen or more place settings.

In good weather, the outdoor restaurants were busy all day and well into the evening. From mid-morning on, it was lunch, drinks, ice cream, drinks, more drinks, some conversation, drinks, and finally before-dinner aperitifs, dinner, after-dinner drinks, and evening cocktails. Many people just sit down, order a beer or a glass of wine, and spend a couple hours reading the paper or just watching the world go by. The restaurants outside my hotel in Winterthur were still hopping at 10:00 at night, and I doubt that their business eased off before midnight.

With good weather, pleasant surroundings, and a little shade, the outdoor restaurants are indeed very pleasant. I got into the outdoor dining habit very easily. You can have a nice, relaxed dinner, reduce the beer content of the universe a little, and just kick back. I don’t do enough of this.

The Bodensee Bike Route

One of my concerns about the Bodensee bike route was the possibility that it might be too sterile, a European version of what I had in LA: something designed mainly to keep bikes away from interesting things like, for example, the open road. This worry was partly valid. There were a lot of absolutely wonderful stretches, mostly from Stein through Bregenz, but much of the route along the south shore was pretty dismal: narrow, unpaved, and dusty, with lots of loose gravel. I made a good decision to abandon the bike path at this point and to take the roads. The roads are pretty good, actually. Usually they have a bike lane, often a separate path, and the traffic is light. When you take minor roads, the traffic is almost nonexistent and, most importantly, the scenery is wonderful. (Actually, I came across road crews paving the bike path just north of Konstanz. So, by next summer (1999), a lot of the more dismal stretches might be paved.)

In many places the bike route is fine. It leads you through cities in a sensible, comfortable way, usually along the flattest route. It goes through mixed terrain: forests, fields, and occasionally, when appropriate, roads. Still, it is important not to adhere slavishly to the bike routes, simply to say that you have done the entire Bodensee route. (For one thing, there are several places, especially in Austria, where there are a couple of alternate routes; you really can’t follow them all.)

The route goes wherever necessary. It follows no set of rules. It goes through alleys, parking lots, and residential streets. It goes through forests on gravel roads and along the shore on paved paths. It cuts through harbors and pedestrian areas in towns and cities. And it connects with the national bike routes and other marked town-to-town routes.

Most importantly, whatever its limitations, the route is a statement that bikes belong here. It states unequivocally that touring by bike is a legitimate thing to do. It is not something you may do only with the tolerance of the automobiles, as it would be in the US; the place is made for bicycles. Bikes belong.
 
 


Suggestions for the Tour

One important suggestion: take a look at the Trento Bike Pages for links to more bicycle-touring information. There are links to lots of delightful tour reports and loads of practical information from people who do much more of this than I do.  Other links you should see are listed below:

Links

Trento Bike Pages: Probably the best, comprehensive bike-touring site on the net.

Bicycle Germany: A really nice site devoted entirely to bike touring in Germany. A lot of the information is useful for touring in general, not just Germany.

Bicycle Touring in Austria: General information on bicycling in Austria. 

Bodensee Radweg: Lots of good info; in several languages.

Swiss bicycle routes: Everything you've heard about Swiss meticulousness is true. This site, complete and detailed, proves it.

Dialoge Sprachinstitut: A German languge school in Lindau. their field trips involve bicycling in the area. Sounds like fun to me.

Bike

A bicycle is essential. It's pretty tough to do a bike tour without one. Some suggestions:

What to Bring

Since I was staying in hotels, I carried only about 35 pounds of stuff in rear panniers, an under-seat pack, and a small front pack. Here's (I think) a complete inventory:

This was quite adequate; I didn't need anything else. (However, I didn't try to go to the opera, either.)

You will notice that I don't bring conventional bike clothes. I find that the Cannondale undershorts combined with ordinary shorts that do not have any troublesome seams are fine. I strongly recommend that you wear conventional clothes and leave the haught couture de la bicyclette (apologies to those of you who really speak French) at home. By wearing conventional clothes, you are more appropriately dressed for museums, restaurants, and sightseeing. Most of Europe is pretty informal these days, but the standard US bicyclist's clown outfit, although supposedly "Europe-inspired," is just not seen in many parts of Europe, and is inappropriate attire for many purposes. Dressing inappropriately is one of the hallmarks of idiot American tourists. Don't do it.

Traveling and Getting Around

General Items Food, Water, Restrooms, Shelter, and Other Silly Little Necessities Preparing for Bad Weather

Fortunately, I had California weather for the whole trip. However, the weather on many of my day tours was not so nice. I got quite a lot of experience riding in the rain, added to my experience last year bicycle commuting in Sweden. (Click here for the story.) Some ideas:

End-of-the-Day Ritual Miscellaneous Things You Might Not Think Of
Created 7 July, 1998
Copyright (C) 1998 Stephen A. Maas, All Rights Reserved