MY BICYCLE DIARIES: CYCLING ALSACE FROM NORTH TO SOUTH 2/4
FROM STRASBOURG TO SÉLESTAT VIA HEILIGENSTEIN
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- READ THE FIRST EPISODE – DAYS 1 & 2 – FROM WISSEMBOURG TO STRASBOURG
- DAY 3: STRASBOURG – HEILIGENSTEIN
- DAY 4 : HEILIGENSTEIN – SÉLESTAT
- MY LUGGAGE FOR A WEEK RIDE
- RESOURCES & HELP FOR ITINERARIES BUILDING
Last year, end of September 2019, I cycled around my home region of Alsace (France) for a week. I started in Wissembourg, at the extreme north of the region, and cycled down to Basel in Switzerland. I cycled about 400km in total, on three different Eurovelo routes, I crossed two borders (Germany and Switzerland) and relaxed in three different spas along the way (because why not?) and, obviously, I experienced different weather conditions.
In the previous post, I wrote about my first two days cycling from Wissembourg to Strasbourg, between rain and butt pain. After a delicious evening in the Baden-Baden’s thermal pools, a drawing of mountains left on a kitchen wall, I was going back to Strasbourg through some charming German cycling paths, as well as a never-ending and boring gravel road along the Rhine River. But my friend Christel was waiting for me at the end of the road, with her warm and delicious hospitality.
DAY 3: 50,8 KM
STRASBOURG – SOULTZ LES BAINS – MOLSHEIM – ROSHEIM – OBERNAI – HEILIGENSTEIN
After a yummy breakfast shared with my friend Christel with some chocolate cake left by Valentin the previous night, I’m back on the road! I cycle in Neudorf, my former neighbourhood, quite nostalgic, but with a strange feeling of not completely belonging there anymore. After all, that neighbourhood has changed a lot, it got a bit gentrified, and what once felt familiar is now mixed up with the foreign. Is it how it always goes with the places we used to cherish? The filters of the past can’t quite overlap the actual sceneries. We play the game of the 7 differences, with some eagerness, but also a bit of nostalgia, isn’t it? What’s left of our memories when the architecture is changing? Is there any memory set in stone?
Oh, Strasbourg! That city has turned my head upside down! I immediately fell in love with it when I first settled there with my best friend back in 2008. I loved strolling in its narrow, lively, vibrating streets. Seeing the Cathedral is still such a thrill. Living in Strasbourg was the beginning of real independence for me. My first flatmate situation, my first stable job, my first dream job, my first stable romantic relationship. My almost 5 years at the comic books department of the Virgin Megastore were more than formative. And those ties! Those ties built with some unique personalities, those multiple families created, those steadfast friendships which nurtured me so much and so well, those intense loves which made me dance out of joy on the cobblestones as much as they made me cry my eyes out on the parks’ benches. Here was the place of my independence, my emancipation, my rebellion, and the start of my personal quest. I learnt so much there. And every come back to Strasbourg is so moving. Coming, leaving, coming again and leaving again. Strasbourg attracts me, Strasbourg comforts me, Strasbourg always kisses me softly before each departure.
Strasbourg is now the crossroad. I’m changing directions here, towards the West, towards the Wine Route. I’m getting out of Strasbourg through the Montagne Verte neighbourhood, a place I had never been before! There are some private gardens, parks, and bridges along the canal… And the famous Canal de la Bruche which will lead me to Soultz-Les-Bains, my next stop. And what a path! The Canal de la Bruche, also called Canal Vauban, was a key element in the construction of the beautiful Cathedral of Strasbourg. This 20 km long towpath with eleven floodgates allowed to transport the famous sandstone from the Vosges mountains from the Soultz-Les-Bains and Wolxheim quarries starting 1682. Today, this towpath has been turned into a bucolic cycling and walking path along the canal. I’m going through forests, little bridges, to the sound of birds chirping. I’m in the middle of nature, it’s green and peaceful. I keep my eyes wide open despite the light rain.
However, there are many graffities against the GCO (Grand Contournement Ouest – Big West Bypass), the building of a highway right here, above the canal, which is clearly threatening the place’s biodiversity… The construction site is already so huge. It’s hard to picture a highway in such a natural place. It’s such a disaster. I remember that carpooling driver who was an activist against the GCO and she was tying herself to the trees to prevent them to destroy everything. She has been condemned by the court, while the people responsible for thrashing nature, our environment and our planet are nice and cosy home, untouchables. This is outrageous. I retch a little passing by the construction site.
In Soultz-Les-Bains, I stop at the thermal establishment of Sulzbad where I get myself treated by a little back massage and a dip in the pool. Soultz-Les-Bains’ water is famous for its composition, rich in minerals and micronutrients. The welcome is warm (the hostess is also called Céline!) and the massage feels like heaven. My back and my shoulders are relaxing a little. The facility, located in a huge park, offers a wide range of thermal treatments, a pool with a jacuzzi, as well as a eucalyptus vaporium. In the park, there’s a little chapel and panels with happy messages all around.
I take my lunch right after the massage and starts my journey on the Eurovelo 5, the Alsace Wine Route. This Eurovelo 5 is 3 200km long and is also called the Via Romea Francigena. It links Canterbury in England to Brindisi in Italy following a pilgrimage path from the Middle Age, similar to the Compostella route. In Alsace, this Eurovelo 5 follows the Wine Route from Soultz-Les-Bains to Cernay.
On the Wine Route, I realize it’s the grape harvest season! And the villages are just all so gorgeous. With their traditional coloured Alsatian houses, the narrow-paved alleys, the ironwork signs. I’m falling in love with the cities of Rosheim and Obernai. And my cycle’s chain comes off right on the hills before getting to Obernai. I struggle with my chain for a least 20 minutes, my hands full of black grease. It was right after crossing the path of two young girls running with a horse along the vineyards: the kind of unlikely yet blissful vision that makes your smile extend to your ears. And makes a chain coming off not such of a big deal.
The sun has finally come out. How beautiful are the vineyards lit that way, shimmering! I munch some grapes on the way, they’re so tasty! I’m not sure I’m allowed to, but I can’t help it, the grapes are fully ripe, sweet, and juicy… I get lost in the vines on my way up to Heiligenstein (which is not located on the cycling path I was following) and I come across a few grape pickers. They are less and less, years after years. There are more and more blue tractors to harvest the grapes, except for the Crémant and the biodynamic vineyards which are still hiring the skilful hands of grape pickers.
« Well I’m nobody’s baby, I’m everybody’s girl, I’m the queen of nothing, I’m the king of the world… » (King of the World, First Aid Kit)
Heiligenstein is a charming little village, famous for its production of the Klevener wine. Catherine, my Couchsurfing host for tonight, welcomes me with the smell of an apple-grape crumble with oats cooking in the oven. She takes me for a stroll on the heights of the village to get to know each other. She’s 61 and the director of a cafeteria in a Steiner alternative school in Strasbourg. She’s a professional at cooking organic food! She has two kids, and the younger just left home to study in Strasbourg. Last summer, she hiked 40 days on the Santiago de Compostela path, alone, and came back hitchhiking! She’s such an inspiring woman! For dinner, we eat the leftovers of today’s meal at the cafeteria and this is so delicious: Bibeleskaes (an Alsatian traditional dish with cream cheese and potatoes) with a salad and a pumpkin risotto. I’m having such a “foodgasm”. Catherine dreams of opening her own organic restaurant, but thinks it might be too hard at her age…
We talk a lot about our travels and our life experiences. About men also. Her two kids have different fathers, and she’s single now. According to her, love is like a pretty pair of shoes which you end up realizing it doesn’t quite fit you well. You have to get used to it, to compose, to compromise, to adjust and adapt and it’s hard if you care about your freedom and independence. You end up with blisters on your feet. We’re always expecting for a man to take us travelling the world, but once you had done it all by yourself, our personality and mind get stronger and it gets harder to match someone else’s and to live a fulfilling relationship. It’s a lot of pain and hard work.
She’s encouraging me to persevere, find my own way and try to do something that will allow me to earn enough money to have my back and assure my future… I like this woman. Her talents, her flaws, her stories. It’s the first time of my life I have such a deep and honest conversation with a woman of her generation who’s not a family member.
For the next days, our talks will make me plunge into deep thinking about my loneliness and my failed romantic relationships as well as my personal and professional ambitions… Am I going to be single most of my life? And if so, will I ever feel fulfilled on a personal level? And how do I watch my back financially speaking? I have always avoided the question, making sure to prioritize jobs I love, jobs which allow me rewarding and enlightening experiences, prioritizing even volunteer work. At that time of my life, while I’m on this Wine Route, I’m unemployed again, and I just applied for an online course with the Alliance Française to become a French Teacher for Foreigners. A job which, I hope, will allow me to live abroad again, to live a different and enriching life. But I also know it’s a precarious job. I’ve come along enough teachers to know how hard it is to make money teaching languages abroad. Am I running against the wall choosing that new path?
DAY 4: 37, 7 KM
HEILIGENSTEIN – GERTWILLER – BARR – MITTELBERGHEIM – ANDLAU – ITTERSWILLER – EPFIG – BLIENSCHWILLER – SCHERWILLER – CHÂTENOIS – SÉLESTAT
Catherine left me her keys this morning so I can wake up whenever I want to. I do a bit of yoga to stretch and wake up my sore muscles. My body is stiff from all those ups and downs in the vineyards! I leave a note and an origami on her living room table. I wish I had spent more time with her and learnt from her experiences. It’s grey today, but I’m lucky it’s not raining.
My first stop is Gertwiller, the gingerbread capital city! Since the XVIIIth century, Gertwiller has been famous for its gingerbread and around the 1900s there were at least 8 or 9 gingerbread houses in this little village! Here, there are two gingerbread houses and one of them, the Lips house, is decorated like the Hansel and Gretel house! There has been a gingerbread shop in this beautiful house since 1806. The Lips house also hosts a gingerbread museum as well as a workshop. They still make their gingerbread in a very traditional and old-fashioned way I can’t help but stop to buy some sweet gifts for my future hosts. By the way, did you know that in Alsatian gingerbread is called “Lebküchler”? It is also said that people used to gift heart-shaped gingerbreads to their lovers, and it was even a way to declare your love to someone.
I’m cycling through villages each as pretty as the next, with wineries every 100 meters! I would like to stop, but I’m not sure cycling while being tipsy is the best idea ever. Especially since I have to cycle uphill in the vineyards. In fact, this morning I tried to inflate my rear tire, and I guess I did something wrong because I deflated it completely… This was such a moment of solitude. I also made a detour through Epfig because I missed the Eurovelo 5 signpost. After being called the novice and unlikely adventurer, call me now the novice and unlikely cyclist!
In Andlau, I discover an unusual tower, called the witch tower (“la tour des sorcières”). This big square tower, which is part of the rampart around the city, used to be a prison, particularly for women suspected of witchcraft. There used to be a lot of witch trials in the city close to the Vosges! About 1 600 pyres burnt in Alsace in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries and the region has many witch towers like the one in Andlau. This witch hunt seemed to have started because of huge hailstorms in 1562 and a series of climate disasters… Obviously, there had to be someone to blame it for and find scapegoats. As usual, it was easy to accuse women, which were always seen as worshippers of the Devil or keepers of magical powers like the healers or the midwives.
I’m then crossing the very pretty town of Dambach-la-Ville, as well as Scherwiller and Châtenois, that I already discovered last summer with the Slow Up event, a big event for cyclists, hikers, skaters and roller-bladers, which allow following a few loops on dedicated roads closed to cars in the vineyards for an entire day. The vibe is familial and fun, there are some food trucks and music all along the way. I do love this part of Alsace very much, crossing villages on the mountainside that inspired movies like Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Some fairy tales’ sceneries. But these old stones are well alive here, matching their rhythms with the vineyards.
« The first drop hits my windowpane, and the emotions start flooding in… » (Season’s Run, The XX)
Although the villages and the vineyards are so pretty around me, my body is reaching its limits. I feel weary and exhausted. Final blow in Sélestat: I sit down at the Libellule café to warm myself up and drink a hot chocolate with a piece of boysenberry pie. I read a bit while waiting for an answer from my tonight’s Couchsurfing host. In vain. The café is about to close, and I’m now outside in the rain. I send some messages again through the app, and I still don’t get any answer… At what moment does hope stops? After how much time do we stop hoping to move on to plan B? One hour? Two? Night is falling, and I know my dynamo light isn’t working, I can’t go far away from here… That’s what decides me to keep moving and look for a hotel. I find the Ibis Budget one, the cheapest, which still costs 66€ for the night, breakfast included. On my way, my head torch stops working as well. This is definitely not my day. I feel exhausted, disappointed. Bitter. I feel uncomfortable, I feel lonely. I’m overthinking, brooding.
Don’t give up?
I wonder who I am trying to impress with this new bicycle challenge… My mom? My former lovers? My friends? Myself? I tend to think that the extraordinary will make me more “lovable”, more worthy of love. In the eyes of others but also mines. As if I should make up for the dark moments, the moments of despair, those terrible moments where I felt lonely, abandoned. Those moments of anger, of shame. I hit the road with my bicycle, and it screams “Look at me! The cabin of sadness is far away behind me, look at me! You can love me now.” I ride and it’s painful and everything’s just an illusion.
I have to start loving what’s not extraordinary about me. I’m afraid these challenges, always further, always higher, are going to be the death of me. These adventures are surely nice stories and beautiful pride, but will I be more loveworthy in the end? Will I finally love myself more in the end? What if I could just forgive myself for once? Would I still need to run away?
Tomorrow night, I’m sleeping at my friend Laure’s in Sigolsheim, that’ll be my last day on this pretty Wine Route. That’s what I need right now. A dear friend.
« I ride alone the highway of life, Weaponless no gun no knife. Just like a doll, I can’t control, Matters, feelings and strifes. I love my issues, Keep them in tissues, That I usually use to wipe my tears. » (Welcome back to me, Meryem Aboulouafa)
MY LUGGAGE FOR A WEEK RIDE:
In my handlebar bag:
- 1 MP3 Player (I know it seems like I’m coming from another age. Maybe I am.)
- 1 phone
- 1 camera
- 1 phone charger & 1 portable battery
- Credit card & cash
- My ID
- 1 pack of tissues
- 1 pair of bicycle gloves
- 1 scarf
- Some maps with the bicycle paths (from the Alsace à vélo website)
- Train schedules
- 1 flashlight
- 1 Swiss army knife
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 2 cereal bars
In my rear bag n°1 – the “tool bag”:
- 1 rain pants
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 poncho
- 1 bicycle pump
- 1 pack of tire patches
- 1 head torch
- Some tools
- Some thread
- Some tape
- 1 cloth
- 1 pair of winter gloves
- 1 bottle of water
- 1 air chamber
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 bag of food (with grains, dried fruits, fresh fruits & veggies, corn & rice cakes, vegetarian spreads)
In my rear bag n°2 – the “clothes bag”:
- 1 microfiber towel
- 1 toiletry kit (with 1 solid soap, 1 solid shampoo, 1 hairbrush, 1 toothbrush, 1 toothpaste, Jojoba oil & washable pads)
- 1 pharmacy kit (with Tiger balm, Vaseline, menstrual cup, painkillers & band-aids)
- 1 e-reader full of books
- My travel journal
- Some markers & pens
- 1 pair of glasses
- 3 knickers
- 1 sports bra
- 1 bra
- 1 swimsuit
- 2 tank tops
- 2 leggings
- 1 pair of tights
- 1 short
- 1 skirt
- 1 jumper
- 2 long sleeves t-shirts
- 1 pyjama
- 3 pairs of socks
RESOURCES & HELP FOR ITINERARIES BUILDING:
- The Warmshowers website, a community of cyclists offering free accommodation and hot showers, a kind of Couchsurfing for the ones travelling by bike: https://fr.warmshowers.org/
- The Couchsurfing website, a community of travellers offering help and free accommodation (now the subscription isn’t free anymore, unfortunately): https://www.couchsurfing.com/
- The Alsace à vélo (Cycling in Alsace) website, offering itineraries, maps and cycling ideas for getaways in the Alsace region, as well as transborder routes: https://www.cyclinginalsace.com/en
- The Eurovelo website, offering maps of every Eurovelo routes as well as the points of interest: https://en.eurovelo.com/