Meat, Cheese, Beer
There's a commonly accepted piece of wisdom when it comes to bike touring, which is to pack only the essentials, and as lightly as possible.
Then there's a commonly accepted piece of wisdom when it comes to visiting European cities, which is to dress as fashionably as possible, and at all times.
Faced with the necessity to pack for two months of doing both things simultaneously, I encountered a bit of a conundrum. So I did the wisest and most acceptable thing I could think of, which was to forgo all practical items like comfortable pants or a warm sweater, in favour of bringing some heeled leather ankle boots, a jean jacket, and all 17 of my favourite pairs of dangly earrings.
With that, my bike Taco and I, weighing in at a combined total of 260lbs split nearly down the middle, were ready to take on Europe.
In late August, I met up with my sister Lindsay and her boyfriend Michael in Amsterdam, to start the tour. We spent a few days toodling around the city, making the most of its enviable bike infrastructure, cute sidewalk cafes, and boozy canal tours.
By sheer coincidence, two old friends from university were in the city at the same time, visiting two other old friends from university I'd planned to see. So we ended up in a spontaneous mini McGill reunion in the Red Light District, where we fell just a few drinks short of convincing Michael to partake in one of Amsterdam's most infamous exchanges. For blog research purposes of course.
After a few days of taking in the sights of a city so quaint I still have a hard time believing people actually live and work there, we were ready to start the bike ride.
While Amsterdam is known around the world for its forward-thinking bike infrastructure, lesser known is the fact that the bike lanes extend not just out to the city limits, but across the whole damn country. You can basically bike across all of the Netherlands in a safer bike lane than you're wont to find in most cities' urban cores.
Add to that the fact that the some of the country's highest peaks are 15 foot. ascents up overpasses to cross a canal, and you basically have a bicycle touring paradise.
We stayed with warmshowers hosts, a community of homestays specifically for bicycle tourists, and were routinely surprised by the generosity, friendliness, and height of our hosts. Seriously, Dutch people are insanely tall. The father of one family we stayed with must have been pushing 6'6” of gangly vertical reach; their bathroom sink was nearly up to my clavicles.
In the Netherlands we got just a taste, literally, of what was to become a defining feature of the remainder of our trip. Namely: meat, cheese, bread, and booze.
When we arrived at one homestay, we were welcomed with a spread of meat, cheese, bread, and beer. When we left the next morning, they saw us off with a table of meat, cheese, bread, and coffee.
“Wow,” we collectively thought, “This is a lot of meat, cheese, and bread.”
And then we got to Germany.
If I could describe Germany in six words I might choose meat, cheese, bread, beer, forest, and toilet. And then meat again for good measure.
Now if you're thinking toilet is a weird choice, then I challenge you to spend any reasonable amount of time travelling around rural Germany with a small bladder.
Much of Germany, like the Netherlands, is covered in a surprising amount of farmland. But unlike the Netherlands, towns and cities aren't frequent enough for one to take advantage of their amenities, and when you do happen upon a town, it's closed. I kid you not, try grocery shopping anywhere in Germany on a Sunday, going to a restaurant on a Monday, or patronizing any business at all on a weekday in a small town. You can't, Germany is closed.
So that leaves much of the country hanging in an imperfect balance between being too rural to support a business that may have a bathroom, and too densely-populated to pee in a bush without inadvertently fertilizing a farmer's potato crop while he looks on disapprovingly from the tractor.
In the cities, there are some (but still not enough) bathrooms, and they cost money. Like, not-insignificant money. I once paid 1.5 € to go pee at a train station, and 75 cents to use the bathroom at a pub in which I'd been drinking and eating for an hour.
Once you've bought your way into the bathroom, you're confronted with the strangest element in the ongoing struggle to locate and use German toilets: the poop shelf. The poop shelf is a German toilet design that eschews the standard water-filled bowl shape of most western toilets in favour of an elevated, dry shelf. The idea, as I understand, is to give the user an opportunity to examine their poop, which contains myriad insights into our gut health, thereby enabling us to better understand our bodies and identify possible ailments. It also has the added benefit of obscuring any sound related to – shall we say – normal bodily functions.
So anyway, for a country that appears to be unusually concerned with gut health, Germans sure do eat an inordinate amount of meat and cheese. Meat, cheese, and bread for breakfast. So much meat for lunch. An immodest sampling of meats n' cheeses for dinner.
On our first few days in the country, we went to stay with friends of our parents in Düsseldorf. They took us on a beautiful cycling sight-see around the city, pointing out two of Frank Gehry's buildings, the impressively modern and beautiful city hall, and a car-legal street covered in so many pedestrians that cars had long ago just stopped bothering to drive down it. The urbanism geek in me fell in love.
We went to pubs whose standing tables spilled out onto the streets, ordering one each in a sequence of small beers intended to be drunk in order: pilsner > slightly darker pilsner > pilsner-tasting-beer-that-apparently-isn't-a-pilsner > dunkel.
When we'd had a few too many pilsner varietals to keep going on an empty stomach, we stopped in at a classic German brauhaus for a “quick bite.” An appetizer of hideous but delicious boiled sausages arrived alongside generous bowls of saukeraut and mustard, and was quickly followed up by the main course. Basically, an entire pig.
There was roast pig with crackling, boiled pork leg, three kinds of pork sausage, sliced ham, blood pudding. All heaped upon a giant carnivorous plate of heart-stopping gluttony.
“I'm going to die,” I thought, as I tucked into what would be the first of a thousand meals that contained more animal fat than anything else. Or, more specifically, meals that didn't contain anything but animal fat.
Riding West-East across the middle of Germany is like level 2 for European bike touring. Which is to say, also nearly flat and still very safe.
The countryside is beautiful, full of sandy pine forests and small lakes and old cobblestone towns filled with 17th century Middle German homes that I was frankly astounded to see still standing.
We ate meat and cheese for breakfast, occasionally throwing an egg on for good measure, and supplemented our meat and cheese lunches with Haribo sour candies and salty chocolate. We prevailed against the Sunday closure of most of Germany by subsisting on gas station pizza and parking lot donairs.
We even went to McDonalds on a few occasions, and due to a slight error in communication between the cashier's German and our total lack thereof, once accidentally ordered 6 Big Macs, 3 large fries, and about 2.5 litres of coca-cola for the three of us. And a cappuccino, somehow.
Just living that health and fitness lifestyle.
We arrived in Berlin to meet up with Lindsay's old boss, his partner, their newborn, and their friend. Berlin, which I'd heard from many people was sort of like a larger European Montreal in both its multiculturalism and shabby charm and hipster bar vibe, did not disappoint.
It was cocktail bar after brauhaus after bookstore-turned-gin-parlour after rooftop-patio-on-a-3-story-mall. We did the Alternative Tour, a by-donation 4-hour walking tour of the city's street art, social movements, radical history, and gentrification politics. The tour ended up at the YAAM (Youth African Art Market), an Afro-Caribbean outdoor market, bar, community, and event space on a manmade beach along a canal just east of the former wall. It's a wood and thatch operation that I imagine would be paradise on a hot day, but an uncharacteristic downpour sent us running after only a couple beers.
From what I understand from Linds and Michael, the Topography of Terror was interesting and sad and thought-provoking, Checkpoint Charlie was overrated, and the Brandenburg Gate was gate-like. But I wouldn't know, because I maybe accidentally kind of sort of stayed up until 6am every night and then slept through all of the day's historical activities.
But, uh, the bars are great!
And diverse, and everywhere. And you can still smoke inside. Which is both surprising and gross and oddly appealing when you come from a city where you can barely even smoke outside anymore. (What's up Vancouver.)
From Berlin, our salami-fuelled adventures propelled us through a variety of adorable tiny towns - whose names I can't remember and certainly couldn't pronounce - straight on into the Czech Republic where the towns became ever-smaller and considerably less pronounceable.
We rode along the Elbe River, lined with cute cafés and BnBs which abruptly became abandoned dredging equipment and graffiti-covered shacks as soon as we crossed the border. We stayed at an AirBnb in the top of floor of an elderly couple's house, in a bleak and rundown post-industrial town made charming by the overwhelming friendliness and generosity of our hosts.
We delighted in discovering that traditional Czech food consists of mostly meat and dumplings, so we wouldn't have to deviate far from our new diet, and made the most of the suspiciously affordable steak tartare and local wine.
Again, by odd coincidence, our stepsisters were in Prague at the same time we were, so we all met up at a classic Czech beer parlour for some, uhhh, pilsner, meat, and cheese.
I began to fear we might become the 21st century's first victims of scurvy.
We walked across the tourist-crammed Charles Bridge and succeeded at the last possible second in winning an escape room. We did half of a historical walking tour, abandoning it midway to peer at an ancient severed hand still strung up on the walls of the Church of Saint James the Greater, a very public warning against thievery. We saw the Prague orloj, a medieval astronomical clock apparently rated Europe's second most disappointing tourist attraction - the Mona Lisa is still holding down the number one spot - and it was, well, underwhelming.
We wandered into the claustrophobic depths of one of Prague's notorious underground pubs, and spent a lovely evening in a mountainside beer garden examining a dick pic blog, against Michael's half-hearted objections.
After a few days in Prague, we lugged our bikes onto a train to take the fast track to Munich, where Linds and I fell into the Oktoberfest fever, and stopped on our way to the festival to spontaneously purchase dirndles from old ladies who pushed our boobs up to our chins and yanked strings around our ribs to keep them there.
Germany welcomed us back with, what else? Meat, cheese, bread, and pilsner.