Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epernay to Lebach
Early to bed, early to rise. I'd tried taking out an earplug last night but the party must have been in full swing for most of the night. Now at 0530 with the sun coming up I wonder what the carnage is like on the sports field next door. Not my problem. I heat up my tin of Ravioli and admire my little stove as I breakfast on what should be an evening meal. Food's food though and it goes down well at any time of day.
The tiny tent, the ravioli tin and my wonderful stove. Home from home...
Today's plan is to get into Germany. I study the map the gf purchased for me intensely. I can't find any campsites around the Saarbrucken area but there's a lone campsite in Lebach, a small town north of Saarbrucken. The only thing is finding a route to avoid the toll roads without getting endlessly lost like I did yesterday. I look at the tent with all my gear squashed inside. The tent's wet from condensation and I guess some light rain last night. It's quite warm and dry at present but it does feel like there could be some rain.
I'm feeling concern. Everything's OK and nothing's broken, but I don't want to spend the next week just riding. Riding riding riding. Sure, I like to ride but not all day every day, this is supposed to be my holiday, this is supposed to be fun and enlightening not just me looking at endless strips of tarmac. From here to Lebach looks like a shorter trip than yesterday but it's still a fair run, and that's not taking into account getting lost. I'll have to take all this under consideration.
Tent down, bags packed, bike loaded and all items checked and secured. Time to lock-n-load. As I head off the light rain from yesterday returns. It does not bring me down in itself, I'm just a little downbeat and wondering if I'm doing the right thing. I'm missing my home comforts and being soft and I'm cross that it's not all fun and easy. I console myself with the thought that anything worth doing must require effort.
I ride along more of the gently undulating countryside, more straight roads that pass through small one-horse villages, through speed limits that slow you from 56 to 45 mph just to pass an empty junction and soggy bends. I reach the town of Verdun and as my stomach rumbles I spot a boulangerie so I pull in. Boulangerie's are French bakeries but where as in the UK you'll get pies and hot food this is much less the case in the boulangerie. I look hard for something hot and cooked, I'd kill for a pasty or a nice meat and potato pie right now. All I can spot is something in flaky pastry that looks cooked, I point and purchase whatever it is.
Whatever it is it's warm, but only tepid warm. In the rain the flaky pastry is getting wet so I shelter under a balcony and take a deep bite. The pastry's lovely but I'm quite unsure of the unexpected flavours from within. It's meat, I think, but it looks a little undercooked for my liking, then there's all kinds of herbs and spices making the meat indistinguishable. I'm hungry enough to eat it yet I decide I'm not so keen on whatever it is. It's almost sweet and sour, I have no idea what it is.
The boulangerie is away in the middle. It's grey, wet, miserable and I'm not sure what I've just eaten.
In the meantime the rain keeps raining, the French houses look even more ramshackle but there is one ray of hope, I'm still on the right road. In the interest of consistency I soon solve that and I'm heading North rather then West. I have no idea how this happens. I'm just a little frustrated. I plough on. And on. And on. I see a sign for a place called Longwy and as the rain finally stops I stop and take yet another look at the now bedraggled and worn out page on my map. Longwy, near the border of Belgium and Luxemburg. I can plot a route, that I doubt I can follow, that will take me through Luxemburg and to Germany and Lebach. I need fuel.
Longwy is scruffy, even by French standards. It's also got hills, sharp corners, confusing roads and peeling posters hanging off broken hoardings. I ride through town and out the other side, no sign of fuel, dammit. I ride back in and out again, still no sign of fuel, dammit. I ride back in then out again onto a hill then a long road with a petrol station. Not one petrol station but a long road full of them, Esso, Shell, Texaco and other names I don't recognise. Not only have I found fuel I've found cheap fuel! It's nigh on 30 cents per litre less.
As I pull into a station I notice the language and letters on the pumps are different. Aha. I've entered Luxemburg and they presumably have a much lower fuel tax. I fill up and as I enter the station I suddenly realise I have no idea what language the people of Luxemburg speak. I don't know what the attendant says to me or in what language she is speaking, but she seems happy with my credit card. As I ride past even more stations I assume there's no stations in Longwy as everyone crosses the border for cheaper fuel in Luxemburg.
Here's another thing. When I left the UK I had my passport checked by some British official, then again by a French official. When I leave England into Wales and Scotland there's no border control but there is a large sign welcoming me to a new country. Here, there's nothing. No barriers and armed guards. No checks. No passports or ID. Not even a sign, not even a small sign. Nothing. It seems you can just wander around Europe.
I fall off some motorway by being in the wrong lane before I realise it's going in the wrong direction. Lost, again. I could turn around and try again with the motorway but no, I did not plan to come to Luxemburg but now I'm here I may as well have a look around. I stop in a layby, consult my map and decide on a direction. With that I head off and as I leave the wooded layby the vista opens to a splendid valley covered in vines and the sun is starting to dry the damp lane. It was worth getting lost just to see this, this is nice.
The vines leading down to a lush green valley. Luxemburg seems nice so far...
I learn that Luxemburg is much like France. Except this part of Luxemburg, the southern part, has hills. The villages are similar but much smarter, the houses are similar in style but fresh and better maintained. It feels like there's a bit more cash floating around here. Other than that I learn nothing more of this small principality, it's not very large.
The style of the houses are similar to France, but everything's much smarter, sharper and crisp. Notice the footpath, in France it would likely be gravel and grass.
The next place I head for is Mettlach, Germany. There's nothing at all to signify that I've left Luxemburg and arrived in Germany. I've been in 3 countries today and never flashed my passport to a soul. I notice the road signs are a different colour, yellow now, that's all that indicates I've arrived in another nation. Other than that it looks, feels and smells just the same. I really don't know what I'd expected, perhaps an ooom-pah band, men in leather shorts, Teutonic concrete buildings and healthy looking blonde women all named Heidi. Still, it's pleasant enough and the sun is shining at last.
Mettlach arrives and the road leads me down by a broad river nestled in a pretty valley. The town is on one side and a forest climbs the opposite slope. After the long, flat and relentless farmland of France this is a welcome change and I take the time to take a few more pictures, before consulting my map. I'm not actually that far from my intended destination and I feel a sense of relief, achievement, hope and warmth from the sunshine and this place. This is a lot more like it now. I think I like Germany.
It's a splendid view at Mettlach. The small ships in the water, the forest and the small town.
Mettlach leads quickly to Merzig and Merzig should lead me easily to Lebach. Of course I manage to get lost, but now I'm happily lost. I'm riding down small narrow lanes through small villages that combine traditional houses with smart modern dwellings, all very quaint and tastefully slotted into the hilly landscape. I roll up hill and down dale for a few miles before finding myself and the road into Lebach.
The campsite on the other hand is a very odd place. It's located, hidden almost, behind a scruffy sports centre and a run down industrial building of some description. It takes a few attempts to work out which gravel track leads to the campsite and not into the woods or tennis courts. A large building with a vacant looking bar and incomplete toilets offers no sign of reception or welcome. I park the bike up and push a few closed doors until one opens and a woman looks at me in surprise and opens with a "Hallo".
It takes a concerted effort to get my mind out of French into German, but luckily "Camping" is universal to all three languages I'm using. I establish I'm looking for one "nicht" then I'm relieved of 8 Euros for the pleasure. I'm directed to a small patch of grass amongst a mis-matched bunch of dirty caravans, DIY shelters and half abandoned woodwork projects alongside rough gravel tracks. I't not impressive and I'm not impressed. I consider that I may have looked for better surrounding but I guess this is better than riding around for hours looking for another site that may not exist. I set up my pitch, play tetris with my gear till it fits in the pokey tent and wonder what to do next.
I'm camped on the grass strip to the left. There's an odd assortment of shelters and makeshift buildings built around dirty caravans that never move.
An old chap shuffles past as I lean on the bike wondering what my next move should be. I start with a Germanic "Hallo" and we talk, me with my limited German and him with some limited English. I work out that most of the pitches are lived in, full time, the old chap lives here. I learn there's a supermarket nearby and that he's never been to England, but he has heard of "Manchester United". I may as well at least go to the supermarket.
I walk past the supermarket, noting that it shuts at 2100, and it's only 1730. The town is smart and clean but the buildings are bland boxes for living in. There's the odd sign of life as a few kids cycle past and a man removes shopping from a small car which he takes into his living box. As I take a picture of the only distinctive box, orange in colour, an Asian man looks at me as he's in frame, alone. He crosses the street and politely, yet firmly, asks me something in German. I tell him "Ich nicht verstahen, Ich komme aus England", I don't understand, I'm from England. The only word I make out in his reply is "Indian". "Nein, England" and with that he walks off. I takes me a moment, but then I wonder if he thought I was taking pictures of him rather than the building, because he was Asian. I sure hope I did not offend him. Oh god I feel guilty now!
I was looking at the orange apartment block...not the gentleman on the footpath...SORRY!
I keep looking back as I walk further into town, half expecting him to return with further questions. He doesn't. The town is only small, a few shops, mostly closed, a couple of small restaurants and a garage. I do spot a bar, and as I walk past I hear laughter and a few voices. I'm feeling brave. I walk in. Inside there's 2 men sat at the bar, smoking, and a girl behind the bar, chatting with them and smoking too. It's only a small place and they look at me quizzically but with no malice as I walk up to the bar and sit down. I open with "I'm English, I don't speak much German can I have a coke", in my best German. That does the trick and soon I'm drinking coke from a tall glass after paying €1.50.
Luckily the younger of the two men speaks quite good English and we start to talk, again in a mix up of German, English, sign language and charades. Another bloke joins us later and the barmaid seems to be hassling him for something. She eventually receives 2 small plastic chimney sweep figures from deep within his jacket pocket. I have no idea why she wants them but I learn they have the same meaning here in Germany as they do back home, luck. I don't know what the handsome and sprightly young man does but he could well be a sweep, he looks too clean but he certainly works with his hands by the way he dresses and moves. I, for reasons unexplained, get my own chimney sweep figure too. I accept him gracefully.
My friendly and cheery plastic chimney sweep.
My guest's conversation flows all around me, I pick nothing but the odd word up here and there. I learn I can smoke in the bar and they look appalled when I tell them this is illegal in the UK. I learn the difference between "rechts", which is right as in right hand side and "richtig" which is right as in correct, affirmative. My English speaking friend finally clicks why I had been struggling when he realises this is one of those stupid English words with 2, or more, meanings. I've had a good time and been made to feel welcome in a curious sort of fashion, but I feel I've taken up enough of their time and I depart, taking a photo first.
Seem like a good bunch these Germans. Thanks lads...and lass...
I walk back, the half mile, to the supermarket. It's just like being in an Aldi or Lidl back home. What they do not have is anything tinned, well not anything I want or recognise. I purchase some instant noodles, I know I can cook those easily enough. I walk back to the tent and the scruffy odd little campsite. After being with my new German bar friends for an hour I suddenly feel quite alone and not a little homesick. These are the times I've most feared when planning this trip. Being alone. Completely alone.
I lie in my little tent, there's not enough space to sit. I lie there and think. I live alone. We all are alone in our minds. No-one can feel like anyone else. No-one can completely understand. Language, even the one you speak every day, is not enough to truly express your inner thoughts, feelings, emotions or desires. Language is OK for asking for a coke, to describe the way to the shops or to say how you feel, but those feeling words such as loneliness, sadness, joy or passion mean something different to each and every person. Even in a room full of friends and family we are still alone. No two people, even if they share the exact same experience, will attach the same feelings and thoughts to that experience.
There's no point sitting here like this. This is the start of a downward spiral that leads to a dark place. I force myself out of the tent and get my gear together for a shower. As I look about the site and the building works on the main block I expect little. It cheers me up no end to see that the building work is not in vain though. The toilets are brand new, clean, smart and most of all, effective! There's push button showers but with a healthy time-out and endless hot water. I relish and indulge in the warm water and bubbles for an age until I'm wrinkled. It's not being alone I'm afraid of, it's having nothing to do when I am alone which let's my mind wander that I'm afraid of.
Back at the tent I wonder what my next move should be. I have learnt something else today and yesterday. I do not want to have to cover lots of miles every day. This means I should perhaps not venture much further East, as every mile East is another mile further from the Chunnel. This is night 3 of 8 and as of tomorrow night I shall be needing to return West. I look long and hard at the map the gf provided.
If East is out, but it's a little too soon to head home, then what about North? A town called Cochem appears to be as little as 80 or 90 miles North of here and has a plethora of campsites in the vicinity. That sounds like a plan to me. Maybe I could stop in Belgium or Luxemburg on the way back? It's going dark so I wriggle, shuffle, curse and re-arrange until I'm comfortable. Well, as comfortable as this stupid little tent will let me be. Forethought has armed me with a few films on my mobile phone so I watch a little of "Oh Brother, Where Art Though" until I'm tired and nod off.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Prologue
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - The Chunnel and Wimeraux, France.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Wimeraux to Epernay, The Long Way
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epernay to Lebach
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Lebach To Cochem
The scenery is improving as well as the weather. Ren is moving upmarket and into the beautiful town of Cochem.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Cochem to Bastogne
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Bastogne to Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache to Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - A Day In Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Going Home Through The Channel Tunnel
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epilogue and More Pictures
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures
More images or Ren's European trip that will hopefully bring the story to life.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures Again
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Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell