Across Continents

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The Big Push

At the top

Col de la Schlucht was the highest point on the European stage of the expedition, some 3,200 feet above sea level. Not exactly Everest, but higher than the Scafell Pike, and I’m not sure I’d drag a bike up there. Bright but with a chill breeze, I found a sheltered spot on the terrace of a cafe. It was quiet, mostly German bikers, clad in brightly coloured leathers. I watched for a while as a few workmen prepared the nearby ski lift for the forthcoming season.

Then the descent to Colmar. About 35 kilometres. I joked with a young French couple that I’d be down in about twenty minutes. Actually it was about an hour, but I did stop to take a few photographs. Winding down through the forest, these weren’t exactly alpine switch-backs, but they’d do. Then, quite suddenly, you emerged from the woods, still high above the valley bottom. Proper alpine pastures.

Passing swiftly through the villages towards the town of Munster, there was only the familiar boulangeries to remind you that you were still in France. Even the places sounded German – Soultzeren, Stosswihr and Gunsbach. The houses were different – steep sided roofs ready for the winter snows. Grazing cattle, each with a huge bell around its neck, the slightest movement making it clang quite noisely.

I’d been under canvas every night since I’d arrived in France, and, as the country drew to a close, it was time to try a roof over my head. A small motel on the outskirts of Colmar. The owner showed me a room, tucked out of sight at the back. The decor was dated, the furniture an assorted of styles, and not even the Gideons had visited. But it had clean towels and fluffy pillows. And it was cheap. I would take it.

Later I wandered to the bar, past the abandoned car and the assortment of discarded shopping trolleys. I don’t think it was actually open, but the owner let me in anyway. An assortment of tools on the empty tables, neat piles of paperwork amongst them. He was a jovial character and, as I explained about my venture, he gave me a cold beer and some pretzels.

Being so different to the rest of France, I wondered if this part of the country had ever been part of Germany. No, the owner explained, the answer lay in the unique origins of the Alsace region’s culture. It could trace its heritage back several thousand years to a time when what he described as ’Old German’ was spoken along the length of the Rhine. A language, he was very adamant, was no relation of modern ’Deutsh’. The region still had its own dialect, Alascien, which, I was assured, was incomprehensible to a French speaker.

In the morning at breakfast it seemed I was the only guest. The owner explained that he would be closing the restaurant over the weekend for refurbishment. You had to admire his optimism.

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