On May 5, 2021, I received the following email message:
As a member of the German non-profit association "Wirtschaftsclub im Literaturhaus e.V." (Business Club in the House of Literature, located in Stuttgart, Germany), I would like to ask you if you see a possibility to give us, i. e. the members of the Association and its guests, a lecture on
"The Role, Meanings, and Practical Implications of Distance in the Field of Intercultural Relations/Communication" (working title).
Currently the Association is planning its new annual program dedicated to various aspects of distance and closeness. Your potential lecture is scheduled for summer 2022 (…)
Best wishes - Michael-Jörg Oesterle’
I liked the idea, and then had an epiphany: why not go bicycling to Stuttgart? It would take about a week, and take me right from my door to the Wirtschaftsclub. The waters that flowed through the Neckar past Stuttgart, also flowed through the Rhine past Wageningen, so it would be easy riding. It fitted: I like to believe that the name “Rhine” comes from the ancient pre-Celtic stem that also led to the verb “ride”, as well as the Greek “panta rhei” (“everything flows”). It would make me an expert on distance.
(n.b. I prepared by writing this blog, in German: https://geerthofstede.com/die-zukunft-von-abstand/ )
A ride along the Rhine and Neckar
On Tuesday 16 August 2022, during one of this summer’s heat waves in my part of the world, I set off from home, on my old touring bicycle, with a bit too much luggage, since the weather was predicted to turn. I aimed to follow the “Rheinradweg” and “Neckartal-radweg”.
The map shows how the Rhine basin looks somewhat like a bear on skates (I owe this metaphor to Mathijs Deen, author of "de grenzeloze rivier"). I would start at its throat, and cycle to its belly button.
The legs were: Ede - Alt Homberg - Köln - Koblenz - Mainz - Heidelberg - Heilbronn - Stuttgart.
The road was dry from start to finish. Many smaller water bodies next to the river were drying up.
Rhine basin (source: W Wasser, Wikipedia)
looking back at Voerde
Tuesday 16 August: Ede, Netherlands to Alt Homberg(150 km)
I left at 7 AM for a long, hot ride on dikes through a normally green, now yellow farming landscape. The Rhine was breaking low-water records. The border area east of Nijmegen is farmland, empty of larger cities. Sheep huddled on shadowless fields, to try and stand in one another’s shelter, like emperor penguins in the Antarctic winter.
Finding no place to have coffee, I asked a lady in the picturesque miniature town Grieth. She looked me up and down and said “Shall I make you one”? So we sat down for a coffee. Her name was Catharina, from Schleswig-Holstein, Thank you, Catharina! You made my day, and gave me the courage to carry on.
That evening, I watched ships from my balcony at Hotel Rheingarten, because the room was too hot. Did you know that German ships have male names plus family names, while Dutch ships have female names?
Wednesday 17 August: Alt Homberg to Köln (100 km)
Another hot ride through similar landscape, but past Düsseldorf the Rhine tended to be more entrenched between its banks. In Köln I first offered an Italian lunch to Konstantin. This young CDU politician was taking long bicycle rides to get rid of 25 COVID kilogrammes. He had guided me through the suburbs by Google Maps.
I was then received by my friend Christina Röttgers of SIETAR Germany.
Speaking in Köln
That evening I spoke at SIETAR’s Sommerfest. This was the first face-to-face reunion they’d had since a few years, with a quite diverse and well-travelled audience.
In the bustle of Köln I felt that my home country and its culture were not far away. They do take their climate concerns more seriously though: at night, the city closes most of its lights, to save energy – and, I daresay, to give off a symbolic message.
Thursday 18 August: Köln to Koblenz (100 km)
I said goodbye to Christina.
After a mercifully misty morning this turned into yet another hot, sunny ride.
Past Bonn, the banks became higher. I sometimes had to climb into the hills, when the banks were taken.
Although very low, the Rhine still carried substantial water (about 600.000 litres per second; annual mean is above 2.000.000 litres per second), unlike all the tributaries I passed. The Ahr for instance, whose flooding killed so many last summer, was a mere trickle. Despite this, I had to make a sizeable detour, for the bridge was still out of order.
I passed Andernach, where Caesar once crossed the Rhine.
Ahr deviation near Bad Breisig
Friday 19 August: Koblenz to Mainz (100 km)
This was the iconic ride past lots of castles, and the Loreley.
I dreamt up an alternative text to the Loreley song:
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten
das ich so traurig bin
ein Fluss aus uralten Zeiten
geht mir nicht mehr aus dem Sinn
Er has immer wasser gegeben
das macht er jetzt fast nicht mehr
wie sollen unsere Enkel jetzt leben?
Ihr Zukunft ist nicht wie vorher
I rode past the shallows at Kaub. Here, there were hardly any ships any more, though I managed to catch both a ship and the ferry.
It was uncomfortably easy to picture the Rhine as dry as the Po river has been this summer. This will probably happen in the coming years...
The good news was that I had the South-Eastern winds in my back every now and then.
Around lunch time I arrived in Bingen, to visit the monastery of St. Hildegard on the other side. A steep, hot climb brought me to this peaceful place.
Then on to the pleasant Roman city of Mainz, where I had my best meal of the trip (Geheimtipp: Restaurant Am Gautor).
By now, I had become accustomed to my way of life: rise with the sun, have a copious breakfast, then bicycle for three hours or more. In the mornings I’d see deer and roedeer who came to the river to drink; and all day, large flocks of waterfowl would take a swim in its waters; I suppose their usual ponds were dry.
Following my friend Wijnand’s advice: “It’s not about cycling fast, but about cycling on”, I would keep going until I could grab a coffee. I had some “boterkoeken” from my daughter Tove and “stroopwafels” from Albert Heijn, to tie me over.
By mid-day, I would be more than halfway. I’d sit down for a lunch with copious alkoholfreiem Weizenbier, and continue in an easier rhythm. Perhaps I’d find a place for some swimming in the river, or berry eating in those places where they were not withered. There were abandoned fruit trees everywhere, dropping prunes or mirabelles.
In the afternoon, I’d roam around the city in which I had arrived.
At night, I would sleep above the covers, widows wide open.
Saturday 20 August: Mainz to Heidelberg (115 km)
Through unstinting summer weather, I came to the plain between Neckar and Main. At Oppenheim the ferry was out of operation due to the low water level.
I lost my way in the logistic areas around Worms, where neither my map nor the road signs could help – and my German was insufficient for grasping the finer road directions that a local lady gave me. By that time I was hot and hungry. It was time for a bit of grit.
I Finally reached Mannheim. My best memory of that city was a threefold 360 degree spiral from the bridge down into the “square part”, and a fulfilling “galaktoboureko” at the Greek restaurant.
Recycling in Mannheim
At Mannheim, I left the Rhine and switched to the Neckar for the last stretch to Heidelberg.
Time for Saturday night fever at the open air DJ party.
Sunday 21 August: Heidelberg to Heilbronn (90 km)
The first half of the day was fresh, between high banks and gorgeous loops of the river.
The Neckar held water, because it is managed as a succession of bathtubs. The Rhine, by contrast, had still been a live river, normally very busily trafficked, and ships would be greatly bothered if sluices were created. But the recent droughts are also blocking traffic – it’s a devilish dilemma for cross-Germany bulk transport, caused by our collective lack of climate foresight. The Germans at least are now well aware that a climate transition is urgent.
I landed at "HARBR. hotel" in the former harbour of Heilbronn, a city of industrial immigrants that is working on a revival.
The Neckar at Zwingenberg
Monday 22 August: Heilbronn to Stuttgart (75 km)
The last hot and sunny leg was mercifully short, so that I could have lunch in Stuttgart. I felt smug and healthy, having cycled as planned.
Now I could renew my ties with this city in which I had spent a conference week in 1987. It was still ponderously sitting in its wide valley, quietly aware of its importance. Weinfeste were once more ongoing.
I met my hosts: Prof. Michael-Jörg Oesterle, who had invited me, and Dr. Achim Dannecker, the current president of the Wirtschaftsclub im Literaturhaus.
Tuesday 23 August: Stuttgart
I loafed around the hot city, preparing for my Veranstaltung.
A large plate reminded passers-by of the words that pope Franciscus spoke in 2015: "We need a dialogue that unites us, for the environmental challenge that we live through, and its human causes, concern and affect us all."
Before the meeting, Achim took me to “Radcafé Fietsen” that he financed. Bicycle cafés – it could become a trend.
The evening was valuable for me, with guests taking the message seriously and asking pointed questions. Nobody thought of taking pictures, so you'll have to take my word for it.
Wednesday 24 August: Stuttgart – Ede
I took an early train and had a no-hassle trip to Arnhem, where I bicycled the last 20 km, feeling like an accomplished globe trotter. Also, I had experienced nothing but kindness during the week. My plan to get to know my “oosterburen” ("Eastern neighbours" - this is how the Dutch call the Germans) better, had worked.
Germany in general and Stuttgart in particular – it was just around the corner, really.