The trip begins in Basel, Switzerland. It is the third most populated city in its country. Even though Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, there is no trouble crossing its boundaries- you only need an identification card. Basel is an open city, lively and reputed to be one of the most important cultural cities in Europe. In German the region is known as
Dreiländereck- making reference to it as a city that borders on three countries simultaneously.
Going out from Basel you will find yourself in the French province of Haut Rhin in Alsace. This area has plenty of small villages that are very picturesque and charming. The architecture of these villages will make it seem as though you have entered a new country. We could not place it a either French or German but, rather, as having a unique style that pertains solely to the region of Alsace. The wonderful people, gastronomy, and culture can all be encountered at your leisure as you visit each part of this region and its villages. Here you will find some « casemates » that will transport you to sixty years ago- to the scene of a country in the midst of a war. When visiting them today we can gain an accurate view of how it was during that time- thanks to the preservation work carried out by the Association of Maginot Line Friends (Aalma). Following the Rhin, between Basel and Strasbourg, we can choose to travel either on the French or German side. There are many bridges on the border, and to reach most of them you pass through some deep forest. There are also pathways by the riverbank that can be used for cycling on- something you may be glad of, having spent so much time travelling over roads! The Rhin is a natural border, but never before have the two sidesbeen more united. Once France had the opportunity to define the border, they did everything that they could to separate themselves both socially and culturally. Nowadays, and since the advent of the European Union, there are no such kinds of restrictions when crossing from one side to the other of the Rhin. In fact there are many people who live in Germany and work in France, or vice versa, and they cross the frontier more than 400 times a year. In any case, when travelling this route by bike you can be in one country while at the same time being able to see the other!
And you will not be alone in this- the Rhin path is frequented by lots of people travelling by bike, walking or jogging. When in Germany, there are various options: there is a specially designed cycle path that goes to Freiburg. On this route you can visit the villages at the parameter while you follow your way to the North. Otherwise, you can continue by the side of the Rhin, enjoying the landscape until we come across another bridge that takes us back into France. Choose according to your preference- remember that the language will change depending on what side you are on.
The region of Alsace, apart from having a strong independent character, has its own language: Alsacian (or Ellsaissich). One rainy day, we were lucky to gain first-hand experience of the Alsacian amiability when a couple took us in and provided us with pasta and hot coffee! They explained to us the historic origins of their local language. Once France regained Alsace, the use of Alsacian was banned due to its similarities with German. These were times of reunification, and it was thought that only one language should be used among the people of France. We also learned about the religious imagery of the area. Historically, Protestantism was practiced in Alsace and Lorraine. But, nowadays, at the entrance to each village, there is a large crucifix as a prominent symbol of Catholicism. Since the time of the First World War it has been a continual effort on the part of the French to convert this area to Catholicism. It is also interesting to note the names of the streets as you approach the border. Many of them often bear the name Charles de Gaulle-in acknowledgement of the ‘liberator’ of France. Even if France continues to be the most centralised country of Occidental Europe, bilingualism is quite frequent in this territory, and any tension between French and Germans has been replaced by understanding and cooperation.
Apart from the characteristic small villages of east region on either side of the Rhin, there are interesting towns to visit also:
Mulhouse: This is an industrial town, but its historical centre is charming. The youth hostel is cheap and one of the best in the region. Also- it is not located far from the Alsace Ecomusée d’Alsace which is the biggest open-air museum in France. This is a lively museum that depicts traditional ways of living- according to the craftsmen’s methods and the surrounding environment.
Colmar:This is the second most important city of Alsace and also most representative of the region. The paths in the centre of the city are all pedestrian and filled with shops and buildings of the Alsacian variety- ranging from the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Many of the houses are painted with bright colours, and the Unterlinden museum here is renowned for its spectacular altar of Issenheim.
Friburgo: This is one of the most interesting cities in the area of the Black Forest. In the old part of the city we can see examples of medieval architecture, with a magnificent gothic cathedral. Freiburg has a distinctive 'university' feel and is also dubbed the 'ecological capital' of Germany- having the highest number of environmental facilities in the European Union. The city has over 250 miles of cycle paths, which conveys how important this mode of transport to the citizens of Freiburg- as well as making it an idyllic spot for cyclists. Apart from this, almost half of the total surface of the city is covered in forest!
The journey continues toward Strasbourg, capital of the Alsacian region. The objective is not, however, to arrive as soon as possible: enjoy the trip! From Germany there is a border-bridge near Saasbach that will bring you to the Maginot Memorial Line (always check the timetables beforehand). Once here, you can take the D-468 road that goes up to Strasbourg through a very beautiful part of this area. You will see houses with unique architecture dotted along the way. Each village is separated by about five kilometres. Almost twenty kilometres before arriving in Strasbourg, you will have the option of choosing a rather scenic route at the bank of the canal. This path is designed especially for pedestrians and cyclists- motorists are not permitted.
And so we reach Strasbourg- the prototype city of the European Union, and where its parliament is located. By this stage you will have a good feeling for Alsace having seen its picturesque villages and met its unique people. But Strasbourg is different. It is cosmopolitan, filled with young people- a lively hub of diverse activities and cultures. Strasbourg is located at the heart of the European Union and is five kilometres from the German border. Strasbourg, Geneva and New York are actually the only three cities in the world that, even though they are not national capitals, host prominent international institutions. The election of Strasbourg as a European Union capital did not come about by happenstance. It signals the spirit of unification inherent in the reconciliation between France and Germany. This, in turn, serves as a template for all other European nations. The contemporary architecture European institutions is in direct contrast to the buildings from the XVI century of the Petite France - the most characteristic neighbourhood of the ancient part of the city, which is surrounded by canals. Paying the cathedral a visit is compulsory. The tower of the cathedral stands at 142 meters and, when it was completed in 1439, was the tallest construction in Europe. About gastronomy: in Strasbourg we find the savoury Quiche Lorraine, good beer and the well-known Pretzels. All around the city there are many pubs with a lively international scene, thanks to the large number of Erasmus students here. Crossing the European Bridge, also known as The Two Rivers Bridge, we arrive in the neighbouring German city of Kehl. This city is smaller than Strasbourg, and has a good shopping district with pedestrian streets and charming buildings.
Going out of Strasbourg we continue our journey to the North. In just a few kilometres we will find Haguenau forest- where we can enjoy nature without having to dismount from the bike. We will arrive at Lorraine very soon. But, first, we must make two visits that are especially compulsory for History lovers: the Abri Museum and the Schoenenbourg Fort. At the Abri Museum in Hatten we find tanks, helicopters, airplanes- and all kinds of instruments that belonged to the participatory armies of the Second World War. There are also plenty of scaled-down and life-size models that give us a real sense of the situation during that time. As such, we are lead to reflect on how horrific war can be, as well as on how such a scenario must be avoided in the future. Schoenenbourg is a really impressive fort; perhaps the one that best represents the Maginot Line fortress. If you decide to take this trip during summer, do not forget to bring some warm clothes- at least a jumper. When visiting Schoenenbourg, it is necessary to descend more than 30 meters into the ground. Here we will find galleries designed in 1930 that had the purpose of hosting dozens of soldiers. Here we can see how they ate, where they slept, and how they stored weapons- we get a realistic impression of how it was to live inside this impressive construction. There are guided tours in French and German, but you can also have visit individually. One goes through the steel reinforced doors, walks within the long galleries, arriving at the rooms furnished with the automatic guns that tried to stop the nazi offensive. The walls have historical commemorations and information panels about what happened during the Second World War in that same place. There are also speakers that play recordings of war speeches, radio programs and propaganda that had been aired, in both France and Germany, during that time.
We continue now to the west. And it is here that we will come across the only slightly difficult part of the trip. Non-experienced circlers beware- the natural park of The Vosgos is quite hilly! Fitness levels will of course determine how many kilometres are covered during each stage- but if you are not very fit don’t worry, just take it a little easy! The route continues in the Vosgos through a beautiful forest- some of it with incredible landscapes and open green areas that convey a feeling of great freedom. At the other side of the Vosgos we can visit Simserhoff or Fort Casso, other fortified constructions of the Maginot Line. These have been conserved successfully right up until the present day. In this part of France there are many old people living here who have lived through the war. The “Gites” are guesthouses where you will receive a warm welcome- the proprietors here are the best source of accurate historical information- beating any tourist guide for the area. Conversation with them is a journey to another era. People aged more than 65 years from this region born French changed nationality and language to German during the occupation, in order to recover the French identity after the war. They told us that, at the beginning of XX century, there were even people who fought with the German army against French in the First World War, and on the French side during the Second against the Germans. During the XX century in these villages it not unusual to find people who had been obliged to change nationality up to three times.
We continue with our bikes to Lorraine lands - a verdurous and geographically hilly location, one that sticks to the German border. People here told us Metz was an interesting city. It looks worth visiting, but we didn’t find any appropriate cycle paths for bikes and, having looked at the map, it would seem to require something of a diversion from our itinerary. We continued on to Thionville that is a small town with nothing much to it and a youth hostel we don’t recommend! If we had known this before, we would have travelled directly to Luxembourg.
Luxembourg is the original city of one of founders of the European Union- Robert Schuman. It is maybe from here that it derives its distinctive European character. This small city is one of the most cosmopolitan and unique in Europe. Official languages are French and German. But the immigration demographics are impressive: more than 60% of the population is non-native. This is due to the high quality life, and Luxembourg has the highest per capita income in the European Union. During 2007 Luxembourg was the European cultural capital. UNESCO has declared the old neighbourhood and the fortresses of the city heritage sites.