La piste des forts is the name of the bicycle path that goes from Strasbourg, over the Rhine and into Germany. It's well named. If you were not strong before you started you will be less so once you've done it. Huge trucks barrel along the main road and while the cycle path is off to one side, I still get showered with murky moisture from the puddles that sprayed out from the truck wheels.
This is my first time out on the bike. I first had to find the bike shop to get the saddle lowered. It looked easy enough on the map, the bridge, the border, Germany, is very close. But of course it's always different in actuality. Still, after only a few kilometers, over the Pont de l'Europe I go, and reach Kehl, the small town on the other side of the border.
The weather all morning has been dark and lowering, with little bursts of rain. But once I reach Kehl the rain becomes earnest. But still, the cycle paths are marked. You want to go to Offenburg, to Kork? It's clear which way to go. I shelter under an archway for a while and then the rain eases. I set off again, and soon find myself outside the small town, and on a towpath that follows a stretch of water. It leads to another road, not too busy, and still, there is the bicycle path at the side. Trees line this road, which goes over a bridge, swings to the right, skirts Neumühl and a couple of kilometres later, I arrive in Kork, which is really only a village, with a few shops, a school, some delightful looking wooden fronted houses, and a square with a statue of a kneeling bull. The inscription underneath is very hard to make out but it seems to involve a legend of a wild bull kneeling before some prince or other
By this time the sun has come out.
I head back in the same direction, but fail to find the quiet towpath. The wind is now against me, the sky has returned to its threatening ways, its billows of purple like a bag of many sighs drifting across the sky, its colour between violet and indigo, massing around the mountains of the schwarzwald, the black forest, and spreading outwards.
I decide to stop in Kehl on the way back, for refreshment and a rest. I head for the town centre, where there's a near empty square, with dried leaves scuttling across it, caught up in snatches of wind like fitful half-remembered prayers. Bright lights on one side of the square announce a Euro shop. There's a café bar in the middle of the otherwise empty square, with outside tables underneath large awnings. One client, an elderly man, sits at a table, smoking and drinking coffee, looking out over the deserted grey square. Next to him is one of these admirable heaters for outside clientèle, but it's not on.
I sit down a couple of tables away, with a view to two sides of the square – the tourist information office in front of me, and the church to one side. The church has a stolid appearance, reddish stone, functional. While I wait for coffee the wind increases its irritated bursts and rain patters on the canvas table awnings. The man gazes straight ahead of him, seeming indifferent to the vagaries of the weather, the unchanging scene. A friendly woman, who I take to be la patronne, comes out and asks me if I'd like anything. Möchete ich ein Kaffee haben bitte I beam, delighted to be able to practice my threadbare German. She is all smiles. She then goes to the elderly gentleman says something to him. Later she comes out with my coffee and places in front of the man an enormous dish of ice cream, heaped with layers of white, cream and caramel colours.
I decide he must be the Old King of Winter, out surveying what his lesser functionaries are up to. Perhaps he's deeply displeased with the intermittent nature of the bursts of wind, the rain as if thrown from a colander that's quickly emptied, the clouds that have stirred up trouble in the mountains of the Schwarzwald but have lost their impetus when confronted with the mighty Rhine, its smooth waters, its working boats carrying and offloading freight, barges with smudged and peeling paintlines, dusted with coal and mud, its ports and dockland areas, its vast dignity and importance, the rainbow of history wrapped around its banks. Perhaps he's wondered why the scourges of winter have taken so long. There's nothing he can do about the Rhine, but surely the clouds could be persuaded to form ice pellets high up in the stratosphere, to make percussive noises on taut canvas and tin roofs?
Mid December, and people can still walk around without hats and gloves, even though the wind messes their hair it's true, with its fingers, made keen and supple from spending time among the lean pines of the black forest, crowding on the slopes of the mountains. Time on its hands in small-town Kehl, the wind chases the dried leaves, then heads for the bridges over the Rhine, where it sweeps over the water in a kind of reverential ecstasy at being so close to the River King. Meanwhile, the Winter King spoons his ice cream and gazes at the tourist information office. The canvas awnings thud and crack in the wind.
When I've finished my coffee I head for the tourist office, to practise my German. I want to know which direction to go in, to reach Strasbourg. The assistant beams at me, her only customer, explains where to go, says it's signposted, shows me on a map and then insists I take it with me. Such delightful friendliness!
I cross the bridge, la passerelle du jardin des deux rives. Built to demonstrate the harmonious relationship between the two countries, with its gardens on both banks of the Rhine, it is for pedestrians and cyclists. There is even an area in the middle with tables and benches, should you want to stop and contemplate the river, the boats, the sky, the sense of being on an historic border, the history and trade of this area, the terrible conflicts of the past century, the hope for continued positive relations in Europe in this one.
The wind is fierce so I decide to pass on contemplation. Beyond the French side of the jardin des deux rives you come out into a main road of heavy traffic. I dodge into side streets, a whole area of the Porte du Rhin, a closed SNCF train station, an abandoned, roofless building, road works, dockland areas, mud-spattered roads. The kind of place you would not want to be lost in. Heading in the vague direction of the north part of town I eventually arrive in the spruce architecture of central Strasbourg, not far from home.