I love my smartphone just as much as the next gal, but every once in a while I just need a day without maps and apps. Today was that day.
A friend was in town from the US and I asked him what he’d like to do for the day: drive to castle, take the train to Cologne, go for a hike, maybe a bike ride on the Rhein. He said I’ve never gone for a bike ride on the Rhein, so that’s what we selected. I was happy to have a simple low-key day on tap.
I knew I could get to our destination without a map and that getting back an alternate route would be fun to figure out. With the Rhein to our left we headed north. I had no doubt the biking would be fun (if I could live on two wheels I would!) but what really surprised me was all the streets we turned on that I someone have missed in my first year in Dusseldorf. Not to mention all the beautiful parks and green ways I had somehow never encountered.
I take a few learnings from this: habits are quick to form and hard to break, electronic maps inadvertently limit travel creativity, and there are a ton more green spaces in town that I realized!
Our first surprise was when we pulled up to the castle ruins in Kaiserwerth. I knew they existed, because a friend had posted a picture on Facebook, but I’d never experienced then myself. It was a nice place to quickly explore and my guest was pleased to see a castle (always a novelty for Americans, this one included).
We smiled at the description of the King who was a doer of good deeds (or some other sort of fame). I also thought it was cool that the stones came from Drachenfels – a castle ruin south on the Rhein that I visited last winter.
We stopped for a delicious lunch of fresh pfifferlinge (seasonal mushrooms) at the Alte Rheinfahre brauhaus – a lovely patio area overlooking the Rhein.
Then hopped a ride on the ferry (right next to the brauhaus) to the opposite bank. The ferry was loaded with bicyclists, walkers, a moped and one car, yes one car, this is a Sunday in Germany – people walk and bike. Our journey continued north and we got off the beaten path for a while to seek out a route closer to the river – not to be found, but we did discover a nice Rhein beach area. We looked north, saw a bridge, and decided that was our next destination.
I should spend a minute to describe what “off the beaten path” means in Germany. In Germany this means that we turned off the nice path on the top of the levee, which is covered in smoothly fitted carefully laid paving stones (ok sometimes crushed gravel), onto a dirt path and then through some grass between the fields toward the river banks. You would think you’d be all alone out there, but no, look up and you’ll see a dog roaming about 30 feet from his owner, off to the left you’ll see a couple strolling together hand in hand, and to the right a crowd of people trekking with hiking poles. It’s pretty darned cool!
We made our way back to the bike path and soon entered the industrial port area of Krefeld. We paused to admire a beautiful bridge over the port area.
I was happy to learn that my guest loves industrial buildings so we took our time making our way toward the bridge and then back over the Rhein. Now here’s where I made a funny observation. When I first moved to Germany I once took the same route (literally) on my road bike and it felt very far and epic, if you know what I mean. Now I found that very funny as I’ve begun to bike commute once a week nearly every week and it’s 25 Km each way. This journey round trip was maybe 40 Km. It’s interesting to see how time can alter our perspective of the same experience repeated. What things have you experienced twice and felt completely different each time?
We headed back south along the Rhein and as we entered the city we noticed the gates to a big park were flung open. I had never explored this park (turned out to be Nord Park) so we rode inside. We headed south and east taking in the flower beds, well-tended gravel paths and many fountains. A lovely park, there are others in the city which I love more, they are more wild and green, but it was nice to explore.
At this point we looked for an exit to the park and I found myself suddenly in unknown territory. I didn’t recognize the street names or the buildings and I was itching to refer to google maps. Although, somewhere along the way that morning I sort of unconsciously decided that it was going to be a no map day, and I was committed to the challenge. I let the sun be my guide! We turned right (southwest) and continued toward the city center.
Anyone who’s lived in Germany has experienced the huge crowds that occur on a sunny day. This was just such a day, and I knew that a return ride through the alstadt would not be fun. We’d be dodging people or walking awkwardly, so we took an alternate path that ran parallel to the Rhein a couple of blocks in. This is when I discovered the beauty of a google maps free day. Just north of tonhalle, we turned left onto a bike path through some grassy hills. Before this moment, I didn’t even know it existed! The path fed us into an ancient cemetery (also a new find for me) and the first thing we saw was the most beautiful grave marker. The grave marker itself is not what originally caught my eye. Instead it was the thick ropy trunk of a plant twisting its way around to the top which was crowned by a burst of green vegetation. The plant was full size, but had the feeling of a Japanese bonsai – carefully trained into twisted curves.
I snapped a photo and then I began to admire the actual grave marker. On one side was an anchor surrounded by a snake biting hit rattler tail (perhaps he was a sailor). The next side contained two hands shaking in greeting or friendship (a friend of many or an ambassador?). The third side was embossed with a fountain pen (a writer?), while the final symbol stopped me in my tracks (I know this is very cliche, but this site moved me). The symbol was a bumble bee with a skeleton carved into the thorax. Bumble bees bring life, literally, every grain of pollen they carry to a receiving stigma is the beginning of life. This bumble bee combined with a skelton – such a simple representation of life and death. I was mesmerized.
I wanted to spend more time exploring but we both were becoming a little hungry, so we continued south on back roads paralleling the alstadt. We found yet another park I had yet to discover and then popped out on the northern end of Konigsallee. The rest of the route I knew well and held no surprises.
As we pedaled toward home and a delicious dinner at my neighborhood brauhaus I marveled at all the new places I’d encountered by just following the next nice looking path and never referring to a map. A nice reminder to take a chance to break free everyone once in a while and explore a place you think you know to see what new discoveries you’ll find just one block over from your habitual route.
Schoenes Wochenender friends!
What happens for you if you go to a city map free? Is it better, worse, scary, exciting? I’d love to hear about your experiences.