The Red Bike Rides: Vive La Voie de La Liberté!

This is the second in a series of at least three posts about bike rides I've taken this summer. The first was here, with a bit more explanation.


As mentioned previously, Luxembourg is small. The city boasts about 90-100K residents, which almost puts it on par with Alphabet City in New York. On weekends, when all the commuters from France, Belgium, and Germany stay home, it can feel even lonelier.

Fortunately, there are other places to visit a short train ride away. 20 minutes to the West, just past the IKEA on the Belgium side of the border, is Arlon, an old Roman outpost that recently hosted a high-quality music series. 45 minutes in the opposite direction, one crosses the Moselle River and reaches Trier, the oldest city in Germany and home of Karl Marx. There's no real city closer than two hours away in the north (see the first article in this series). But in the south, it takes 45 minutes to reach Metz, the closest French city to us.

Naturally, if it takes 45 minutes to bike to Metz it can't take much longer to bike there. A couple of Saturdays ago, I tested out that axiom. The 60 Kms took me just over 4 hours and yielded the following photos and feelings:

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The Border Flag. Fairly Straightforward.

 It took me about an hour to get out of the city and then the country. I took a highway that was also named Route de Thionville. Thionville is the town that marks the halfway point between Luxembourg and Metz.

Look just to the left of the leaping deer sign for the smokestacks.
When biking in the south of Luxembourg, I've noticed a nuclear plant on the far end of the horizon. Four smokestacks rise to the sky in hollowed out, hourglass fashion, defying the onlooker to ignore it. It turns out this is the Cattenom plant, which is either the 7th or 8th largest nuclear plant in the world by power produced. The last time Amy and I visited Metz together in the spring, we stumbled upon a protest against nuclear power that most directly targeted the plant in question. In any case, the smokestacks' presence are largely inescapable when traveling through the surrounding, largely flat countryside.

An idyllic dip in said countryside.

History, recent and ancient, is everywhere in Europe. Posts like the one pictured above lined the whole route from Luxembourg to Thionville, and probably continued along the road to Metz. The blue plaques back the words "Voie de La Liberté." This was the road the American army took in the fall of 1944 to liberate Northeast France and subsequently Luxembourg.
It's a small thing, the commemoration of this feat, but I still enjoyed taking the road in the opposite direction.

Thionville is situated on the Moselle. The Moselle is a helluva river for our area: starting in the Vosges mountain range in France, it winds through Metz, Thionville, and up to form the border between Luxembourg and Germany, before breaking off towards Trier and eventually feeding into the Rhine at Koblenz. Its namesake valleys in Luxembourg and Germany are famous for cremant (sparkling wine ala champagne, and just as good) and white wine, respectively. We took a river cruise along the German border with friends one day this spring, and I wondered about the history of the river, and if anybody fled across the river by cover of night to escape Germany in, say 1938. Above, in Thionville, I'm wondering if there's anywhere along the river bank where I can pee without getting arrested.

My route took a fortuitous turn at this point. Not only did I find a reasonably tree-filled area where I could relieve myself: the road also became a bike-only path along the Moselle for the next 20 kilometers. Riding along the quiet river with only a few people passing me and the verdant waterfront to guide me, I felt a fleeting, powerful on rush of joy. For about an hour along the river, I sang, I cried, "Vive le vélo rouge! Vive la voie de la liberté!" I thought about things to write, I thought about life, I thought about nothing.

The thought process was especially liberating and meditative. When doing something meant to be meditative, like yoga or, well, meditation, I find my challenge is to harness my mind, to focus it on nothing or else on the task at hand. To reign in the "monkey mind". Usually, I fail at this on any objective scale, which is partly why I do yoga less than I should and meditate not at all. But when riding, when I have nobody to answer to and nothing to achieve, when I am exercising my physical energy and giving my testosterone and all the rest of it an outlet, I find my mind soaring, unshackled and unconcerned. On this day, with the weather a perfect sunny 70 degrees, riding along the river in a foreign country, thinking to myself in the language of the country (on about a 3rd grade level, but still), alone and free to strike out on my own path, I remembered my blessings, one mumbled French phrase at a time.

(And anybody knows how liberating it is to relieve an overstretched bladder on top of anything else).

That pillar on the left with the circle and cross was some sort of strange windmill. One cannot capture its motion on a still-motion camera. Helas.
Europe, or at least the corner I'm in, may be more progressive about bike paths, but that doesn't always mean they maintain them well. A crisis, indeed.
Not sure how clear it is, but two of my favorite things about biking in Europe are represented here. To the left: cows. To the center/right: slow-moving traffic, on a Saturday no less.

A day late, half a meter short.
As you might be able to read from that picture, the Tour de France beat me into town by a day. I actually had planned to bike to Metz the day before, but the rainy start to the day and my own laziness led me to postpone the trip for the day. While it would have been cool and of the moment to get to Metz for the Tour, it was probably for the best that I waited a day. Wouldn't want to show up those bikers in their tight clothing by making it clear that one can bike well with a loose t-shirt and shorts on. Not that I bike well.

I'm not sure the installer of this sign realized its profundity: "You do not have the priority."

Metz is known for a few things. First, its name sounds German, and it was part of the Alsace-Lorraine region occupied by the Germans after the war in 1871, a wound that stuck in France's national consciousness the way, say, we shout "Remember the Alamo!" (Never mind that we won that war and never concede territory, for a second). The city also is home to the poet Paul Verlaine, a giant of 19th century French poetry. It hosts the first extension of the Centre Pompidou in a building that looks like a cross between an obese circus tent and a misshapen spaceship. Lastly, there is a huge cathedral there, replete with Chagall stained glass windows and Gothic grandeur. You can vaguely see the cathedral in the background here. Not my best photo.

Lastly, the Metz train station. By this point, weary from weaving through the suburbs and the northern part of the city, and anxious about the 40 or so euros I spent on DVDs and a French book about being fat and loving it, I felt drained of the earlier euphoria. In its place came the more lasting but more tenuous feeling of achievement.

What had I achieved? Nothing, really. Just a  4+ hour bike ride across a border and into France, a few transactions successfully managed in French, and a mild pain below my neck from wearing my backpack all day, including my computer to test out the weight.

Achievement is a funny thing. Take a big enough perspective, and all achievement is kind of silly. Take a small enough perspective, and the simplest task becomes a triumph over the gods. But the body, freed from thought and consciousness, knows when it has worked, and knows the feeling of satisfaction that accompanies fatigue. Whether or not that work and effort went to any end is up for the mind to waffle on.

Thinking back then, on the train, and now, a couple weeks later, I think of that hour along the river. Achieving that feeling is enough to keep going. On the bike or otherwise.

Vive le vélo rouge! Vive la voie de la liberté!

(Ok, I'll stop now.)


The Red Bike Rides: The Length of Luxembourg

Perhaps inspired by these people, and maybe also by living in a country where the only famous athletes are cyclists, or possibly just because there are an abundance of well-signed paths that show off the natural beauty of the country, making this one of the best areas in the world to trail cycle (I imagine), I've done a lot of bike riding in the year since coming to Luxembourg. While riding on one of my day trips this week, I decided it might be fun to run some photo essays of the trips, possibly inspired by some of the sources above but also this essay . In any case, I hope whoever reads this enjoys it.


Luxembourg is small.

I used that lead once in an article about Israel, but Luxembourg makes Israel look gigantic. Israel's got a big old desert for a gut, and Luxembourg's slim, hourglass figure leaves Israel regretting every extra trip it took to the sand bar. Israel is 8x larger than Luxembourg, a veritable Goliath to the puny European David (and no, that does not include the occupied territories).

Then again, Luxembourg leaves Rhode Island wondering if it should renew its gym membership (you're looking a little boxy, RI).

Anybody who can positively identify Luxembourg's status - not just a city-state, not a random town in Germany, but an independent country - knows it's small. The implications of its size are what's interesting. In this case, the implication that a reasonably fit person can cross the country the long way in less than a day.

The Rough Outline of my trip (click to enlarge)

Last Wednesday, I took the train up to Belgium. There are two ways to take the train to Belgium from Luxembourg-Ville. The fast way is to go to Arlon on the way to Brussels, a 35 km ride that takes 20 minutes. The longer way is to go up to Gouvy, just across the northern border of Luxembourg. That train continues to Liege, and from there one can presumably head off to either Northwest Germany or Amsterdam. I took my red hybrid bike on the train, bought a ticket good up until the Luxembourg border, stayed on for one more stop, and got out an hour later in Belgium.

The humble Gouvy train station.

Gouvy is, as best as I could tell, a small town. Once, trains from several different routes ran through the town. Now, there's only the one between Luxembourg and Liege. Liege, for that matter, had the first international train station in the world, and now boasts a modern marvel or monstrosity, depending on your point of view.

That is the Cafe du Luxembourg over the bike's front wheel. Gouvy boasting its cosmopolitan flair.
I bought a few candy bars at the grocery store kitty corner to the train station and took off for the border. It's only a 6km ride or so to Luxembourg. There is little to mark the border: a gas station, mentioning its border status, a few road signs to let visitors know the changing rules, and a slight change in language, as the Luxembourg stores flash a bit of German or Luxembourgish in their signage. The humblest border I've seen was on a ride from Luxembourg to Arlon; I went on a rural road, and all that changed besides the signs were the color of the pavement, which grew lighter, and the quality of the housing, which grew poorer as I entered Belgium.

Friteries are uncommon in Luxembourg, so this is a border hangover to welcome those funky Belgians.

To get by Customs, one only needs to offer the officers some grass.

The northern half of Luxembourg is less populated and less cultivated. Luxembourg has a reputation, being lumped in with Belgium and Netherlands as BeneLux or the low countries, of being flat, but it's not really. The Ardennes mountain range run through this part of the country, and though it's really more like a series of hills, it still offers challenges. A few weeks ago I blundered through some especially difficult riding on the west side of the country. Fortunately, hidden all the way on the eastern spine, I didn't have major trouble biking down the country.

A detour through a wheat field left me with flies in my eyes and mouth, and on my arm.

I've noticed while biking around Luxembourg the preponderance of bugs. In general, it's not so buggy here: in our apartment on these summer nights with the balcony door open, a few moths will come in, the occasional mosquito, and, if one leaves the door unattended in the morning, a bird. But bugs aren't a huge problem. Except when biking, where midges and little gnats seem to drop from the air like, well, flies. I've swallowed at least two flies who unwittingly headed straight for my throat, and two or three other ones at least bounced off my craggy teeth. Considering my main form of entertainment while riding, besides looking at farm animals, is singing songs to myself - songs I've written, songs I'm writing, or songs I just made up involving rude drivers or what not - it becomes quite an occupational hazard.

One cool thing about riding in these parts is the recent history you come across. I imagine if anybody's eyes perked up when they read "the Ardennes" above, it had to do with history calling. The northern half of Luxembourg, as well as a contiguous section of Belgium, saw the last German thrust in World War II in what became known as the "Battle of the Bulge". The German attack caught the Allies off guard, creating a bulge in their lines. Regrouped, the Allies beat back the Germans, and the rest of the Western war was fought on German territory. At least as far as monuments go, Luxembourg (and the bordering regions of France and Belgium, at least), remain grateful for the American-led efforts to liberate the country. This small monument is one of many that dot the country.

The American most loved by the memorializing Luxembourgers is General Patton. The leader of the 3rd army died, ironically (or controversially), in the aftermath of a car accident suffered in Germany six months after the war in Europe ended. Per his request to be buried with his men, Patton's body lies about 10 km from where I type this, in the Luxembourg-American cemetery in Hamm. The photo above comes from a memorial to Patton outside the Patton museum in Ettelbruck, the biggest city in the center of Luxembourg (all of 7,600 residents). I somehow lost the photo of my bike beneath a statue of Patton, the General in his army uniform with binoculars in his hands, poised to look across the dangerous Luxembourg countryside.

 It was mild coincidence that I happened across these memorials on the 4th of July. I had intended to go for a bike ride and knew it was the 4th, but didn't plan on seeing any memorials. It made for a nice connection though: on Thanksgiving last year, Ben and I visited the cemetery in Hamm on bikes. So I believe I've been as patriotic as one can be for not being in the country on the holidays in question and not spending much time with other Americans.

This bike ride, almost the entire length of the country, was about 85km (roughly 50 miles). The big mental challenge for me was to make it to Ettelbruck, whence I had ridden from/to several times. Ettelbruck is a good center of the country location, and there's a very nice trail along the Alzette river that runs as meekly as the water below. So, satisfied with myself, I took my last photo for the day.

Me at the border at the beginning of the day. Already sweating. Maybe for the fries.