”Ich liebe Deutschland! At last!”
That’s what I say, while mooring in a lovely Marina after a nearly 50 km run along the Rhine.
“Ici c’est la France Monsieur! Ma c’est pas grave, nous somme Alsaciens!” (Here it’s France, Sir! But never mind, we’re Alsatians!”) is the answer that I get from the kind harbour attendants.
Our Alsatian adventure begun in the Vosges: Language, architecture, flavours had changed. However, at this stage I was really convinced to have landed to Germany, but I’m still in France. So what can we say?
We had also raised the German courtesy flag. How embarassing!
That’s Europe and I’m becoming ever more convinced that the borders were drawn by people either crazy or drunk.
Anyway, we’re now on the Rhine, on a little town bearing a German name but, for the maps and for politics, is still in France.
I don’t know if the people living here are aware of this: We can see a territory, feel a culture, hear a dialect, but the borders… Who played with them?
Our own personal Rhine adventure got started at its best. Before taking the big river, everybody scared the hell out of us: Giant waves, monster streams, huge cargo ships paying no attention, six-storey man-eating locks, police ready to arrest us and throw the keys away. Pretty close to my idea of fluvial hell!
But now, we’ve navigated the Rhine a fair while and I can tell you more.
So far the waves are keeping low, we face an opposite yet weak wind and the big barges are fast enough (about 20 Km/h) but very open-eyed on us as we’re on them.
Also, the slipstreams don’t seem to bother us at this stage.
In comparison, navigating in the Venice canals is much tougher, thanks to the motor boats running forth and back regardless of any rule. Here, navigators know their job.
We only get hassled by the occasional grown-up kid aboard his speedboat launched at full speed, who comes too near causing Clodia to wobble a bit.
Couldn’t his parents just watch tv, that night? That’s life, anyway, let’s hope for the better…
The locks are perfect: We share the first one (270 metres long and 20 metres high) with just a little motorboat, but in the second lock (same size as before) we’re side by side with 4 huge ships, the smaller of them being a 60 metre barge.
We look like a mice in an elephant dance party, but these elephants know how to spin.
Everything takes place quietly and precisely. In a world of professional sailors, life’s easier. Only at the end their oversize propellers make some annoying waves, but we get through safely thanks to Bruno who masters the situation perfectly.
About fluvial police… We see them coming toward us quite fast, so we get ready to pick our stuff and prepare for landing. But they aren’t ill intentioned: Slowing down to avoid making waves, they smile and greet us, also taking some picture. Very good news!
Then it’s sailing, light oars, sun, swimming in a transparent water, a good fair tide to help us, many birds and fishes. In the background there’s the Black Forest with its hills. A dream!
However there’s a sad “But”. To get this good for sailing, the river was completely altered. Its natural bed was digged, its course was channeled, its meanders (cradle of life) cut straight. A real river has a different look.
Wouldn’t be nice to work side by side with nature and not against it? Our journey is just about it: Look back to a more natural and “human” way of travelling. Speed is a fool’s bargain: I can see how it’s heavily overrated and often harmful.
But let’s rewind a few days back.
We stopped for two days in Saverne, lovely city, where we’ve been invited for a pizza on the holyday-boat of a nice German couple, Volker and Ilka. Their pizza was beautiful such as their hospitality aboard Grønland, a Dutch Tijalk (a flat bottomed boat) that they’ve completely restored.
Thanks my friends, I wish you fair winds in your life!
The morning after, Bruno takes Volker aboard Clodia for a sail in the basin facing the wonderful 17th century palace, the Chateau of Saverne, whose majesty has earned it the name “Versailles Alsace“.
Everyone is speechless while watching this unlikely crew made of our two skippers and two happy dogs. It’s now time to leave Saverne.
Our journey proceeds under rain, sun and fast clouds.
Bruno and Fine also enjoy some great sailings (I wonder why the wind always fades when I get aboard…) and, after 18 km, we get to Hochfelden.
To reach the city we have to cross as much as 4 waterways in 1 km, a sort of word record!
They’re: the Marne-Rhein canal, the Lohengraben, the Altbachgraben and the Zorn. In Hochfelden we discover a fifth river, this time made of beer: This city is home of the Meteor Brewery since 1641.
We look for a brasserie, but we have to surrender in front of a pizzeria, how puny!
Everything tells us that we’re in Germany, but we can’t find anybody around to confirm it.
On the walls we see strange paintings of people looking out of the window, and ground signs telling manholes may be used as dog toilets. These clues lead to a conclusion: French mind-set has never worked very well here. After all the majority of surnames is German and everyone is bilingual, since Alsace was Germany for a long time.
This week, we have the chance to meet some very special people, and it’s not a novelty.
The fist is called Henri Bronner, mayor of Vendenheim and friend of Guy Rougieux. He’s so kind to come to pick us up at 9 o’clock in the morning in Hochfelden, displaying Alsatian punctuality (5 to 7 minutes away from that of Germany, which in turn follows by 5 minutes the Swiss one, unchallenged even by Japanese).
Henri can’t hide even for a moment his intelligent and generous nature. Despite a very tight schedule he takes us to Strasbourg, about 15 km away, to visit the waste water depuration plant (5th by size in France) treating sewage for around 1 million people (or “equivalent inhabitants” as they say) just on the French banks of the Rhine.
Dr Samir Idir shows to Fine and me this technological marvel that gives back water to the big river, who’s seriously ill and therefore under strict observation by the European Community.
The water flowing from the plant to the Rhine is nearly drinkable.
The left-overs of depuration are used to produce natural gas, in such an extent that from next year the plant will be self-sufficient for heat energy and really soon for electricity too (they’re even planning to sell the energy surplus).
Here we meet Aude Gambet, a journalist from DNA of Strasbourg who writes a meaninful article about our project and its goals, that you can read here.
Later on, we are introduced to Andrée Buchmann, regional councilwoman of Alsace and vice-president of the Municipality of Strasbourg (and also commissioner for the environment).
She tells us about the green strategies of the city, crossway of Europe and outpost for new ideas to manage urban life. We’re also invited for lunch in the House of the Regional Council of Alsace.
We then go to Vendenheim, where we visit the city hall, an enviable Senior Citizens’ Centre and a sport centre built by using the latest and best energy saving technologies. A dream made real.
The mayor, once a trade unionist, works with great passion and commitment: You can tell that he’s loved, sincerely. He spares no effort and participates to every event where his presence is required.
To get back to Hochfelden, where Clodia is moored, we get a lift from Damien, a policeman from Vendenheim.
I’m getting worried: For the second time in a few weeks we’re guests of the French police, and we’re not criminals (yet)!
Bruno (who stayed to look after the boat) is impatiently waiting for us, because the wind is strong enough to set sails. We get going very quickly, with Bruno at the tiller and Fine rowing, covering 18 km in 5 hours: Just in time to arrive to Vendenheim where we stop for two days, shaded by a wonderful Dutch boat.
It’s the house of Remy, lock-keeper of the first “ecluse” on the Rhine after Strasbourg. Remy and his wife Nadash, a bycicle postwoman, offer us a hot shower and a tasty dinner, where we’re entertained by stories about the lock and the big river. Their daughter Marine even draws a lovely picture of us that you can see below!
Thanks to Remy and Nadash! To be continued soon…