Around the World on a Bicycle

In 1884, the 29 year old Thomas Stevens set out from San Fransisco on the 'modern mechanical invention' of the Penny Farthing to circumnavigate the globe on his 'big wheel'. His book - "Around the World on a Bicycle" - was published in 1888 and his writings are presented here in blog form. Read more in the archive.

Over the Rhine

It is raining next morning as I wheel over the rolling hills toward Saverne, a city nestling pleasantly in a little valley beyond those dark wooded heights ahead that form the eastern boundary of the valley of the Rhine. The road is good but hilly, and for several kilometres, before reaching Saverne, winds its way among the pine forests tortuously and steeply down from the elevated divide. The valley, dotted here and there with pleasant villages, is spread out like a marvellously beautiful picture, the ruins of several old castles on neighboring hill-tops adding a charm, as well as a dash of romance.

The rain pours down in torrents as I wheel into Saverne. I pause long enough to patronize a barber shop; also to procure an additional small wrench. Taking my nickelled monkey-wrench into a likely-looking hardware store, I ask the proprietor if he has anything similar. He examines it with lively interest, for, in comparison with the clumsy tools comprising his stock-in-trade, the wrench is as a watch-spring to an old horse-shoe. I purchase a rude tool that might have been fashioned on the anvil of a village blacksmith. From Saverne my road leads over another divide and down into the glorious valley of the Rhine, for a short distance through a narrow defile that reminds me somewhat of a canon in the Sierra Nevada foot-hills; but a fine, broad road, spread with a coating of surface-mud only by this morning's rain, prevents the comparison from assuming definite shape for a cycler. Extensive and beautifully terraced vineyards mark the eastern exit. The road-beds of this country are hard enough for anything; but a certain proportion of clay in their composition makes a slippery coating in rainy weather. I enter the village of Marlenheim and observe the first stork's nest, built on top of a chimney, that I have yet seen in Europe, though I saw plenty of them afterward. The parent stork is perched solemnly over her youthful brood, which one would naturally think would get smoke-dried. A short distance from Marlenheim I descry in the hazy distance the famous spire of Strasburg cathedral looming conspicuously above everything else in all the broad valley; and at 1.30 P.M. I wheel through the massive arched gateway forming part of the city's fortifications, and down the broad but roughly paved streets, the most mud-be-spattered object in all Strasburg. The fortifications surrounding the city are evidently intended strictly for business, and not merely for outward display. The railway station is one of the finest in Europe, and among other conspicuous improvements one notices steam tram-cars. While trundling through the city I am imperatively ordered off the sidewalk by the policeman; and when stopping to inquire of a respectable-looking Strasburger for the Appeuweir road, up steps an individual with one eye and a cast off military cap three sizes too small. After querying, " Appenweir. Englander?" he wheels "about face" with military precision doubtless thus impelled by the magic influence of his headgear - and beckons me to follow. Not knowing what better course to pursue I obey, and after threading the mazes of a dozen streets, composed of buildings ranging in architecture from the much gabled and not unpicturesque structures of mediaeval times to the modern brown-stone front, he pilots me outside the fortifications again, points up the Appenweir road, and after the never neglected formality of touching his cap and extending his palm, returns city-ward.

Crossing the Rhine over a pontoon bridge, I ride along level and, happily, rather less muddy roads, through pleasant suburban villages, near one of which I meet a company of soldiers in undress uniform, strung out carelessly along the road, as though returning from a tramp into the country. As I approach them, pedalling laboriously against a stiff head wind, both myself and the bicycle fairly yellow with clay, both officers and soldiers begin to laugh in a good-natured, bantering sort of manner, and a round dozen of them sing out in chorus "Ah! ah! der Englander." and as I reply, "Yah! yah." in response, and smile as I wheel past them, the laughing and banter go all along the line. The sight of an "Englander" on one of his rambling expeditions of adventure furnishes much amusement to the average German, who, while he cannot help admiring the spirit of enterprise that impels him, fails to comprehend where the enjoyment can possibly come in. The average German would much rather loll around, sipping wine or beer, and smoking cigarettes, than impel a bicycle across a continent. A few miles eastward of the Rhine another grim fortress frowns upon peaceful village and broad, green meads, and off yonder to the right is yet another; sure enough, this Franco-German frontier is one vast military camp, with forts, and soldiers, and munitions of war everywhere. When I crossed the Rhine I left Lower Alsace, and am now penetrating the middle Rhine region, where villages are picturesque clusters of gabled cottages - a contrast to the shapeless and ancient-looking stone structures of the French villages. The difference also extends to the inhabitants; the peasant women of France, in either real or affected modesty, would usually pretend not to notice anything extraordinary as I wheeled past, but upon looking back they would almost invariably be seen standing and gazing after my receding figure with unmistakable interest; but the women of these Rhine villages burst out into merry peals of laughter.

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Posted in stevens blog by Thomas Stevens on Thursday 21st May 1885 (17:00 +0200) | Add a comment | Permalink

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