miles: 18 | cumulative: 28
The sun did not greet me the next morning. Far from it. My naïf dreaming had jinxed me; and for the first time I was forced to don my coat. Accompanied by my beanie and gloves, I set out once more through the old town of Kleve and back onto the cycle path, suspiciously eyeing the grey skies above.
The road out of town followed a few miles of fields and then began to cut through the middle of a Forstbetrieb (logging forest) where I took my first water break of the day.
I came to the town of Goch around midday. Originally, I had planned to stay the night here, just as Paddy had done during his first night in Germany. However, I decided to press on and get in some extra miles for the day. Having picked up a sandwich and a Berliner donut from a Bäckerei, I ate my lunch as I wandered around the town: a small place with not especially much to it architecturally, and I felt justified with my decision to press on.
On my way out of town, a cab driver pulled over, rolled down his window, and asked in German if I spoke Turkish. Surprised on all accounts, I replied that I did not, and the cabbie drove off.
For the next few hours, I followed a road and cycle lane till I reached a deer sanctuary along the road. At this point, I opted for a walking path along the Niers river (a tributary of the Rhine, of course). Heading along the river, a red brick Schloss (now hotel) appeared on the opposite river bank: a welcome surprise. This all constituted the first real element of river walking of the trip. Although brief, I saw it as a sign of the walk to come…
Be not afraid
The road into Kevelaer was windy. I passed a host of simple – though quaint – farmhouses, complete with the odd stable, chicken coup or cattle shed. I arrived in town to discover that, yet again, the youth hostel was closed; I located a cheap B&B, set down my pack, and ventured into Kevelaer under the cover of darkness.
Soon, I came upon Kevelaer’s great cathedral, the Basilika St Marien: the focal point of town. Over one million pilgrims flock to this site each year, few of them on foot these days. This year, I was one of them.
I crept into the basilica through a door at the rear end of the nave and discovered that a service was in progress. Taking in the wonderfully ornate and vibrantly painted interiors, I quietly positioned myself towards the back of the congregation. For a long while, I listened to the song of the choir and the booming baritone sermon of the priest, which together filled the great welkin in the vault above. And I rested. Moved, I queued and – when the time came – accepted the wafer proffered by the clergyman. Looping back around the cathedral’s pews, I exited and reflected.
Der Vater, der Sohn und der Heilige Geist…
Later that evening, after my impromptu communion, I supped on a kebab recommended by the lady at the front desk. Istanbul Döner. Referential mania? Perhaps.
miles: 11 | cumulative: 39
The next morning, I departed my hotel to the toll of two distinct church bells sounding the hour. The two individual knells entwined together, creating an interesting dissonance across the square. “A minor third”, I hazarded. While superficially this might have been considered eerie, the symbolism here was rather amusing: the harmonic representation of two rival, small-town churches still duelling for superiority on the airwaves of Kevelaer. Daily shenanigans — medieval style.
I returned to the basilica to take it in by daylight, and with more freedom than the mass the previous night had permitted. An organist was practicing as I entered, and to my delight the interiors were just as glorious as before. They alone rendered my passing through town worth it. Aide from the basilica and a couple of 19th century chapels and churches, the streets of Kevelaer were an eclectic mix of faux-18th century buildings and 60s housing estates. I walked through the outskirts of the town, through a disproportionately large cemetery, and sat for a while on a bench in a park, taking in the day and the sun. That morning, I had woken up to discover my first blisters of the trip: surely a signal of my progress! I made my way south once more.
Later, during my trek through a wood just after the town of Geldern, I came across a large wooden stick in the undergrowth. It was perfect! I had found my ashplant, my staff, mein Stock. During the next week, I slowly fashioned it into the walking tool I had been hoping to find. A reedy companion on the road.
By mid-afternoon, I had followed the road into the town of Kerken. I laid down my pack in the square by the church and went into a café to ask for directions and a glass of Spezi (half orange, half cola). The lady asked whether I wanted “ashen”, and I – with my newly found attitude – replied “ja”, without fully processing the really quite obvious meaning. I re-emerged looking rather sheepish, with a children’s drink in one hand and gingerly holding an ashtray with no purpose in the other. I located a B&B a few streets away and, after picking up takeaway Schnitzel mit Pommes and a bottle of a local Pilsner, I retired to my room to read and to write.
miles: 14 | cumulative: 53
It was not quite pouring when I set off the following morning, but, with a long walk ahead of me, my full gear of waterproofs were called upon. I saw it as a good test of my preparation. On the road out of town, I passed a couple of cars and a full cohort of five pedestrians: it was rush hour in Kerken.
Amid gales of wind, I made for the shelter of the church at the next town of Aldekirk. The squall whistled violently outside as I sat in silence on a pew in the warm gloom of the gothic nave. Around midday, when I again found myself in need of a rest, I constructed myself a makeshift rest station out of three tractor tyres I found in a farmer’s field, and thereby handily included a free weights workout into my day. In the afternoon, when the weather had calmed, I made a final pit stop in a Bäckerei in Hüls, a suburb of my destination: Krefeld.
miles: 15 | cumulative: 68
Today was the day. Even the leaden sky and the dull landscape (which seemed a permanent facet of Krefeld) became a region of mystery. The Rhine was fast approaching. With a long day ahead of me, I had departed early and carved a southeastern route out of the large town and towards the great river. Despite a consistent drizzle, my spirits remained high. I crossed through an expanse of forest not dissimilar to the commons and copses of Surrey. And on the other side, I reached the Rhine.
I paused for a while and lay back on a bench overlooking the river bank, allowing the light specks of rain to run down my forehead. Refreshed, I continued on.
I followed a cycle lane propped up on its very own bank, which traced the meander of the Rhine. It was pretty, but very exposed. For the first time this trip, I felt genuinely cold, and even my gloves were sodden. Problem-solving, I found a path a little ways closer to the banks of the river, which suited me much better. On my way into Düsseldorf, I crossed the river for the first time. And, as the bridge rose high over the water, I took in the sights of the city at work: the first great city on my route.
Just before the city, I found a concrete gangway that descended gradually into the water. I followed it down to the water’s edge and reached out to touch the river.