Pedal, stop, pedal, stop

A family biking trip along the Rhine

For the last two springs my husband had dreamed of organizing a biking tour along the Rhine River in Germany. It all started when he read an article online highlighting the perks of the Rhine River culture – kilometer after kilometer of flat, paved biking trails; touring boats transporting sightseers (and tired bikers) back to their starting villages; wine cellars featuring German Riesling; riverside cafes with playgrounds where our three kids could unwind after a day of pedaling. Upon hearing the description, I was sold too.

Radek scoured the internet for a family-sized accommodation. There weren’t many economic options for a family of five. Either we could book two rooms in a hotel or look for an apartment. Eventually, Radek found a suitable apartment rented by a family in Alken, a tiny, historic village situated on the nearby Mosel River. The Mosel wasn’t as large or as well-known as the Rhine, but the accommodation was affordable. From the pictures, Alken, with its steep vineyards climbing up to the picturesque Burg Thurant, looked like a fine base point. We would be within a short drive of the famous Lorelei rock on the Rhine in St. Goar, and we agreed that we’d try the Rhine after we biked for a day on the Mosel.

We took advantage of the national holidays at the beginning of May and started off from home at sunrise Thursday morning for our 600-plus kilometer journey. We were to spend the long weekend (four nights and five days) in Germany, and we aimed to bike 100-plus kilometers in three days. Our children enjoy visiting new places, and Samuel, the youngest, is particularly infatuated with sleeping in “hotels.” (For him, anything that isn’t his own bed equals a “hotel.”) Apart from the long car ride, I believed the children would gain as much as we would from the experience. On the drive there, we practiced a few conversational phrases in German. The kids seemed to catch on to the language although their sense of geography was lacking. I needed to remind them repeatedly that we weren’t going to Italy or Slovakia.

Many hours of highway driving later, plus a few rest stops and countless answers to the kids’ “How much longer till we get there?” inquiries, we finally arrived in the sleepy town of Alken. Neither Radek nor I speak much German, and unfortunately we found ourselves at a disadvantage in this region where we discovered English a rarity, rather than the norm. Our hosts spoke only German, although their teenage daughter offered a few words in English. Apart from another young woman at the information center, we didn’t find anyone else who wanted to or could speak to us in English. Walking the village’s streets after our long journey, we didn’t find an open restaurant, so we settled for dinner at the ice cream parlor. Three children’s sundaes and two glasses of Riesling later, we declared dinner over and returned to our apartment to feed the children leftovers from the car snacks. The wind was fierce and the temperature hovered around 10C, but we hoped the conditions might improve for biking the next day.

When we visited the local information center, we realized that we’d arrived pre-season for many of the region’s attractions. The boats that stopped in Alken to transport bikers would start in June or July and many of the restaurants and riverside cafes only opened in high-season. The family-oriented wilderness and outdoor park in a nearby town was open, although when we drove to explore it, we discovered that half of the park and all water-based rides were closed. With the overcast sky and the impending rain clouds, the atmosphere seemed more appropriate for snuggling by a fire than for biking along the river, but we agreed that we’d start out in the morning and let the day unfold as it would. We passed several castles just in the 20 kilometer stretch from our village to the next largest one, and we promised the children that we’d go inside at least one for a tour.

It wasn’t long though before we realized that biking with the children along the river might not be as pleasant as we’d anticipated. The advantages of the flat, paved riverside path were all but lost on the kids who would have preferred biking “off-road” over stumps, across bridges and through the woods. The endless stretches of pavement only heightened their repeated “How much longer till we stop?” questions. We also soon discovered that six-year old Oliver couldn’t drink from his water-filled CamelBak, scratch his head, or blow his nose without stopping. It seemed that every kilometer he needed to perform at least one of the three actions. He was also got anxious if Radek pedaled more than a few bike lengths ahead of him, despite the fact that I was also beside or directly behind Oliver the entire trip. He wanted all five of us to stick together.

Anna Lee was more coordinated with regards to drinking without stopping; however, she tended to veer off her straight course whenever she took her eyes from the path and looked around, so I had to repeatedly remind her to keep her handlebars straight and look ahead so as to avoid bumping her brother or other bikers. She then complained of being bored and too tired to pedal further. Samuel, riding in a bike seat behind Radek, was nearly too-big for his seat. He spent the time banging on the biking backpack Radek wore, which was nearly in Samuel’s face, and trying to chat. The wind blew Sam’s words away, and Radek had to pull over and stop whenever Samuel insisted that his daddy actually respond to his chattering.

The kids drank so much water from their CamelBaks that they needed to pee multiple times an hour. When we did make pit stops, the kids then wanted to throw rocks in the river; feed swans or find a playground and have a snack. When, after a few minutes of biking, the boys stopped to throw rocks into the river, Samuel accidently threw a rock into Oliver’s head creating a bloody gash. Although a tissue stopped the bleeding, our moods were already beginning to sour. It was Day 1, and we’d only ridden three kilometers. It was going to be a long three days on bikes. I’d hoped we’d pass other families with children also on their bikes, but the tourists we encountered were middle-aged Germans bused to the region in large groups to bike and wine taste. They did a double-take when they saw our family of five, although from their expressions I couldn’t decide if we were an annoyance or a pleasant distraction.    

Eventually, we found a romantic village for a lunch of schnitzel and potatoes. Once off their bikes and left to explore by foot, our children again became the happy travelers I’d seen on other family vacations. They found hiking sticks and traipsed up and down the windy village streets, admiring the castle ruins and vineyards perched on steep, rocky hillsides. The kids discovered the small tracks on the mountainside for the grape picking baskets and spent an excited several minutes explaining to one another how the grape pickers load up the baskets and send the grapes down the mountainside. We bought ice cream and promised them another hike to explore the castle back in Alken as soon as we pedaled home. In this manner — pedal, pedal, stop, pedal some more—we managed to bike some 30 kilometers.

By the end of the first day, Radek and I were wiped out. However, once the children were off their bikes, they got a second wind. They were eager to play games and explore our apartment. We finally convinced them to go for a walk through the castle and its vineyards, but only by promising ice cream at the end.

Walking up to the castle in Alken, Burg Thurant, we found a path directly up through the steep, rocky vineyards. Oliver and Sam hurried ahead while Anna Lee dawdled to pick wildflowers. They measured themselves against the grape wines and delighted in sending small pebbles racing down the steep hillside. They ruminated for several minutes about what would happen if they tumbled down, and then we quickened our pace to reach the castle at the top. Once on top of the hillside, we had a bird’s eye view of the river and village below. The kids pointed out landmarks – the school, a playground and a cemetery. Suddenly, it began to rain and beyond the castle in the distance we saw a double rainbow. We took a different path down the mountain through the forest and reached the village again just as it was beginning to get dark.

We stopped for ice cream at one of the riverside hotels and discovered live music, a singer playing the electric piano singing country songs in English. The restaurant was filled with retired-age Germans who began to dance, much to the children’s delight. Although they begged Radek and me to dance, we declined. They received sidewalk chalk along with their ice cream, and in the moonlight they decorated the parking lot closest to our apartment.

The following day we pedaled along the Rhine, which the children found larger, but even more boring than the Mosel. The third day we took a break and visited another castle, this time taking a tour of the inside. On our last day, armed with snacks, sidewalk chalk and renewed enthusiasm, we hit the bikes again. We pedaled until we found a nice spot for lunch. Then we loaded up the bikes in the car and began the long drive back to Prague. We didn’t reach our 100-kilometer goal, but it was enough.

When we asked the children what their favorite part of the trip was, I wasn’t surprised to discover that their best memories had nothing to do with biking. Anna Lee loved making the wildflower bouquet, while Oliver remembered having the best time using his radio walkie-talkies with his Dad when we hiked through the forest. For Samuel, playing hide-and-seek in the vineyards with his siblings was the highlight of the trip.

Radek and I enjoyed the biking yet we, too, had our best memories off the bikes. It hasn’t deterred us from planning future biking trips with the kids though it has reminded us to keep our own goals in perspective. Pedal, stop, pedal, isn’t such a bad way to make some lasting family memories.



In search of “bleeding heart”

Family bonding through gardening

On my mother’s annual spring trips to Prague, one of our first stops is a garden center. We stroll the aisles looking for seasonal plants. My mother identifies the plants she knows and tells me their English names. I love the hands-on learning experience. The gardeners smile at our blending of Czech and English as we make our selections. As is often the case when my mother comes to visit, I discover that acquaintances with whom I usually speak Czech are, in fact, well-versed in English, too. 

My mother and her sisters inherited their passion for flowers and outdoor beauty from their father. My grandfather planted his tulip beds twenty years ago and this spring they came up as full and hearty as ever. My mother describes them to me over a coffee in the garden center. I hold a picture in my mind. I wish I knew his secret.

Sixteen years ago when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly during a surgery, my grandmother and her daughters were left with broken hearts and a full garden that needed new hands to tend it. Over the years, my grandfather’s magnificent tulips have become a source of family pride and a testament to my grandfather’s enduring “green thumb.”

When my mom arrives in Prague and takes a look at my straggly tulip bed, she offers to help dig up the old bulbs and to treat me to new bulbs for next year. Having tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, for the past five years to grow tulip bulbs that last beyond a season, I am envious of the confidence with which she gives her advice.

Anyone with knack for gardening earns my admiration. When I try to explain what it means to have a “green thumb” to my Czech husband Radek, he understands but can’t find the equivalent expression in Czech. Like me, he has learned everything that he knows about gardening in recent years. We are gardeners by default. We just happened to buy a house with a yard in the suburbs. Now, six years after having moved out of the city, we are beginning to see the fruits of our outdoor labor. The way our yard space is developing has begun to give me as much, if not more, pleasure than decorating the interior of the house did years ago. Watching the children pick fresh berries, snap sugar peas and run circles through the soft, green grass brings me a certain satisfaction that I wouldn’t have expected.

Our first task six Mays ago was to seed the grass. A team of gardeners, one or two adult men and several shirtless teenage boys who all seemed to be related, seeded the grass in a two-day whirlwind. Radek bought sprinklers and extension hoses, which he set-up around the garden. He left for work after giving me explicit instructions about the order and the time I was supposed to water each section. For the parts that the sprinklers couldn’t reach, I needed to stand with the hose and water it myself. The kids and I made a game of it. Our water bill was high, but by the end of the summer, we had grass. That summer the kids thought that growing grass was more fun than going to the swimming pool.

From the beginning, Radek had an eye for the overall landscaping of the garden. He selected the trees and decided how we’d place them in the yard. He designed different rock and mulch beds around the garden. He even planted a cheery tree himself, as according to Czech tradition, every man is supposed to build a house, have a child and plant a tree. However, he left the fun part – selecting smaller bushes and plants to fill the beds, finding terrace pots and woven baskets and rotating the seasonal plants — up to me. Armed with a colorful gardening catalog, I talked to friends who gardened, checked out the gardens around our neighborhood and waited for my mother’s annual spring visit. Each year, often with my mother’s advice, we bought (or acquired) a few more plants.

When my friend decided that the bonsai lilac plant on her terrace needed space to grow free, I welcomed the new arrival. Another American friend gave me a second lilac bush for my birthday and the two stand by stand, reminding me of the lasting gift of friendship. At the end of WWII, when the Allied troops came to Prague, they saw the gorgeous purple blossoms of the lilac trees. Our lilac bushes remind me of Europe, while the forsythia tree beside it reminds me of summertime play in a forsythia bush in my parent’s backyard. My own children have discovered the bush in recent years, and making a fort inside of it is on Anna Lee’s “to-do” list again this summer.

When the shady spot behind the garage didn’t suit the flowery bush we’d selected, we replanted it to a sunny spot at the back corner of the garden. We put hydrangeas in the open space. I knew the flowers from my parents’ garden, and I loved their various shades of white, dusty rose, pink and even blue. My mom suggested we fertilize the hydrangeas with coffee grounds to see if we could get their colors to change. Anna Lee dutifully dumped coffee grounds around their base for a season. When the blossoms finally came, we were all taken away by their lavish beauty. On my mother’s next visit, she suggested that I cut a few clippings for indoors and let some dry so that I could display them longer.

When visiting, my mom ventures out on short walks through the neighborhood and reports back to me. Her favorite garden is on a gravel path down the hill from us with a little weekend cottage tucked on the right side. The garden isn’t fancy, nor is it big. It is however, meticulously well-kept by a smiling white-haired couple. They have a border of tulips and peonies that would please my grandfather, and they rotate their smaller beds with seasonal plants in complementary colors. Their vegetable bed has strawberries and tomatoes and their apple trees hang over the gravel path, tempting passersby to pluck one. It was in their garden that my mother saw the plant she determined to buy for me this spring. It is colloquially called “bleeding heart,” and when not in bloom, it’s a rather normal green bush. Its blooms are delicate and eye-catching and my mother thought she knew just the right spot for it (to the right of the rhododendron bush).

Despite several trips to different garden centers, both big and small, my mom’s visit ended before we found our bleeding heart. A few days before she flew out, she settled for buying me geraniums instead. At her request, we selected six red geraniums of the traditional variety. They looked hearty and full-blossomed, although it was too early for them to be in bloom. We carefully chose six flowers in a line and doubled checked that their unopened buds were reddish. Uniformity would look the best, she assured me. With Samuel’s help we potted them before she left.

At the end of her trip, she suggested that I go down to the cottage to see if I could catch the owners outside and ask them where they’d gotten their bleeding heart. Maybe they’d give you a clipping, she ventured. She asked me for a favor, too. Could I please take a picture of the cottage with its garden for her? One picture for each season. She’d frame it and have a Czech garden all year-round hanging in Virginia. I promised to try, and I agreed to keep looking for the bleeding heart.

Although it’s nearly time for us to start packing for our summer trip to the US, I still haven’t found the bleeding heart. Nor have I been able to figure out what the plant is called in Czech. But it’s on my list. When the geraniums bloomed a week or two ago, I took a picture to send to my mom. They are exquisite, lush and multi-blossomed. There is only one problem. They’re all, except for one, pink. When I told Mom, she laughed. You never know what you’re going to get when you start a garden, she said. Usually, the combination is better than what you had originally planned. I have to agree.