Dim are the prospects for a backpacker in Koblenz, Germany. The only hostel in town is closed for renovation. Hotels cater to older travelers looking for a romantic getaway on the Rhine. Winebars far outnumber the pubs. I had as much business there as Bill Murray at Bushwoods. Yet there I was. All because when I was sitting on a beach in Rye I thought it would be fun to bike from Koblenz to Mainz, a route that is considered to be the most scenic in the Rhine Valley. Like most of my hare-brained, half-baked plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
At the tourist center I was told there were rooms at an out-of-the-way hotel for 25 euro, but after a 3km hike, I found they were about twice that. The walk back into town felt much longer.
I decided to go back to the train station and see if it was open all night. The man behind the ticket counter squinted back at me and said, "Eez open, ya."
"Is it OK to sleep here?"
He shook his head and said, "Because zee cops..."
My first night in Germany was beginning to look fitful and cold. But it was a Saturday night, and hope springs eternal. "Where's a good pub?"
Sugar Ray's was the kind of place where an ex-pat in Germany might go to feel at home. Boxing promos and posters lined the walls and the bar was adorned with American beer cans. I thought it was as good a place as any to find someone willing to put me up for the night.
I left my backpack with the bouncer and went to get a beer, armed with about four words of German I learned from Indiana Jones movies. The odds weren't with me.
As it turned out the owner of the bar saw me walk in and sit by myself, and somehow pegged me as American. He sent a beer over, on the house. Then another. And another. Soon I was behind the bar, talking to him about Las Vegas, national parks, and German beer. That's how I learned how friendly small-town Germans are. Before I knew it I had more German friends that I knew what to do with. They couldn't have been nicer to me. I ended up following them to a club and staying out until five in the morning. Unfortunately none of them actually lived in Koblenz, and I didn't feel like driving 50km back home with them, so that left me without a place to stay.
So I picked up my bag and headed down to the Rhine. I slept under a tree by the edge of the river. I laid down my poncho because the ground was a little wet and bundled up in several layers. I woke up after only a couple hours from the cold and moved to the train station. The police didn't bother me and I got another couple hours of sleep. It was surprisingly peaceful sleeping among the comings and goings of trains and travellers. Say what you will about passing up a bed for 50 euro, a backpacker's got to have his principles....
I woke up when a bum asked me for a lighter. It was 9:00am. I got four hours of sleep after a long night out, and I desperately needed a bike within the next few hours or my much anticipated journey down the Rhine would be experienced through a train window. This was the definitive low point of my trip. To compound my problems, it was a Sunday, and both bike shops in town were closed. But Goonies never say die.
After walking through the city center for a few hours and propositioning strangers on bikes for an impromptu sale, I decided to hang out at the bike stand at the train station. Within ten minutes I had a bike for 40 euro from an Arab who didn't speak a word of English.
Suddenly, with two wheels and a pair of pedals, my whole world changed. I left Koblenz behind. The bike trail hugged the river for 70km, cutting through the flat, green vineyards of the Rhine Valley. I pedalled slow. Ahead was open road, unfolding upstream, leading to new places that might have cheap beds, a hot shower, and fully-baked ideas. But maybe not. It just felt good to move again.