An Optimized Tour of New Churches

During the pandemic, Malte Bossert came up with the idea of a themed bicycle tour whose goal would be to visit all 46 places in his native Germany with the name of Neukirchen (literally, “New Church”). Malte convinced his lifelong friend and fellow computer science student Tilman to participate, and together they wrote a program on Christmas Eve to optimize their route. Zigzagging around Germany on a recumbent tandem, Malte and Tilman were surprised – and at times overwhelmed – to experience six weeks of fame, as mayors, local organizations, church officials, and even local newspaper reporters lined up to meet them and prove that their Neukirchen was the best.   

Episode Transcript

Malte: Our parents, like, in the beginning, were like, “What are you gonna do? You have lots of time. You want to do a bike tour and you decide to do this? You could see the nice places in Germany, and you could go around Europe in this time, and then you go, like, in a zigzag route, along non-bike paths, into regions that we don’t really know. That’s completely weird.”

Gabriel: You just heard Malte Bossert describe people’s typical reactions when they learned about the cycling tour that he and his friend Tilman Jiménez Reichow were carefully planning during the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s episode, I talk with Malte about this extraordinary tour, which he freely describes as “weird” and “extremely nerdy.”

Sandra: You’re listening to The Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In this podcast, you’ll meet people from all walks of life and learn about their most memorable bike touring experiences. This is your host, Gabriel Aldaz.

Gabriel: Hello cycletouring enthusiasts! Welcome to another episode of The Accidental Bicycle Tourist. On a bicycle tour, it’s often a good idea to set a realistic, achievable goal; a finish line, so to speak. Some people set out to reach a specific place in the world, others tour for a determined time, cycling where the wind blows for days, weeks, even months or years. Today I sit down with Malte Boßert, who came up with, to my knowledge, a unique objective for a bicycle tour. Malte, welcome to the Accidental Bicycle Tourist!

Malte: I am so happy to be here and nice to meet you.

Gabriel: Nice to meet you, too. So let’s first find out a little bit about yourself.

Malte: I’m into bicycle trips since I was like 8 or 9 years old. My father started to wake up the idea to do a tour together, and then we started with a really small tour around our house, and then a bit longer for a weekend or so. And so, basically, my whole life. And so that’s how I came to do bicycle tours, and I never really stopped. I was living in Stuttgart, and I was always a lazy person, so to say. I always liked not to go up hill, and I think to this day I still don’t really like it. So we set out to go along rivers. It’s quite difficult around Stuttgart to find places where you cannot go up hill, but we managed to find the easiest spots to do bicycle tours, and it was always a lot of fun, like very fond memories.

Gabriel: And was it you and your dad alone, or were there others as well?

Malte: It started just the two of us, and then I took a friend. When I was like 14 or 15, I wanted to do things on my own. So I asked friends, and we did a tour together, and in the end I had a group of three friends that I did tours with three or four years in a row. That was my main bicycle trip experiences.

Gabriel: Did you do any solo touring, or was it always with a companion?

Malte: I never did any solo touring. Never tried and I never wanted to try, actually. I really like this atmosphere of touring with someone else. It’s really nice.

Gabriel: Yeah, it has definitely advantages and disadvantages like everything else.

Malte: Of course.

Gabriel: It’s certainly a fun way to tour, with friends or a partner.

Malte: So one or two day-trips I did on my own but apart from that, the longer trips are always with other people.

Gabriel: And so on this this unique trip that we’re going to talk about. You had a partner. Tell me about your partner.

Malte: Tilman. I know him since birth, actually, and he’s four or year years older than me, not exactly sure. But he carried me around when I was born few days old.

Gabriel: Wow.

Malte: my mother and his mother went to school together. We have a long history. He moved to Mexico when he was few years old, with his family, and moved back to Germany to study am in university and without his family. Every Christmas he spent with my family, which was then like 3 weeks a year, since he was 18. So that’s already 12, 13, and 14 years ago. So I got to know him a lot better then. He’s a great friend and he’s probably the biketouriest person that there is.

Gabriel: Okay.

Malte: We always wanted to do a tour together, but we never managed to before that.

Gabriel: This was your moment.

Malte: Yes, right.

Gabriel: So who had the idea of the two of you? Was it you who called him?

Malte: So, actually, we wanted to do a tour together for years, so we talked about that every Christmas, and then we didn’t manage to do it. But in this setting, it was lockdown and Covid and 2020, when the idea was born. And so we had lots of time our hands and nothing to do. So basically, I think I spent a lot of time at the Internet. Somehow thought about, if there are villages, or how many villages there are that have the same name in Germany, which was just a crazy idea at that moment. This was not any bike touring idea at the beginning. There was two places next to our village. They had the same name. And I was like, “Oh, interesting! How many of them are there?” just because I had too much time on my hands and too little to do.

Gabriel: And what was the name of that village?

Malte: That was Bobenhausen. I think there’s just two of them, actually, in Germany. Then I thought… I think I want just wanted to know, the village with the most entities in Germany, whatever. I think it was a Hausen, which is basically just “house.” So yeah, mostly, probably, really small ones, but there are like hundreds of them, not exactly sure how many. Then there was Neustadt, which is “new city,” also lots of them. And I was like, “Oh, maybe I could visit them.” And I mean would be boring to go there by car. And so the only reasonable thing to do is, let’s do a bike tour about like visiting all of them in Germany.

Gabriel: It started off with the villages.

Malte: Yeah.

Gabriel: And then Tilman was the only participant you could…. you could entice to do this trip.

Malte: I mean, Tilman is positively crazy. Definitely, crazy enough to do such a thing, but I didn’t know if anyone ever did something like that. But the idea was born, and we didn’t settle on the name of the village in the first place. So basically, what we did was we looked at, “Oh, there are lots of Neustadts in Germany. Let’s see how many, and can we do it at the time that we have?” And we couldn’t, it was too many. So we needed to settle in a new name. We researched quite a bit, and then we found Neukirchen, which is basically “new church.” I mean, we’re both not religious, so it was kind of a weird pick, but the length of the tour was perfect, and the places were really spread out in all of Germany. So we thought it was just perfect.

Gabriel: Basically, you needed something between Neustadt and Bobenhausen.

Malte: Right, exactly.

Gabriel: And it turned out to be Neukirchen.

Malte: Yeah.

Gabriel: Where did you get this official listing of all of the towns called Neukirchen in Germany? Is there a register you could look up, or how did you say, “Yes, this is the list.”?

Malte: It was quite easy, because Wikipedia has a complete list, for some reason. When you go at any Neukirchen page on Wikipedia, there’s a disambiguity page: Did you mean…? And then there was 46 entries for Germany and eight for Austria, which were too far away. Some of those you couldn’t find on Google Maps, so we needed to look at the satellite image, where there are houses, and basically guess, and we guessed correctly, fortunately. But then there was many weeks when we were like, “Oh, I really hope we didn’t forget any.” If I remember correctly, I think we forgot three or four in the beginning, when we started to look at the tour. And then we were like, “Oh no, we forgot four.” Basically, three of them were directly on our route, but one of them, there was like a detour of 200 kilometers, which was a lot just for this one Neukirchen. We were like, “Ah, we can just say we didn’t know about that one.”

Gabriel: That was number 46, though.

Malte: Yes, right.

Gabriel: You’re ready to go, you have all the names.

Malte: First of all, we needed to lay out the tour on the map and find the shortest tour with all the points. It was quite difficult, yeah.

Gabriel: Did you use the traveling salesman problem?

Malte: Yes, yes, we did.

Gabriel: Did you really?

Malte: We’re both computer science students. So of course, we had to optimize it. In this case, Tilman was really into that.

Gabriel: Do you want to formulate the question of the traveling salesman problem?

Malte: It’s basically exactly this problem. You have a salesman, or a bicycle tourist, that wants to visit a number of points or a number of Neukirchens, and you just look for the shortest path that he can take to visit all of them. And it’s surprisingly difficult. In computer science terms, when you have too many points, then it’s almost impossible to solve perfectly, and 46 points is already quite a lot. We just used heuristics, and so we basically found the best routes and then iteratively tried to improve them. And so we had, like, five or six best routes that were all, like, just 10 or 20 kilometers different, and we just settled on one of them. Basically, Tilman settled on one, and I settled on the other one. That led to problems. On average, the plan was kind of the same. We started at the same place, we ended up at the same place, and there was just a mix-up of four or five Neukirchens that we wanted to visit in different orders.

Gabriel: I had thought about the traveling salesman problem, and I thought, “No, they wouldn’t be that nerdy. They wouldn’t actually do this.”

Malte: Ah! You underestimate us.

Gabriel: I totally underestimated you!

Malte: No, no, we’re really nerdy. Our parents, like, in the beginning, were like, “What are you gonna do? You have lots of time. You want to do a bike tour and you decide to do this? You could see the nice places in Germany, and you could go around Europe in this time, and then you go, like, in a zigzag route, along non-bike paths, into regions that we don’t really know. That’s completely weird.” But we explained to them, and we had our reasons like, it was actually the perfect route for that time. And in the end, they were really supportive, and were like, “That’s actually a really good idea. And you’ll have a lot of fun.” And my mother was, like, “Okay, you’re gonna visit small villages without a lot of tourism, most of them, at least. And I’m sure they’ll be excited to hear about your idea. They’ll probably want to meet you. Like, they want to show you their village, because, of course, they’re proud of where they live.” I basically picked up all of the local mayor, or whatever, city emails and designed a pdf describing our tour and made a logo, of course. Yes, quite nerdy! And then I wrote emails to 46 Neukirchens, and never expected to get lots of responses. But after a few days, I think 30 or so of them had responded, and everyone was really keen on, like, meeting us. So, it was lots of organizing before starting the tour. In this case it started months earlier, not just picking the route, but also contacting everyone.

Gabriel: Could you tell me a little bit about the touring setup?

Malte: I had a Bluetooth keyboard, because I wanted to write a blog. And I did write a blog. About the bike setup that we had, we’re both… Tilman more than I, but we’re both experienced bicycle tourists so we know what to take and what not to take: two panniers. You would think that you would have more if you’re two bicycles, and that’s because we weren’t two bicycles. We decided to go on a tandem. Additionally, a recumbent tandem, so basically, we were lying, both of us. That was the fifth, sixth extremely nerdy thing that we did. Didn’t take a normal bicycle, but this really, really weird bicycle that no one had ever seen.

Gabriel: Since you had two slightly different routes, it was the person who was in the front who got to decide which Neukirchen you would visit that day, I guess.

Malte: Yeah, and it was great because it would be me. Tilman had never ridden in the front of – it was his was his bike – and Tilman had never taken the front. So I was the god of the bike tour, that could decide everything. Until after, like three or four days, I got really bad knee pain. The way you sit on this recumbent bike is a bit different in the front and in the back. So I tried to ride in the back, and it was way better. So then Tilman could decide. The person in the back is sitting a bit more upwards, like, so that they could see above the person before them. It was, of course, also really long, because it was way longer than a normal tandem. It needed to accommodate both people lying, basically.

Gabriel: Right. I’m curious now. Do you know the brand or the model of this tandem?

Malte: It’s a small Dutch brand, I think, and I don’t know the name, but they stopped producing a few years ago. It was an older couple that produced recumbent bikes, also this one, which was just amazing to ride. It’s a really great bicycle.

Gabriel: That completes your ultra-nerdy setup, as you would call it. One of the big questions in bicycle touring is how much to plan, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that this is on the extreme side, because you’ve optimized the route, and it looks like you had contacted each person, and saying. “Hello, Mayor So-and-so, we’ll be in your town on this day.” Is that accurate?

Malte: Yeah. We tried not to do that, and it was kind of expected of us from the mayors, because they wanted, of course, to know that we will come at this day at that time. But the problem was that I had never been on a tandem, let alone a recumbent bike, before, so we really didn’t know in the beginning, if we would be made like 80 kilometers, day or 100, or how long the visits would be to, like, if we could even ride as long as we wanted to. If we would stay like four, five hours, at every Neukirchen or five minutes. We really didn’t know. So, in the beginning, it was just like, “Hi, we’re gonna come to your location, probably around the 25th to the 28th,” and then we kind of narrowed it down a bit after some days, but it was really hard, for us, because we were not used to having to schedule. It was really weird to know, like, “Okay, in six hours, we have to be there.” It’s not how you usually do a bike trip, not me. And for the mayors as well, because they – or like, for the people that we met, mostly not mayors – for the people that we met as well, because they had their schedule, they had to work, and then they knew that someday around this date there will be two weird people wanting to visit the town.

Gabriel: And this seemed to have worked out.

Malte: Yeah, the people were actually really keen to meet us.

Gabriel: Let’s see how your tour develops over time. So here you go. You set off…

Malte: Tilman was living in Dortmund at the time, and the first Neukirchen was quite close to Dortmund.

Gabriel: So there it is, the first one! Can you describe what went through your mind as you approached it?

Malte: I was just really nervous. The first Neukirchen already had this plan with us. They were like, “Okay, we booked you a flat where you can stay.” We did mostly camp and like off-road, no luxury at all. We just had one basically one pair of clothes that were kind of okay. And then they were like, “Okay, we’re gonna book you this, this flat. There is gonna be two or three journalists and a big welcoming from the mayor and these four organizations that are in the city. Then you’re gonna talk to this person and this person, this person, and you’re gonna get a tour, grand tour of the city,” and we were so overwhelmed. I don’t know if Tilman was, but I was freaking out basically, like, “Are we gonna disappoint them?”

Gabriel: And this is the very first one. So if they ask you, “Well, how many days have you been touring?”

Malte: “None.”

Gabriel: “How many places have you seen?” “One.”

Malte: “How many kilometers, have you toured?” “Like fourteen. From the train stop to your place.”

Gabriel: Yeah, it doesn’t sound that impressive when it’s the very first Neukirchen.

Malte: No, but it’s like the first of 46. Great! So we arrived there in the evening, and we wanted to start our tour in the morning. We came there, and there was already some person welcoming us, in marketing in the city council, not council, but in the Rathaus.

Gabriel: Oh, in the city hall?

Malte: Yeah, city hall. Right, exactly, sorry. And she welcomed us, and she was like, “Okay, you can stay with this person. She lives over there.” We went basically to this house, and we were welcome. They’re like, “Oh, you’re the weird bicycle tourists. So nice to have you. Please, that’s your flat. Here’s your bed. Tomorrow there’s gonna be a big breakfast at 7:30.” And then we started to explore the city in the evening, and went up a really steep staircase in the middle of nowhere, which the city was kind of known for, the Himmelstreppe, the Heaven’s Stairway.

Gabriel: Stairway to Heaven.

Malte: Stairway to Heaven, yeah, basically. It was not all that impressive. I think the song is better than the staircase, sorry. On the top of this staircase there was this hill, and then there was a metal festival. That was a weird first evening, and not at all how you would expect your bike tour to be.

Gabriel: Yeah, it sounds amazing. These are some of the… the amazing things that happen on a bike tour, right? Who would have guessed it?

Malte: In the evening we were on our own, but in the morning, the person that accommodated us, she went with us to the city…

Gabriel: City hall.

Malte: Yeah, and they were like 15, 20 people waiting for us, applauding, two cameras, two journalists, and us. A lot too much for our small brains, at that moment. They were all, like, applauding, and then they were saying, “Okay, first you get me to do this interview with this newspaper, and then the interview with this newspaper, and then you need to do photos on your bike.” And I was a bit nervous because I had ridden in total 20, 30 kilometers on this bike beforehand, so I didn’t want to fall down for the photos the first time. And then all this journalisty part was over, and we were a bit exhausted already, but then they said, “Okay, here’s a person that does the touristic walks around the city.” Is like Nachtwechter, the night…

Gabriel: The night watch.

Malte: Night watch, yeah. And he was not the real night watch, of course, but he was usually in the night doing tours around the city, and now he did it for us in the morning. Lots of other people, the mayor of the whole city and some organizations, big in the city, and they all accompanied us, and then we walked around the not extremely old or extremely great city, for like half an hour or 45 minutes. And then we went into the church, because this theme was Neukirchen, so you needed to have a look at the church, and we got a tour in there. They told us the interesting things about the city and what the city is known for. And we were of course overwhelmed. Already the first Neukirchen was not a place that we would ever have visited if we had to choose freely and from any place in Germany. But it was still so nice to be there and to meet the people and see how they were enthusiastic about the place they lived in, and it was really nice.

Gabriel: Wow, that’s a tough first visit to beat, really. I think you must feel like, okay, we have 45 more of these to go?

Malte: Yeah, I mean, the contact for this Neukirchen was really great. We knew that it wouldn’t be like that in every Neukirchen, and we wouldn’t have had the time for that.

Gabriel: Right.

Malte: Then we could have stopped after ten and said, “Okay, next year we’re gonna come to the next 36.” We were really happy that it was not like that in every place, but at the same time, it was amazing that it was like that in some places.

Gabriel: So basically, you visit this first one. It’s an incredible experience. You’re practically given the keys to the city, or sign in the big golden book of the city that you had visited.

Malte: We didn’t. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that in any place. It’s really sad, but…

Gabriel: Oh, no!

Malte: That would have been great. No, really, but we were really close to that, I think, with this reception. How much more could you ask for? It’s just amazing. And then, afterwards, in the Neukirchens, we met people that were like, “Oh, I looked at your map,” – we had a map online – “I looked at your map and you forgot a Neukirchen.” And we were like, “No, that’s not possible.” We looked at so many sources. We looked at all of the Internet, if there’s any that Wikipedia doesn’t know. And it turned out incorrectly every time, and we were so lucky, like so happy, about that. There’s lots of cities that are called Neuenkirchen, with an “en” after the “Neu.” Neuenkirchen is also basically “New Church,” or Neunkirchen, and we didn’t want to include those. It would have been too much, and it’s not the same, of course. So in the end we found all of them. 

Gabriel: Yeah, that’s interesting. Neukirchen is “New Church,” but Neunkirchen is “Nine Churches”? I don’t know.

Malte: Neunkirchen is, yeah nine, probably the same origin, though, like, I don’t think they had nine churches, yeah, just different writing. Most of them are really small, so it would surprise me, but you never know about Germany. There’s lots of churches here.       

Gabriel: What starts to happen over time? Do you develop a ritual of any kind when you arrive? I assume most of these have the standard German signs. It’s a yellow sign with the black letters. You see it, you’ve made it. Was there some event that happened then?

Malte: No, the feeling was amazing, because it’s always the same. You see this yellow sign, and it’s Neukirchen, and then there is where it is exactly in Germany below it. But it’s always the same, and it’s like such a nice feeling, because, you know, you just traveled 40, 50, 60 kilometers, I don’t know, and then, you see the same sign. And with every Neukirchen we’re, like, happier to see another one.

Gabriel: Besides the happiness, was there a photo taken or a champagne bottle opened?

Malte: Yeah, right. The ritual was that we would stop at the first sign that we saw and take a selfie, just to capture the moment. Sometimes, we went back to the sign to take a nicer picture later, but there needed to be a picture to prove that we were there, of course. We usually visited the church, or tried to see the church, in the most Neukirchens, almost 40 of them. I think there was a handful that didn’t respond at all, and but in all others we met someone. We were never lonely in the Neukirchens. In the first Neukirchen, we got some presents. Just like, “Hi, these are things from our city. We would be happy if you take them, as a thing that you remember us,” which was a really, really nice thing, and at the same time it was difficult, because there were 46 of them, and we just had two panniers and very little space.

Gabriel: How did you react, like, “Thank you very much. Where’s the nearest post office in your town?”

Malte: Right. Of course, we didn’t do that to get some materialistic things from that. You would never start a bike tour for that. We really thought about it and what we would do, and we imagined that this might not be the only Neukirchen that had this idea. They have tourism departments that produce bottles, mugs, whatever, plates. So we were expecting that maybe some other places had the same idea, and so we thought, “Okay, let’s do a tradition. Let’s bring the present from this Neukirchen to the next one, to kind of create a chain of Neukirchens in Germany. So that was, basically, a big part of the ritual. In the first one we got a really big calendar, which was heavy. It was a daily calendar, so 365 pages, a Christian calendar. I mean, we didn’t have any place for it in our luggage, but for the next 50 kilometers we had the place. We brought it to the next Neukirchen. We’re like, “We never said anything about that beforehand, but we had the following idea: We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna bring you this present. Could you give us anything really small, whatever you want? And we’re going to bring it to the next Neukirchen?” That was received very positively, and everyone was a fan of the idea. Once, I think, two bottles of wine, a really big book once, and some really heavy, some really light things.

Gabriel: That is an incredible idea.

Malte: We tried to give the contact information of the last Neukirchen to the one that got the present, and we hope that some of them still have some contact.

Gabriel: Were there any names to distinguish them?

Malte: Yeah, so most of them like, I think, 36 of the 40, were not cities, but parts of a bigger city, so villages, city parts, boroughs, sometimes extremely small. The ten cities did have their, like, special part of the name. The first one that we went to was Neukirchen-Vluyn, which is made up of two parts, Neukirchen and Vluyn. Then there was Neukirchen-Balbini, Neukirchen beim Heiligen Blut, “at the Holy Blood.” Yeah, it was a place where people went to… what is it… pilgern.

Gabriel: Make pilgrimages? 

Malte: Yeah, right. So it was like a very Catholic place, and therefore, there was some story with the blood. I don’t remember exactly, but therefore the name.

Gabriel: Maybe they had a small container with a little bit of Jesus’s blood.

Malte: No, it was a Mary statue. Apparently, if I remember correctly, someone tried to split her head with an axe, like, there was actual blood coming from the wound, even though it was a… something like that. I probably butchered the whole story.

Gabriel: A miracle. So, blood came out of the wooden statue. Okay.

Malte: Right.

Gabriel: You said earlier that they seem to be more or less uniformly distributed across Germany, which is also interesting.

Malte: There are some in basically most parts of Germany, but there is a big cluster of Neukirchens in Bavaria. The northernmost ones were really close to the Danish border, the westernmost was really close to the Belgian border, and the southern one was extremely close to Austria, and so it was spread out. Of the 46, 23 of them were in Bavaria.

Gabriel: In Bavaria, you could do two in a day, maybe?

Malte: There we could do Neukirchen-hopping.

Gabriel: Yeah.

Malte: I think the maximum was four.

Gabriel: Four in a day.

Malte: Like we started in one, visited two, and ended in the fourth one.

Gabriel: Just the fact that you could do four in a day, possibly, one day, was a testament to the fact that not all of the Neurkirchens were so involved with your arrival.

Malte: No, and we were really happy about that, in the end. Our time schedule was really tight.

Gabriel: Actually, how much time did you have for the entire tour?

Malte: So we did have five weeks. After some days already, we were like, “Okay, we’re not going to make it in in those five weeks. So we were thinking about whether Tilman’s girlfriend would end the tour with me. It was like, one of the ideas, or if he would postpone it during some, some time else. But luckily Tilman’s co-workers and basically friends at work really loved the tour as well. So he was like, I can work more if you give me one more week off, and luckily they accepted. And so we had 6 weeks in the end.

Gabriel: And then, with the 6 weeks, you made it.

Malte: On the last day of our last Neukirchen we went to the next train station and Tilman hopped into a train, and the next day he was working. So it was really tight, yeah, but in the end we made it.

Gabriel: You, I guess, had a policy of only traveling by bicycle. You never hopped on a train during the tour, or anything like that. It was all on the tandem.

Malte: Yeah, all tandem. When we visited the Neukirchens, I think twice we were taken to another place that we needed to see in the city, or close to the city, with the car. But, of course, we went back to our bike. You couldn’t fit the bike in any car. We both never took a train on our tours before, but we’re not completely against the idea. It was just that, it’s so much nicer to go by bike. And the weather was always good enough. We never wanted to do too much, so we managed to do with everything on the bike.

Gabriel: And you said you did this during the pandemic, so was this a problem with meeting people or talking to people?

Malte: Yeah, so we did it in in summer of 2021, which was bit more open, but was still with masks and a bit difficult for bigger groups to assemble in the inside, so we had lots of meetings outside. It would have been bigger outside of the pandemic, but at the same time this was a very pandemic tour, in that we wanted it to be in Germany, that we wouldn’t have to deal with borders that are closed, for example. And we wanted to be in smaller places, that we don’t have to be around too many people. That didn’t work out well. We didn’t want to go along a typical tour path, like the Rhine River, or something like that, ‘cause it would be crowded, of course. Everyone was doing bike tours for the first time in that summer, and because they couldn’t get easily out of Germany. So that was our very pandemic tour. We planned it for a special occasion, kind of. At least for me, it was the first time being in bigger groups of people after one and a half years, basically, summer ’21. It was weird feeling to be in groups of people again. Everything felt kind of normal at times, and in this time it still not really normal, I think.

Gabriel: That makes sense. It was definitely a strange time for everyone.

Malte: Very strange, yeah.

Gabriel: I want to focus a little bit on the highlights and the lowlights. If you had to think about a memorable experience, something that really surprised you or was delightful in some way, what comes to mind from the tour?

Malte: I think in the broader sense, the support and the kindness of the people we met. There’s this prejudice on German people being cold, and not welcoming, I would say, and that was not met at all. We didn’t really know what to expect beforehand, and we certainly never thought it would be that positive, like a completely positive experience. We met so many great people, and we enjoyed being in so boring cities because the people were so great there. And so it’s not that much about places that we saw, but more about the general feeling that we got for Germany, for the people.

Gabriel: Who is one such person? Can you pick out a person that made an impression on you?

Malte: If I needed to pick out one, there is a really old man that we met in one of the central German Neukirchens. He was the grandfather of a city official, I think, and she took him with us on a tour around the city, and we managed to talk to him for some while, not very long. He was 96, if I remember correctly.

Gabriel: Wow!

Malte: And he was like, “Okay, I’ve basically founded this place.” Not literally, but he started in the local politics after the war, and then built up everything that we saw, basically. So we did a tour along the city, and then there was various places that we visited, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, we built this up, we renovated this. And then in my time, in the local politics in the ’80s, we did this.” It was just amazing. He lived in this Neukirchen for his whole life. He had so much impact on this place, and I think it’s something that you can’t really have in a big city. This place was him, and he was this place, and it was so nice to talk to him and hear all these stories. He was one of the Neukirchens, his soul.

Gabriel: You really got to meet a founding father of this Neukirchen.

Malte: Yeah, kind of.

Gabriel: Very cool. Now, you’ve said several times, it was completely positive and very rewarding, but I have to believe that during a 6-week tour there was something that went wrong, or some unpleasant experience of some kind, because 6 weeks is a long time to be on the road.

Malte: Yeah, there are several small things. Once, I criticized Tilman’s cooking, which was not good. We fell two times with the bike, but nothing happened to us and to the bike, so everything was okay. There was one Neukirchen which we do not have good memories of, it was in Saxony. Saxony is a place, there is a prejudice that they are, and against foreigners, very right wing, and we had extremely positive experiences up to that point in Saxony. We were like, “Saxony is the best place ever,” and then we went to this one place, one Neukirchen, which kind of fulfilled the prejudice, was the only place. The overwhelming majority of our experiences in Saxony, and every other place, were positive, but there, we came there and were greeted kind of weirdly. Tilman is half Mexican, so they were asking if we were German, wanted see our passports…

Gabriel: No way!

Malte: Yeah. It was a bit different, because we contacted the city, but no one responded, so we just went there and talked to some person. But still, if you see two bicycle tourists, it’s a weird question to ask.

Gabriel: Who asked to see your passport? Was it a police officer?

Malte: No, it was an older woman. She talked to us, and then she was like, “Okay, you’re doing a tour, you’re visiting our place. That’s weird. Are you German?”

Gabriel: Wow!

Malte: And then her question was, “Are you real German, or you, like, böhmisch?” So, Czech Republic descendants.

Gabriel: Oh, wow!

Malte: And we were not feeling welcome there. And then we met another person in the same place and asked him if there was any possibility to see the church. And he let us in, but then he said, “Okay, I need to go in there with you, because we want to be sure that everything in the church will still be there.”

Gabriel: Oh, wow!

Malte: And we’re like, “Hey, what are we gonna rob? There’s nothing that would fit in our panniers.”

Gabriel: Alert, alert! Two bicycle tourists, they’ve been spotted leaving town with the statue of the Madonna on the back of their bike.

Malte: Yeah.

Gabriel: Come on.

Malte: We were briefly thinking about that, afterwards, in every church that we visited, of course, but it’s just too heavy. Yeah, it was a weird experience for us, which we wouldn’t want to… it was not the best part of the tour, and we were really happy that the next places in Saxony that we saw were all really, really nice. But yeah, our plan was to sleep there, and then we decided to drive some more kilometers, so that they wouldn’t call the police.

Gabriel: Exactly. And it’s incredible that both of these very sour people were in the same town.

Malte: You have to reiterate that that it’s just the only really negative personal experience with the person on the tour. It’s just amazing. In six weeks, nothing really bad happened.

Gabriel: Saxony is one of the states that was formerly East Germany.

Malte: Yeah.

Gabriel: There is still this invisible division between East and West Germany in a lot of different factors and things like unemployment or income. It does lead to some of those more rural communities just being very conservative, and probably don’t see too many foreigners.

Malte: Probably not. This division was really visible for us as well, and it was one of the like interesting parts of the tour that we could see this division firsthand. There was a change. There were three or four Neukirchens very close to the former border, and we heard stories about people, that their families wanted to flee, or that their families were really happy, in the Eastern part of Germany back then, and had to re-adapt to the new life kind of. And there were lots of stories that I didn’t really know was one very memorable part of the experience as well.

Gabriel: You can imagine they all have the same name, and they all have a church, and they’re spread around, but you somehow feel the difference with this invisible border that still exists in some way, even though the reunification was more than 30 years ago now.

Malte: Yeah. Not all of them have a church. Fun fact!

Gabriel: Not all of them have a church. I’m glad you mentioned that, because I had taken it for granted.

Malte: Of course, I had as well before the tour. One of them didn’t have a church because it was destroyed. That’s boring. One of them never had a church, which is interesting, because the name is literally “new church.”

Gabriel: Right. So how did it get its name?

Malte: Yeah, there is this story. I don’t know if it’s true, of course, but it’s the story of why the name is the name, and it is that they wanted to build the church at that place. And then, every time they started construction, or during construction, there was so much going wrongly. People fell down ladders and hurt or died. So then there was this raven who took one splinter covered with blood – from one of the workers, probably – and flew away with it, and they saw it as a sign from God, and looked at the raven, and he flew to the next hill. So then they built the church there, but the place already had its name, “new church.” In the end, you can basically see the church from the place, but it’s a few kilometers away…

Gabriel: Wow.

Malte: And never had a church, yeah.

Gabriel: That was an interesting story. I did a search for Neukirchen just randomly, and there was a place that popped up at the top of the Google results, and it said, “The city center, with its eight districts and more than 7,000 inhabitants, lies on the southern slope of the Knüll Mountains.”

Malte: Oh, yeah.

Gabriel: This is ringing a bell?

Malte: Yeah.

Gabriel: This random one that I selected?

Malte: Yes, it is.

Gabriel: Okay.

Malte: Of course. The group of people that wanted to make more of the city, it was Pro Neukirchen e.V., so it was a Verein

Gabriel: Oh. Organization, association.

Malte: Yeah, it was some organization. They loved the idea. They called us before the tour even started. It was part of the places in Germany where most of the…. no, there’s the words that I’m missing… Märchen?

Gabriel: Fairy tales.

Malte: Fairy tales. The German fairy tales are playing, like these dark forests and hills and stuff like that.

Gabriel: The Brothers Grimm.

Malte: Yeah, right. I think they came from that area, more or less. Deutschemärchenstraße, I think it’s the name, and so there was a fairy tale museum that we were taken to, and it was not very touristic, yet, but they wanted to change that.

Gabriel: They came up first on the Google results, so their SEO is working.

Malte: I can imagine, the SEO is perfect.

Gabriel: The way you answer that question so quickly, it leads me to believe that you might actually be a world expert on Neukirchen of Germany. You may have that title.

Malte: Yeah, that’s right. But Tilman. Maybe, actually, I think I know more because I wrote all the emails and I checked all the websites. I think I’m the leading expert on Neukirchens in Germany in the world.

Gabriel: I think it would make an impression on anybody. Based on your experience, are you planning another tour with a similar goal? You’ve set the bar very high with this current tour. Are you thinking about doing something even crazier?

Malte: We are brainstorming every now and then. We had several ideas that are maybe not perfect yet. There’s one idea that is the Aldi tour. So there’s Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd, and we want to go along the Aldi border, so that there’s always one Aldi north of us and one Aldi south of us that are, like, from Aldi North and Aldi South. It’s quite a straight line through Germany. It’s a bit weird, and we need to get funding of Aldi, of course.

Gabriel: The bicycle bell means it’s time for an explanation. Aldi, based in Germany, is one of the world’s largest supermarket chains. Karl Albrecht, Senior, founded the company in 1913 and his two sons split it in 1961. Theo Albrecht took over the stores in the north (Aldi Nord), while Karl Albrecht, Junior, took over the stores in the south (Aldi Süd). The name Aldi, by the way, stands for Albrecht Diskont.

Gabriel: Don’t tell me you’re going to use machine learning techniques to come up with the line that optimally divides Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd, and then follow a road that follows this line closely.

Malte: We would probably use some sort of machine learning technique in some standing stage, but there are so many Aldis that I think it’s quite easy to go through them.

Gabriel: It seems perfect for machine learning.

Malte: Yeah, some separating line, yeah.

Gabriel: Yeah, see if they are separable.

Malte: Yeah, I think they’re not perfectly separable. There is one in an enclave. And that’s one idea. I don’t know if we’re gonna do it. I think it’s just not perfect yet. We’d need to find something crazier. Tilman had the idea of… because of course, we used to have a stamp collection, because we are nerds at heart. There’s a stamp line with German interesting places, and that was through the ’80s, through the ’90s, this group of stamps that all have some place in Germany. It’s maybe 50 places in total, some of them very well known, some of them not, and Tilman was thinking to visit them and take a picture that resembles the picture on the stamp. Also weird, let’s see. We’re gonna do something.

Gabriel: Love it! I think that one sounds a bit more practical than the Aldi ones. It is nice to see something noteworthy, whereas I feel like, if you just go between the Aldis, you may not see anything at all of interest.

Malte: Yeah. I really like the idea of seeing many places, so that’s perfect for the stamp thing and for Aldi, not as much, because you wouldn’t want to visit every Aldi.

Gabriel: No, no you certainly would not.

Malte: But seeing places where people live and not just nice sights, is also great. And if no pandemic, we can also go outside of Germany.

Gabriel: Right.

Malte: There’s actually one really nice story about the whole trip, that I never talked about, like, publicly, kind of, and that is that after one or two weeks into the tour, I got a call from my girlfriend and she was saying that she was pregnant.

Gabriel: Oh. Congratulations!

Malte: I didn’t want to have this as the highlight of the tour, because it was not perfectly tour-related. It was still a highlight, of course. I was of course briefly thinking about stopping the tour completely, going back, spending time with her, because it’s just such a big thing. But we decided together that it was maybe the last chance for a while to do a big tour like that. It was a really, really great moment, and of course I told Tilman directly, because we were sitting all day, one meter from each other, so I couldn’t really keep any secrets from him. Yeah, it was amazing. It was part of the whole experience. A bit scary as well. You needed to come to terms with being a father soon, quite early in life, and not planned. We were really, really happy about it. Very positive a surprise. We talked about it before, and we were definitely for having kids, just not really that early. I couldn’t see Hannah for four more weeks. She was, of course, not doing great in the first month. It was a difficult time with morning sickness and reflux and stuff like that. It was really hard to just. Of course, I talked to her a lot, but at the same time I had all those things I needed to do: to write emails and talk to lots and lots of journalists all the time.

Gabriel: You’re a celebrity. Hannah’s gonna have to wait!

Malte: Yeah, I was a celebrity for six weeks. Our six weeks of fame. It was just an amazing thing, and the end, I was really happy that I did it.

Gabriel: Yeah!

Malte: That I finished the tour.

Gabriel: What’s your daughter’s name?

Malte: Kaya.

Gabriel: Kaya. And she must be…

Malte: She’s one and a half.

Gabriel: Fun times. We’ve heard so much about Tilman. What is he up to today?

Malte: Today? I never know what he’s doing right now.

Gabriel: These days.

Malte: Our relationship’s really interesting, because sometimes we don’t speak for even weeks or months and still we know that the other one is there and will always be there. When I last talked to him, he was finishing a bike trip around all of Europe and with his girlfriend on the recumbent tandem. And now he’s finished, and I don’t know what his plan is right now. I need to talk to him.

Gabriel: Yes, talk to him. I think it’d be fun to have the same tandem on another episode. I’ll need to talk to Tilman about it, and also I may need to talk to his girlfriend, because not every girlfriend would sign up to be on a tandem.

Malte: No, it’s a very close space that you’re in, the two of you. You need to get along extremely well to spend six weeks – or they even spent many, many months – but even six weeks is really, really hard. And you need to know the other person quite well to do that, yeah. For me, it worked well. We were both really… I don’t know if you say it like that… harmonic people.

Gabriel: I think you would say, “harmonious people.”

Malte: Harmonious, yeah, so for us it worked well to do probably one of the weirdest bike trips in the last years.

Gabriel: Wow! I loved Malte’s enthusiasm and positive attitude in describing this most unusual themed tour. For anyone who would like to learn more about Malte and Tilman’s optimized tour of the new churches, I can recommend the blog that Malte mentioned earlier. It’s written in German, and accompanied by many photos of Malte, Tilman, the tandem, yellow-and-black Neukirchen signs, and, of course, churches. You will find the link in the show notes.

Gabriel: The transcript for this episode is available on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist website. I welcome feedback and suggestions for this and other episodes. You’ll find a link to all contact information in the show notes.  If you would like to rate or review the show, you can do that on your favorite podcast platform. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. Thank you to Anna Lindenmeier for the cover artwork and to Timothy Shortell for the original music. This podcast would not be possible without continuous support from my wife Sandra. And thank you so much for listening. I hope the episode will inspire you to get out and see where the road leads you.   

Malte: Once, I criticized Tilman’s cooking, which was not good. No, that’s just joking, of course. But, it was really not good, for the record.