The Plan

The Plan: Two months of unassisted cycling and camping through Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and wherever else our legs may take us.

The Route: Starting in Brussels and flying out of Berlin are the only given at this point. We plan to cycle parts of the Flanders Cycle Route, Rhine River and the Danube River. We will also be using the EuroVelo and regional cycling routes.

Accommodation: WarmShowers website (like couchsurfing for cyclists). We are also planning on staying at campsites, backyards of friendly locals or in the wilderness.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Day 19: Koblenz to Bacharach - 63 km

We finished today sitting on the banks of the Rhein in front of our campsite, sipping local wine and eating "homemade" chicken noodle soup. We couldn't have asked for a better view with the river turning a bend just up to our right, a castle sitting on the edge of the hillside, and vineyards running up the steep slopes of the bank opposite us. While we ate we watched slow freight boats that we had seen hours earlier now chugging past us. 

Our morning started in Koblenz with a gondola trip up from the river to a hilltop fort that has existed in some form since 1000BC when the Romans first built it. After a quick stop at the grocery store to grab the makings of a gourmet (naturally!) picnic, we set off on the path south with no particular destination in mind. The journey was peaceful and we encountered numerous quaint hamlets with steepled churches, clock towers, and houses with dark crisscrossed timber facades, all set against a background of steep forested hills dotted with castles. 

Day 18: Köln to Koblenz via Bonn - 64 km

How quickly our tune has changed . . . Today found us on another train! Two things led to this turn around decision. 1) the ride from Dusseldorf yesterday did not in fact produce the breathtaking Rhein River sites that we had been expecting. Stephanie, our host in Köln told us the next section was equally if not more industrial and she thought the real scenery started around Bonn. 2) a newly hatched plan to conquer the Hapsburg Empire, inspired by our fellow train traveller Paul's rave reviews of Bratislava and Budapest in addition to Vienna and Prague, has extended the distances we hope to cover in what time we have left. I.e. give us beauty and culture or give us the train!

Fortunately today's rail experience was relatively painless and as we emerged into the southern outskirts of Bonn, and the landscape transformed into forested hills and picturesque houses, we knew we had made the right decision. In fact, we jumped off the train a stop early and eagerly made our way to the bike path running along the banks of the Rhein. Nothing but smooth riding from there to Koblenz where we set up camp for the night. 

Day 17: Dusseldorf to Koln

Our first night of "stealth camping" resulted in our earliest start yet. After getting off the train last night, we directed our bikes toward our first views of the Rhein River and the greenest patches on the map. After a half hour or so of wending our way through the inner trails of a large woodland type park, we finally settled on a clearing that met our camping needs while still being almost entirely hidden from the trail. However, our fears of discovery prompted us to rise at first light and hit the road.

Closer than expected, we made it to Koln by noon although we had told our host that we wouldn't be arriving until about seven hours later. Our first method of passing the time was a picnic and much needed siesta in a nice park. After being rudely awoken by a very sudden rainstorm (thank goodness we were still in our rain gear!), we continued into the center of Koln and hit upon a once-a-month flea market extending a few kilometers along the river. And this was the site of our first German meal: bratwurst! 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 16: Amsterdam to Dusseldorf

 Today's experience absolutely confirmed our decision to travel Europe by bicycle. Our first attempt to take the train with bikes just well may be our last; it was an absolute fiasco! Out first mistake was to buy the tickets at the station where, it turns out, they only sell the most expensive options. The second mistake was not ours, however, but that of the *insert appropriate German expletive * at the ticket counter who sold us tickets for both ourselves and our bikes on a train that does not in fact take bicycles. Imagine our confusion when we arrive at the platform for our connecting train to Dusseldorf and ask in which car we can put our bikes! 

Miles masterfully kept his cool as he explained the situation to the highly dubious man at this station's ticket counter, who ultimately printed us tickets for the three more trains we would need to take and refunded us the difference. Fortuitously, Miles had picked up a few mini bottles of wine (complete with attached glasses, bless you Europe!) and we indulged ourselves on the second train of the day. Good thing, because the real excitement turned out to be on the fourth and final train from Venlo across the boarder and to Dusseldorf. 

We actually would have missed this train due to the late arrival of train number three, but apparently it never came. We waited out the time till the following train casually chatting it up with Paul, a Berliner with lots of good advice about Germany and European destinations in general. Just as our train was due to arrive, an announcement over the loudspeakers prompted a mad dash to another platform! There was enough time for anyone moving at a clip to get there before the train, but with our loaded bikes we were constrained by the need to take a single occupancy elevator down from the current platform and then a second elevator up to the new platform. 

It was close but we got the platform in time for the train, ready to settle in for an afternoon snooze, or so we thought . . . This train was at double capacity and full to the max! We ran our bikes down the platform past car after car already containing bikes and with people waving us on. We reached the last car as the train was about to leave and it was now or never. With a stream of apologies accompanied by an insistent parting of the crowd we barely wedged ourselves and bikes into the entryway, much to the very apparent, loudly vocalized chagrin of everyone around us. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Day 12: Brielle to Zandvoort - 94 km

We arrived at our first ferry a bit early and had to psychically persuade the boatman on the other side to pick us up fifteen minutes before he usually started. On the ride to our second ferry, we raced ahead to get on it as the ferry seemed to be leaving. At my side, Elizabeth doubled over and was coughing; a bee had flown in her mouth and stung her in the throat. Luckily, she was able to push through it and we soon passed through Delft, which reminded me of Amsterdam but smaller and without the sketchy crowd. It had this old clock tower shamelessly leaning at an almost double digit angle.

Next up was The Hague, which was way larger than we expected. It had an interesting contrast of old and new buildings.

We rushed through The Hague on the way to the beach because it was the hottest day of the year so far and encountered our first "hills" which were some pretty steep sand dunes, no joke. After a nice rest and a second set of dunes, we arrived at Zanvoort.

Day 11: Haamstede to Brielle - 55 km

We were finally able to track down a shop that had a replacement rack for Elizabeth's bike. As we continued north, we saw signs for wild roosters, which are apparently so dangerous that they need to be fenced in. We saw a ton of wild birds, but sadly, no roosters.

Brielle is a pretty little city, we snapped a few pics of the boats in the canals before heading off around sunrise.

Day 10: Middleburg to Haamstede - 50km

We awoke to find that Elizabeth's rear rack had buckled under the weight of the panniers, probably on the cobblestone paths leading out of Belgium. We asked some local cyclists for a store, but it being Sunday, nothing was open. One of the cyclists  insisted on helping us and brought us to his garage where we were able to rig up the rack temporarily.

We headed north to Veere and marveled at the enormous church in town. 

We then cycled along the 5 mile long Oosterscheldekering, a man-made storm barrier that protects much of Zeelands inner waterways. We met a friendly old couple who ran a campsite in Haamstede, where we ended up staying for the night.

Day 9 Houtave, Belgium to Middleburg, Netherlands -75km

It looked like hell in the morning with sideways rain pounding against the window. But an hour later, the skies cleared and we got perfect riding conditions. We headed towards the Belgium coast, Northeast to take the ferry at Breskens. Everything in Belgium is pretty easily marked on the bike paths.

As we left Belgium, I had to get my last taste of Frites with stoverij sauce (fries in steak sauce), which I salvaged only half of as we boarded the ferry for Zeeland. We saw cool canals and drawbridges almost even day, but I'll post this one because its the first I saw in action after we got to Zeeland.

Days 7,8: Bruges

What to say about Bruges? Simply beautiful. There are very few old cities like this that retain their charm despite hoards of tourists tramping around by the busload. We ended up going to the Halve Maan Brewery, where I had been with my buddy Daniel about 12 years back. It had grown into an even bigger tourist draw with a nice fancy bar and several award winning beers. Here's their Bruge Zot Blonde which you can only get on tap at the brewery. I'd say best blonde beer we've had to date.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Day 6: Ghent to Houtave - 99km

We set off on the Ghent-Bruges canal route, which should have put us near Bruges only 50km later. Unfortunately, construction(again!!) made us detour from the canal path and we ended up on what we thought was our canal, when in fact we headed due South. We realized this about an hour in, and ended up logging our longest day so far. 
Luckily there was beer and waffles to get us back on track
We saw some interesting WWII bunkers along the path that had been turned into animal habitats.

Finally arriving in Houtave, we met up with Trien's boyfriend, Dieter, who took a trip with me to the grocery in the pouring rain so we could get supplies; which also happened to push my odometer up to 99.4 km for the day. 

Day 5: Ghent

Trien gave us a "be like a local" map, which allowed us to discover a lot of the city that is still off the beaten track, which is to say most of it. Ghent plays second fiddle to a lot of the major tourist cities in Belgium, but has a beautifully preserved historical center, with no less than 5 churches/towers and gothic buildings. It's also a huge city, with a booming student population. We saw Van Eych's sacrifice of the lamb in St. Baft Cathedral and walked around a LOT.

Day 4: Waasmunster to Ghent - 38km

Before we left, I had sent out a few last minute emails on WarmShowers to try and find a place to stay. Trien was the only one who could host us that night and herself had just returned from a 6 month cycle tour of S. America with her boyfriend, Dieter. We got a case of the hungries as we neared Ghent and Elizabeth spotted a deli in a small town as we rolled through. 8 euros later, we had a nice little picnic at the bar with broodjes, Belgian sandwiches with all the fixings and olives oh and with the beers our lunch was 10€.

Trien kindly let us make ourselves at home and we did so by throwing together our first home cooked meal in a while.

Day 3: Mechelen to Waasmunster - 76km

Day 3: Mechelen to Waasmunster - 76km

Mechelen to Ghent was a long distance so we had planned to stop and camp somewhere along the way. The route signage was pretty good along the way til we hit construction and again, we lost our way. After a detour we found our way and celebrated with a sandwich and delicious Belgian beer for lunch.
Every Belgian beer has its own serving glass, Kwak is the strangest, but a bit of as gimmick because the beer isn't that special. 

As we pushed towards Ghent, the day grew late and we started searching for a campsite. We had to backtrack a bit, but a family on bikes literally led us to the closest campground in Waasmunster. We set up our tent and treated ourselves to some delicious steak with Belgian fries

I promise not all of these will be food pics!

Day 2: Leuven to Mechelen -33km

Bart and Griet set off with us in the morning because they were visiting a relative on the way and wanted to make sure we didn't get lost. It was a nice ride down a canal and soon we arrived in Mechelen where we found the only area open on a Sunday: a fish market/beergarden. I was rewarded with the best salad so far on the trip with some killer smoked salmon.

After lunch we wandered around town before trying to find a campsite. De Nekker is half water park, half lake view park and everyone seemed kind of confused when we arrived, but after some conferring, my research was correct and camping was allowed there amongst all the families and kids. Lucky for us, it was the end of the day, so everyone was packing up and headed home; leaving us a whole park to ourselves to camp in. We tried out our camp gear for the first time and settled in for a restful evening.
Bart and Griet are some serious adventure seekers, we could tell even before we met them by the quantity of outdoor gear throughout their house; not to mention two rohloff-equipped beasts of touring bikes. Their first tour was Tajikistan, so our little jaunt around Europe didn't seem to impress them much. One thing they were adamant about regardless of where you are touring are the usefulness of kickstands.

Tip o' the day: if you are traveling with panniers, especially front ones, you really benefit from a kickstand. We spent the first two days looking for places to lean our bikes against every time we stopped. Now with the kickstand we don't even think about it. Just make sure you get a sturdy one that's fitted to your bike with loaded panniers

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Day 1: A Rough (but not rocky) Start

Brussels to Leuven: 40km

Elizabeth did a great job navigating out of Brussels, which has a reputation for being impossible to find a way out of. We thought it was all downhill (and it was, literally) as we coasted past the city limits. We were soon confounded by attempts to find the Brussels-Leuven "high speed bicycle lane." After getting bad directions from a fellow cyclist and trying seemingly every possible path, I was spent. After a frustrating hour, we saw that through massive construction project in the area, a few cyclists were trickling by. We followed an arterial and met up with the elusive high speed bike lane. It was pretty nice, but we were more focused on getting to Leuven before sundown.

Our wonderul hosts, Bart and Griet (plus baby Nell)  left a key with the neighbor so we were able to shower, wolf down some chips and beers and explore the ancient city. We finally met up with them later that evening and shared stories and learned some valuable tips, leading to our newest feature:

Tip o' the day: The staple of cycle touring, Ortleib panniers, have a strap that you keep having to clip and unclip when you open and close the bag. Griet showed us how to fasten the clips to themselves, thereby cutting out a step and giving the bags this cool grocery handle look.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Day 0: "You got the wrong handlebars!"

London to Brussels (via Eurostar)- 24km (15 mi) cycled

We'll call it day 0 because all we had to do was get our bikes from the shop in London to the St. Pancras train station, which was actually pretty easy with clearly signed and protected bike paths. We rode up to the station, took off our panniers (they hang the bikes up in their own car) and hopped on board.  Less than 2 hours later, we arrived at Brussels  Midi station. Elizabeth had her first attempt at navigator nearly foiled by Brussels' notorious lack of signposts. The late sunset and a little high school French helped us find our way.

We received a pleasant welcome from our first Warmshowers host, Mattieu, who jokingly suggested we sleep on the floor instead of the guest room for our first night because we hadn't really been cycling all that much. Mattieu and his girlfriend Anne-Lisse do a month long cycle tour each year, with Bucharest to the Black Sea up next in July. We met up with a few of their other cycling friends over delicious Belgian beers in a blues-themed bar. Talking about our new bikes, Mattieu suggested that they looked fantastic except for the handlebars. "I think you got the wrong type," he said, suggesting the more laid back, cruiser/trekker style bars. This exemplifies the difference in touring bicycles you find in the US/UK versus mainland Europe. Most Europeans favor the butterfly bars or bar ends to the drop bar, racing style handlebars we like; Mattieu was convinced that our backs would be hurting after a few days, I guess we shall see.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Our trusty steeds

Today was the day. Find a bike or go home. We had narrowed it down to several different models, all steel frame US/UK style touring bikes. If you want further details on choosing our bikes, you can click here. I was surprised at how few stores stocked touring bikes. My plan had been to show up and try out the showroom bikes but the reality is that these bikes sell so rarely that most shops only stock a few and order the rest.

We visited around twelve stores and after two full days of searching, we found our bikes: a Ridgeback Panorama and a Ridgeback Voyage. Dean at Simpsons cycles seemed to have all the answers for us and like clockwork, we were able to find almost all our bike gear there as well. Though many people told us it was better to buy a bike in the US and send it over, this certainly worked out well for us and ended up costing less because we get the sales tax exemption! Tomorrow we begin our Odyssey.