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.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Day 45: Szentendre (Saint Andrew) to Esztergom - 48km

At 3am I awoke with a start, kicking at an animal that had been nuzzling my foot through the tent. It emitted a blood curdling banshee scream and bounded off. What was it? I wondered. A large cat? A raccoon or possum? We're still not sure. All I saw was a large shadow and a bushy tail. What's worse is that it stuck around, stalking the area for the next hour and screeching once more just to let us know. We were in the most remote and uninhabited part of a large campsite so we picked up our tent and walked 150 yards to a more populated spot. We got a couple more hours of sleep but set off cursing the mythical beast that had terrorized us earlier that morning. So much for Europe having a docile wilderness!

We continued West along the until we came to a very nice river bank that many locals were sunning on. This was the first accessible part of the Danube we had seen, everything else had been covered in mud. Since wild camping is legal in Hungary, we pitched out tent down and had a lovely evening on the river sans animals and mosquitoes thanks to a strong wind!

Though no banshees visited us that night, we were surprised to see a robotic procession around 10pm. Nearly 200 people, adorned with flashing lights on their arms, legs and heads were jogging single file. We couldn't even tell if they were running or cycling until we crept closer, remaining hidden from view of the robo-joggers. We figured if these guys were out, they would probably scare away any potential banshees.

Day 44: Budapest to Szentendre (Saint Andrew) - 44km

It seemed improper to leave Budapest without visiting any of the city's famous thermal baths so we went to Szchenyi Baths in City Park. Built just at the beginning of the 20th century, it is the largest bathing complex in Eurpope. It lived up to the hype, with thermal pools of different temps and wet, dry and eucalyptus saunas tucked away in elegant, modern halls. We left feeling refreshed and relaxed. 

Leaving Budapest was probably our only pleasant riding experience within the city limits. My bell was at its highest point of utility as I used it to part the waves of wandering tourists and puttering cyclists out of our way on the path. Unlike the wandering Hungarians and tourists at Balaton, the people on Budapest bike paths were prompt to make way. Too bad there are only two functional paths like this in the whole city running alongside the river. 

Day 43: Budapest to Memento Park - 33km

We woke up at noon after a later-than-expected night out and grabbed a quick lunch before cycling to Memento Park. It was made after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 as a place for all the old communist statues from around Hungary. We weren't really sure what to expect: a park with a heap of decaying Stalins and Lenins or something more organized. It was the latter. The irony of the capitalization of communist trinkets, such as fridge magnets and passports was probably the park's most interesting feature. We paid 1500 forint ($6) to get in, but would have had to pay an extra 2500 for a guided tour had we not just missed it. There weren't any explanations for any of the statues, save for a few titles. We spent about 30 minutes at the park than rode back an hour and 30 minutes to Budapest.

On our way back, we saw our first cyclist injury of the trip. An ambulance and bus had pulled over on top of the bike path and there was a mangled bike lying in the street. My guess was that the bus had turned right into the cyclist as they were trying to cross the street. It was a grim reminder of how vulnerable you are on a bike when you're not separated from vehicular traffic (which countries like Austria, Holland and Belgium do really well!)

Rather than try and cram in a visit to the Thermal Baths, we took the advice of our hostel's manager and tried another one of his restaurant suggestions. The first two had been good but this one was incredible. Every single thing about the meal was fantastic. It didn't even cost much because it was in a local area. We finished it off with some fabulous Tokaj dessert wine and tasted some more great  Hungarian  wine straight from a cellar to finish the night. 

Day 40: Balatonkali to Budapest - 34km (plus trains)

The Lake Balaton bike path though is pretty bad overall. There are roots coming up through the path that shake your whole body with every bump. The result is that your muscles are constantly tense as you ride. Not fun. It is also surprisingly narrow so that two cyclists with panniers riding in opposite sides can barely pass one another. 

We ended up on the road a few times skipping some of the poorer sections of the path until we reached the next town. Hearing that the route between the lake and Budapest was lame resulted in us catching another train. We arrived at the station with under ten minutes to go. As Elizabeth rushed off to buy tickets I saw our train pull in on another platform on the other side of the station. As we rushed up and down the ramps, we got a double dose of Hungarian altruism as random locals helped us push our bikes up the steep slippery ramps. The conductor yelled to a kid who slid open the train car and we heaved the loaded bikes on board. Two and a half hours later we pulled into Budapest and as the sun set, we wound through foreign streets at high speeds until we were met with one of the most beautiful welcomes to a city I have ever experienced: the parliament building across the river in Pest which I have on my handheld camera and will upload later!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day 36: Keszthely to Balatonkali - 61 km

We headed North on the bike path that runs along Lake Balaton, knowing already that it didn't actually run alongside the lake. It was good for the first 10km, but then got a little rough. There were a few nice views though, particularly as we rose to a hill where all the locals produce their own wine. Rather than develop their lots into condos or real estate, the option to keep them as mini-vinyards gave Szigliget almost Mediterranean feel as we wound through the streets catching glimpses of people sailing on the ocean... I mean, lake!

Day 35: Maribor, Slovenia to Keszthely, Hungary - 52 km (plus 2 trains and a bus)

Faced with the prospect of more hills through cornfields and at least two long days to get from Maribor to Lake Balaton, Hungary; we opted to cut a couple days out and travel by train again. A creative route that we had planned quickly became more so when we had to switch from train to bus part way through. With the route changed, we deboarded early and took a Croatian detour, thoroughly confusing the border agents of the newest member of the EU with our heavily stamped, non-EU passports. At the next boarder back into Slovenia, the officer jokingly asked if my extra passport photo was for him! Hard to believe that 35 days and six countries into the trip these are the first checkpoints we've been through.
Our afternoon involved two more trains following a stop over in the hungarian border town of Lenti where we got our first taste of both the delicious food and the complicated language. We followed the "helpful" picture of a train to the station, not realizing until we arrived at children's train museum that we were misled. And at the end of the day we arrived at Kesthely on the southern tip of Lake Balaton. Despite the lazy day for our legs (although we did get in some kilometers between stations), our arms were well worked by the lack of ramps or elevators and the unusually high train cars! 

Day 34: Selnica ob Dravi to Maribor 16km

We have decided Pensions are they way to go for when we are visiting cities. They are cheaper than hotels, nicer than hostels and are directly supporting small local businesses. Arriving in Maribor, we went straight to the tourist office, where they found and reserved us a pension within minutes. It was located above a Sarajevan restaurant so of course, we had to try the food; maybe my favorite meal thus far. 

Day 33: Volkemarkt, Austria to Selnica ob Dravi, Slovenia - 101 km

We finally made a "Euro-century" today as our odometer read 101.4 km as our aching bodies pulled into Selnica ob Dravi, just short of Maribor. Leaving Volkemarkt, we descended to the Austrian border and were treated to more glorious views of the bluish  green Drava. 
As soon as we entered Slovenia, it felt different. The hills rose higher and the woods became thick, almost like Northern California. The bike path disappeared and we were forced to ride most of the afternoon on a windy mountain road. As the sun began to set, we contemplated finding a place to wild camp as the road sans street lamps would not be a safe option after dark. As we climbed a hill, we spotted a sign showing a word we had learned hours earlier meaning pension. 
The owner let out a semi menacing guffaw when we told her where we were from; guess they don't get a lot of Yankees round here! In half German and English, we negotiated a price for the evening: 38€ with breakfast. Dinner consisted of some strange fare: cottage cheese rolled in dough, salad and fish, but was pretty good.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day 32: Kopliener See day off

Waking to sunshine and dry ground this morning, the campsite didn't seem so bad as it did last night. The heat of the early sun and the idea of rewarding our Alpen climb resulted in the baring of our intense spandex tan lines and a day of 'zee'-side relaxation. If we spent all the days in such a state our blog would certainly be a quicker read!

Some little gooselets with their folks!

Day 31: Villach to Volkemarkt - 68 km

Campsites in this part of Austria have been exceedingly sparse so today we made for the only two campsites between Villach and Maribor, both on the Kopleiner Zee. A rainstorm closely preceded our arrival and made the small, camper can-filled site on the north side look exceedingly bedraggled. The only patch free for a tent was bare earth, now much, and next to the washing up stations. However, the bigger problem was our need for .50 Euro coins to operate the shower. This hurdle resulted in the unexpected highlight of the day when Miles secured the coins as change from a vending machine for the best Austrian beer we've had to date! 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Day 30 Bad Gastein to Villach - 93 km

Despite our aching quads and hammies, we were forced to start off on hills once again. After climbing a bit, we reached the plateau at Bockstein. This was the end of the road. Even cars have to be loaded on the train and schlepped through the mountain tunnel to Malnitz on the other side. So we lugged our steeds on board and sat though ten minutes of ear popping darkness as we penetrated the mountain. 

On the other side, it was a twenty minute downhill to Spittal. Topping around 65kph on the bikes, we almost had the contents of our handlebar bags bounce out as we neared the bottom. There were some slight inclines, but it was mostly flat or downhill as we transitioned to our new bike path: Drau Radweg. The path snakes along the Drau/Drava river, descending out of the Alps. Later in the day we looked back and saw how far we had descended!

Day 29 St. Veit to Bad Gastein - 42.3(uphill!)

When it's raining, we like to keep sleeping until the rain stops (an advantage of long summer days). However today, it just didn't want to stop. A local showed us a kids playroom that we hung out and lunched in while waiting out the rain. 
After suiting up in heavy rain gear, we proceeded to crawl 10-15k through the steepest terrain on our ride. We finally reached a plateau that saved us from more hills by putting us through two tunnels, including one that was almost 2km long.

As we rolled into Bad Gastein, it seemed we were doomed to repeat our previous day by facing big hills at the end as the only hotel on river level was 240€ a night. We climbed a few before finding Pension Laura, which was also a Pizza joint for 62€. The included breakfast was more than enough upon entering and seeing the layers of kitsch that covered every square inch of the place. We had a wonderful dinner and a very restful sleep!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Day 28: Salzburg to St. Veit - 97km

"Alps shmalps, we are really crushing it today!" I thought, before reaching the first of four mountain passes in crossing The Alps. The uphills with serious grades (10+%) didn't start until Bischofshofen, giving us speeds of 60 kph on the downhill as we passed a beautiful old castle. The route, Alpine Adria Radweg, was very well marked and put us on gravel or paved paths alongside the river. 

Reaching our initially planned campsite with fresh legs, we agreed to push on to the next campsite. This is where things started to get silly. Two of the next campsites (one advertised by sign just off the bike path), were nowhere to be found. We then faced the decision of going over another mountain pass or backtracking and looking for the last campsite. We ended up having walk our bikes  up our steepest grade of the day(25%?) and ride several more km. but our reward? A nice campsite with the best bathrooms we've seen.

Day 25: Munich to Simsee - 87km

"The route goes up and down a bit, but it's nice because you end up at a beautiful lake," our host Kirsten had told us. I kept this in my head as cars whizzed past; our first experience on the streets and I'm glad we had finally purchased helmets! Actually, German drivers were pretty good about giving us a wide berth to pass. It was just shocking to see the change from bike lanes everywhere alongside highways to just designated zones. 

Some rolling hills and 80 km later, we descended on the lake. Sweaty and tired, we started to set up our stuff when swarms of killer mosquitoes came after us. We rushed to shower and cover ourselves head to toe, but the mossies were resilient. We ended up cooking dinner in the rec room and watching German music videos instead of a glorious lakeside sunset.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Days 22-24: Munich

Ah Munich, the capital of Bavaria; our experience couldn't have been any more perfect as an Oom-pa-pa band belted out a tune as we strolled into the Biergarten on a sunny afternoon. Tasty cuts of fried pork, bratwurst, pretzels, potatoes and sauerkraut dominated our culinary experience along with "small" (half liter) beers. We also began the trend of a pastry a day in Munich's numerous bakeries. Our first night, we walked through driving rain to reach Tollman, an outdoor festival featuring regional food, arts and crafts. In spite of the good free music flowing out of the tents, we were content to dry ourselves over our new favorite German beer, Hubertus Mai Bock from Hacker-Pshorr.
While walking downtown the next day we happened upon a plaque marking the very building where Kristallnact(The Night of Broken Glass) began. As much fun as we had taking in the beautiful old buildings and people walking around in leiterhosen, there was the constant reminder that Munich was once the starting point for the Nazi Party. As suggested by our host, Kirsten, we went to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site. It was the first concentration camp in Germany, used mainly for political opponents of the Nazis in 1933 but then functioned as a work camp and transit station for other concentration and death camps. Most of the barracks had been demolished, but one was still standing along with a bunker, which had been used for interrogation and torture. Both areas were chock full of information and there was even a cinema showing a documentary on Dachau. As somber and unnerving an experience it was to be where so many have suffered and perished, we at least were able to gain a greater understanding as to what went on there.

Later we visited the  Lenbach museum of modern art, which had just reopened weeks before. Featured was an exhibit on Kandinsky and the Blue Riders, an art collective that led to the Bauhaus movement in Germany. We both enjoyed Kandinsky's earlier transcendental paintings although I was a bigger fan of Paul Klees. We closed our chapter on Munich attempting to take down a kaiserstrudel, an enormous apple pastry with Kirsten and her friend. 

Day 21: Mainz to Munich - via train

"Hey baby, I figured out a way to get to Munich that only takes two more hours" is a lot easier to hear when you're traveling by train instead of bicycle. Traveling by rail to Munich is our way of gaining the time that we will need to take on the Alps. Miles figured  out a genius way to save us 100 euros by taking only regional trains, four of them to be exact. It's basically took our entire day and we arrived in Munich late in the evening and got possibly the last room in a hostel near the station. Everything seems to have been booked due to the X-Games this weekend. The price, quality and anonymity of the hostel made us appreciate even more the wonderful Warm Showers hosts we have had as well as the unassuming and easygoing nights camping. However,the  Augustiner beer garden we were directed to for a late night meal was a perfect welcome to Munich.


Day 20: Neiderheimbach to Mainz - 50km

Today we celebrated our first flat tire . . . surely those were exclamations of joy coming from Miles! It happened in the morning before we even left the campsite and strangely enough was caused by the pump that came with the bicycle. Apparently it requires two people to function properly and without being braced it tore the inner tube. Miles gave me my first lesson in changing the tube and we headed off to Mainz.

We found to our disappointment that the scenic part of our Rhein ride was over. In fact we were no longer even riding along the river but rather inland through small fields and orchards. Not ugly, but not all that interesting either, so we took advantage of the protected and well-marked bike path to speed our way to Mainz. The main attraction in Mainz was the Gutenburg Museum dedicated to the man who invented the printing press, sharing the history of book writing and illustrating, and displaying three versions of the first bible ever printed. 

After this museum stop came our possibly game-changing decision. In Koblenz we met a Canadian couple in Koblenz who was at the beginning of a six-month bike tour during which they would cross the French Alps. This got Miles thinking and he suggested we perhaps add the Alps to our itinerary. We thought this plan over for a couple days and have decided to pursue it. The route is unclear yet but we do know that we will take a train to Munich tomorrow and head south from there into the Austrian Alps!