So I biked some miles in Europe

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Two months ago I left San Francisco with a bike and a trailer. I landed in Amsterdam with a trailer and no bike. While I waited for the airline to find my wheels I spent my time warding off my family’s ridiculous worries and took long walks to alleviate the annoyance with said worries. Being without a ride on a bikepacking trip sucked big time. Sure I didn’t have the most auspicious start. But this is life, it throws you curve balls. You have to be ready to catch.

I wheelbarrowed my luggage in my trailer through the Dutch countryside. I opened myself to being ridiculous, unlucky, afraid. I was a bag lady in Germany fighting rain with plastic. I was an American in The Netherlands wearing a helmet on the bike. I made myself comfortable in solitude in Denmark. I dared to bike in Romania, and lived.

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My odometer 2 months ago showed 278 miles. Today it shows 1644 miles. In nearly 1400 miles of sunny, muddy, rainy togetherness my blue Motobecane’s become my best friend. This bike’s wheels have combed through forest paths, muddy and gnarly roads, bridges, tunnels, beaches. Together we’ve met friendly Dutch farmers who are in tune with nature and groom it, make it hospitable. We conversed – albeit one-sided – with cows, sheep, goats, ducks, deer, foxes, even a few llamas and a notorious kangaroo.

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What I’ve wanted out of this trip was to be amazed. In all honesty, I was. My last campsite was the most magical yet, a green corner by the water, where I shared some snacks and evening thoughts with a fleet of ducks. I was alone again, as I was when I got here.

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As I biked towards the airport this morning, with the 5am sun rising slowly behind me, I thought it best to not say goodbye to The Netherlands, for fear of being corny or trite. Instead, to dispel the building sadness, I started planning my next biking trip, and resolved to fly out of Schipol on a cheerful note, returning the positivity that this country’s gifted me with.

Netherlands, it’s been great to know ya.

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When I grow up I want to be a Dutch tree hugger

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir. I don’t know if I’ve tapped into any secrets of the Universe cycling through the forests of The Netherlands, but I can definitely say it’s one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done here.

Our Southern cycling route is now looping towards its terminus point, and after covering another 100 miles or so North we’re again going straight West, towards Amsterdam – the city where things start and end this summer for me. We’ve had a few days of nagging rain and forests, the latter making the former more bearable.

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If you like trees, the national park De Hoge Veluwe is a beautiful place to visit. It’s very large, spanning over 50 square km, and it features a mixture of lush forests sand dunes in alternating fashion, a landscape formed during the Ice Age. Oddities keep things interesting right? In this park you can cycle or hike for miles and miles and not meet a single road or house.

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This time we didn’t actually go through the park but covered quite a bit of distance cycling around it, alongside forests which are just as beautiful as those in the park. We camped for the night at a lovely nature campground in Otterlo, where I promptly setup a clothesline and hung my various belongings to dry, plastic bags and all. That gypsy lifestyle!

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We’re now in Utrecht, where we took a day off to give our asses a chance to recover from the saddle brutalities. And now that I’m finally standing still I can think about how incredible it is that we actually made it here. Yesterday was without a doubt the windiest day I’ve lived in this country. A short 40 miles from the Veluwe park to Utrecht should have been a breeze, but instead it was as if we’d raised the wrath of the grumpiest wind gods. Cold air hit from all directions, and even in our lowest gears we were barely crawling at 9mph. Occasional maverick rain would remind us from time to time that it could, in fact, be worse.

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The wind was something extra. When we finally got to our campground, located on a charming farm outside of Utrecht, we setup the tent with zombie motions and considered calling it a day. But the city was so close! I managed to pull Jim out of his defeated state and we bravely biked into Utrecht for some beers.

Well, one beer turned into 3, and then some bitterballen were consumed, and then some ice cream. Finally, close to midnight we got back on the bikes and rolled into the night, through the partying city of Utrecht, over tall bridges and dark, silent cornfields, back to our farm campground. We agreed it was a good decision to go out after all. To beer or not to beer? The answer is obvious.

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Once you go Dutch you can’t go back

Memories of cycling in The Netherlands stayed with me in a really pressing, come-back kind of way, so I decided to come back here and explore the Southern part of the country in another week long tour. This time though I am not solo.

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My friend Jim and I have been on the road for about 170 miles. We started in Eindhoven and biked 50 miles into Belgium almost entirely along a canal that was so symmetrically framed by trees that it could very well have been in a painting.

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Our camping accommodations were nothing to write home about, but we did get a spot near a pond, which we thought was a great thing, but realized that it wasn’t when we were prematurely awoken by the yells of a very outspoken duck.

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On the second day we turned North again and rolled back into The Netherlands along a beautiful path near the Maas river. Small cafes with patios dotted the path, where older couples propped up their upright bikes and sat down for koffie verkeerd (Dutch latte, literally “wrong coffee”). I don’t know if I mentioned this but Dutch old people are very cute.

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My favorite part of cycling in The Netherlands are the paved cycling paths through forests. Cycling here is like hiking on a bicycle, the smell of pines and wet earth fills your nostrils and your hair blows in the wind (if you’re wearing a helmet take it off, this is The Netherlands!) and you find yourself wishing the path will never end.

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We found a place to spend the night at a terrific campground in Roermond which is part of the Natuurkampeerterreinen national camping network. I can’t say enough good things about these campgrounds: they have everything you need as a tent camper, including hot showers, toilet paper and electricity close to your site. The campgrounds are often located within an actual farm, so you get to camp on lands with 100-year old trees and hang out with all kinds of animals while you’re there. This time it was horses!

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The third day we covered about 65 miles heading North towards Nijmegen. The route I mapped out online using the LF router took us on a hopscotch trajectory between the two shores of the Maas river, and we found ourselves on 4 different ferries going back and forth. These mini ferries are adorable, and most passengers are talkative old people on bikes, so adorable x2. The price for every ferry is only about 1 euro apiece.

No proper day in The Netherlands is complete without a bit of rain. On the last 10 miles, before we stopped to camp just South of Nijmegen, we got properly soaked and muddy. Now this is the Netherlands I remember!

The campground, another “nature” campground this time with self-service check-in, offered hot showers and a pine-smelling meadow to park your tent in the middle of a forest. Every day of camping in this country is like opening a little surprise nugget out of a box of Dutch chocolates.

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Old castles, the Black Sea and a bike: bicycle touring in Romania

“I come to Romania for adventure!” the German cyclist on the train said in reply to my quizzical appraisal of his touring setup: mountain bike with suspension (a must for any life-loving cyclist of Eastern Europe), beat up pair of panniers, thick coat of dust. Sounds about right.

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Having been born here, I’d often wondered what brings tourists to Romania. But curiosity presses, and landing here after rolling in the unmotorized nirvana of Northwestern Europe, I had to try it for myself: bicycle touring in Romania. I sweet-talked a doesn’t-know-what-he’s-getting-himself-into friend and followed this well documented guide to cover the 110 miles (180 km) from Tulcea to Constanta along the Black Sea in 3 days.

The worst part? The 35℃ (95℉) heat and the barbarous mosquitoes. The best part? Well, of course: adventure.

Tulcea is an old harbor city in Eastern Romania, perched on seven hills by the Saint George branch of the Danube. Lovely place, if not for the scorching heat which nearly peeled the paint off my bike. To make for a relaxed first day, after getting off the train here from Bucharest, we decided to cycle just 20 miles South and camp at Zorile Albe, a charming campground in the border village of Sarichioi.

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This campground was unique in a number of ways. It featured cats, curious chickens and a fleet of remarkable organized ducks. Most interestingly, it was just a dude’s backyard. A sociable dude who came down and chatted with us and the other campers, and then proceeded to prepare an incredible meal of carp brine with polenta, a traditional fishermen’s dish from the Danube.

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Located right on the shore of Lake Razelm, this campground had one of the most show-offy sunrises I’ve ever seen. Nice, I guess, if you like that whole sun-reflection-water-boat-whatever stuff. Not me though, not me.

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The second day was grueling. But we knew it was going to be. Waking up at 5 am to get a head start on the already building heat, we aimed to cycle about 80 miles (120 km) South to Vadu, a beautiful wild beach where camping isn’t officially allowed but, like in the rest of Romania, done by many.

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We got to the first stop, Enisala fortress, around 8 am – perfect time for breakfast with a view. After a steep climb to the castle, we feasted on tomatoes and yellow sheep cheese by the old walls, amidst piles of trash, which sadly are everywhere in Romania.

Enisala looks straight from a movie, a 14-century fortress built by the Genovese on the grounds of an older Byzantine construction. This fortress somehow survived the long-standing pissing contest between the Russian and Ottoman empires and didn’t get blown up. It’s the only medieval fortress that remains in Eastern Romania.

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15 miles later, in Jurilovca, we got off the paved road and cycled towards the coast onto a gravel road, then a dirt road, then a single track, then a heinous single track with boulders, which climbed steeply then descended abruptly right along the coast, making us wobble with the loaded bikes and count our blessings as the cliff fell sharply to the left. We wanted adventure, right?

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Here we found Argamum, an old Greek fortress from the 7th century BC which sits on the tallest point of the Romanian Black Sea coast. This thing is old! The on-the-brim positioning and the history of the place impressed us, but the unforgiving sun and the trash which garnished the place as per usual made us want to get out of there as soon as possible. So we did.

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In summary, the journey to Vadu included: near-death experience cycling along a major two-lane highway with fast traffic (this is Romania, so no other roads!), tall poplar trees, endless fields of corn and sunflowers. But the morale was kept high by the friendly countryside people: cyclists wave, old people say hello, kids pedal alongside you till they run out of steam, drivers cheerlead you with friendly honks. Balkan people 🙂

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Approaching Vadu beach, there was so much trash and the road was so dilapidated that I dreamt of being back in Denmark on butter-smooth delimited bike paths, and almost cried. But camping on this wild, quiet beach after cycling all those miles, was a spiritual experience. Worth it – even though I took home some 200 mosquito bites as memento.

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On the last day of the Romanian seaside cycling adventure, we ruefully awoke to a blasting 5 am sun, and freshly sweaty proceeded to pack up the tent and make a hasty exit off the roasting, insect-infested beach.

The final stretch took us 25 miles (40 km) South to the city of Constanta, where we took the train to Bucharest. I don’t have a lot to say about this part, as it took us into the touristy part of the seaside where hordes of flabby, sunburned people gaped around and stuffed their faces in the sweltering heat by the beaches where last-year’s-finest music blasted from the speakers. Not my favorite landscape.

Most memorable part: fixing a flat on the train like a boss.

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It surprised me to see more touring cyclists on this short trip than in Scandinavia. All but one of the 6 groups I spotted were foreign. Most seemed to not know what they were getting themselves into. I felt for them. I was born here and still I was way out of my comfort zone as a cyclist, and as a human. Which really presses the question: why do tourists come to Romania?

Some lessons I took home: don’t come in the summer, just don’t do this to yourself. Come on mountain bike; no hybrids, no racers. Take hand sanitizer everywhere. And you’ll have to find a way to get used to seeing and smelling trash, because it’s there everywhere you go.

A lot of things don’t make sense in Romania but if you’re not a pansy and really, really want adventure, this is probably an experience that’ll quench the thirst.

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A new day, a new country

 

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Hard to not be happy in Denmark when there’s so much ice cream everywhere. Only my second day in Copenhagen and I lost count of my gelatos. But the itinerant creed says, don’t stay in one place too long, so things are about to change for me.

Today I biked in Copenhagen, and it was glorious. Without the trailer, my bike just flew. It turns out that riding a racer in a city where most people ride upright bikes is like driving a Tesla next to a PT Cruiser. Newly reckless with this realization, I started mingling with the fastest, most ballsy bikers (I ride in San Francisco for heaven’s sake, we have balls there!). And boy were we FAST.

I rode the 13-km Harbour Circle (Havneringen), the highlight of which is of course The Bicycle Snake, the overpass bridge for bikes across the harbour. This really is a unique ride, so I took a video.

Being from Cali and all, I couldn’t resist having a burger in Copenhagen, and once again I went off the beaten path to a hole in the wall I’d read about: Banana Joe’s Burger. I had Joe’s Special here, a sublime meaty monster with an egg on top and an elegant Indian sauciness. All the trials and tribulations I suffered on this trip felt worthwhile for me to get to sit here and eat this thing. Joe himself came out and chatted me up about my travels, and about American burgers. Good guy this Joe, hats off to his craft.

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I ended the day with an afternoon at Amager Strand. It’s amazing how small Copenhagen seems when you have wheels (and when you’re rolling at 20 mph on them!). It takes just 20 minutes to get from one end of town to another. Amager is to Copenhagen people what Baker Beach is to San Franciscans, or Alameda Beach to East Bay people: it’s where people go to chill out, ride cruiser bikes by the beach, get a tan and of course have some ice cream. Unlike the Pacific though, this sea is actually warm enough to swim in too.

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Today was my last day in Copenhagen. Sadly, it’s my last day on this leg of the trip too. I’ve been beset by a sprained ankle since the brutal roads of Germany, and my injury has been swelling and hurting despite my best efforts at compression. Going into Sweden at this point is risky, since Swedish trains in Skane (Southern Sweden) don’t take bikes, so there is no Plan B if my ankle gets worse, or if there is continuous rain. Given these factors I had to make the executive decision to take a break.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Bucharest to spend time with my family and friends. Fingers crossed that my bike arrives too – there are many beautiful roads to be cycled in Romania and more adventures await there.

It’s bittersweet to leave Denmark and my Northbound route. This tour has been sobering in so many ways.

I’ve cycled 791 miles (1273 km) over 3 countries in 19 days.

Camped at 10 campgrounds.

Climbed 13,500 feet (4113 meters).

Had 0 flats (zero).

Seen more beautiful places than I can count.

Learned fewer foreign words than I can count on one hand – because everyone speaks English so well!

If you’re reading this: cycle in Scandinavia. Alone, with friends, it doesn’t matter. Just get on two wheels, be outside, be open. Sure it’s scary, but it’s well worth it. If I can do it, anyone can.

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Some old Eddie Vedder seems in order too, as I pack my bags. See ya later, Denmark!

Being a bad cycling tourist in Copenhagen

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I got to Copenhagen and was entirely too jittery and excited about seeing the city, so I decided to tuck in my bike for a day of ambling through the city on foot to calm myself the hell down. Since I’m a pathological planner, I made a walking map and exported it to a .gpx file which I then imported into my phone for offline routing. I put one earphone in and navigated the city like a boss, not once stopping to look at a map like other tourists. OsmAnd dutifully informed me as I arrived to the landmarks I’d targeted on my map. Things you learn from bike touring!

Since I don’t have much time in the city I didn’t visit any museums, but Copenhagen is itself a museum and just from outside you have front row seats to some of the most beautiful buildings and green spaces in the world. I started at Rosenborg Castle, right in the middle of the map, and strolled through the King’s Garden, whose manicured green areas and flowers were charming. The Garden was not overwhelmed with tourists either, and I could easily find quiet places to read a few pages of my book.

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Then I made my way to Rita’s for lunch, where I greedily sampled a wide selection of smørrebrød (Danish for “open faced sandwich”), a traditional Danish lunch of different toppings on buttered rye. The spot I found was well priced and supremely delicious.

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With my newfound energy I continued to Brumleby, one of the first examples of social housing in Denmark which served as a model for  subsequent ones, and then Kastellet, the most well preserved fortress in Northern Europe. Shaped like a star, with impeccably mowed grass and clear instructions (no bicycles on the ramparts!) Kastellet was a serene place to walk in, and I even joined the locals lounging on the grass, to let the sun warm my face and think about the many miles that brought me here.

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Speeding through the touristy Little Mermaid (thank Hans Christian Andersen for making this puny statue a tourist magnet) and Amalienborg Castle (home of the Danish royal family) areas, I made my way to the lively Nyhavn. Little did I know this is the most happening spot in Copenhagen! This is like Sausalito on a warm California day, complete with overpriced restaurants, bored-and-confused tourists and irresistible smells of desserts wafting from everywhere. I couldn’t resist stopping to get an overpriced ice cream cone myself, and sat with widened eyes on the edge of water by the boats and people-watched for a long while.

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My next stop was Torvehallerne, a huge outdoor market in traditional Scandinavian style (read: very modern, they accept cards to pay for produce!). Determined to find a Danish-Danish and rather exhausted from the 8+ miles of walking so far, I stopped at a quiet cafe in a corner of the market and had a rejuvenating cup of coffee along with 3 (read: three) pastries, none of which were an actual Danish as we Americans think of one, but all of which made me happy. Pictured below: a dream snail.

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Before you ask, I did go to the Freetown of Christiania. But it didn’t impress me. Tourists are discouraged from taking photos in this community, and it’s easy to understand why. Lots of substances are dealt there, not all of which are legal in Denmark. Besides, for the locals it’s probably a bit unpleasant to be constantly stared at and photographed by hordes of the culturally curious (or worse, Americans!). The place is charming in its own way, but to me the Marleyesque kumbaya was reminiscent of a time in my life when I wore colorful hair threads, and thought recycling could save the planet, and basically when I wasn’t an engineer. So I rolled my eyes, just a little bit. Worth at least passing through while in Copenhagen, for sure!

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Free camping in Denmark

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I’d been on the Baltic Sea Cycle Route for about 120 miles when I went off the popular path again, and strayed inland Denmark to visit the Tystrup-Bavelse lakes, which are located about 60 miles West of Møns Klint. I’d read about this area as being exceptionally picturesque and equipped with some sweet primitive camping, so I really wanted to see it.

Denmark doesn’t have the freedom to roam law that Sweden does, which allows you to camp anywhere on both public and private land, as long as you don’t cause a disturbance. I’ve seen Denmark to be quite protective of private property (“privat” signs everywhere) and I was very curious about what this Sweden-style free primitive camping on public land was going to be like.

If I needed any more proof that Denmark is not flat, the 60 miles from Møns Klint to Tystrup Lake punched me in the face with this evidence. Between the relieving descents and the hopeful ascents (I hope this is the last climb, please let this be the last climb!), it was impossible not to laugh at my own ignorance about the rolling hills of Denmark. No wonder so few touring cyclists roam here except by the sea, where it’s all flat!

I arrived at Tystrup Lake around 7 pm and, polyglot that I am, followed the Danish instructions on a small sign explaining how to find the tent pitches. Following a gravel road that leads straight to the lake, a grassy path to the left points you to the pitches which are located in the clearing of a mini-forest. There were 3 sites there, spacious and protected from the wind, and they came with instructions! With my dictionary I gathered the essentials: there’s potable water, bathroom, and you can’t stay more than 3 nights.

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To my great surprise I spotted the Coleman 1-person tent of another bike-in camper at the site, and I was very excited at the thought that they may be American (Coleman tent, Walmart?) and I’d finally have a conversation partner. Despite my severe exhaustion I stayed up until well after 11 pm (which is still broad daylight in these Nordic countries) waiting for this person to either emerge from the tent or return from a late hike. Neither happened and sleep got the best of me. When I woke up in the morning, the mysterious camper was gone and I was alone again, and sadly conversationless.

I spent my day off by the lake enjoying a vertical, homo-erectus position. It’s amazing how much you can miss walking! I outlined a 10 mile hike on my map through the forest, where the trail played hike and seek with the lake. Tall trees rose on every side of me, sometimes thinning out in a clearing, and I didn’t meet a single soul. Forests are magical wherever you go.

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After hanging out in organized camping grounds where the levels of noise and solitude are variable, being disconnected and remote at Tystrup was incredible. What I love in Denmark is that there is infrastructure everywhere for you to have at least a decent experience. “Primitive camping” in Denmark means there is a trash can by your site (collected regularly), a picnic table, a nearby bathroom which is clean, equipped with lots of toilet paper, hand soap and even an antediluvian hand drier. All of these are things you need as a camper, and somebody put them there for you to use. How many times have I been to a campground in the States and there is no toilet paper, though I pay a fee to stay there? Sadly, many. Toilet paper is kind of essential if you ask me, especially when it’s missing at a critical time!

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Someone thought about the experience that one would have camping here, and made it comfortable. I’m impressed, and grateful for places like this.

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