Tag Archives: soloTravel

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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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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Denmark cares

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Cycling in Denmark after Germany feels like I’ve been beat up for a long time, and suddenly someone hugged me. Both car and bike roads are leveled here, even the dirt and gravel paths in the woods. The transitions on and off cycle paths at intersections are smooth, thought through. There is empathy for cyclists here. I’m not tense on the bike anymore to keep myself steady after going over obstacles. Really, it’s a pleasure.

Yesterday was a bittersweet day. Germany can be charming, but the key is to take a train between the charming places and pretend the other places don’t exist. I covered 50 miles from Lübeck to Sütel Strand, just a hair from the Northern tip of Germany. This portion is part of the Baltic Sea Cycle Route, a very popular Eurovelo route. The route took me along what I deemed to be the Myrtle Beach of Germany, a series of seaside resorts lined with tall hotels, where older people walk arm in arm slowly by the beach. Shopping and eating at overpriced waterfront restaurants are pretty much the only things to do.

The Baltic Sea Cycle Route was memorable. It took me from the Myrtle Beaches of Germany to fields of wheat and corn, to green rolling hills (wasn’t too jazzed about the climbing part before the “rolling” but even in my grumpiness I had to admit it was picturesque). Germany ended on a high note. I would come back to this friendly sea, I thought.

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Overall, camping in Germany left me underwhelmed. Receptions close early (5pm!) and late arrivals such as myself are left to fend for themselves. A camping card is needed to enter the bathroom, take a shower or use outlets, and without such a card I’ve had to wait around for someone to open the door to the loo with their card just so I could pee! Given my 6pm arrival yesterday, and my 7:30am departure this morning to catch the Puttgarden ferry to Denmark, I left without paying, as there was no one to pay to. Just as well, since I didn’t actually make use of their facilities. But I did get to camp for free on a lawn full of bunnies!

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For comparison, in the Netherlands and Denmark common facilities like the kitchenette and bathrooms are always open, and the reception usually has a sign that says “Late arrivals, find a spot you like to set up your tent, and we’ll sort it out in the morning!”. Thank you Denmark, I think we’ll get along.

Total (reluctant) miles in Germany: 301 (484 km)

Lübeck, I love you

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When you travel on two wheels you absorb more of the feeling of place than when you drive, and get out of the car in various places to sightsee. Imagine you arrive in a city as people would arrive in the old days on horseback: slowly, deliberately, with suspense. You see the city skyline from afar, have time to form expectations, then you begin to make the city’s acquaintance from its fingertips, the outskirts, all the way to its lungs where all the tourists are. Biking into a city is an organic, fascinating way of knowing a place.

You may have read about my troubles with the rain, but all is forgotten now because I may have found the most beautiful place in Germany: Lübeck. This small Northern city with only 200,000 people is beyond lovely (its name draws from the Slavic “Liubice” – lovely), it’s like a museum-city that doesn’t try too hard.

It’s not a good route for cyclists for sure, the cobblestone is much too brutal. After securing the bike at my AirBnb for the night, I proceeded to explore the city on foot, which was the correct thing to do. And I loved Lübeck! Here I didn’t get the tourist-borne agoraphobia of trendier places like Bremen or Hamburg. The town felt airy and quietly artistic, but still equipped with all the quaint cafes and jazz bars and shops that are so charming for a tourist. The architecture blows you away, it’s easy to see why the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fun fact: this is also where some of the finest marzipan is made!

From Hamburg it was only 40 short miles to Lübeck, and I was lucky to find a route that took me along straight roads with solid, separate bike paths. The route was not scenic, nothing to write home about, and a little too hilly for my taste, but the slow descent into Lübeck along corn fields and then onto oldschool single track dirt paths by the Trave river turned on the poetry for this place.

Many bike roads are crappy in Germany but when you find one that isn’t, or a road, you ffffly! Here’s a short clip of me goofing off at 25mph (40km/h) downhill, around Kastorf. My bike’s never gone this fast before so I was excited:

 

Unhappy camper arrives in Hamburg

IMG_20170701_172441.jpgToday I made it to Hamburg. My original route avoided all big cities, and for good reason. I’ve no desire to navigate an unfamiliar route and urban combustion at once, by myself. But I ended up here because of the rain. I’ve changed the original route to cut out the entire Western part of Germany and Denmark, and am now traveling Northeast to resume my original route in Southeastern Denmark.

The rain finally stopped, but not before drenching all my belongings and seeping deep into my brain. I feel like I’ve been moisturized for a lifetime. Today’s 60 miles from Zeven to my AirBnb in the Northern part of Hamburg (important, because Hamburg is simply enormous so I kept crossing the city for over 25 miles) were the hardest yet. 60 miles in The Netherlands is easy, but 60 miles in Germany is like a multi layered pain sandwich.

I would not recommend Germany to any cyclist, if they have other options. In the countryside there aren’t cycle paths everywhere, and if even briefly your route takes you on a road with no separate path you feel very exposed. I live in San Francisco, I know what exposed means but this is something else. Cars drive very fast here, and though drivers are usually careful when overtaking and give you space (much kudos to German drivers!), the passing of cars on the already narrow roads is very unpleasant because of the noise and, if the street is wet, all the backsplash from the tires which hits you square in the face. This happened to me today repeatedly, as it was (still) pouring rain on me for at least 30 of the 60 miles I covered. Just what was missing from my already derelict appearance: some face mud.

Also on the “do not try” list is Hamburg on a bicycle. After experiencing The Netherlands, I’m downright offended as a cyclist about what passes as a “cycle route” in this city’s infrastructure. I switched 3 different routing apps because I couldn’t believe what kind of routes I was being guided on. Streets with large, uneven cobblestones, streets with broken pavement, streets where you have to jump the curb to get off the “cycle path” (?!). Halfway through the city I gave up on trying to navigate the ridiculous partitioned sidewalk “paths” (also cobblestone) and rode the rest of the way hustling for space with cars on the street like in San Francisco. Cars drive much faster here, and that made me feel unsafe.

Since there is no Google Street View for Germany, as a cyclist it’s impossible to preview your route ahead of time. Google Maps or other apps have to “guess” what would be a bikeable street, and often times they get it wrong. There is no cycling routing information I could find which provided the granularity I’d have needed to create a route through Germany, and this made me nervous about cycling here from the very beginning.

Hamburg is decidedly the least enjoyable city I have cycled it, surpassing even my native Bucharest. The two cities are similar in mood, and the scent of linden trees and those wafting out of large apartment buildings made me a little nostalgic, and regrettably in lack of cycling infrastructure they are also similar. But Hamburg takes the cake for the least enjoyable ride on account of the cobblestone and the lack of any information on how to make your way around town comfortably as a cyclist.

I wish I could say something nice about Germany. I really wanted to like it. Tomorrow I’m heading out to explore Hamburg on foot, and maybe I will find something redeeming.

 

See ya later NL, hello DE!

I’ve left the friendly LF cycling network path and made my way North from Groningen to meet the North Sea Cycle Route, also known as Eurovelo 12. But you know what Northbound means? It means wind. I can’t imagine someone doing this entire route unless they really, really love wind. I am not that person.

Yesterday’s 50 miles against the wind towards Germany gave me a lot of time to think. It seemed every direction I turned the wind was against me and I struggled miserably. To distract myself from these trials I started thinking about how to summarize my 5 days in The Netherlands.

All of the cyclists I met along the way who seemed to be touring (had luggage) were older couples. Most were touring for a few days, all of them were Dutch, and only one couple on an extended tour like mine. This was intriguing – where is my age bracket at?

People don’t often see GoPro cameras in The Netherlands, and if you wear one on your helmet – it’s already weird that you are wearing a helmet and you will get looks! – everyone will stare, and people will even stop you to ask (nicely) what the hell is that thing on your head.

Every day I learn how to do this better. I’ve developed a way to geometrically arrange the items in the trailer bag for optimal space usage and in a way that nothing’s poking out and rubbing against the wheels. I’ve determined which are the items I need most frequently, and I keep those on top or in my handlebar bag. This way I don’t have to stop frequently to rummage through the bag to find my sunscreen or my lock, or amateur things like that. I now setup my tent in less than 5 minutes. Optimize, optimize.

Since I spoiled myself with an AirBnb today and had some computer time available, I downloaded some of my GoPro video from yesterday’s cross into Germany. This portion was surreal because of the omnipresent wind, but also because of the endless expanse of fields of wheat and corn and grass, undisturbed and virtually untravelled. It made me feel like I was pedaling forever, into nothing.

Total mileage in The Netherlands before crossing into Germany: 276 (444 km)