Tag Archives: twoWheels

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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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)

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.

 

Chapter 0: why are you doing this?

My family’s been trying vehemently to make me quit the notion of traveling alone by bike. “Why” comes up a lot in my talks with them and with well-meaning friends.

Well I’ve done the easy part, this blog. It’s for people who care to know I’m alive, what I’m seeing, what I’m thinking about, and really for my mom to have hard proof to say “I told you so.”

Someone else already did the harder part in this clip: answering the why.