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To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

We were in Utrecht on the day that the world’s biggest multi-storey bike park was opened. Not that we saw it, we left the city three hours before it was officially opened to the public. We only found out about it from a tweet Ulli saw at breakfast, by which time it was too late to change our plans, such is the nature of travel sometimes.

If I might digress for just a moment to describe the thing we did not see, Utrecht’s new cycle parking facility. The bike park is underneath the railway station, with 12,500 bike parking spaces covering 17,000m², including 480 spaces for larger or oddly shaped cycles like cargo bikes and tandems. To put that in context, Apple HQ, which opened in 2017, has 11,000 car parking spaces covering 325,000m². This shows just how space-efficient the bicycle can be as a means of transport. Oh, and the previous record for a cycle parking facility was in Tokyo with 9,400 parking spaces. It should be noted that Utrecht is promoting cycling as part of a “healthy urban living” policy. The concept of “healthy urban living” is something we can only dream of in Scotland, a country with one of the worst health records in Europe, and yet so much potential.

Leaving Utrecht was as easy as entering had been the day before; at one point, we went through an underpass. However, it is only now looking at the satellite view on Google maps that I realise the size of the roundabout we were passing under; indeed the most memorable thing about the underpass was the tiles on the walls.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: tiles in an underpass

Beyond Utrecht, we skirted north of Zeist following the N237, the Dutch equivalent of an A road in the UK, on a fully separated cycleway. Then turning south to follow the N224, but just following along the main roads would be rather dull, so we turned off to follow a fietspad through the woods. The woods in question turned out to be in the district of Austerlitz.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: a fietspad through the woods

Now Austerlitz is one of those names which I felt vaguely aware of, something to do with a battle in the Napoleonic Wars, but this heavily wooded area seemed an unlikely place for such a significant battle? It turned out that things were stranger than that. The actual Battle of Austerlitz (also known as Battle of the Three Emperors) was fought in what is now the Czech Republic and resulted in the Tyrol being ceded to Bavaria. However, the burgers of Tyrol rebelled against this, and an irregular army led by the innkeeper Andreas Hofer waged a mainly guerrilla war against Napoleon’s armies. The rebellion ultimately failed; however, after the fall of Napoleon the Tyrol was returned to Austria.

But I digress, this Austerlitz was home to a French army camp in early 1800’s and was given its name by King Louis Napoleon of Holland in honour of the victory of his brother, Emperor Napoleon at the battle mentioned above. The notable feature of this area is the Pyramid of Austerlitz. It was the brainchild of a French General, Auguste de Marmont, who needed a way to stop his soldiers from getting bored. So he came up with the idea of building a turf pyramid, based on the Great Pyramid of Giza (which Marmont had visited when he was a part of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign), and topping it off with a wooden obelisk, as you do. This earthwork, completed in 1804 was initially known as “Mont Marmont” or “Marmontberg”. However, in the summer of 1805, Marmont and his soldiers marched off to southern Germany where they took part in the Battle of the Three Emperors. In 1806, Louis Bonaparte, the new king of Holland, renamed the hill the Pyramid of Austerlitz, despite objections from General Marmont who prefered it being called by its former name. Later the wooden obelisk was demolished and replaced by the stone obelisk which is there today. Over time much of the monument began to collapse, and the whole thing was restored between 2001 and 2004, to mark its 200th anniversary in 2004. For the princely sum of €3 each, you can climb the pyramid and obelisk to see just how flat the Netherlands actually are. However, as it was starting to rain, we decided to cycle on to find somewhere to buy lunch.

We headed into the nearby town of Woudenberg in the hope of finding a cafe. However, it would appear the Netherlands close on Mondays, and the only place we could find that was open was an Albert Heijn supermarket. We bought the makings of a small picnic and set off again to look for somewhere to eat it, in between the rain showers. Riding through the Dutch countryside, we were surprised at the relative lack of benches, to the point where we were beginning to eye up bus shelters. Finally, we found a suitable bench, which was just as well I was getting rather hangry. I should know by now that little and often is a good idea, and that having snacks within easy reach makes for better riding.

Once again we were finding that people living on narrow country roads all seem to have very large four-wheel drives, why? These were not working vehicles; they were far too shiny for that, just vanity.

At the village of Otterlo, we finally found an open cafe and stopped for food, 55Km from breakfast. Along the way, Komoot had sent us off on some weird diversions; it would send you a kilometre or so up a road, then tell you to turn around and go back. But now it pulled a new trick by stopping altogether, and wouldn’t resume. I had to reinstall the app and download the route again.

The next section of our tour was to take in the Hoge Veluwe National Park. On arriving at the entrance to the Park, we discovered that a large fence surrounds it, and you also have to pay to enter. All of this was a bit of a shock, but then we didn’t know the history of the Park. It was initially a private estate with animals brought in for hunting, and a large hunting lodge at the centre. When the family that owned it ran into financial difficulties in the 1930s the lodge (and its art collection) were gifted to the Dutch Government and the Park was handed over to a foundation, which received a loan from the State. The Park is one of only two private-owned national parks in the Netherlands. It is also the only one that asks an entrance fee — as an aside, coming from Scotland; it also gives an indication of what could happen with some of the “rewilding” projects proposed by wealthy landowners in the Highlands. It is not a prospect that I would welcome.

We reviewed our options after coming across this unpleasant surprise, either we paid to enter, or we took a long diversion to go around the Park and miss out on the chance to see the landscapes within. Therefore we reluctantly paid €9.95 each to get in. Once through the gate, the first thing we came across was a bike park full of white bikes. Driving is discouraged inwith the National Park; there is a charge of €7.05 to take a car or motorbike into the Park (or €3.55 to park outside), and motor vehicles are only allowed to use a few roads (taking the direct routes to the visitor centre from the three entrances). To compensate for this, there are 1,800 White Bikes available to people, to use for free in the Park. Apparently, at peak times they run out of white bikes, and people have to hire Blue Bikes. The Blue Bike rentals also offer a wide range of special bikes and trikes.

Inside the Park, which forms one of the largest continuous nature reserves in the Netherlands, the landscape is one of alternating areas of sand dunes, heath, grassland and woods. Navigation through the Park was somewhat hampered by Komoot which insisted on routing us off the hardtop and down rough tracks for no apparent reason. I started to get the feeling that the base mapping underlying Komoot is not very good as it seems unable to distinguish between surfaced roads and land rover tracks.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 2) Utrecht - Hoge Veluwe - Arnhem: Landscape of Hoge Veluwe National Park

After leaving the Park, we headed south towards Arnhem, where we encountered a landscape feature that had been rare on the ride so far. A hill! The road climbed nearly 40 metres over two km in a straight line, with woods to the left and posh houses to the right. And, as I write this piece I find, the Mountainbike Museumo, not that we could have gone in as it is only open Friday to Sunday. Just round the corner, we reached our final destination, Restaurant/Hotel Trix, which was a lovely place to stay the night.

The Stats:

  • Distance travelled: 76?km
  • Time taken: 5hr 36mins
  • Average moving Speed: 17.33 km/h

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To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1) Ijmuiden – Amsterdam – Utrecht

The plan was simple, get on a bike, ride to EuroBike see the show, and then ride back. That was my plan. When I told Ulli, her initial reaction was “it’s too far, it would take too long.” Well, the direct route from the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden to Friedrichshafen is about 780 Km, which could be ridden in eight days, or ten allowing for sightseeing. Each-way. So maybe she had a point. I parked the idea.

One evening about a month later Ulli commented “do you know that there are one day train passes in Germany (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket), unlimited travel on regional express trains and you can take bikes? We could cross Germany from the Dutch border to the Austrian border in about 10 hours.” For €44, and you can take up to four additional people for €8 each, so for the two of us, it would cost €52 to take us all the way across Germany (+€5.50 per bike)! This was a game-changer for Ulli. Instead of just going to EuroBike and then coming back again, we could have an interesting few days cycle touring, catch a train to get across a large part of Germany and have time to go see her family in Austria. The trip was on.

So it was that we found ourselves on a train to Newcastle on a bright sunny day in mid-August. My plan had always been to take the train to Newcastle, having ridden NCN1 in the past, I was in no hurry to repeat the exercise this time around. Getting the bike into the hanging cubby hole was a bit of a faff and made me wonder what we might come across in Germany.

Having arrived at Newcastle Station, the first challenge was to find a way to get to the Ferry terminal at North Shields. The obvious route was to follow the river Tyne downstream. The first attempt to find a way to get to the river ended at the top of a flight of steps, but undeterred, we finally found a way. Once at the riverside, wayfinding was much more comfortable, and we picked up signs for the Hadrian’s Cycleway, as used by the habebat vehentem phalanx of the II Adiutrix. On the way, we passed the air control tower of the Segedunum Roman Fort as used by the aerium Cohort of the XIV Gemini.

On arrival at the Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal, cyclists are directed to line up in the car lane to check in, which looks more like a motorway toll booth. Having arrived at check-in, passports are needed to go any further. I knew I had my passport with me as I could remember that I had packed it in a safe place. The problem was it was such a safe place I couldn’t remember where it was. Cue five minutes of frantically searching panniers and rucksack, much to the amusement of the large group of cyclists behind us. Passport found, checked in, and meals paid for (it is one third cheaper if you do it at check-in), we then had to line up with the motorbikes for boarding.

Boarding a large RoRo ferry with a bicycle is an odd experience. It is clear that the vehicle decks are not places for people, they are all about large machines. That said, the crew are welcoming and helpful, showing us the correct place to stow the bike and how to get to the upper decks. The ferry crossing was uneventful, the North Sea was like a millpond, so it was a restful cruise.

Arriving in Ijmuiden, the Netherlands. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 1)

The following morning, after a good breakfast, we arrived in a dull and overcast Holland, the port of Ijmuiden looking grim. Even so, we were looking forward to the adventure ahead, crossing the fabled cycle-friendly Netherlands. Off the ferry and through immigration, we looked around for signs and cycle infrastructure to take us towards Amsterdam. There was none. Fortunately, we had pre-programmed a route into Komoot using Komoot’s auto-routing. This is where the problems really started.

This was the first time we had used Komoot for routing and weren’t prepared for some of its idiosyncrasies. As it was raining, I had my phone in the pocket of my jacket rather than mounted on the bars of my bike. Therefore, I was reliant on the voice directions, which sometimes make little sense. Such as being told to turn where there was no apparent turn or telling me to go straight ahead at a T junction. Despite this, we managed to find our way off the main road (which leads to a motorway) and onto quiet side streets, so far no dedicated cycle infrastructure or even signage.

After some time going around the houses, we came onto a larger road with separated cycle lanes on either side. This leads up a slight rise to a bridge over the main road coming out of the port and our first roundabout. Now ordinarily a roundabout is nothing to get excited about, indeed in the UK, it is something which many cyclists would prefer to avoid. But this was a Dutch roundabout which has an outer cycle lane which motor vehicles are required to give way to when entering and exiting the roundabout. This means that accessing the roundabout by bicycle is easy and stress-free. To test this out, I decided to go all the way around. As a result, I became disoriented and couldn’t remember which exit to leave by.

Having worked out how to exit the roundabout, it was time to head for Amsterdam. We thought we had chosen a route which would take in as much green space as possible (and a short detour planned detour into the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park). It was a pleasant enough route passing through forgettable villages and polders. Ulli took to stork spotting. Also finding out that mobile phone cameras don’t have the sort of long lens needed to photograph a stork halfway across a field (not that that stopped her trying).

At some point on the outskirts of Amsterdam Komoot decided to randomly direct us off a perfectly functional cycle path on to a section of singletrack. Why this was, I don’t understand. However, this seems to be a bit of a habit with the Komoot algorithm, and one that we would come up against a number of times during our trip. But there was one unexpected detour which wasn’t Komoot’s fault. While playing around with the potential routing before we left home, I had looked to see where the Urban Arrow factory was. I had found that it was only a few hundred meters to the north of our intended route. Knowing that we were going to be there on a Sunday, and the factory closed, I thought I had removed this, but Komoot had other ideas. So it was that we found our selves outside the home of one of the largest cargo bike manufactures in Europe. On a Sunday, when they were closed and no chance of taking a look around. Durr

Sent off down single track, thanks Komoot! To EuroBike and Back: a continental journeyThe home of Urban Arrow. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

Next up was the old town of Amsterdam, with its quaint canals and massed road works, which made navigation rather more complicated. Fortunately, Amsterdamers are a friendly bunch and welcome the lost cycle tourer with cheerful greetings of Godverdomme and Laat ze opzoute!

It also gave us an opportunity to have lunch and pick up some bakery items for later.

As we left Amsterdam, we encountered the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal (or Rhine canal) for the first time. This canal runs for 72Km from the Port of Amsterdam to the Waal River (a distributary branch of the river Rhine) near Tiel. At 100m wide and 5.5m deep it is an impressive feat of engineering. As are some of the cycle bridges crossing it, but it wasn’t all big engineering. There were tree-lined sections where it feels like you are cycling into an infinity tunnel.

Like cycling into an infinity tunnel. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey.

At Nigtevecht, we turned away from the Rhine Canal to follow the river Vecht, mainly because Ulli wanted to see some windmills. It was a narrow rural road with little traffic, which was just as well because what traffic there was, was mostly large SUVs. The drivers of these vehicles struggled to pass a bicycle with panniers as the road was so narrow, what do they do when they meet another large SUV coming in the other direction?

Only a kilometre or so out of Nigtevecht, we saw a bridge over the Rhine Canal which begged us to divert and have a closer look. The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves were calling us to ride the double hairpin ramp. It was great fun and made me wish that I had a drone to film it with (and this wasn’t to be the last time on this trip I wished I had a drone).

The new Nigtevecht bicycle bridge‘s sinuous curves. To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey

Not long after this, we had another Komoot moment. This time we were following the road around the outside of the village of Vreeland when Komoot decided to divert us into the village among the houses and then out again. There was nothing to be gained from this, it was longer, no point of interest, not even a shop. There was no apparent reason why the routing software was sending us that way. Such is the way of Komoot.

Further up the Vecht, riding alongside the river, we could see most of the houses on the other side of the river, each with their own private mooring. And one development of executive flats even had its own little harbour. There were also examples of Buitenplaats which were once the summer residences of wealthy townspeople, back in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century when the Netherlands had a mighty Empire and a navy which defeated the British. This is a side of the Netherlands that you don’t see on the tourist websites and one of the joys of travelling by bicycle is the opportunity it affords you to come across these things.

We left the river to make our way to the centre of Utrecht, this being the Netherlands it was incredibly simple. Just follow the main road directly into the centre of the city. None of the convoluted routes sending you down “quiet ways” round the back of the houses, stuff get in the UK. From the outskirts to the city centre was a dead straight route of about 7Km on a dedicated cycle path with priority crossing minor roads and separated traffic lights at major junctions. t couldn’t be more natural to cycle into town. The only downside was having to share the path with bromfiets (mopeds) or stinkfiets as I took to calling them, which plague the otherwise wonderful Dutch cycle infrastructure. If you are wondering why stinkfiets, the older ones (and there are lots of them) use two-stroke engines which really do stink.

Utrecht itself is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands and home to the biggest university in the country. It is a city with a cool urban vibe and bikes are everywhere. Cycle model share (the percentage of all journeys inwith the city) is 33%, making the bicycle the most popular way to get around the place. However, it is not the most cycle-friendly town in the Netherlands, that is Houten, a satellite town a few kilometres to the south-east.

One of the more striking sights in central Utrecht is an artwork called Skyscraper, it is a whale made out of five tons of plastic salvaged from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which appears to be leaping out of the Catharijnesingel. It is intended as a statement about the massive amount of plastic waste that pollutes rivers, seas and oceans around the world. Although as I write, it may no longer be there. It was originally created for the Triennial Bruges art and architecture festival, and was only a summer visitor in Utrecht.

An artwork called Skyscraper, a whale made of discared plastic leaping out of the Catharijnesingel

The thing that will still be in Utrecht, but which we didn’t get to see is the world’s largest cycle parking facility. The reason we didn’t get to see it was because it was first opened to the public about four hours after we have left the city on the next stage of our journey. And that is a story for another post, watch this space.

The Stats (for Ijmuiden to Utrecht):

  • Distance travelled: 86.9 km
  • Time taken: 05hr 15mins
  • Average moving Speed: 16.6 km/h

More route info here:

Part two: Utrecht – Hoge Veluwe – Arnhem

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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

I woke surprisingly early on my second day in Milan with Italia Slow Tour, looking forward to my visit to Idroscalo. The first day had been busy and this day was to be just as busy. The Idroscalo is an artificial lake constructed in the late 1920s as an airport for seaplanes, however, it is now a park used for recreational and sporting activities. Sometimes known as the “Sea of Milan”, in summer the beach area at Idroscalo is heaving with sunbathers and swimmers, however in November it looked more forlorn. But I wasn’t here to sunbathe.

The Idroscalo

First up was horse riding, and this was a first for me. While I had sat on a horse maybe once or twice, I had never actually ridden one so I was a wee bit apprehensive, but I needn’t have been. I was the guest of Giacche Verdi, which is a non-profit association of “Civil Protection and Environmentalists” who are “working in harmony with the horse, man and nature pursuing concrete objectives and benefits to society”, or at least that’s what their website tells me. I was initially riding along with the President of the Giacche Verdi, but as I don’t speak Italian he passed me on to his translator, who was very friendly and told me more about what they did. However, mostly I was trying to negotiate with my horse which way we were going and who was in charge. I finally came to an accommodation with her (the horse) and was able to give most of my attention to the conversation. Unfortunately this was just before we had to stop, and I was to move on the next part of the tour.

And this is your horse...

Having dismounted from the horse, who was now happily eating, I was introduced to Valeria Manfredda, a post graduate student in the Faculty of Sculpture at Brera Academy of Fine Arts, Milan, who was to show me round the outdoor sculpture park. We looked at a number of sculptures including her own work, Ed ero giovinetta (And I was a young girl), echoing memories of childhood, playing with a pair of tin cans on a length of string. She also showed me a number of other art works by other students and told me a wee bit about each one.

Discussing art with Valeria Manfredda

Following this arty interlude, I was pleased to be lent a bike to continue the tour of Idroscalo in the company of my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour. As bikes go, it was nothing special, just an eight speed hybrid, but for the purpose of seeing the area it was ideal. Next activity on the list was kayaking with the Idroscalo Club, here again was an activity which I hadn’t engaged in since I was at university. Getting kitted up I asked to have a spraydeck, half expecting to be told that that was something they wouldn’t give a beginner. The purpose of www.realrecipe.net the spraydeck is to stop water landing in your lap while paddling, but should you capsize, it can trap an inexperienced paddler upside down in the kayak. Experienced paddlers know how to release the spraydeck with their knees if they absolutely have to, although most would try to roll upright first or signal to be rescued by a buddy. So I was happy to be given a neoprene spraydeck, which kept me warm and dry.

Paddling at on the Idroscalo

Paddling away from the dock I was surprised by how quickly things came back to me, apparently it is rather like riding a bike, once learned you never forget how to paddle in a straight line. The senior coach from Idroscalo Club was accompanying me and telling me a about the lake and pointing out the concert stage on the west bank, I had been wondering what it was. It was notable how quiet the area was in late autumn compared with what it must be like in summer. We were the only ones out paddling, but there were a great number of water craft laid up on the shore.

Back on dry land, it was back on the bike to continue the circumnavigation of the lake. Part way along, I spotted a mountain bike pump track and, despite being on borrowed hybrid bikes, this was an opportunity not to be missed. So we turned off and took in a circuit of the track, which was great fun and just had to be done.

Hire bike

Then onwards to lunch, where I was the guest of the AS Rugby Milano rugby club. When we arrived there was an under 15’s match just starting. It was interesting to see that they were playing on an artificial pitch, so not the muddy extravaganza of the school boy rugby of my youth. Inside the club house the food was excellent, and so was the company, but I was surprised the wine was Australian rather than local. Apparently this was in honour of the Southern hemisphere clubs who were on tour in Europe just now. Somehow the conversation turned to politics and I was asked what I thought of Brexit. I explained that Scotland had voted to stay in the EU, but that England and Wales had voted to leave, and that the overall majority leaving had only been <2%. It was suggested that surely the UK didn’t really want to leave and that when it came to it, the UK Parliament would find a way of staying. I could see what they were saying made perfect sense if you were looking at the situation from the outside, and I now began to understand how my Italian friends in Edinburgh used to feel when we asked them about Silvio Berlusconi. So we changed the subject and went back talking about wine and food instead.

Lunch over, we continued our circumnavigation of the Idroscalo. On reaching the far end we stopped a while to watch some wake boarders. There is a lot to see and do at the Idroscalo, even in November. There was still time for some more sightseeing in the centre of Milan, highlights of which included ice cream (an absolute must when in Italy). Also a quick look at Castello Sforzesco from the 15th century, right in the centre of the city, and Sempione Park which is packed with art works, street hawkers, and people just having fun! Oh and it also has free public WiFi.

But as with all good things, my time in Milan had come to an end, and I had to catch a bus back to the airport for the flight home. Milan is somewhere I definitely want to return to, there is still so much more to see and do, and I’d like to take Ulli along too, as she would very much enjoy it. My thanks to my guide Gianfranco Nalin and Italia Slow Tour for organising a great weekend break.

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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Looking out into the dusk as I arrived at Malpensa on a mid-November evening, I had moved the hands on my watch forward by an hour, but it looked like the seasons had turned back by about three weeks. On the morning I had left Edinburgh where the trees were bare of leaves and there had been a layer of frost on the roof tops. Yet here in Italy, the trees where still covered with leaves in full, glorious autumn colours, although as darkness fell and the temperature dropped I was aware that winter was coming.

I had arranged to meet friends for dinner at a traditional Italian pizzeria and was delighted to find that, just as in Scotland, the Italians have deep fried pizza: “pizza fritta” (although it is not quite the same as in Scotland). The other thing I learned from this evening was that Milan, like all cities, is not a good place for driving, it took half an hour to cover three Km – I can walk faster than that. Fortunately Milan has excellent public transport with an extensive tram and metro system. Not only that, in the central area there is a bike share scheme called BikeMi, more of which later.

Now Milan is not a small place, to quote Wikipedia “Milan, a metropolis in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, is a global capital of fashion and design”. But there is so much more to it than that, and I had only two days to see it. The hotel I was staying at has bicycles available for guests to borrow, which is great, except for the fact that they had been put away for winter and the only bike available was a single speed with rather strange gearing (rather too high for my high cadence style of riding). No matter, I set off to explore with my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour who had invited me to be one of their ambassadors.

Not far from the hotel is a cycle path alongside the Naviglio Martesana, a canal supposedly designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which makes for a pleasant route through the city. However you can’t follow the canal all the away along its original route because in the 1930’s Mussolini covered over much of it to make way for cars (he had similar plans for Venice, but fortunately only managed a small area). However, there is now a plan to re-instate the Naviglio Martesana to its former glory, which will be a great asset to the city.

Cassina de' Pomm

As the canal disappeared underground, at the Cassina de’ Pomm, I took the opportunity to swap the hotel bike for a BikeMi bike at the first rental station we encountered. The hire process was very simple, swipe the card I was given at the info post, choose your language, select the type of bike (either classic or e-bike), and it then tells you the number of the bike to take. Over the course of the day I tried both types of bike, the yellow classic bikes www.garida.net have three gears and are fine for city riding. The red e-bikes are single speed and have an electric motor on the front hub which kicks in (and out) by itself. This can be a wee bit disconcerting, and I prefer the classic bike. We continued the tour using Milan’s network of cycle tracks, some of which were better than others, it’s not all like the photo below 😉

Cycle lanes of Milan

There are other signs that the City is looking to a greener future, such as the Bosco verticale (the Vertical Forest) which consists of two residential tower blocks that are home to 730 trees. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to get any closer, but it is something I would like to come back to see more of, one day.

Bosco verticale

Although much of the Naviglio Martesana is underground these days, there are still bits of it to see in places, such as at the Porte Vinciane where the lock gates, originally designed by Leonardo de Vinci, are forlornly stranded without water. If the canal were to be re-instated as planned, this could be a great asset to the area. Later in the day I was to meet Professor Flavio Boscacci from the Polytechnic of Milan who is planning to bring back the canals, not just as a nice water feature for the city, www.hayamix.com but as a functional means of transport. Rather in the same way as the Union Canal was restored in Scotland as a Millennium Project. Professor Boscacci is also a proponent of “slow tourism” and has helped to develop a cycle route along the Via Francigena pilgrims’ route from Canterbury to Rome – fuelled by the best rustic food and drink, according to the website. Following the cycle route into town shows Milan to be a fascinating mix of the old and the new. The bicycle is an ideal way to explore the city.

Porte Vinciane on the course of the old canal in Milan

Cycle lanes of Milan

One of the hidden gems of Milan which most tourists miss out on is the Brera Botanical Garden, tucked away behind the Brera Palace, which includes the Brera Pinacoteca, the Astronomical Observatory, the National Library and the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Milan. The garden was founded in the 17th Century by the Jesuits as an orchard and a place for growing medicinal plants. With the suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clemente XIV, the whole Brera complex became a property of the Austrian State and transferred to new cultural institutions, among them a new School of Botany run by a Vallombrosan monk Fulgezio Vitman. The current structure of the gardens is divided into three sections: two of them have narrow flower-beds and a water basin at the centre, the third is a plain lawn surrounded by trees, as laid out by Vitman. Also a greenhouse was built on the North side of the garden, facing South (now used by the School of Art). The main purpose of growing medicinal plants was for teaching medical students. However, in the 18th Century there came a fashion of exotic species and the gardens were first opened to the public as a “site of pleasure”, which they still are today.

Botanical Garden - Orto Botanico di Brera

Continuing on into the centre we had a quick meeting at the Milan Tourism Info Point in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery. The people there, Francesca and Paolo, were very friendly and helpful, suggesting lots of other sites to see locally. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest purpose-built shopping malls in the world, and probably one of the most stylish, so you won’t find anything as tacky as a McDonald’s in the Galleria (although apparently there is one nearby if you need a free toilet).

Should you visit the Galleria on a quiet day, you will find there are four mosaics portraying the coat of arms of Milan and the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy (Turin, Florence and Rome). There is a tradition that says if you spin around three times with a heel on the testicles of the bull from Turin’s coat of arms, this will bring good luck. However, this practice has caused damage to the mosaic and a hole has developed on the place of the bull’s genitals. As the Galleries were very busy when I visited, I was unable to verify this, but continued on out to the square in front of Domm de Milan.

The Duomo di Milano (to give it its Italian name as apposed to the Lombardy name) is the fifth largest church in the world and the largest in Italy (the Papal Basilica of St. Peter is bigger, but it is also in the Vatican which is a separate country). It took 600 years to build and the Duomo is undoubtedly impressive, as is the queue for the ticket office which extended the whole way across the square, so we skipped that and went to see the nearby La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa (the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones) instead.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – it is rather an odd feeling to enter a large room where the walls are decorated with 100s (maybe more than a 1000?) human skulls and tibiae. What would the original owners of the bones have thought of me taking photos? Not that they had photography in the 13th Century, and then ossuaries were more common, a normal part of death. I still find it slightly unsettling, but it was worth the visit.

La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa, or the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones

After all this I was in need of a coffee. Fortunately in Italy it is easy to find good coffee, just look for anywhere that serves coffee but isn’t an American chain. Suitably refreshed, I looked around for another BikeMi station, in the centre of Milan you are never far from one. However, the station I found didn’t have any classic bikes available, only the e-bikes. I did consider looking for another rental station but then decided to give it a try, on the grounds that I could always change it later.

The next stop was the “Tree Experience” at Parco Avventura Corvetto. This turned out to be a bit further out of town than I had initially expected and there was no opportunity to swap the red bike for a yellow one, but no matter, we made it. I had not previously tried this sort of high-wire “tree top” course, but I had seen the Go Ape at Aberfoyle [https://goape.co.uk/days-out/aberfoyle] which is on a completely different scale (Aberfoyle is one of the highest and gnarliest tree high-wire courses in Europe). Needless to say, I was keen to have a go, given the choice between the low (blue) course and the high (red) course I went for the latter (if they had had a black course, I probably would tried that, but you need to go somewhere like Aberfoyle for that).

As I was putting on the climbing harness, I realised this was something I hadn’t done since I was at University 20 years ago. Next up was the safety briefing which was thorough but straightforward, after which I was let loose on the course. Having stormed my way up to the first platform and tackled a series of wire rope crossings between the trees, I was starting to feel tied. Advice from the ground suggested that I slow down and take it easier, so I took a breather and relaxed at the next platform. The second half of the course was even more fun, now that I was no longer trying to race around. The whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable and something I would highly recommend.

Walking in the air

By now it was past midday and I was looking forward to lunch, fortunately this was the next item on the agenda. Just a wee bit further out on the outskirts of the city, lunch was provided at the Nocetum Centre [http://www.nocetum.it]. The Nocetum Centre is a community project which organises educational visits and environmental education activities among other things. Included in those other things is job training in the hospitality industry for refugees, the food (which was excellent) was cooked and served by people who had found sanctuary there, having fled conflict in their own country. The hospitality was warm and friendly, although mostly in Italian and rather beyond my language skills, nevertheless I felt welcome.

Lunch over, we took a look at a wee church just by the entrance to the Nocetum Centre. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but once inside you notice the Medieval frescos by painters from the same school as Giotto, but it is unlikely that Giotto himself ever visited the site. These frescos have been dated to between 1350 and 1375. Other recent archaeological excavations found a surprisingly large number of burials below the floor of the church, suggesting that has been a community living around the site for a very long time.

After leaving the church, we crossed the road to the Cascina Nosedo, an abandoned farm on the urban fringe, to look at a new bicycle recycling project which aims to provide skills and training for unemployed young people. There are also plans for an arts centre.

The final location of the day was a guided visit to Vettabbia Park and Milan Nosedo Wastewater Treatment Plant, as you do. Again it was the sort of thing which I hadn’t done since University and I really enjoyed it. I was given a short presentation about the plant and its ambitious waste heat recovery systems, providing distributed heating to the local community. There is also a park beyond the main plant with reed beds for the final cleaning of the water before it returns to the river.

All of the places and organisations I had visited since arriving for lunch at the Nocetum Centre are part of the “Valle dei Monaci” (Valley of the Monks) [http://www.valledeimonaci.org]. This network of organizations is committed to patching up this strategic area of Milan – from the city centre south to Clairvaux and Melegnano – which today is seemingly disjointed, and to develop new cultural and economic opportunities in the process. Included in the plans for the Valle dei Monaci is a cycle route from the centre of Milan to Piacenza to link up with the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome.

Prof Boscacci then guided me back to the city centre, which was an interesting experience, he is not a slow rider and I was on a red BikeMi e-bike. It wasn’t long before I found the speed at which the e-assistance dropped out. As I didn’t know where I was going, there was no way I was going to loose him, but without the e-assistance the bike was heavy and none too nimble. I thought he might notice that I was struggling to keep up, until he turned round and complimented me on my bike handling skills. It was a great way to finish a whistle stop tour of the city, and the following day promised to be another fun filled one! But that is for another post.

My thanks to Italia Slow Tour for arranging it.

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A short ride around an inland sea

A short ride around an inland sea

Our original plan had been to ride all the way around the Bodensee (or Loch Constance as we took to calling it). However, time and circumstances conspired against us and we end up with half a day for our ride, so inevitably we weren’t going to get all the way around. For me this made no difference, as it was a ride to be enjoyed, it wasn’t a training ride, it wasn’t about the distance, it was about enjoying riding through three countries in a day.

Riding a bicycle on the mainland of Europe is different to riding in the UK, it is not that you are on the wrong side of the road. No, the difference is that you are doing something completely normal, there is space provided for people to ride bicycles as a normal form of transport. We set off from Lochau along the loch shore, which is a popular place to promenade, but instead of there being one mixed use path the way there would be in Britain (on which cyclists are barely tolerated), here there are separate cycling and walking paths.

Cycle path in Lochau

In some places there were footways on either side of the path, with zebra crossings to show that pedestrians have the right to cross. People of all types use bicycles as a way of getting about, it is completely normal and it shows. This means that you have plenty of time to look around and see, you know, the every day sort of things, like oh look there is a floating opera stage, or is that a Zeppelin flying past. Well these are everyday sights when you are living next to the Obersee (the upper loch) or even if you are just a visitor.

Looking across to the opera stage in Bregenz

Zeppelin flying

The sight of the distant opera stage intrigued me, so we once we had ridden round to Bregenz, we turned off the path and made a detour of all of 200m to go and take a closer look. The Seebühne (or floating stage) is there for the Bregenzer Festspiele (Bregenz Festival), an arts festival held every July and August. The stage sets changes every couple of years, currently it is set up for Mozart’s Magic Flute. Back in 2008 when they were staging Puccini’s Tosca, scenes for the Bond movie Quantum of Solace where filmed there. As there are no performances at this time of year, people are free to wander in and look about as they please.

The opera stage in Bregenz

Photos taken, it was time to get back to Bodensee-Radweg, which gave me the opportunity to observe how they do things differently here. As this is a particularly busy section of the route, cycles and pedestrians are clearly separated, only where traffic is light are they mixed. This takes away the sort of conflict that occurs in the UK, where pedestrians resent there being people riding bicycles in motor traffic free areas. In Switzerland there were additional signs for inline skaters, mixing them with cyclists or pedestrians according to surface. However, there were no such instructions for users of skateboards or kick scooters, presumably they are free to decide which group to move with. It is notable that, on the Continent, inline skates, skateboards and kick scooters are all regarded as legitimate means of active transport rather than merely toys, but then the Continentals are more grown up about these things that the infantilised British.

Traffic separation

Beyond Bregenz we approached the Rhine delta, the amount of sediment carried into the loch by the river Rhine is remarkable and can clearly be seen from above (i.e. from view points on the surrounding hills and mountains). However, when you come to cross the river it rather disappointing, as it is heavily canalised and looks just like a wide ditch. Much of the farm land around is reclaimed from the loch and therefore below the level of the loch.

As we rode along we were not alone, even though it was a weekday outwith the main holiday period there were plenty of other people about, some just going from A to B, some taking leisure trips. This gave me the opportunity to observe Continental cyclists on their home ground, most were wearing just ordinary cloths, there were a few in Lycra out for training rides. I only saw two riders with Hi-viz jackets, but they were speaking with strong English accents and not locals. Helmets were few, mostly worn by the serious cyclists out on training rides, or tourists who had rented all the gear (easy to spot by the identical sets of bikes and helmets). Also notable was that children weren’t wearing helmets when riding bikes, here cycling is normal and not something to be feared.

Which way now?

Way finding was easy with plenty of signage to show you where the paths go to, also local businesses adding their own to attract passing trade. Stopping for lunch, it was clear that cycling has quite an impact on the local economy, with generous cycle parking available. Following lunch we headed for the Swiss border. This was rather fun, instead of going through the customs post with the motor traffic, the cycle path crosses the road in front of the customs post then crosses the Alter Rhein (the Old Rhine) and therefore the Swiss/Austrian border on a small wooden bridge.

Customs post on the Swiss border

The first thing that tells you that you have just crossed an international border is that the direction signs change colours. Not far beyond the border, the cycle route skirts round a small airfield, whose main purpose seems to be to provide air taxi services to Vienna and the Swiss cities, for the opera fans going to the Bregenzer Festspiele.

At Rohrschach we came across the MV Sonnenkönigin (Sun Queen), estimated to have cost some €13m to build, she is the largest and most expensive vessel on the Bodensee. The Sonnenkönigin is an extraordinary looking vessel and with a daily charter rate of around €12,000 (just of the vessel and four man crew) she is the ultimate gin palace. Conservative opponents of the project don’t like the modern design, complaining that it looks like a gigantic shiny iron. We hadn’t expected to see her along side in Rohrschach, as her home port is Bregenz.

The MV Sonnenkönigin

It was in Rohrschach that I almost landed a SF150 fine for cycling in a pedestrianised area, the Swiss are very keen on minor rules and equally keen on enforcing fines if you breach them. It was also in Rohrschach that we started to ride on the road with traffic for the first time. The interesting thing about this was that the speed limit was 30 Km/h (18 mph) and the riding was very much more relaxed that on an equally busy road in the UK. Before long we were directed to an offroad route once again, and the Bodensee-Radweg carried on as a mix of offroad paths and quiet roads. It was notable that on the few occasions where the Radweg was on a busier road, that the speed limit was not above 30 Km/h.

We arrived at the outskirts of Romanshorn just in time to see the ferry setting off for Friedrichshafen. We had decided in advance that this was a sightseeing ride and we weren’t going to have time to go all the way around Bodensee, this was the ferry route we were going to use. Seeing the ferry heading off, we knew that we had an hour for a bit of sightseeing. During the 45 minute ferry crossing of the third largest freshwater body in Europe, we had a chance to do a wee bit of yacht spotting. When the Swiss first entered the America’s Cup to challenge for the Auld Mug, there were a lot of voices asking what do the Swiss know about sailing. The Swiss’ answered this by winning said Auld Mug. Looking at these yachts drifting along in light airs, you start to realise what skilled sailors they are, after all anyone can go fast in a fresh breeze, but to make the most of light airs requires real skills.

Yachts in international waters in Central Europe (Bodensee)

Yachts in international waters in Central Europe (Bodensee)

Arriving on the German side of the pond, we rolled off the ferry in Friedrichshafen and left the motorists to go through the customs post, while pedestrians and cyclists dispersed into the town. I had hoped to meet a twitter friend here, but as it was a week day she was busy elsewhere. We drifted into town looking for coffee and cake, and found a café just across from the Zeppelin Museum. We decided to give the museum a miss as we had agreed to be back in time to go out for dinner in Bregenz.

Finding our way back onto the Bodensee Radwag was easy, just go back to the port and look for the signs. Of course we were now in the third country of the day, so the colour and style of the signs was a wee bit different but that wasn’t really a problem. Riding through Germany we came across more unmetalled off road paths than we had experienced earlier in the day, however, they had a smoother surface than some roads back home in Edinburgh, and way better than most similar Sustrans paths I have come across, so this wasn’t a problem on a road bike.

Cycle way in Germany

Another thing which was notable in residential areas were the 20 Km/h speed limits. Coming from somewhere where 20 mph speed limits, that is 12 mph, are still a controversial idea, this was a real eye opener. It was great riding down these roads, absolutely no hassle. Why can’t Scotland have roads like these? As we were keen to get back to Bregenz, we didn’t have a lot of time to stop and take photos or to visit the island of Lindau (but we did visit Lindau a couple of days later by bicycle).

May tree in Langenargen

 

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