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To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

On our third day of cycling across the Netherlands, we started the day riding downhill from the outskirts of Arnhem to the centre. A descent of all of 70m, but hey, this was in the Netherlands.

Arnhem is best known for the John Frost Bridge (John Frostbrug in Dutch) across the Rhine, and the battle fought over the bridge during the second world war. As a consequence of this battle, there is little of interest in the town centre as most of it was flattened during the fight. The bridge was rebuilt after the war and renamed after Major-General John Dutton Frost, who commanded the British forces during the battle. It is now a tourist attraction, as well as a transport route.

However, it is no longer the only bridge over the Lower Rhine. There are now two others, the Nelson Mandela Bridge (about 900 m downstream) and the Andrei Sakharov Bridge (about 3 km upstream). I know this because a young guy, who looked like a student, came up and started to tell me about them as I was trying to take a photograph. He also told me that this wasn’t the bridge shown in the film “A Bridge Too Far”, as there were too many new buildings in the background. So, for the film, a similar-looking bridge over the IJssel at Deventer was used instead. When I asked about how we could get the bikes up onto the bridge, he pointed to steps leading up to the deck of the bridge (this was also the route which Komoot was suggesting) and said that there was a channel to guide the wheels of the bikes up. The deck of the bridge was some 10 m above the viewpoint by the river where I had stopped to (try) take photos. This wasn’t an appealing prospect with loaded touring bikes, so Ulli and I decided to look for an alternative route.

The John Frost Bridge we crossed during To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria

We were sure that there had to be a cycle path parallel to the road on the bridge, it was just a question of finding a way onto it. Looking at the map on my phone, we could see that there was a roundabout a few hundred metres back from the river, which could give access to the bridge. As with all Dutch roundabouts, there was a separate but parallel cycle route. In this case, rather than crossing the roads entering the roundabout with priority for the cycles, the cycleways passed underneath the roads and had their own entirely separate roundabout. So easy to use and with no stress at all, why can’t we have this sort of thing?

Finally, we were up and over the bridge John Frost Bridge and heading upstream towards the Andrei Sakharov bridge. Without giving a thought to disarmament, peace or human rights we headed on upstream, following the cycle path. Maybe we should have stopped and given thought to the man the bridge was named after, but it was a dull concrete thing and not at all inspiring, besides we were more interested in riding atop of the winter dykes.

Having dropped down from the giddy height of 123m above sea level at the start of the day, we were now at only 50m above sea level (and that was on top of the winter dyke). Before the building of the dykes, the rivers of the Rhine delta would have braided their way through swamp, meadow and alder carr. Although the earliest earthworks used to divert river flow in the Netherlands date to around 12 BC, the serious business of controlling floodwaters from the river didn’t start in earnest until the 11th Century AD. After which things got really messy, with flood protection in one area exacerbating flooding in another. This, in turn, led to a system of summer and winter dykes, the summer dykes lower and the land behind them is allowed to flood in winter, whereas the winter dykes are higher and intended to prevent flooding of the land behind them year-round. Hope that is clear.

Anyway, being up on top of a winter dyke gives you a commanding view of the landscape around you, and puts you in the unusual position of being able to look down on the roofs of two-storey houses built on the land protected from flooding. It also means that you are fully exposed to the wind, fortunately, this wasn’t a particularly windy day. Or at least so I thought so. When Ulli decided to stop to take a photo of a thatched farmhouse or a stork or something, I thought I would just slowly glide to a halt and wait for her to finish. But that wasn’t what happened, instead, I found myself drifting along at about 10 Km/h with no sign of stopping and I was almost a kilometre along the road before Ulli caught me up.

To EuroBike and Back: a continental journey (part 3) Arnhem to Austria. just being blown along

We diverted down off the dyke to take a look at Castle Doornenburg, one of the biggest and most well-preserved castles in the Netherlands, not that we got much beyond the entrance gate. It was originally a fortified manor built in the 9th century, then expanded to a full-blown castle around the 13th century. By the 15th century it contained sleeping quarters, a chapel and a farm, and was occupied for a further 400 years before falling into a state of disrepair. In the 20th century, it was restored between 1937 and 1941, only to be reduced to a pile of smoking rubble by a British bombardment in March 1945. Following the war, the castle was completely rebuilt between 1947 and 1968.

Castle Doornenburg
Inside Castle Doornenburg

Then it was back up to the dyke for a while, but we couldn’t stay up there, at some stage we would need to cross the water again. To cross by bridge would mean a long detour via Nijmegen, so instead, we first took a ferry across the Pannerden Canal and then later a second ferry across the Waal/Rhine/Bijlands Canal. The river has a bit of an identity crisis at this point in its journey from the Alps to the sea. The first ferry was notable as it is a reaction ferry, that is a ferry that uses the reaction of the current of a river against a fixed tether to propel the vessel across the water. The second was a pedestrian and bicycle-only ferry, crossing a much busier waterway.

Riding down to the Doornenburg/Pannerden reaction ferry

Following this second Rhine crossing of the day, we were soon back atop a dyke wall again, with open farmland to one side and a wooded nature reserve on the other. Being so high up, we could also see the weather coming towards us with towering clouds building up and the threat of rain later. Just past the village of Leuth the road we were on joined a busier one and cycles are directed down off the top dyke on to a path below it, so that we no longer had sight of the looming clouds for a time.

The next waypoint on Ulli’s list was a windmill, which was now on the far side of the dyke, which required us to continue until we found a minor road crossing the main road (on the dyke) and then turned back a short way on the far side. Now, windmills aren’t my thing, when you’ve seen one there ain’t that much new with the next. So I was pleased to find that this one had a cafe attached and so insisted on stopping for cake, as all good touring cyclists should. It was sunny and all the tables in the sunshine were taken, but we were happy to sit in the shade of a large awning. No sooner had our apple cake arrived, when a sudden shower hit. we had seen it hanging off the clouds looming earlier. And all the smug people who had been sitting in the sun were now rushing for cover, giving us a delightful sense of schadenfreude.

Did someone day cake?

Cake eaten and rain finished, it was back on the road again, this time on the south side of the dyke. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Komoot (the phone app I was using for navigation) announced hat the name of the road we were on had changed, notably from Dutch to German, yet there was no sign to say that we had just crossed the border. Looking at the map now, I am at a loss to understand why the border runs where it does. But the main thing for us was the roads were quiet and the cycling easy. We didn’t meet any of the natives, so we didn’t find out if they were friendly to touring cyclists or not.

Difficult to know if the natives are cycle friendly

Riding through Kleve gave us our first taste of urban cycling infrastructure in North Rhine-Westphalia. Every German state is different, and this was sub-Dutch but better than British (not difficult). Exiting the town we found that there was a fully separated cycleway alongside the main road to the Emmerich Rhine Bridge (German: ‘Rheinbrücke Emmerich’), our final crossing of the Rhine for the day. The Emmerich Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in Germany and fancies itself as looking like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which it doesn’t.

Safely across the Rhine once more, we wound our way through Emmerich to the quirky B&B we had booked for the night. There were only two other guests that night, a German couple who were e-bike trekking. At breakfast, they proudly told us that, with their e-bikes, they could go 100Km a day. They were a bit surprised when we told them that we could cover 120Km a day on our ordinary bikes.

Breakfast over, we set off for the station. As I said back in part one, Ulli felt that it would take too long to cycle across Germany, but by train, we could make it to the Austrian border in about 10 hours. The idea was to use a one-day train pass (Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket) which gives unlimited travel on regional express trains and we could take the bikes, all for €63. This way would also allow us time in Austria visiting Ulli’s family, before going on to the EuroBike Show. Arriving at the station we picked up the tickets at the ticket office, which was very straight forward and then though just a case of wait for the train and get the bikes on.

Waiting fr a train in Germany

Bikes on German train

It turned out not to be quite as simple as this, the reputation of German railways might be one of great efficiency but not on this day. As we had planned a route using the regional express trains rather than the more expensive (but more direct) national express trains (ICE), this involved several changes along the way. Every train we travelled on that day had a problem, mostly just delays but in one case the service was cancelled partway through the journey and we had to re-route.

So maybe we should have paid the extra and taken an ICE train? Well no, on the first train we met a Dutch couple who were using the regional express to get to Cologne where they were going get the ICE to Munich, except they missed their connection as the first train was delayed, and we saw them several times later in the day as they tried to find other connections.

Fortunately, we had decided in advance that the 10-hour crossing of Germany was probably a bit ambitious and just in case anything should go wrong (which it duly did) we should stop for the night in Ulm. This was fortunate as we arrived over four hours later than planned. The following day we caught a train to Munich, which was late, but fortunately, we didn’t miss the connection to Rosenheim.

Once over the border into Austria, it was just a case of buying another ticket for an ÖBB regional train, sitting back and watching the view of the mountains of Tirol glide past. We did talk about getting off a few stops early, but in the end stayed on the train until the nearest station to our destination. The ride from the station was a mere 3 Km, with 250 m of ascent at an average gradient of 8%, something that riding across the Netherlands hadn’t quite prepared us for.

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

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

From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

From Montecatini to the Marsh Land of Fucecchio (MTB tour day two)

For the second day of our MTB tour (day one here) we were heading out from Montecatini into the Marsh Land of Fucecchio or the Padule di Fucecchio, known since ancient times as “an insalubrious and dangerous area”. These days the Fucecchio Marshes cover an area of about 1,800 hectares, however these ancient lake-marshes were considerably larger in the past and once covered most of the southern Valdinievole. In 217 BC, Hannibal took four days and three nights to cross these marshes, loosing along the way most of his elephants (well the ones that had survived crossing the Alps), a large chunk of his army and an eye (due to an infection). Or at least that is the story Livy tells us in his History of Rome.

By the Middle Ages there was increasing interest in draining the marshes, with the great Leonardo da Vinci studying their hydrology and the Medici and Lorena families putting up the money and then taking the profits from the system of grand-ducal farms which were created. However, even after all the changes over the last few centuries, the charm of these wetlands remains intact today. The traditional way to get about the Padule was by barchino (a form of punt) or navicello (a flat-bottomed sailboat). These days, as a result of the drainage, the marshes are criss-crossed with strade bianche (gravel roads), and so the mountain bikes make an ideal way to see some of the area in a shorter time than it took Hannibal.

Our day started by threading our way out of Montecatini Terme (where we were staying at the Hotel Arnolfo) through the rush hour traffic. Once again I was surprised by the patience and tolerance of Italian drivers, only once on a roundabout did we get tooted at by a driver who also made a rude gesture which I had only previously seen on TV Inspector Montalbano on BBC 4.

Leaving the town behind, we were guided along the bank of a canalised river, which I had expected to lead us into the Padule proper, but to my surprise we then turned back on to the road again. Taking a right turn into what at first looked like a side road, there was a barrier to keep out motor vehicles and a ribbon of super-smooth tarmac appeared beyond. Once we rode onto it, we realised that this was a bike racing circuit. Riding round, our mountain bikes felt a little like riding Hannibal’s elephants especially when overtaken by a light cavalry charge of kids from a local cycling club on road bikes.

Road circuit

Riders on the road circuit

Realising that I am getting too old to lead the chase, I sat up and decided to ride the rest of the circuit hands free, which was great fun, especial on the hairpin bends. Play time over, it was back to the strade bianche and exploring the marshes, which are rich with wild life. Today the Padule are a strange mix of reed beds, maize and tobacco crops, and plantations of poplar and alder trees. Our local bike guide, Massimo, told us how during the winter these plantations would flood and how he liked to to kayaking between the trees.

Trees in the Marsh Land of Fucecchio

The area is popular with both bird watchers and hunters, it is not uncommon to see spent shotgun cartilages lining the side of the tracks. Of the 1,800 hectares of the Padule di Fucecchio only about 230 hectares are protected nature reserve, and the first people we were to meet were a couple of hunters and a wildlife photographer at Casin del Lillo. The hunters were very hospitable and had set up a gazebo with a table of refreshments for us. Well it was the right time for a mid morning snack, and just the three bottles of wine. Casin del Lillo is one of the many “ports” of the Padule, where the hunters set out on their barchino to stalk game, or just take tourists on sightseeing trips. We were taken out in groups of four for a short taster ride in a barchino, while the others tasted the local specialities which had been laid on for us.

Refreshments at Casin del Lillo

Barchino taster ride

Seeing the drainage canals close up, you really get an idea of the level of eutrophication from the local agriculture. This isn’t the only environmental problem the Padule suffer from. There are also invasive species such as the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) which are undermining the dykes which contain the drainage ditches. Now you might think that the solution to the crayfish problem would be to trap and eat them, but this would be ill advised as the crayfish are subject to heavy uptake of lead from the lead shot used by the hunters. Not that we let any of this spoil out visit, of course.

The next stop on our itinerary was a nature reserve, established by the Provincial Administration of Pistoia (207 hectares) and Florence (25 hectares). The area we were to visit is the oldest protected area in the marshes, which is managed by the Centro di Ricerca, Documentazione e Promozione del Padule di Fucecchio (the Centre for Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Fucecchio Marshes).

Along the way I had been hearing the calls of a bird of prey which I hadn’t manage to spot and wasn’t sure what it was. So I was pleased when our guide from the research centre pointed to a couple of birds zooming overhead and told us that they were a family of Lodolaio with the adults teaching the young how to hunt. There was just one problem, what were Lodolaio? He dug out his field guide to show us a picture and gave us the scientific name Falco subbuteo, now at one time this would have meant people looking at the picture to find out what they were, but not now. There was a flurry of phones pulled from pockets, a quick Google search, and we knew that they were called Lodolaio in Italian, Hobby in English, Baumfalke in German, and Boomvalk in Flemish.

We were then taken to a bird watchign hide overlooking part of the restored marsh. There were a wide range of water fowl to be seen, but the highlight for all of us was a Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia, or Spatola, Löffler, or Lepelaar, as you please). I was cursing not having brought my camera with the big lens, having left in the car with the film crew who had been following us around. Then I noticed that Ulli was trying to take a photo through the eye piece of the spotting scope which our guide had brought, so I decided to try the same with my phone camera. The (cropped) image below is the result of a OnePlus 3T phone camera taken via a Swarovski lens, which I am rather pleased with.

photo of Spoonbill

The nature break over, we headed off for lunch, according to the itinerary this was to be a light lunch. At one point I stopped to take a photo, as nothing quite says “cycle touring in Tuscany” as well as a picture of a far off hilltop village and the sight of your companions dispersing into the distance at the prospect of a “light lunch”. The chosen place for lunch was the Grotta Giusti Spa, and let’s just say the food was not the highlight of this stop.

The highlight of our visit was the thermal caves, apparently the largest in Europe, where you can “enjoy the detoxifying steam”. These caves have had an illustrious stream of visitor over the years: Giuseppe Verdi called them the eighth wonder of the world, Garibaldi came and had his photo taken. However, sadly, there is no record of Hannibal (or his elephants) ever having visited. The caves are divided into three distinct areas called Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. The other curiosity of these caves is that the stalactites have a strangely cauliflorous appearance with bobbles all over their surfaces.

Grotta Giusti

Before entering the caves you have to put on special robes, which make the wearers look rather like Benedictine monks as they shuffle into the caves. When reaching the area known as Purgatory, the path divides into two, with most people turning left and going straight to Hell. It turns out that Hell is a broad low ceilinged cavern with people sitting around in deckchairs, in 36°C heat with near 100% humidity. No wailing and gnashing of teeth here, just signs saying “Il silenzio aiuta il relax, Silence helps relaxation”. On leaving Hell, after a restful doze, I decided to pass through Purgatory and visit Heaven, which turned out to be a smaller cavern with a small pool of water. The temperature in this section is a constant 28°C, which did feel blissfully cool after a period in Hell, although the place was strangely empty. It was not somewhere people seemed to linger, unlike Inferno.

After leaving the caves and returning to the surface, we spent some time hanging out at the spa’s outdoor swimming pool before heading off on the bikes once more. The final stop on our itinerary was the Terme Tettuccio spa at the heart of Montecatini town. Getting there did require riding through the heavily congested traffic, which makes me wonder why they don’t put in some proper cycle infrastructure and reduce the level of congestion? After all if places like Ferrara and Bolzano can do it, why not in towns in Tuscany? Hey, even Milan manages better than this.

Thankfully, as I have said before, Italians seem to be very tolerant of cyclists and we did finally make it to the Terme Tettuccio, a place which in many ways defines the town. The thermal springs were a site for votive offerings in Roman time, although the Romans were noted for making such offerings at water courses generally. The first written evidence of the use of thermal baths dates back to 1201 AD when a merchant from Prato, Francesco Datini, wrote to his doctor to ask about the waters. However, the spa really took off around 1400 AD when another doctor, Ugolino Simoni da Montecatini, wrote a treatise on the therapeutic use of the waters by the local peasants.

The spa as we know it today is as a result of work started by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena, who initiated the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), Leopoldine Baths (1779) and Tattoo (1779), which form the core of the modern Spa town. The current Art Nouveau buildings date from 1928 when water from four thermal springs were all piped into one place for the serious purpose of parting the rich worried well from their money.

The four springs that feed the spa are given different names: Leopoldina, Regina, Tettuccio and Refreshment. Each contains a range of mineral salts which give them a characteristic salty flavour, all the waters are diuretic, but have no fear of being caught short: there are 1000 toilets arranged over two floors, ground floor for the Ladies and first floor for the Gentlemen. I kid you not! However, to give Terme Tettuccio its due, the place is stunning, the floors, the walls, the ceilings, just art everywhere.

Terme di Montecatini

Taps and frescos

Escher floor

Building at Terme Tettuccio

But where’s the cycling angle? I hear you ask. Well, apparently the great Eddy Merckx tried the waters here, before winning the Giro d’Italia five times. I think that is good enough.

 


Thanks to the lovely people at Italia Slow Tour for organising this trip and to our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany for showing us around. If you would like to follow our route it is here:

Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

Tuscany calling, an MTB tour (day one)

When arriving in a new place, there is often a moment of disconnection when you see something you think is familiar and then find it is not. For me, one such moment came as we circled waiting to land at Pisa, looking out of the window at a forest canopy below, there were bulbous, lollipop shaped tree tops sitting above the canopy, looking like broadleaf but with the colour of pines. These were maritime pines (Pinus pinaster), native of the western Mediterranean, and a reminder that it had been a long time since I last visited the Mediterranean.

When you mention Pisa, most people’s first thoughts are of social media images of tourists pretending to prop up/push over a medieval stone tower, thereby (mostly) subconsciously celebrating one of the great inventions of the Italian Renaissance, the use of perspective in art.

In some way this can be seen as part of the modern pattern of fast tourism, rather like fast food: turn up, Instagram the experience and hop back on the bus to the next iconic site without appreciation of the space in-between or time for refection. However, we weren’t here for quick-snap tourism, but as guests of Italia Slow Tour to explore the Valdinievole area, in the heart of Tuscany, by mountain bike. There were seven of us, Dries and Nele from Belgium, Bastian and Natalie from Germany, Mara from Milan, plus Ulli and me, with our local bike guides Massimo and Graziano of Bike Experience Tuscany (Oh and we were also followed round by small film crew).

Our first day out started with a short ride from the hotel to the station, learning to ride The Italian Way. Apparently in Italy it is perfectly acceptable to cycle the opposite way up a one way street, certainly we got no hassle from motorists coming the other way, as we all agreed would have happened at home. Similarly to my Slow Tour trip to Milan last year I was surprised how tolerant Italian drivers are of cyclists generally. All 9 of us took a train to the nearby town of Pescia. Here again it was interesting to contrast with the situation at home in the UK, where the rail companies are trying to keep bikes off trains, here (as with other parts of mainland Europe) getting the whole group with all nine bikes onto a train is not an issue, which makes cycle tourism much easier.

The town of Pescia was once famous for silk production, but now more so for its flower market. However, in September the carnations are out of season, and as we cycled out of the town along high river banks, we looked down on rows of empty polytunnels, and nurseries with rows of trees in pots destined to be planted out in parks and gardens across Europe. The riding was easy under a bright blue sky, those of us from the more northern latitudes, the Belgians and the Scots enjoying the unaccustomed warmth. However, those from southern Germany and Italy, like the polytunnels, were preparing for winter.

After waving to the film crew on the far bank and crossing a bridge, we headed away from the river towards Montecarlo. No, not THAT Monte Carlo, this one is a Medieval Borgo, the term Borgo has the same roots as borough in English or Burg in German, meaning that it was a self governing settlement. The name Montecarlo actually just means Charles’ Mountain. The Charles in this case was the elected King of Bohemia (1347) who also owned a wee place called Luxembourg and went on to become King of the Romans (1349), King of Italy (1349) and King of Burgundy in 1365, which made him the the ruler of all the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. Yes, he was also the Holy Roman Emperor… Keep up at the back there!

Now as the name suggests, Montecarlo is on top of a hill, so there was a bit of a climb to get there, but it is worth it. Along the way you pass though olive groves and vineyards, Montecarlo is famous for its wines and has an annual festival to celebrate them (which sadly was the week before we got there). The borgo was one of our refreshment stops where we were treated to generous serving of antipasto accompanied by several bottles of wine (this was just elevenses, you understand).

Suitably refreshed, we had a wee stroll about the town and were taken to see the Teatro dei Rassicurati which from the outside looks much like the other buildings around it, but inside is an amazing pocket theatre. It is the second smallest theatre in Europe, with the smallest being in Budapest. Sheds used as venues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival don’t count apparently. Built in 1795, it was was extensively restored in 1894. In the inter-war period, it fell into disuse and by 1966 it was at risk of demolition, however, it was rescued and restored again in 1973 and is now in regular use. The oval auditorium seats 140 and is surrounded by 22 tiny boxes spread over two levels above, and an impressive painted ceiling. One of the theatre goers in the late nineteenth century was young Giacomo Puccini, who went on to become one of the greatest composer of Italian opera. One wonders how much this experience influenced his later work.

We set off once again, riding though the Tuscan countryside, occasionally stopping for photos and to watch the olive trees being pruned, well I stopped to take a photo, the others just went on…

Pruning the olives

Our next scheduled stop was the Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak. An amazing oak tree (Quercus pubescens), estimated to be up to 600 years old with a girth of ~4.5m and a canopy circumference of ~40m. Legend has it that a group of witches held their sabbatical rites right on the branches of the tree, creating the broad lateral grow we see today. Personally, I think it much more likely that the tree was pollarded and the branches trained out laterally, probably originally to increase acorn masting for pigs.

Quercia delle Streghe or the Witches Oak

There is also another story this tree is famous for, it is where Pinocchio was hanged by the assassins who wanted to steal his four gold coins. In Carlo Collodi’s original story (first published in 1881) the tale ended at this tree, with Pinocchio dying at the end of chapter 15. However, Collodi’s publisher didn’t like this ending, as the story was serialized and proving very popular, so he persuaded Collodi to allow Pinocchio be rescued by the the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (or “Blue Fairy” in the Disney version), and then to write another 21 chapters. The full story was published in 1883 as the The Adventures of Pinocchio, and later became an international best seller and was turned into a sanitised Disney film.

Photo and cultural/nature stop over, there was a glorious dirt road descent, ideal for testing the bike’s front suspension and tyre traction. The next stop was San Gennaro, and of course, this being Tuscany, the hamlet is on top of a hill. To get there, we rode single track Strade Bianche through the woods, olive groves and vineyards, arriving back on tarmac just below the village.

Strade Bianche

We stopped by a traditional drinking fountain with a stone trough to fill our water bottles, the day was getting very warm (from a Scottish perspective). Although it was nearing lunchtime, culture comes before food, with a visit to “the old Roman Pieve”. Yeah, I had to look up Pieve too, according to Wikipedia it is a rural church. Being one of the oldest buildings in the village (dating from 980 AD) it was near the top of the hill. To get there, there was a winding cobbled street, with a final ramp of 18%!

San Gennaro

Was it worth it? Yes. The sign board outside said that it retained “its original Romanesque characteristics”, while also noting that the capitals at the tops of the columns were decorated in “Pre-Romanesque style”, basically recycled from earlier buildings. The sign also says “Of particular interest inside the ambo [Catholic term for pulpit] dating back to 1162 … ”. However, oddly, the sign board neglects to mention this wee church’s greatest treasure, a polychrome painted angel statue, is the only known statue made by Leonardo Da Vinci himself (confirmed by Carlo Pedretti).

Da Vinci's angel

The thing about visiting all this cultural stuff is that it does make you rather peckish, fortunately it was just a short distance down the hill to lunch at Ristoro Il Corno, just a simple four course affair, you understand. I can highly recommend the Pecorino Toscano with honey.

pecorino with honey

With a few calories to burn off, we set out for Collodi, a name you might recognise from above. Carlo Collodi is actually the pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini, who took the name Collodi from the village where his mother came from, and it was that village we where aiming for. On seeing it for the first time, I was struck by the way it appears to tumble down the hillside and is then terminated by the seemingly overblown Villa Garzoni at the bottom. What I couldn’t see from that angle was the water gardens attached to the villa, nor for that matter could I see the Parco di Pinocchio (a theme park dedicated to a wooden puppet). For the record, the Villa Garzoni was on sale for a mere €19,000,000 a couple of years ago, just in case you happen to find a winning Euro Millions lottery ticket down the back of the sofa.

A view of Collodi, Tuscany, Italy

We visited the lower part of Villa Garzoni’s water gardens and the Butterfly House. Collodi is on the list of places I would like to visit again, I would like to have the time to explore the village itself and also see more of the water gardens. Not sure I would go to Parco di Pinocchio, although we were told that it isn’t just for kids, there is stuff for adults there too, with the original tale far darker than the Disney version many of us are familiar with.

Villa Garzoni’s water gardens

Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales)

Leaving Collodi, we followed the Via delle Fiabe (the path of the fairy tales) back to Pescia, which partly follows an ancient mule track paved with flag stones. While this may sound like straight forward riding, it was highly technical in parts, in particular the 15% descent with stone cross drains on the path followed by a narrow bridge and a hairpin turn. Walking this section is highly recommended (which we all did). The path is great fun and takes you through some lovely scenery before eventually bringing you out onto black top on a ridge overlooking Pescia, with the final part of the route all downhill, which was also a lot of fun. Then it was train back to Montecatini Terme where we were staying (at the bike Hotel Arnolfo), a spa treatment, and an amazing five course dinner of Tuscan specialities at the restaurant Arnolfo.

If you’d like a different view of the same trip, you can read Dries’ travel diary here and Nele’s travel diary here. Oh and that film crew that was following us, here’s the film they made, hope you enjoy it 🙂

If you’d like to follow the route it is here:

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
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