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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 yalla match 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, trendat.net 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, hayamix.com 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 yalla match 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, trendat.net 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. hayamix.com 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:

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.

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.

Night Ride along Hadrian’s Wall

Night Ride along Hadrian’s Wall

A guest post by Ulli.

This was my first proper night ride, and I was very curious what it would be like staying awake and keeping cycling the whole night – not anxious-like, but I was wondering about staying alert and not doing anything stupid due to a moment’s doziness or inattention. I had also been hearing tales of seasoned audaxers (long-distance cyclists doing silly rides of several 100 km in one go) about sleeping in bus shelters or ditches when they feel tired…

But I wasn’t unduly worried, as I had recently proved to myself that I could function perfectly well for 24 hours or so without sleeping (helping out at the premier UK long-distance cycling event, London-Edinburgh-London – participants need to cover the whole distance of 1400+ km in less than five days, by bike). The night ride was one of the most brilliant experiences on a bike I’ve had (and there have been a few) … cycling on empty roads under a starry sky, along Hadrian’s Wall for some stretches, watching dawn breaking and finally the sun rising, all in the excellent company of 12 other slightly mad people (with a 13th joining in from Hexham, and a couple more beating us to breakfast at the Quayside in Newcastle). But I am getting ahead of myself …

We met up at Carlisle railway station, with six of us arriving just over an hour before the off, so we had time for a drink and for getting to know each other a bit (I only knew Marcus, the organiser, but others were clearly old friends, or had met before). There was a mix of people, some regular night riders and a few complete newbies, myself included.

Just after 11pm we set off after an obligatory photo outside the station, slightly incongruous amidst the normal Friday night population of Carlisle, some of whom were tottering about on extremely high heels and were clearly intending to party the night away in their own fashion…

Ready2Roll
Ready to roll, outside Carlisle Station

The first stop was just a couple of km later, at the 24-hour supermarket at the eastern edge of Carlisle, to stock up on snacks, buy a woolly hat in expectation of the temperature dropping and/or use the facilities. While we were waiting outside, a policeman came up and asked us what we were up to. Our explanations bemused him, and when we asked if he wanted to come along, he declined politely.

Soon we were off again, heading east along the A69 to Brampton. Normally this road would be a bad choice for a group cycle ride, but just before midnight there was hardly any traffic, and we were off onto the wee roads before very long, cycling through the deserted town, where we joined the NCN72 (Hadrian’s Wall Cycle Route) which we’d follow on and off for most of the way to the other side of the country. Shortly after Brampton, we went past Lanercost Priory, a beautiful ruined abbey that was built to a large part from nicely prepared stones, freely available from some old wall nearby at the time – some stones with Roman inscriptions, mason’s marks and even the knee of a broken statue with toga folds still visible. [Kim and I had stopped and visited the abbey and pretty much all the Roman sites along the Wall and a few nearby castles in April, during a long weekend – he never got round to writing a blog post about it.] But during the night we only saw the signposts, and I could just about make out the dark silhouette of the tallest building against the little light provided by the very orange crescent moon that was rising to the east as we came over the hill from Brampton.

Soon after, we hit the first proper hill at Banks which I remembered well, including the various twists & turns, so there were no surprises, but it was quite different riding it at night, seeing the various blinking red lights moving along ahead and bits of the road illuminated by some pretty powerful front lights that provided plenty of brightness to see by, both ahead and behind. We stopped at the turret/watch tower at the top of the hill to re-group, have some snacks and admire the starry sky. After switching off all the bright lights, the Milky Way was clearly visible, and so many more stars that I’d seen in a long while, due to the clear skies and absence of light pollution (even though we could see the lights of Carlisle in the distance, but they already seemed quite a long way away). Somebody was asking about the wall, and I said there was a bit just off to one side and switched the front light on, pointing it straight at some rather impressive looking remains that he (and possibly others) had been completely unaware of, having not had the advantage of seeing the place in daylight before.

I was then leaning on my handlebars, and there was suddenly quite a large amount of give. I was thinking that this was rather strange, as my bike didn’t have a front suspension. It was a slow puncture that I must have picked up on the way home from work in the evening (which already seemed a world away), where I had tried to avoid some hawthorn hedge cuttings. Luckily I had a spare inner tube etc. with me, and between a few of us the puncture was fixed very quickly – many thanks to the expert fixers, much faster than I could have done it myself. It turned out to be the only puncture of the night, there were a few other very slight mechanicals, but nothing serious, thankfully.

We continued along the Wall, past Birdoswald (a big Roman Fort), some quick downs and ups into Gillsland and through Greenhead, where we could see the next BIG hill looming up in the weak light provided by the crescent moon. It was here that we came across the first couple of cars since Brampton, which was quite a while ago. The road steepens as the buildings run out, and there is a parallel cycling and walking path that is separated from the road by some bushes. We all ignored it as the road was completely deserted, but it’s quite handy during normal waking hours, especially at weekends when all the Wall tourists are out and about in their 4-wheelers. [I had been very happy to be off the road in April, as fast moving traffic and cyclists wobbling uphill in their granny gears don’t mix all that well. The road surface on the cycle track is nothing to write home about, sadly, but it’s sufficient.]

Where the hill finally flattens out, there is a wee turn-off to the Roman Army Museum and the B&B where we stayed on our spring tour and had a very nice and hilarious evening meal with a group of walkers going the opposite way, but I digress. There was yet more police presence, this time a patrol car parked with a friendly police woman asking the obvious questions as we waited for everybody to conquer the hill … what were we up to? … and of course, why? … We had quite a long chat, but eventually headed off along the very straight B6138 along the Wall which was completely deserted, apart from some owls hooting somewhere off to the right.

[The official NCN72 turns off the B road at the next opportunity and sweeps down the hill again to the town of Haltwhistle, which claims to be the Centre of Britain and has a number of shops and hostelries to feed and water hungry cyclists. Another reason for the diversion of the official cycle route away from the Wall is that the B road gets rather busy and motorists drive faster than they should, ignoring the restricted visibility due to the various dips and rises. That’s what our B&B landlady had told us, and turned out to be spot-on when we did a wee diversion off the NCN to visit the spectacular Roman Fort & museum at Housesteads … – but if I had to choose only one Roman site to see along the Wall, Housesteads would be my favourite.]

I think it was somewhere along this undulating B road that we came across a solo cyclist going the opposite way – we all said hello, like it was the most normal thing in the world to go cycling in the middle of the night and carried on cycling. At this stage, it might have been around 2 AM (?), I was starting to wonder when I might begin to feel tired, but Cathy, another 1st time night rider, and I agreed that we couldn’t possible have been more alert and alive than we were feeling. Maybe because it was all new to us and such an amazing experience, or because the temperature was dropping and stopping us from getting sleepy?

After another quick stop near the intriguingly named Twice Brewed Inn (and Once Brewed Hostel), where a slack chain was sorted, we soon left the deserted B road and headed down the 6-mile long descent to Newbrough along the Stanegate road. We were spread out again, and after I dropped back from the front group to add more layers, I was suddenly all alone. I could occasionally see the twinkling red lights of the front group ahead, and the yellow glow of the group behind just over my personal horizon, but this made me even more aware of just how quiet it was, apart from another owl, some sheep bleating off to the left, and suddenly a rather loud noise, from an invisible donkey that must have been startled by the strange flashing lights disturbing its peace.

Another quick stop to regroup resulted in a search for a dropped glove, which was eventually found on the other side of the stone wall next to the road and restored to its owner by a kind gentleman hopping over the wall. Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a polite sounding cough from the field over the wall, from the complete darkness outside the circle of lights surrounding us. “What was that?” We shone a light over the wall, and found a herd of cattle just a few metres away, panic over.

Next stop at Newbrough, to search for a front light that had worked itself loose from somebody’s handlebars, luckily it was found just a few metres behind, but I don’t think it survived the fall. We used the break to scoff some homemade flapjack, which lightened my load quite a bit. From there it wasn’t far to Bridge End, where we turned sharp right to cross an old stone bridge south over the South Tyne, just before its union with the North Tyne. [It was here that we turned off north on our Roman forts tour in April, to Chesters, just a few miles up the road, where we randomly came across a re-enactment group of Roman foot soldiers and cavalry spearing cabbage heads on stakes in full gallop, and a small museum completely stuffed with artefacts rescued by a local landowner who bought up several Roman sites in the vicinity to protect them from being robbed out for stones – well worth a visit if you are passing during opening hours.]

We shot up the slight incline beyond the bridge, past a signposted left turn for the riverside cycle route, but I assumed that this was intentional, grateful for the additional heat generated by the extra effort, as I was feeling quite cold at the time. We stopped where the road met up with the dualled A69 and some fast moving delivery lorries thundering past, to wait for Marcus, who was leading from the rear at this stage … only to decide to turn back to re-join the NCN72 by the bridge.

A little further on, on the edge of Hexham, we crossed over the railway line, and quickly reached the 24-hour supermarket that was our main planned food stop, it must have been a little after 4 AM. Just outside we were met by the very wide awake 14th night rider, who had made his own way to Hexham on his rather fetching trike. We all piled into the supermarket and did our shopping before congregating in the deserted café, where we scoffed an interesting assortment of foods. I saw sushi, sandwiches, rather colourful iced doughnuts, bananas, a large yoghurt pots very politely emptied with the folded up lid used as a spoon replacement, etc. Soon the first heads started to nod, and one body was stretched out on a row of chairs, fast asleep within seconds.

SleepyHexham
Sleepy in Hexham

NoddingOff
More nodding off ..

NoddingOff2
And more … while others were wide awake!

I was starting to warm up quite quickly once the food had found its way into my system (lesson learnt: body needs feeding if it is supposed to function properly in the middle of the night). But I still followed the example of somebody else and went on another shopping trip, to buy a pair of tights to wear under my rather ancient and thin Ronhill tracksters – I found some rather nice thermal tights which were perfect for the rest of the ride. Somebody mentioned that the lowest temperature he had measured during the night was 3-point-something degrees C.

Around 5:20 we were on our way again, leaving the bright lights of Hexham behind and heading back onto the NCN72 towards Corbridge. I thought I could make out a very slight brightening in the sky to the east, but wasn’t sure whether this was dawn starting to break or just an artefact of the slight mist reflecting our lights. Near the entrance to Corbridge Roman Town [another site looked after by English Heritage and well worth visiting – I’ll stop the tourist ads now] we came across another couple of well-lit cyclists going in the opposite direction, not sure if they were early commuters. In Corbridge itself, we met the early commuter bus to Newcastle and a few more delivery vans and lorries, but after the hill at the eastern edge of the town we soon turned off onto a wee road again.

By this time there was an orange glow on the horizon, and we could see the silhouettes of hills, trees and Prudhoe Castle with some very picturesque bits of mist floating about. It really was magical, words can’t do it justice. The wee road was twisting and turning, and there was a sudden steep uphill, which caused somebody on a fixie to start weaving across the road rather unexpectedly, right in front of me. I stopped and then had to walk a few steps to the top of the wee hill as I was in the wrong gear, whereas said fixie rider keeled over at 0 speed, fortunately the only injury was to pride, rather than rider or bike.

We then stopped at the entrance to a field, to wait for everybody to catch up, enjoying the views, and the very earnest discussion on the workings of free wheels and fixies and what happens when a bike of either of those persuasions goes backwards. This was rather funny, and indicated that maybe some brains were starting to show the effects of the lack of sleep…

Dawn
Dawn

FreewheelDemo
Demonstration of freewheeling backwards

At Ovingham, we crossed a pretty spectacular old bridge on stilts, clearly not built for modern traffic, but just about wide enough for single cars, as long as they weren’t too big… demonstrated by one car following us across. Immediately after the bridge, the cycle path heads off road and east along the Tyne, before crossing back north again after a few km, over another impressive bridge, this time a single span metal one. We stopped there for quite a while for photos, chatting and watching some rather large fish jump out of the water to catch insects, and I am pretty sure I saw a bat hunting close to the water surface, too.

TyneBridgeView3
On the single span bridge

TyneBridgeView1
Tyne looking west from single span bridge

TyneBridgeView2
Tyne looking east from single span bridge

By this time the first dog walkers were out in force, and most of us switched off at least some of our assorted bike lights, as they were definitely no longer needed to see by. The cycle path meandered along through woods and fields, with the sun rising as we neared Newcastle. Along the river, several herons were flying about, and we went on a slight detour due to some of us rushing ahead in our eagerness for breakfast – by this time I had been looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea for hours … we passed by a very closed looking café in an industrial estate, where on last year’s ride coffee and tea had been available, but sadly not this time. We pressed on around another bend or two in the river, and under the A1 motorway bridge. The path then left the river again and we cycled along a massive multi-lane road, on a shared pedestrian/cycle path that crossed over said lanes a couple of times via pedestrian lights and a big roundabout. As it was only 7:30/8AM on a Saturday morning, we didn’t really have to stop or wait anywhere, as there was only the odd delivery vehicle or car around, but I was thinking this must be pretty unpleasant during rush hour. Soon we turned back to the riverside with its wide pavement, along the tidal mudflats of the Tyne with lots of wading birds, ducks and gulls enjoying the early morning sunshine, and a fair number of cyclists and walkers doing the same, but on firm ground. The famous bridges across the river finally came into view, and suddenly we were at the Quayside, our breakfast destination. We parked up and shared bike locks before piling into the place, where the only other customers were a couple of fellow riders who had decided to meet us at for breakfast after their own night ride rather than doing Carlisle to Newcastle.

That first long-anticipated mug of tea was SOOO good, followed by a massive breakfast and more tea. We compared photos, sent messages home to report our safe arrival. Some headed on to the Hub, a cycle café just a bit further down the river, after a while. But inertia claimed most of us, and we just stayed and chatted some more or rested our eyes for a little while, before it was time to head to the train station and our separate ways. I dozed for a bit on the train between Newcastle & Berwick, but didn’t actually go to bed until just after 10pm, and slept like a log.

Overall the ride was 100+ km, at a rolling speed of somewhere between 10.x and 12.x mph, depending on whether one was mostly at the front or rear of the group (sorry about the mix of units, I’m only repeating what I seem to remember being told). One rider had even been recording “lap times”, which caused much amusement, until he explained that the laps were 10 mile stretches …

A massive thanks again to the Marcus for the idea in the first place, and for organising everybody, to all my fellow night riders for their company, help with fixing my puncture, and the entertainment … this definitely won’t be my last night ride, but I might wait for slightly warmer nights before I have another go.

This post started as a thread on the CycleChat forum.

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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