Tuesday, November 16, 2010

2009 Tour Summary

The team: wife and I. Last year's cycling tour along the Danube from Germany to Budapest proved to be a great one and we decided to take another long-range adventure for 2009. One of our concerns is road safety and we aimed at those countries featuring a good network of cycling paths. Next idea was to complete a loop where the start and finish point would coincide. Out of various opportunities we chose a route that took us through four countries. Start and end point was Perl, located in Germany near the borders with France and Luxembourg, where we drove and kissed our car goodbye for about three weeks. Except for the initial accommodation near Perl, no other advance reservations were made in order to be free from time and place constraints. A small notebook traveling with us proved ideal for searching and making reservations for the next day or two. I also carried a tent and sleeping bags but, like for our 2008 tour, we didn't use it at all.
The 1,210 Km (756 mi) tour took us along the Mosel and Rhine rivers into the Netherlands, proceeding then to Belgium and Luxembourg. I had prepared the route with the aid of official GPS tracks of the cycling paths that we wanted to follow. Without the hand-held type GPS, the journey would have required the use of a consistent number of maps resulting in countless wasted time for continuous consultation. Despite the cycling paths are generally signposted, the signs are not present at every turn. At times we found that some were even pointing to the wrong direction - maybe some prankster had fun with them.

The tracklog of our entire tour has been recorded and it's available at the bottom of this travelogue. To spare the hassle of changing and recharging batteries continuously, my GPS unit was powered by a small solar station mounted on the handlebar bag. Precious and amazing satellite technology that sadly turns paper maps into romantic memories, but it's inevitably hard to do without after trying it once.


Stage 1 - Perl (D) to Trier (D) - 63 Km
The tiny village of Hellendorf, the actual start-finish point, lies a few Km east of Perl. It's about 250 m (750 ft) elevation higher than the Mosel river and it means that returning to the car will be uphill, practically the only climb stage of the entire tour and certainly not demanding. Down we go and the Mosel river welcomes us with its quiet flow and lush vineyards that will keep us company until the tributary stream reaches the longer Rhein.
Trier was founded by the Romans and served as capital of the nortwestern portion of the empire. It is said to be the oldest city in Germany and its ancient vestiges such as the Arena can still be seen today. Formerly a walled city, the Porta Nigra survived the millennia to stand as an imposing structure.

A couple of young fishermen proudly show us a freshly caught large catfish which is some 1.2 m (4 ft) long but they say they caught a larger one the day before. Barbecue dinner for quite some group of people! It's the Silurus Glanis, an invasive species now infesting many Western European rivers. This monster can exceed a length of 2.5 m (9 ft) and weigh over 150 Kg (330 lb).

Stage 2 - Trier (D) to Zell (D) - 113 Km
The sinuous Mosel twists and bends continuously and the path requires a couple of bridge crossings to the opposite bank. It's nice to ride our longest stage in the shade because the temperature is unusually hot for the area as we cope with 33C (92F).

Stage 3 - Zell (D) to Koblenz (D) - 91 Km
Today we see the Rhein as the stage ends together with the Mosel. Koblenz is an interesting wedge-shaped city squeezed in between the two rivers. Here, as we normally do at the end of each stage, we drop our bikes and luggage to walk around, have a deserved drink, search for a dining experience and enjoy the local architecture.

Stage 4 - Koblenz (D) to Bonn (D) - 69 Km
The quality of cycle paths along this stretch of the Rhein is not as good as that along the Mosel but we're probably asking too much. The fairy-tale feeling is fading but, after all, we're about to cross a humongous urban area further known as the Ruhr.

Stage 5 - Bonn (D) to Duesseldorf (D) - 87 Km
Unexpectedly for me, the cycling path runs through lots of woods and parks. I have memories of driving around this area in heavy traffic while a bike ride reveals a totally different scenario. From afar, the Colone Cathedral seems even larger than it already is and it's nice finding myself in its shade again after years. This time, though, I don't ask myself what a street artist dressed like a Roman soldier is meant to be at the base of this wonderful Gothic architecture.

Stage 6 - Duesseldorf (D) to Xanten (D) - 79 Km
We leave the lovely Duesseldorf downtown and it takes a while before finding ourselves in a rural area. Lots of bikes but there aren't many tourers like us. A welcome slight tailwind helps reaching Xanten a little faster than estimated. Nice town of which I had hardly heard before. It's a weekend and the place is packed with visitors but there is still enough room to roam through the cobbled streets. Getting to the tourist information office just five minutes before they close secures one of the last available rooms in town. In Xanten we see the first windmill of this trip. Is this a sign that we're approaching the Netherlands?

Stage 7 - Xanten (D) to Elst (NL) - 70 Km
Rural landscapes dominate this stage's scene. Beyond the Netherlands' border sign the cycling path features a dotted median line. Entering cycling paradise! Without an advance reservation, our plan for a stopover in the city of Nijmegen is marred by the fact that the tourist information office is closed all day on Sundays. It's honestly unconceivable and we decide to skip the city right away rather than going in search for accommodation. See you next time, Nijmegen, if at all. Elst is the first town on our way and there's a room for us here. Not much else but this is all we need for today along with a relaxing after-dinner stroll.

Stage 8 - Elst (NL) to Utrecht (NL) - 74 Km
It's not time yet to dive below sea level as the city of Utrecht barely lies above it. Two nights here mean a full day's rest and a decent chance to savor the lively downtown area. New students all over including boat parties along the canal. Like most places in this country, it's bicycle galore at all levels. Students, executives, mothers carrying a couple of children and a dog, everybody is in "fietsen" mood!

Stage 9 - Utrecht (NL) to Amsterdam (NL) - 67 Km
Believe it or not, this is the only wet stage of the entire trip. From drizzle to heavy rain, all day. No complaints though, as the likelihood of precipitation is somehow high in this part of Europe. Our B&B accommodation is in Westerdok and a great choice for it's a quiet, newly built building complex just 10-minutes' walk away from Amsterdam's central station. There's a lot to do in bike-town and we take full advantage of our three nights here!

Stage 10 - Amsterdam (NL) to Haarlem (NL) - 56 Km
Straight distance between the two cities is much shorter but, as planned, we go through the interesting sand dunes at Zuid-Kennemerland park. Plenty of shade from trees encourages a perfect pic-nic before checking out a couple of beaches. A very quiet and enjoyable park.

Stage 11 - Haarlem (NL) to The Hague (Den Haag, NL) - 60 Km
Time for sand dunes again. These are created by wind and one can tell. The coastal ride towards The Hague is underlined by a strong headwind. We're on path LF01 where road bikers reach their desired workout pace and speed while going around our luggage at ease. Some say this is the most unsafe route due to the mix of traffic and speed. Scheveningen is a popular destination with its casinos and the long walkway lined up with endless restaurants and bars. The double-decker pier is quite long and the indoors lower level is something to try for those who want to escape the exposure to the strong upstairs wind.

Stage 12 - The Hague (Den Haag,NL) to Rotterdam (NL) - 44 Km
If yesterday we had a chance to make a detour and visit Leiden, today's short stage deserves to spend our time in tiny, beautiful Delft and take it very easy. Rotterdam is spread over quite some area and we better take a look at it tomorrow morning. For tonight, the usual walk didn't take us through memorable sights or too far from our shelter.

Stage 13 - Rotterdam (NL) to Breda (NL) - 81 Km
Highlight of the day are the windmills of Kinderdijk. It takes a five-minute ferry crossing but we reach the dock at the wrong time and next ferry leaves in 90 minutes as the service is interrupted around noon time. The boat is quite small but very inexpensive and capable of hauling all passengers and some 30 or more bicycles afloat the northernmost branch of the mighty Rhein river.

Stage 14 - Breda (NL) to Antwerp (B) - 82 Km
There's no sign of border crossing into Belgium at all, if not for the sensation that these cycling paths look more like secondary roads. In fact, they are. It's hot again today, over 30C and we definitely feel it. We're almost in Antwerp and the ride along a canal is not as shaded as we wish for the day. We stop frequently as the sun is very strong. Are we sure this is northern Europe? We reach the Albert Canal and decide to follow the local bike bath signposts instead of our own GPS track. Wrong! The signs disappear after a couple of turns and we need help from the GPS' navigation feature to reach the city center before getting to Nelli's place, our local hosting friend.

Stage 15 - Antwerp (B) to Leuven (B) - 76 Km
Most sections of our route through Dutch urban areas have a rough pavement made of bricks, at times not much pleasant even for our suspended bikes. Well, this is nothing if compared to certain places in Belgium. Cobblestones are, yes, stones, each of which doesn't have a flat surface but shows the typical pattern of a broken block. These are then laid down following a certain grid pattern and flatness is hardly achieved. Gap between cobbles is at times enough to trap a bike tire in and it's not suggested to ride at extremely slow speed! We perfectly understand the reason for violent arm-shaking among the participants of the Paris-Roubaix and other local races.

Stage 16 - Leuven (B) to Brussels (B) - 40 Km
It's a little sad to leave this tiny jewel. Shortest stage today and a nice ride through the woods towards the southern edge of Brussels where our friend Alain is awaiting us.

Stage 17 - Brussels (B) to Hellendorf (D) - 60 Km
(train from Brussels to Luxembourg City)

Our conclusive stage foresees the transfer by train from Brussels to Luxembourg City. We had bought the tickets two days before and we head straight to Brussels Central Station and take the elevator down to the tracks level. We ask where our bikes can be taken aboard and the personnel informs that we can't do that. What? The other day we were told we can! "Ah, it's OK then". Oddly, bikes can be boarded - on the very same train though - only at Brussels-Zuid (Midi), that is Brussels South. At any rate, the kind personnel let us in and our bikes are stowed, hanging by the front wheel, in a special locker which is then closed by the train personnel. This locker holds two bicycles and each wagon has only one of these, space is then limited but we are the only travelers with bikes. Only while aboard we find out that not all the wagons of this train are bound to Luxembourg. Some are in fact being detached and diverted before the border. Nevertheless, we are sitting on the right wagon but our bikes don't, so we must move them at the right time with help from exquisite personnel.
Upon arrival we head straight to our reserved hotel, drop our luggage and proceed to Perl and our finish line in Hellendorf. Riding lighter is not bad as we have to climb and it's a very hot day! A different, intense day marked the end of this adventure. It's a little sad to put the bikes inside the car but we can't complain. We now drive to Luxembourg City, time for some sleep and city visit before driving home for good.

It was another wonderful vacation! History, architecture, large and small cities, rural landscapes and cultural diversities made our slow journey an unforgettable one. No mechanical problems, no punctures. Just the pleasure to go on and on in search of new landscapes for the eye and for the soul.
Feel free to contact me for further details or hints.

561 Km in D
421 Km in NL
191 Km in B
37 Km in L
Longest stage: 113 Km

Tour GPS tracklog available here: