24 Jul

Cycle Tour Europe: Rad & Reisen Cruise Review

Disclosure: We were guests on the Theodor Körner however this in no way impacted the fabulous time that we had. I just thought you should know. :)

Our cycle tour Europe itinerary got a bit convoluted part way through. Itinerary is, in fact,  a bit of a strong word for what we actually had. What we had was a basic circle route penciled out on a map that included most of the places that we wanted to see. Our real plan, though was to cycle as much (or as little) as we wanted to, enjoy Europe to its fullest (read: eat and drink everything possible!), and take advantage of every opportunity that came our way. Mission: Accomplished.

Our real plan took us through the beauty of Northern France,  through historic Luxembourg, along the south end of the Rhine River in Germany to Freiburg to visit old friends. It saw us up and over the Swiss Alps (by train – we didn’t cycle over the Alps!) to feast on pizza and red wine on the banks of Lake Como before taking an epic 8 train (with seven train switches!) journey to Brussels in Belgium. After drinking as much beer as possible in Belgium, and falling head-over-heals for Amsterdam, we rode along the absolutely-unexpectedly-stunning coast of the Netherlands before entering Germany (again) to cycle the truly-appropriately-named ‘Romantic’ section of the Rhine. Another slightly-less-epic train journey took us to Passau in eastern Germany so we could finish our cycling adventures in style as we boarded the Theodor Körner and biked and cruised along the great Danube river. See, convoluted but a truly successful plan!

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

So, I wanted to tell you about the Rad & Reisen Cruise because I think it’s an absolutely perfect way for folk (like you) to enjoy cycle touring the best parts of Europe without having to enact a plan like above and cycle the 2500+ KM that we did.

Everyone can cycle tour Europe. Everyone. In fact, I’ve already recommended this exact cruise to my sister-in-law and my friend here in London because I think they would love, love, love it.

Here’s a link to the Passau-Vienna-Passau cruise that we took. I won’t detail the route as you can look on the site for that information (and see all the other options they offer all over Europe) but I will tell you what I liked, and what I didn’t like, about the cruise (because that’s what really matters!)

Generally the cruise works like this. The ship acts as a floating and moving hotel. You check into your cabin at the beginning of the week, leave all your non-cycling stuff there, and go cycling along the river each day.  At some point during the day the ship passes you and magically appears at the end of your cycle just when you need it for a hot shower, a cold beer, and a great meal. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Cycle touring perfection. Easy, peasy.

Ship Facilities

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

Built in 1965, the Theodor Körner is one of the oldest passenger ships fording the waters of the Danube. Lucky for us though it was completely renovated just this past winter so the facilities on board were brand new and very comfortable.

Our twin, side-by-side, berth cabin was more than I expected from a river boat. The beds were comfy, the window opened, the closet easily held all our stuff, and the full bathroom had a real toilet and a powerful, and hot, shower. During the day one of the berths was tidied away to create more space and was magically made up for us each night while we enjoyed dinner. No, it’s not a massive room but keep in mind that you’re on a ship – it was more than comfortable and, really, you’re only sleeping in there – there is plenty to do on, and off, the ship to keep you out of there!

The Panorama Bar at the front of the ship is where all the action happened. Coffee and cake in the afternoon, before dinner beers, route information meetings, and evening entertainment all occurred in this quite stylish lounge. I enjoyed spending time here except when the entertainer was playing. I really did not like the entertainment. Perhaps it was a demographic thing. Maybe I need to better appreciate old ‘classics’ from the 60’s and 70’s. It may just be that I have a thing against Casio keyboards and electronic accompaniment. It doesn’t matter; it was like nails on a chalkboard and I just couldn’t handle it. Luckily, there were other options.

The Back Deck was where you could usually find us. Comfy lounge chairs, great views, shade from the sun (or, more likely, the rain), and blessed silence. Perfect. Although there wasn’t a bar on the Back Deck we could bring our beers back or ask for service if we didn’t feel like making the hike to the bar.

There were two other lounge areas available; neither of which we really used. The Library is a comfortable, quiet, indoor lounge and the entire roof of the ship is a sun deck also – alternately too hot or too wet to use during our journey.

The ship was really comfortable, and casual. You won’t need to bring your best sparkly dress and high heels, just some comfy clothes and a smile.

I’ll make a quick note about bar prices. I have been on other cruises which, not only did not allow outside drinks on board, but then fleeced me when I ordered a drink. Not cool. This didn’t happen on the Theodor Körner. In fact, we felt no need to bring drinks on board because they served cold, perfectly poured, beer where ever we were for the same price as on shore. Very cool.

Dining

Seating is assigned on board; you receive a table number and sit with the same people all week. We were seated at a table for six amongst a few tables of English speakers – thoughtful, as we have had a few meals on our trip with non-English speakers and it can be a bit…quiet. Our group of Australians, New Zealanders, Russians, and Canadians had a great time getting to know each other over our meals. Space was a little tight but we managed although I wouldn’t want to be at a table with a bunch of burly guys.

Breakfast was buffet style with a good variety of bread, meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit, and cereal along with some hot options such as eggs, bacon, sausage and mushrooms. We filled up at breakfast in order to fuel the riding for the day. Those who stayed on board during the day were offered a prepared lunch; those of us riding made up some quick sandwiches which were wrapped up for us with a piece of fruit and a chocolate bar for a picnic lunch later on.

Dinners were good and varied. A menu was placed in our cabin each evening so we could choose our evening meal the next day; usually a choice of meat, fish, or vegetarian. Each meal had an appetizer, a main entree, and dessert. Some meals were better executed than others; I would say that the fish dish was the most consistently good throughout the week. Wine was available at a cost but you could buy a bottle, have a glass or two out of it, and they would save it for you for the next day. Nice. My favourite part was after dinner. Along with the usual coffee service they came around with a bottle of schnapps or digestif to finish off your meal. A different bottle was offered each night; I sampled them all and proclaim them all to be delicious!

Bikes/Gear

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

Of course we had our own bikes and gear for the cruise, as did a number of others on board, but it was possible to arrive with nothing more than your bike shorts and a smile. You could rent all the gear that you needed; 7-speed, 21-speed, and electric bikes were all available at a very reasonable price. The bikes all appeared in great condition – and were well sized for each participant. Each had a small repair kit, a handlebar bag (which all riders received even if you had your own bike) and a side pannier to store the stuff you’d need for the day. Helmets aren’t mandatory here but you could buy one for a a couple of euros if you wanted to be safe. Each rider was assigned a bike but there were many, many, many more on board so, if you didn’t like the one assigned, another could easily be found. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be quite pleased with the equipment they had rented.

The crew took excellent care of the bikes, whether rented or our own. They stored them away on deck for us each night and had them all lined up and ready to go well before we were ready in the morning. My only complaint here was that it had rained on the bikes one night and my seat was wet in the morning. Petty, I know, but it wouldn’t have taken much effort to have given them all a quick wipe to save our wet bums.

Route Information

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

This is what made the experience for us. We’ve spent weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks cycling through Europe. Determining where to go, figuring out the best possible route, discovering interesting stops along the way, searching for places to stay, and always looking for regional cuisine and the best beer we could find. It’s takes a lot of time and effort and there is no doubt that we cycled right by some of the best that Europe has to offer simply because we had no idea it was right there!

On board, each cycling group had been issued a route book which not only included daily detailed maps but also turn-by-turn instructions to accompany the map. Every afternoon Andreas the cruise director held a meeting (once in English and then again in German) to review the next days cycle route. It wasn’t the detailed routing information that we were after though – we could easily get ourselves from Point A to Point B – no, the best part of the meeting were all the secret spots he pointed out along the way. Places that you wouldn’t know were there unless someone told you about them (or you could read the German signposts).

It was the charred mackerel (with ice cold beer) for ‘second breakfast’ one morning, knowing which castles were worth climbing up to (and which brewed their own beer!), refreshing glasses of Most (local apples cider) on hot afternoons, bicycle museums to explore, schnapps tastings on the cycle-only river ferries, platters of delicious food we enjoyed at the taverns he recommended along the way, whiskey and wine tastings, and the best coffee and ice cream must-stops.

Each days cycle had two possible routes – usually one on either side of the river – a recommended route and an alternate route. Andreas described each route (along with each ones hidden secrets) and explained why one would be recommended and one would be alternate so it was easy to choose which route we wanted to take. You can bet we always chose the one with the most tasty options along the way. :)

Biking Route

Theodor Körner - Rad&Reisen

The riding was easy. Really easy. Downhill-trending-smooth-flat-with-a-tailwind easy. Anyone could ride it easy. You could totally ride it easy. There were some alternate routes and spurs that we did that were not flat and smooth but you don’t have to do those bits. The regular route is mostly on bike only paved or packed gravel paths and only on lightly trafficked roads occasionally – and those roads expect cyclists on them. It is very safe. There were a few families riding with children as young as seven or so and they were fine. Any hills or roads with cars on them were clearly pointed out by Andreas during the route information meetings so there are no surprises. You could totally do this.

It’s beautiful. I’ll let you in on a secret; we preferred riding the Danube to riding the Romantic Rhine. I know! I’m surprised too but the Danube was so peaceful, and green, and quaint. The villages were cuter and friendlier, the people didn’t seem tired of tourists or expect them to be there, there was no railway right along side with trains barrelling along every 10 minutes, and most of the time the only river traffic were the kayakers slowly drifting downstream. It was nice, and calm, and relaxing.

We rode between 35 and 50 KM’s each riding day. There were 5 riding days total and one day off in Vienna (if you didn’t book the biking tour, that is). There was no set starting time each day – we didn’t all leave en masse or ride together, although we all generally left between 8 and 9 AM and tended to ride in the same groups leapfrogging each other along the route all day. We had all day to get to the end point and were free to stop wherever and whenever we wished. We were often the last on board, having taken our time eating and drinking along the way, and we always had plenty of time to get ready for dinner. There is no need to rush the cycling – there is lots of time.

We luckily had no breakdowns or accidents (well, one of our group did have trouble staying on his bike but fortunately suffered no real injuries other than the hit to his pride) but the cruise director is always available by phone should the need have arisen. This isn’t a guided tour but it is well supported.

Excursions

There were a few excursions available throughout the trip. A bus or bike tour was offered in Vienna – we did the bike tour and really enjoyed it. An evening operetta was also offered in Vienna but opera sounds, to me, like cats screeching and makes my ears bleed so we went to a nearby wine house instead. I think we made the right choice. In the small village of Grein a young resident came and gave us a tour of the historic theatre in town – it was a fun glimpse at what used to make a small town click and a revealing look at how villages like this are struggling now as young people move away and tourism replaces industry in the economy.

Who Else Was On Board?

I wasn’t at all surprised by who our fellow passengers were. Mostly Germans, with a smattering of Belgians and our little international English speaking section. There were a couple of families with children on board but the average age was mid-60’s I would say. It’s an active cruise so people are fit and mobile of course. Although we never had any deep conversations, most people spoke some English and all were very friendly. They certainly were all interested in having a good time – we were often tucked away in bed well before they had danced their last dance in the Panorama Bar in the evening.

Value

So, is it worth it? I can’t decide that for you. We usually travel on a tight budget and Budget Girl (that’s me!) is loathe to spend extra on things that we can do ourselves for a lesser cost (and really, it doesn’t matter how much less, Budget Girl is a hard-ass!). Having said that, I am SUPER HAPPY that we took the cruise. We really enjoyed it, thought the facilities and service were excellent, and got SO MUCH out of having someone do most of the planning work for us.

If you’re wanting to do some cycle touring yourself but aren’t sure if you want to do all the work involved then this is definitely a great option. Like I said, I have already recommended it to my friends and family as I think they would really enjoy it.

You can check out all the Rad & Reisen Tours on their website; they have a bunch, there’s bound to be one where you’re going!

 

02 Jun

Cycle Tour Europe: Not All Flat Is Not Created Equal

It would seem that, after cycling through the hills of northern France, we should have been grateful for the flat lands of the Rhine Valley.

I am here to tell you though that not all flat is created equal. As with everything in life there is always a hierarchy and flat has one too.

Although I’m not one to usually look a gift horse in the mouth, flat is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Yes, it’s easier on the legs than an uphill but it doesn’t offer the resting opportunities of the downhill that usually accompanies the up. Every inch of road gained must be worked for – there is not coasting, no lifting your tired, achy butt up off the seat, and no ‘woooo-hoooing’ down the other side. Every revolution counts, there is no free ride.

After many hours of traversing many kilometers of flat (and not-so-flat) terrain I have developed the following Flat Dictionary:

Downhill Trending Flat: This is the Queen Bee of flat. Click into the highest gear and speed along the landscape feeling like Superwoman with legs of steel and a grin that can’t be beat. It’s almost better than downhill…(1) because I didn’t have to climb a hill to get it and (2) because I often don’t realize it’s downhill trending and I feel so strong whereas I know when we’re really going downhill and just let gravity do it’s thing.

Flat Flat: True flat. Riding is easy but getting into the highest gears takes effort. We’re grateful for it after an uphill section but, after a while, grow weary and miss the variety of up and down. You really can’t please some people, can you?

Uphill Trending Flat: Definitely one of the worst. I often cannot see that it is uphill trending; my legs feel like they are filled with concrete, the bike feels like it has a dead body on the back, and I’m constantly downshifting in order to keep moving at a slug pace. Unlike true uphill where there is a summit to focus on and sense of success to be gained no matter how steep the hill, this flat is soul sucking, misery-inducing, and confidence-shattering. We even did one section of Uphill Trending Flat that actually appeared to be Downhill Trending – farmer fields on either side belied the truth and had me preparing for a Superwoman section…only to be doubly confused as my pace slowed and my legs screamed. I had to look behind me to be sure that Jason hadn’t grabbed on trying to pull me backwards. Tricky Uphill Trending Flat…tricky!

Smooth Flat: Smooth flat is where it’s at. The smoother the better.

Tailwind Flat: Nothing better than a helping hand from Mother Nature. A tailwind can make a riding day pass easily as we sail along whistling Dixie (well, not really) and enjoying the ride.

Headwind Flat: A headwind, however, can suck the fun out of a day faster than well I-don’t-know-what, but fast! It actually doesn’t take much of a headwind to make a difference but if there’s a storm brewing it can make riding downright nasty. Like pedalling in sand, or uphill in sand, or uphill in sand with a flat tire. Not only is the riding harder but it pretty much also heralds the oncoming rain – yay, now I’m tired and wet. Not my favourite.

Rough Pavement Flat: You know, pavement that maybe didn’t have the right mix of wet to dry ingredients. The pebbles stick out and the surface is anything but smooth. Friction counts and riding on Rough Pavement Flat is more difficult than trying to determine the coefficient of friction in physics class.

Gravel Flat: A tiny bit worse than Rough Pavement Flat, Gravel Flat now has small rocks to negotiate. This isn’t so difficult but is wearing as the bike is a little bit less stable so it takes a little more energy to manage that dead body on the back of my bike.

Grassy Flat: There is, of course, a whole hierarchy of Grassy Flat alone. Short grass vs long grass. Tufted grass vs carpet type grass. Fortunately we don’t do much Grassy Flat riding and it’s usually accompanied by beautiful country-side views so we’re happy.

Broken Pavement Flat: Another one of the worst. Broken pavement has no pattern, no defined way to tackle it, nothing to redeem it at all. It slows us down immediately. Time riding on Broken Pavement Flat is spent zigzagging across the road trying the find the smoothest route through the minefield of pot-holes and uneven surfaces.

Farmer Field Flat: Farmer Field Flat is an amalgam of many flats. Never really flat, it’s often uphill trending (are we always going the wrong way?) and sometimes will downhill trend. Often grassy (of the tufted variety) but sometimes there is a track of mud, hard-packed earth, or cobblestone. Usually accompanied with amazing country-side views but also with the earthy smell of cows. It is peaceful and relaxing.

Cobblestone Flat: Sounds quaint, but it ain’t. Cobblestones are tough to ride on and will slow us down faster than just about anything else as we try to find a path through that is smoothest and offers the least resistance. I love the way they look and appreciate the hardiness of the style but it is tough on the butt!!

Rocky Flat: Rocky Flat’s rocks are larger than gravel rocks. There are usually more of them but not as many as on a rocky beach. The effect is the same though – the tires must ‘swim’ through the rocks as they don’t actually ride over them but sink just a little. It’s tough to navigate and stay upright and, thankfully, we have so far only seen very short sections.

So, as you can see, the absolute best flat you could find would be downhill trending, smoooooth, and with a tailwind. That would be heaven!!

—–

Stay in touch by checking out the OneGiantStep Facebook Page! I may not post here as often as I’d like but I’m managing to post pictures and updates there more often.

10 May

Cycle Tour Europe: Let’s Get Started!

Holy cow!! We’ve been on the road for more than two weeks already. Never mind Let’s Get Started…let’s get caught up!!

 

 

We set off from NorthWood in northwest London on a somewhat dull day. We were undeterred by the weather though; excited to finally be on our bikes and on our way.

Our plan was to take the train into the centre of London and start pedalling from the iconic Tower Bridge. The first leg however (and indeed the whole first day) did not go according to plan. The trains were running late, very late, and we became unsure if we would be able to take the train into town at all which would mean tacking on another couple of hours to our already uncertain 60KM of planned riding for the first day. Luckily our persistence paid off and we managed to ride the train close to our hoped-for starting point.

There’s so much caught up in that first day. Our brave smiles on the bridge don’t show the nervousness we felt in not knowing what the hell we were doing. Would we be able to cycle as far as we thought? Would we be able to find our way? Would we like it? What the heck had we gotten ourselves into?

Excitement carried us through the small lane-ways and river paths that led us along the Thames to Greenwich where we stopped for lunch. Not knowing what was ahead of us helped push us forward toward Chatham where we had a bed booked for the night.

And then came The Hill. It started out innocently enough; a gentle grade challenging us to take it on, mocking us with its green boulevards and civilized sidewalks. It was, in fact, pure evil. Six kilometres of uphill, never steep enough to warrant getting off the bike and yet pure torture for my poor legs which had already pushed for fifty-some-odd kilometres on the very first day.

I stopped. A lot. And at the top I lay down and willed the blood to return to my legs while at the same time dreading it as it would also mean I would feel them again and it was bound to be pure agony.

We, of course, stopped for a beer for we were still not at the very top and still had a ways to go.

I’m not ashamed to tell you I walked the final kilometre to our guest house. I could no longer ride, my legs were jelly, and tears stung my eyes. We were hours later than expected, sweaty, tired, and spent.

Our hosts (bless them!) took one look at us and rushed to put the kettle on for a much needed cup of tea. We tried our best to make conversation as we gulped back the tea and inhaled the sugar cookies that became our dinner as we had absolutely no energy to find anything else. After a quick, soothing, hot shower we sank into bed without even enough taking time to consider how we were going to manage the coming days.

We reviewed our plans over one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had the next morning.

Re-evaluating our abilities (or lack thereof) we decided to scrap our scheduled routing for the next few days and instead took the advice of our host, Pauline. We quickly booked train tickets to Canterbury and spent the day wandering around the old town and cathedral, resting our riding legs and gaining back some confidence.

The following day we followed a much less trafficked route on our way to Dover. More fields, more cows, less kilometres, and a better riding day. We arrived at the beach feeling back on track and ready to tackle ‘the continent’.

Crossing over to northern France things became much quieter. We cycled through small villages and historic towns, through many fields, and often didn’t see cars for miles and miles and miles.

The countryside was beautiful and peaceful. Our legs were adjusting to the riding and no longer protested every revolution and, while it wasn’t flat, the hills were manageable and usually were followed by much welcomed downhill.

We snacked by the side of the road soaking up what little sunshine was offered. The weather has been cool but not too wet – we have, so far, avoided getting drenched but surely it’s only a matter of time!

The first tire flat came on Day 11 and was quickly followed by four (!) more on Day 14. Needless to say we have become quite proficient at changing tires. All the flats were in the original tubes in exactly the same place (on a seam) of the ‘Made In Thailand’ pieces of rubbish. We’ve now managed to replace them all and hope they are a little more hardy. Enough is enough already!

Accommodations have varied and have often determined our route and/or the length of a day. There are not a lot of towns or larger centres in northern France so we look at the map, figure out the elevation change in the direction we want to go, determine how far we can ride within the topography and try to find a destination within that range. Then we have to find a place to stay.

Some places are so small that there is only one option so that’s where we end up – luckily they often also serve dinner and breakfast. It is these places that are the most interesting. Usually historic buildings (some more than one hundred years old!!) and often family-run; we muddle through with a smattering of high-school French, enjoy their generous hospitality, and are on our way again in the morning.

(I have to say that France is a bazillion times more welcoming than I was expecting. We had originally planned on spending minimal time here after hearing stories of snobbery and misfortune but have found people to be super kind and extremely patient with us. Many people speak a teeny bit of English and will slow down to help us understand them. They are proud of their establishments and are happy to have us visit. I’m glad we’ve spent more time here and have thoroughly enjoyed it.)

As we crossed into Luxembourg the other day we realized the downside of entering into larger cities…more expensive accommodations…and so we tried out our first dorm room in a hostel. It turned out to be a beautiful, modern, hostel with small 6-bed dorm where we met a nice couple and enjoyed chatting and sharing stories for the evening.

Our trip is evolving into exactly the experience we were hoping for; we’re seeing great swaths of countryside, meeting more people than we ever have before, and are enjoying being well off the beaten track. I’m amazed at what we can ask our bodies to do each day. We take things as they come and don’t get caught up in what we ‘should’ be seeing or doing – it all just presents itself and we take it all in stride.

KM Ridden: 598

# of Riding Days: 13

# of Rest Days: 6

Flats so far: 5

Injuries so far: 1, although not riding related. Jason walked into a door and cut his head. Bummer.

—–

Stay in touch by checking out the OneGiantStep Facebook Page! I may not post here as often as I’d like but I’m managing to post pictures and updates there more often.

 

 

10 Mar

Where Will We Stay While Cycle Touring Europe?

Cycle Touring Accommodation

You’ll notice that there was no camping gear in the equipment list that I published last week. You see, Jason doesn’t camp. Well apart from that time that I convinced him to hike the Tetons with me a couple of years ago and, of course, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu but, generally, the thought of pitching a tent and climbing into a sleeping bag has him saying no to my great ideas well before I can even get them out.

So we needed a compromise for cycle touring Europe this summer. We can’t afford to stay in hotels the whole way, and besides, our plan has us cycling through a whole lot of countryside where traditional hotels and hostels might not be available.

There are a couple of options that are available:

WarmShowers

WarmShowers.org is the CouchSurfing of the cycling set. People who are willing to host cyclists sign up and provide their contact information while cyclists looking for accommodation options sign up and fill out a profile. Hosts are flagged on a map and cyclists simply look at the map to find a host that may be nearby and then send them a message.

Hosts are typically cyclists themselves and are interested in meeting like-minded folk who enjoy both travel and cycling. Accommodation is free; it is the exchange of conversation and goodwill that fuels the exchange.

Vrienden op de Fiets

Loosely translated (very loosely as I don’t know any Dutch!) this is Friends of the Bike. It works very similarly to WarmShowers but with more of a bed and breakfast feel to it. In fact, that is exactly how it works. Owners register their property with the organization and are required to provide a few basic cycling necessities; there needs to be a private room, space to store the bikes, and a breakfast upon departure. Cyclists ‘donate’ to the organization and receive a registration card, a map with all the hosts mapped out, and a booklet listing all the possible places to stay; they simply connect up, show up, and enjoy a relaxing evening. There is a cost for this option though; 19 Euro per person, per night.

Vacation Rentals

Our plan is to intersperse some longer urban stays in amongst the long days of cycling. A chance to relax and get to know a city as well as get some work done. You know how much we love renting apartments and this is a perfect occasion; we’ll be able to relax with coffee and breakfast in the morning while catching up on work and then spend the afternoons and evenings exploring and enjoying our new neighbourhood.

It will be an interesting mix of places to stay. I’m a little nervous about staying with other people but, at the same time, it’s one of the things I’m looking forward to. It’s out of my comfort zone but I have long lamented that I don’t think we ‘get under the skin’ enough when we travel; this is an experiment in doing that. I guess I should really be worrying that I will be as good a guest as I’m hoping the hosts will be ;)