Tag Archives: Road Conditions
9 September, 2015

Stopping for Turkish Tea in Anatolia

We pushed our bikes past hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees lining the waterfront in Kos, their point of entry into Europe and, hopefully, a better life. Tens of thousands of refugees crossed the waters of the Aegean from Turkey to the easternmost Greek isles of Kos and Lesbos this summer; we arrived in Greece some seven weeks earlier, just as the banks were opening — crisis averted — and we left effectively swimming against the current of a mass migration washing upon its shores. Some countries just can’t seem to catch a break.

The Turkish port city of Bodrum, from which many of the migrants shoved off in little more than inflatable dinghies, was our destination. The tiny ferry cut a northerly bearing across the strait, then turned hard to starboard, a 90-degree turn into the chop. The wind howled, spray off the bow reached us on the sun deck, and the scarlet flags emblazoned with the Turkish crescent and star failed to grow in size as the short twenty-four kilometer journey dragged on interminably. The refugees we saw living in tents and on donated mattresses lining the bicycle path in Kos, visible from the cafes and restaurants where tourists and locals alike dined on lamb chops and swilled their Mythos lagers, told news reporters that Turkey had nothing to offer them: Europe was their only hope. No matter how difficult our days ahead may get, no matter how steep the mountain’s pitch or how much we wilt under the sun’s rays, I know it will never compare to what these people endured the night of their sea journey. Nor will our stakes ever be as high. I do, however, know Turkey has something to offer us.

Bodrum harbor at night.

Bodrum harbor at night.

We are not blind to the war that drives the refugees westward, even as we seemingly cycle eastward in the direction of its epicenter, nor are we ignorant of the hostilities taking place inside Turkey and along its borders. What we are is geographically aware. Konya, where I write these words, is the most religiously conservative of Turkey’s major cities (1.2M people) and yet we walk the streets in perfect comfort. Our easternmost destination in Turkey, Goreme National Park, is still nearly 300 miles from the Syrian border. Is that too close? Who can tell? While there’s no guarantee that terrorists/ISIL aren’t getting across the Turkish border with designs on attacking Western targets (some probably are), we are confident that none are lurking in the bushes, hoping to pounce on the off chance a couple of Western-looking cyclists happen by. We are also curious about how we’d be received in this modern, thriving country that, in our opinion, gets an unfair bogeyman rap in some ignorant Western media outlets on account of its eastern neighbors.

Turkey's roads are lined with produce vendors. Not all are awake.

Turkey’s roads are lined with produce vendors. Not all are awake.

Turkey has long been one of the countries Kristin has most looked forward to visiting on our trip. It’s where Europe meets Asia, where cultures transition, blend and collide; where foodstuffs mingle and delight; and where some of history’s greatest legends were born. It’s also a place that, during the years we spent planning our trip, we saw consistently ranked by other cycling travelers as one of their favorite, can’t-miss destinations. So here we are, current events and worrisome family and friends be damned. And we’re having a great time.

We left Bodrum after a day spent acclimating to our new surroundings, tracking down a roadmap, memorizing  greetings and polite phrases, and touring the magnificent Bodrum Castle and Underwater Archaeology Museum (Bronze Age shipwreck recovered!). The route eastward out of Bodrum was very hilly, the heat had yet to abate — it hit 112 °F on one particular hill that day — and the riding was largely on the side of a highway as seemingly all east-west roads in western Turkey are at least a minor highway. In fact, after nearly 500 miles of cycling in Turkey we are now convinced that nearly every two-lane roadway in the country is being converted to a four-lane divided highway. Simultaneously.

Lots of construction in Turkey. 2-lane highways being converted to divided 4-lane highways everywhere we go.

Lots of construction in Turkey. 2-lane highways being converted to divided 4-lane highways everywhere we go.

While we’ve yet to find many of the tranquil narrow country roads we love to ride, the famous Turkish hospitality has greeted us around every corner. And it’s usually in the form of  a tulip-shaped glass of tea. We spend much of our days riding from one petrol station to the next, raiding their ubiquitous mini-marts for water, Fanta, and Gummy Bears (don’t judge!) and it was at one such stop where we met a Turkish man touring his country on a beautiful BMW dual-sport touring motorcycle. While going over routes and itineraries, the gas station attendant came over, begged his interruption, and asked if we wanted tea. Not two minutes later, the five of us were sitting on a concrete wall, silver saucers in hand, drinking our scalding-hot glasses of floral dark tea. Later that same day, atop a mountain pass, I was waved over to sit in the shade with three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road. Kristin soon joined us and, over a glass of wine, we pantomimed a bit of our stories to one another. Though we had to politely — though probably rudely — refuse the invitation to buy a large jar of honey (a worse thing to put inside my panniers I can hardly imagine), the old man ordered his grandson to give one of the stuffed animals they were selling to Kristin as a gift. And so finally, on our first day of riding in Turkey, we gained our mascot. Kristin named him Bodhie for the town of Bodrum we had left that morning.

Kristin with mascot Bodhie heading for Konya in central Turkey.

Kristin with mascot Bodhie heading for Konya in central Turkey.

Those first few days in Turkey felt like real bicycle touring again. We were wild camping under some shady pines, riding without an itinerary, taking advantage of cheap roadside motels (cheap in price, but very nice in comfort), and were even starting to see large mammals again, albeit roadkill: we passed a dead wild boar on the side of the road not ten miles from where we camped one night. How great it is to be back in a country with wildlife larger than a fox!

Wild camp spot our second night out of Bodrum.

Wild camp spot our second night out of Bodrum.

Our route took us to the tourist town of Pamukkale where, for a former geology buff like myself, the massive travertine cliffs were more than just a pretty backdrop. From there we made our way east to Konya, by way of Isparta, wending northward along the eastern shore of Lake Egirdir and then back southward along the eastern shore of Lake Besiher. The mountains of western Turkey had given way to pomegranate orchards and groves of figs and apple trees as we climbed our way onto the Anatolian Plateau and the further east we got, the less European our surroundings became; Asia Minor is as perfect a name as there ever was.

Kristin at Pamukkale.

Kristin at Pamukkale. Travertine deposits from calcium-rich thermal waters make the entire area look like an icy, winter wonderland.

But wherever we went road construction greeted us. Sometimes the new stretch of road would already be paved, but unopened, and we’d push over the gravel hump and have days-old highway all to ourselves, smooth cruising for miles! Other times we’d be forced to balance along the edge of a narrow gravel-strewn shoulder as trucks, buses, and cars all tried to squeeze past us and one another in a too-narrow space. But the cars treat us with care. In fact, if there’s any irritation we suffer at all, it’s from the constant honking and waving we receive. Seemingly half of all cars and nearly every truck slows to honk and wave at us as they pass. The attention is amusing at first, especially given how many cars seem to have personalized designer horns, but the horns can be quite loud and one does grow tired of waving to hundreds of people every day.

Nevertheless, we can’t complain. The same friendly instinct that has Turkish drivers waving and honking and yelling Merhaba! is also what leads to some of our fondest memories. Like the truck driver who pulled over, waited for us, and handed us two unopened bottles of water on a hot day. Or the family who insisted we eat some of their figs. Or, best of all, the construction crew that waved us over to join them in their tea break. We were riding along one of the new unopened sections of highway on our ride into Konya and up ahead, sitting in the shade of their truck, was a road crew enjoying a break. “ÇayÇay!” The older man, Ibrahim, yelled as he motioned for us to stop. “Merhaba,” I greeted in return, before realizing he was inviting us for tea. We squeezed the brakes, leaned our bikes against the truck and sat down for tea. Fortunately we had some figs and plums to share and one of the workers, Mustafa, knew a few words of English. We passed a half hour in each other’s company, draining the last of their double-boiler of tea.

This road crew waved us down and invited us to have tea with them. Turkish hospitality reigns supreme!

This road crew waved us down and invited us to have tea with them. Turkish hospitality reigns supreme!

At some point in every one of these encounters, the question of where we’re from comes up. Nobody ever guesses America*. Some think we’re German. Others assume we’re French. A few have even asked if we are from Spain. One said Australia. But America? No. Americans never come to Turkey, they say. In fact, sadly, we’ve yet to meet any Turkish people who have ever met an American traveler. A few years ago (and maybe even still today) it was popular for Americans to say they were Canadian when travelling overseas. Some did it for fear of terrorism, under the misguided belief that terrorists only target Americans, and others, we’ve heard, did it out of embarrassment. Some because of the country’s political/war actions and others because of the “Ugly American” stereotype that preceded them. I can’t stand stereotypes and have little patience for people who promote them. Especially when they can be so easily challenged. Kristin and I happily say we’re from the United States for two reasons: 1) because I like to think we represent the country well and the more people who get to actually know Americans (and us likewise them) the better off the world we’ll be, and 2) why not?

Three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road invited us into the shade for some wine and a chat.

Three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road invited us into the shade for some wine and a chat.

While I do chafe at being asked where I’m from when it’s the first words out of someone’s mouth, before we’ve established any dialogue, it’s not because I don’t want to say I’m American. It’s simply because I find it rude. “Where you from? Where you from?” is a phrase that grows annoying. It’s asked out of curiosity, and sometimes to figure out what language should be spoken, but it’s also code for We know you’re not from around here. And nobody likes being reminded that they don’t fit in. In tourist areas, the question gets shouted to us from across the street by merchants hoping to bait us into stopping, and hopefully buying. Sometimes I ignore it, other times I reply “Earth.” Once or twice, I just agreed to their first guess to end the discussion. Never mind that I don’t sound French. But I happily welcome the question after a relationship has been established. Americans like to ask people what they do for a living, others ask where people are from. Same thing; appropriate when a relationship has been established, but a pretty lazy icebreaker.

I was waiting for Kristin atop the hilll in Pamukkale and these men came over to chat. Three of them were Iraqi and were so happy to meet an American -- "Go-Bama" they yelled -- and insisted on a photo with every camera.

Doug was waiting for Kristin atop the hill in Pamukkale and these men came over to chat. Three of them were Iraqi and were so happy to meet an American — “Go Obama!”they yelled — and insisted on a photo with every one of their cameras.

That being said, I nearly laughed out loud at the timing of one man’s inquiry today. I was at a barber in Konya, across the street from a very large, beautiful mosque. Outside the shop I could see women walking past completely covered in black, from head to toe with scarf, robes, and veil , the muezzin had just begun the call to prayer, and the barber had a long straight-edge razor at my neck, about to shave. There may as well have been a sign above my head flashing the words “Vulnerable Infidel” with an arrow pointing at me. The other barber, tapping distractedly at his iPhone, looks up and says the words: “Where you from?”

He repeats my answer in surprise and goes back to his phone. There’s a brief pause. I suppress my urge to chuckle being that there is still a large razor blade at my neck and then the man looks back and, like every other person to whom we’ve told where we’re from, he replies. “America? Very good. Very good. Enjoy Turkey. Welcome!”

Kebap platter for two.

Kebap platter for two.

*With respect to my answering America, allow me to explain. I have always been a bit uneasy when people from the United States use the one-word term America when asked to name their country of origin, as that word, America, actually refers to some 35 different nations that comprise “the Americas.” Yes, this is geographic semantics, and I fully acknowledge that the USA is the only one of those 35 nations with the word America in its title, but bear with me. Are our Canadian friends not also from America? What about those in Brazil or Mexico? Yes, technically, they are also American. So, for that reason, I often replied that I was from the United States. As most people do. You would be shocked — SHOCKED — by the amount of times this response was met with a blank stare. Whether in Spain, Japan, Italy, Greece, Indonesia, Morocco or Turkey, we have met countless numbers of people who, upon hearing United States, act as if we just said we’ve come from the planet Tralfamadore. It was only upon saying America that they knew what we were talking about. And this was almost always met with an excited, “America! Go Obama!”

24 December, 2014

All Roads Lead to Rome

While the mental hassle and physical challenge of touring in Morocco managed to sap some of our enthusiasm for bicycle travel, it only took a few days in bella Italy to fully rejuvenate our spirits–and then some! For nowhere else does it feel perfectly normal to stop in the middle of a mountain climb, wet from the rain, and enjoy a four course gourmet lunch over a bottle of the house Chianti.  For few are the places where we can pedal out of a medieval town in the morning, turn the wheels through a landscape of olive groves and vineyards, and arrive in a town more stunning and historically important than the last–and know that the next day will bring one even more stupendous. Oh, wonderful Italy! How I am so happy to be here, with all the time in the world, making the most of every day we have by sometimes doing nothing at all. From the museums to the food to the lonely forest roads whose habit of suddenly turning to mud and gravel keeps the cars at bay; it has been everything we hoped it would, and so much more than others have suggested.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horserace on a tight, hilly course.

The view of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, site of a twice-annual horse race on a tight, hilly course.

The topic of cycling in Italy is a strange thing. Throughout our travels in Europe we have spoken with numerous cyclists, roadies and tourers alike, and they all said the same thing: Italy is their favorite place to travel, but they would never want to cycle there. Perhaps it’s because they often come in the summer when the country swells with visitors and heat-stricken Italians take to the roads to vent their frustrations. Perhaps they think only of the congested roads of Rome where driving is known to be a contact sport. Or perhaps they think only of the narrow, winding roads of the Amalfi Coast. I don’t know. What I do know, first hand, is that Tuscany and Umbria are lovely places to bicycle in December. Yes, it can get a little rainy, but the temperature has seldom dipped below 40° F (5° C) except above 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) in the Apennine Mountains, and the roads have been wonderfully devoid of traffic. And the drivers we have faced, including within the city limits of Rome and Florence, have been no less courteous than anywhere else. And though we haven’t spotted many bicycle paths outside of Florence, we’re practically as big as most Italian cars, what with all of our bags and 29er tires. No, the only downside to bicycle touring in the winter in Italy is that the campgrounds are nearly all locked up tight for the season and the widespread agricultural, private, and steeply-sloping land makes stealth camping a challenge. That and having to dim the lights in hopes of remaining unseen through 14 hours of darkness.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Duomo in Florence.

Kristin weaving through the traffic in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Florence.

So we haven’t used our tent in Italy, but we probably wouldn’t have wanted to in summer either. With towns like Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Orvieto, to name a few, what draw would there be to a crowded commercial campground? No, we are plenty happy to visit these towns whose architecture, art, and food we’ve only ever read–and dreamed–about.

Continuing south out of Tuscany.

Continuing south out of Tuscany towards Umbria and the Medieval town of Orvieto.

Our first day out of Livorno, the port city where we arrived by ferry at close to midnight, took us right through Pisa. We didn’t have any desire to pedal out of our way to see the famed tilting tower, but we were riding right past it on our way to Lucca. The little boy that still lurks inside me shakes with joy and wonder over this last statement. Who among us wasn’t amazed by this mythical leaning tower as a child? Yet there we were, knowing our agenda was so filled with world renown attractions that Pisa was little more than a quick stop for lunch, warranting no more attention than Clark W. Griswold gave the Grand Canyon. So we took our photos, ate our pizza in Pisa, and moved on to Lucca, then into the mountains en route to Florence, former home of Dante, Michelangelo, and numerous other one-name superstars. I want to talk about David.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

The famed Ponte Vechio bridge on the Arno in Florence.

You see, David and I go way back. To 1993 to be precise. I was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the high school newspaper and and we were spotlighting the International Travel Club’s recent trip to Italy on the front page. Above the fold in journo speak. The selection of photos we were provided with were, to use a scientific term, crap. No group photos. Nothing really showcasing Italy’s scenery or architecture. Except one photo: Michelangelo’s David. I had taken an art history class and had an appreciation for Renaissance art and knew there were few things more Italian than this statue. My co-editor agreed. And neither he, nor I, nor our teacher-advisor, considered the fact that the newspaper was distributed throughout the entire school district, not just the high school. That’s right ladies and gentleman: full-frontal male nudity sent straight to every eight year old little boy and girl in town. I was stripped of my editorship halfway through first period. But, look at me now! And look at David! Let’s see you shut down my blog, Principal Torre!

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

Yes, I had Kristin take this photo specifically for telling this story about the David and my high school newspaper.

I kid. Principal Torre is no longer principal, but he still is the uncle of one of my great friends and I actually got to see him just two years ago at a wedding. The genitalia of biblical characters did not come up in conversation.

Florence was amazing, simply amazing. Paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and statues everywhere, and the cathedrals and Medici palaces, and the bridges, and the food. Yes, the food. But not the food in the cities. We ate fabulously well in Siena, splurging on our last night in Tuscany, and we ate similarly well at an apertivo in Florence called Soul Kitchen where, purchase of a cocktail gets you access to a delicious, never-ending buffet of really good, albeit basic, Italian dishes. No, the meal I wish to talk about was up in the mountains above Lucca, en route to San Momme. We were the only people there, it was the only source of food we had seen for over 20 miles. It was raining and cold.

Christmas in Florence!

Christmas in Florence!

I head inside while Kristin locks the bikes together and dilly-dallies with her helmet and gloves. Lei parla Inglese? The woman tells me to wait one minute and disappears into the kitchen. And then, moments later, out walks a stunningly beautiful twenty-something Italian woman, smiling wide, completely ignoring the fact that I’m dripping wet in cycling attire, and that my helmet is still on. She’s as charming and welcoming as can be. She shows me to a table near the window, presents the prix fixe menu, and walks to the bar to get the bottle of fizzy water I requested. I was sad to see her go, but I loved watching her walk away. That’s how the phrase goes, right? Just checking.

In need of a cold shower, err, to see what’s keeping Kristin, I went back out into the rain. “Listen, honey, I know you’re a bit self-conscious about how you look when we’re in the cities, and I know you’re feeling wet and schlubby and grubby right now, but I just have to warn you Miss Italia is our waitress.” Kristin rolls her eyes. “No, I’m serious, Miss Italia is our waitress, but she’s very nice. You look great in your raingear and I love you and I’m sure she couldn’t pedal up that mountain.”

We get to the table and, after placing our order, Kristin expresses her surprise at just how attractive the woman is. “You’re right, she’s unusually beautiful,” she said. I then directed Kristin’s attention to a bulletin board near the lobby that featured awards and news clippings from several years ago. The woman was quite literally Miss Teen Italia just a few years prior. And after our incredible meal, we then chatted with the beauty queen, her mother, and her grandmother for nearly fifteen minutes, telling our story and answering their questions, all the while receiving complements and detecting not a trace of conceit or pretension from our gorgeous, down-to-earth interpreter who, over the course of a lunch, shattered every stereotype we’ve heard about beauty queens and proved false everything the Lonely Planet guide had to say about Italian women.

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

More holiday lights in Orvieto. Buon Natale!

Oh, mi scusi, you thought I was going to talk about the food. Okay, for the foodies among you: fried polenta crostini with porcini sautee (appetizer); porcini risotto and spinach & ricotta ravioli in a walnut cream sauce (primi); mixed grill with potatoes (secondi); chocolate tort and espresso (desert). No, we don’t normally eat like this for lunch in the midst of a huge ride (PB&J is more our style), nor would we ever down a carafe of Chianti while doing so, but when in Rome…

And that’s where we are. We’re in Rome. We arrived in the Eternal City exactly 9 months and 9,524 miles after leaving Seattle. Just in time for Christmas which, even as a seldom-practicing Catholic, is pretty neat. And speaking of Christmas, the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve as I typed the words Eternal City in the previous sentence and fireworks and bells could be heard outside our hilltop hotel room. We stepped outside onto our balcony and listened to a chorus of church bells ringing throughout the city below us as we stared to the illuminated dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! This has been an incredible year for us, one that was a long time coming, and every pair of eyes that falls upon these words plays a part in our success. Thank you.

Christmas market street vendor in Orvieto with some pretty good beer (Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!)

About to cheer on our Seahawks in Orvieto with some good craft beer, care of Kristin’s friend Megan back home in Seattle. Deliver us from Peroni, Amen!

Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to everyone who thought of us this holiday season! Tina and James Miller, Megan Knight, and Brittany Taylor all helped make a season bright and, for that, we thank you all a ton! We’d also like to thank our parents, siblings, and dear friends Alan & Katrina for remembering us while we’re away and for stuffing our Paypal stocking with plenty of yuletide cheer. We love you all!

And in Other News: I’m also very excited to announce that an essay I wrote this past October was accepted for publication in Adventure Cyclist magazine. I’m still awaiting the details, but I’m told it will likely appear in a 2016 issue. Adventure Cyclist is the only magazine in the United States devoted entirely to bicycle touring and is free with an annual membership to the Adventure Cycling Association of America, a group whose ranks have swelled to 47,000 dues-paying members. If you enjoy cycling in any form, do consider becoming a member.

Our Waldorf Astoria Stay: The desk I’m writing on is made of a gorgeous blue and gold-flaked marble. There was a bottle of champagne on ice when we arrived, chocolate covered strawberries on the coffee table between two luxurious armchairs, and we have a private balcony overlooking Rome and the Vatican City. For free. I’m using the last of my Hilton Honors points for five nights in one of the finest hotels in Europe, a hotel bedecked with 17th and 18th century art. I say this not to brag, but to underscore just how wonderful it can be to use hotel loyalty plans if you travel a lot for business. I had to travel a lot the past few years for work. But I knew it was all building towards this moment. Here’s a rundown of how I put my Hilton Honors points to use: 3 nights in Quebec City, 4 nights in Edinburgh, 4 nights in Amsterdam, 3 nights in Madrid, and 5 nights in Rome. Not only did using the points earn free hotel rooms, but free breakfasts, complementary wifi, access to Executive Lounges (i.e. free drinks and appetizer buffets), and room upgrades. I inquired about extending our stay here in Rome for one extra night. Our upgraded room is 390€ per night ($475 with a historically good exchange rate) , but they’d let me have it for the basic room rate of 280€. No thanks, we know when it’s time to move on. We might not be camping, but we still have our limits. Anyway, I know there are budget travel purists out there who would chafe at this frivolity, but using the hotel points proved extremely valuable this year, especially in Edinburgh during Fringe Fest and in Amsterdam on a weekend, where hotel rates are through the roof. And, besides, a little pampering does the body–and the marriage–good.

18 November, 2014

Looking Back at Our Trip Across Europe

The thing about a trip like this is you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you’ve done something you once thought impossible. Then it hits you all at once. It was the case when we first sniffed the Atlantic Ocean in Maine and realized that, yes indeed, we did pedal our way across North America. And that same wonderful blend of surprise and pride surfaced again, sitting here in Tangier, after I finished putting the following map together.

Our route across western Europe. And by across, we really mean more or less to the southwest. Hmmm...

Our route across western Europe. And by across, we really mean more or less to the southwest. Hmmm…

It was a great three months, visiting seven countries for the first time (six for Kristin who had previously been to Scotland — we had both been to Germany previously) and, by and large, we had great weather most of the way (not counting Scotland, naturally). Anyway, our week off in Tangier has come to a close and we used the time to rest, tend to the bikes — for the second continent in a row, I suffered a broken spoke on the very last day of riding in Europe — and begin to acclimate to being in an Arab-speaking, Muslim nation for the first time in our lives. We’ll be spending the next month cycling to the edge of the Sahara and back, but before we start pedaling south it was time to take one last look back at our time in Europe.

Looking north to Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa and Europe are as little as 9 miles apart at the strait's narrowest segment.

Looking north to Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Africa and Europe are as little as 9 miles apart at the strait’s narrowest segment. The ferry from Tarifa to downtown Tangier takes less than an hour.

There’s the literal look back at Europe, from an overlook above the medina in Tangier, a short walk from the shop we’ve been buying our groceries. Now for a more stylistic recollection of our European travels… (and you can thank me for not using “Holiday Road” for the soundtrack, as much as I wanted to).

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No Schengen, No Problem

A little over a year before our departure, I learned about a thing called the Schengen Zone and the “Schengen Visa.” The Schengen Zone comprises most of the European Union (with exceptions like the UK) and Americans are only allowed to travel within this zone 90 of every 180 consecutive days (it never comes up in conversation due to the miniscule vacation allowance given by US companies). My mind went into a panic upon learning about this, as there was no way we’d be able to bike from Denmark to southern Spain and then all the way along the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, and out via the Turkish border, as our original plans entailed, in under 90 days. I spent a long night at the computer devouring all the information I could find on Schengen Visa issues for Americans and, specifically, the punishments for over-staying. There were no reported cases of jail-time for overstaying, so we figured we’d take a chance. My plan was thus:  The clock would start ticking upon our arrival in Denmark, so we needed to be out of Spain and into Morocco in under 90 days so that we still had room on the visa to get back in to Spain. We’d worry about getting an extension in Italy or Greece if possible, or hope to slip out of the Schengen Zone via Greece with a slap on the wrist.

It turns out all of my fretting was for naught, as we found a loophole in the Schengen process. The ferry we took from Harwich, UK to Esbjerg, DN had no border controls or immigration on the Denmark side. So, while we were scanned out of the UK (but not stamped out on our passports), we rode off the ferry and right into the streets of Esbjerg without every being stamped into the Schengen Zone, nor given a visa. I knew it was happening as we were in the queu leaving the ferry terminal and I couldn’t believe it. Not a minute later a cyclist also aboard the ferry turned around, knowing we were Americans from our talks aboard, turned and yelled, “You should have just gotten a Schengen Visa there!” Yes, we should have. But there was nobody to give us one.

Fast forward 2+ months to Tarifa, Spain. We hand over our passports, passports that contain a UK stamp and no indication of how we entered the Schengen Zone. Nothing is said, we’re scanned, waved through, and then we got our Moroccan stamp. We won’t be biking back along the Mediterranean after all, but still would have ended up going over the 90-in-180 policy. Instead, thanks to the lack of customs/immigration at Denmark’s ferry terminal, our arrival in Livorno, Italy should be our first official entry into Schengen Zone. We’ll see… Unfortunately, the ferry route we took across the North Sea was discontinued at the end of September (Denmark demanded cleaner, more environmentally-friendly, vessels and the ferry operator refused to upgrade his ships).

Website Updates

As was the case when we got to New Jersey, I also took this time to tally up the data and update our Countries Visited page with all of the route and expenses data for our time in Europe. As expected, we wrapped up the second leg quite a bit over our planned budget. We wound up having just as many days where we spent less than $20 USD as we had costing over $200 USD.  We decided to go ahead and splurge and not worry about the budget too much while in Europe, knowing that we’ll be able to pull it back in line the further east we travel, starting here in Morocco. And, besides, good food and drink and the atmosphere that accompanies it, is just too big a piece of travel to ignore. I’d say it’s a major reason why we’re here. There’s a time for eating ramen in the woods, and a time for a night on the town. We enjoy both in equal measure.

Anyway, there’s a lot more explaining some of the costs and road conditions and whatnot on the Countries Visited page. We hope it helps with some of your own travel planning/budgeting.

Special Thanks: Our merriment will continue thanks to the wonderful generosity of some of our friends back in Washington. It’s always a treat to get an email from friends back home, and I was both thrilled and blushing to see the Paypal notifications generated by Brian Crowley and Ellen Maude. I met Brian and Ellen back in 2005 when I first started mountain biking in Washington and, over the years, have spent many long hours slogging up mountains on our bikes together (and even more hours in my Honda Element on road-trips to British Columbia and Oregon). Some of my favorite memories on a mountain bike were had in their company and I only wish they, and all my other cycling friends in the Seattle area (and my brother Joe in Colorado, who first got me started mountain biking) could be rolling south across Morocco with us now. We miss you all!

Ellen and I, back in 2006, at the end of a 25 mile backcountry ride through the Chilcotin Mountains in British Columbia. We, along with two other friends, hired a float-plane and a guide to drop us off deep in the backcountry for an absolutely epic singletrack experience. It was one of my favorite days.

Ellen and I, back in 2005, at the end of a 25 mile backcountry ride through the Chilcotin Mountains in British Columbia. We, along with two other friends, hired a float-plane and a guide to drop us off deep in the backcountry for an absolutely epic singletrack experience. It was one of my favorite days.

16 September, 2014

Bike Culture: The Real Dutch Treat

“If you think the cycling infrastructure in Germany is good, wait until you get to the Netherlands.” We heard this statement over and over from people during the past week as we described our route.

The cycling culture in the Netherlands and, in particular, Amsterdam, really can’t be fully described in words. There are literally bicycles and bicycle paths everywhere. We haven’t ridden on a road with cars for more than a mile or so in days. Even as the bicycle paths cross driveways and streets, bicycles usually have the right of way. We have had many cars, large trucks, and tractors back up several feet to allow us to pass before proceeding to pull into traffic (this was actually even more common in Germany). One of the most shocking things we saw was in a road construction zone. The bicycle trail was being worked on, so they designated one of the two automobile lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians only and allowed cars to pile up on either side of the other lane while they alternated vehicle traffic. We cyclists sailed on through. This would not even be considered in most towns. All this courtesy to cyclists is wonderful but also a little boring simultaneously. Doug likens it to driving on the interstate: it gets you where you want to go quickly and safely, but there isn’t much mental stimulation along the way. “It’s too easy,” Doug keeps saying. We certainly don’t want to cycle anything like Route 17 in Ontario again, but a little variety would be nice.

Amsterdam's main train station has storage capacity for 2500 bicycles. And you can bet it isn't always easy to find yours.

Amsterdam’s main train station has storage capacity for 2500 bicycles. And you can bet it isn’t always easy to find yours.

It took a while, but this Dutch woman eventually did find her bicycle.

It took a while, but this Dutch woman eventually did find her bicycle.

Roads without bicycle lanes aren’t the only thing that are scarce here. The Netherlands is the flattest place we have ever been. There is not a hill to be found and the tallest “hills” we have seen are the small pedestrian bridges over the canals. We spent many miles cycling below sea level and even one night approximately 15 feet below sea level in the town of Lelystad.

This lack of elevation definitely feeds into a great cycling culture here. Bicycles are used mainly for commuting and running errands, not a workout. The main train station in Amsterdam, Centraal Station, has a multi-story bicycle parking garage with racks to accommodate 2500 bicycles and when we walked through on a Monday morning, it was nearly full. We even saw a bicycle-only roundabout through another train station. Around Amsterdam, most fences and railings are lined with bicycles, all with some distinguishing feature, whether it be a particular basket, seat cover, rack decor, or trinket hanging off the back so the owner can find it again. It reminded us of suitcases on baggage carousels with a bright ribbon tied to them so they are easily identified. A lavender bicycle with the handlebars wrapped in white artificial flowers locked up on a bridge in Amsterdam was my favorite.

The only hills were pure hike-a-bikes.

The only hills were pure hike-a-bikes.

Just call me Dirk when I'm eating a raw herring sandwich.

Just call him Dirk when he’s eating a raw herring sandwich.

Not only did we see a variety of bicycles, but riders of all ages. While nearly all bicycles have a rack on the front or back, there are also many with child seats on the front, back, or both. I just smiled when I saw a grandmother, grandfather, and two grandsons leaving the grocery store on bicycles. The grandmother was followed by the grandfather with both children, one strapped into a seat in front of his and the other strapped into a seat behind his. It was a great sight to see. We especially loved seeing the many older, retired couples out cycling together. Each time we saw them, Doug and I just smiled at each other imagining that being us some day.

A green-lit canal boat cruised through my shot, adding an ethereal glow to this angelic bike.

A green-lit canal boat cruised through Doug’s photo, adding an ethereal glow to this angelic bike.

Waterfont cafes dripping with gold.

Waterfront cafes dripping with gold.

Special Thanks: We want to extend a special thanks to another QM2 friend, Anna, for opening her home to us despite her being out of town. Leaving goodies in the refrigerator and treating us to a great dinner at one of her favorite local restaurants upon her return was an added bonus. We also want to especially thank three more wonderful WarmShowers households, Ineke and Ronald, Manuela, and Vanessa. Over the past week we were stuffed with tasty meals, treated to live music, and given late night tours around town. We truly appreciate every person’s generosity and enjoy making new friends along the way!

We met Anna on the QM2 and she graciously hosted us for two nights in Hamburg.

We met Anna on the QM2 and she graciously hosted us for two nights in Hamburg. We can’t wait to repay the favor the next time we cross paths!

27 May, 2014

Great Lakes, but Not-So-Great Roads

For the past two weeks, we have been cycling the shores of Lake Superior and Lake Huron on a portion of the Trans-Canada Highway from Thunder Bay to Sudbury, Ontario. We have been surrounded by beautiful scenery, even if the weather and road surface have been much less than perfect.

While the population along the Trans-Canada Highway is generally sparse, the number of Provincial Parks is not. There is generally a Provincial park every 50-60 kilometers (30-36 miles), whereas towns are not quite so frequent. Unfortunately, this didn’t help us much as many were closed, soaked with snowmelt, or charge up to $40 just to pitch a tent. We even spent 83 km (52 miles) cycling through Lake Superior Provincial Park. Beyond the Provincial Parks, there are many private campgrounds providing bathrooms, hot showers, and often laundry facilities. These amenities are nice, but it was a shock the first time we had to pay $30-40 to pitch a tent. That said, everything in Canada has cost 30-50% more than in the US even with the favorable exchange rate of $1.09 CAD per $1 USD. That was unexpected.

The Terry Fox Memorial honoring the inspiration and unity he gave to Canada. Despite the statue being about a man who attempted to run across Canada, there is no legal way to access the memorial by foot or bike. We had to break the law for a couple of km to see this.

The Terry Fox Memorial honoring the inspiration and unity he gave to Canada. Despite the statue being about a man who attempted to run across Canada, there is no legal way to access the memorial by foot or bike. We had to break the law for a couple of km to see this.

Another surprise, though this one pleasant, are the great waterfalls and boardwalks with railings leading to them. Some of these paths are over a mile long and all in great condition. The most beautiful waterfall was Aguasabon Gorge with plenty of remaining snow and ice creating a truly unique view.

Aguasabon Gorge is just a quick detour off highway 17 and was well worth the stop. Kristin particularly enjoyed the walkway.

Aguasabon Gorge is just a quick detour off highway 17 and was well worth the stop. Kristin particularly enjoyed the walkway.

Until a few weeks ago, when I thought about cycling the shores of a lake, I was expecting flat terrain. From Thunder Bay to Nipigon was fairly flat with just a few rollers; however, as we left Nipigon, we started riding above Lake Superior and climbed and descended most of the day. We had a few days of nearly 3000 feet of climbing. These were the biggest hills that we saw since the east slopes of Glacier National Park. Our climbing legs hadn’t been exercised in weeks, but suddenly we needed them again.

While we are now using our climbing legs again, we have yet to need our shorts yet. Doug mentioned in his last post, that I was convinced that we were chasing winter. My thoughts on the matter remain unchanged. On May 16th, we spent an extra night at the Rossport Inn in Rossport, ON, to allow a few inches of snow along our next day’s ride to pass. Unbelievable! That said, we really enjoyed our “day off” helping Ned, the owner, build a chicken tractor-coop (a mobile chicken coop that can be dragged to a new location as needed) and sharing stories with him and his brother, including the day Ned punched out Bob Seger for being obnoxious in his restaurant. Ned made us cocktails on both evenings we were there and even invited us to stay for a dinner party with some of his friends two days later. However, there was dry weather on the horizon, so we politely declined and continued on. Just a few days later, after the dry weather passed, we cycled through a thunderstorm, hail, and three torrential downpours, all in a single day. Finally on May 23rd, we got a full day of sun and temperatures in the middle 60s and the next day, temperatures reached the 70s. We were finally able to break out our cycling shorts for the first time since March 23rd when we departed Seattle. We think spring/summer is finally on its way!

We spent a day off at Rossport Inn and helped the owners build a tractor-coop for their chickens in exchange for some gin martinis.

We spent a day off at Rossport Inn and helped the owners build a tractor-coop for their chickens in exchange for some gin martinis.

As we approached Canada and in our early days in Canada we kept hearing that Route 17 (Trans-Canada Highway) has a narrow shoulder and the drivers were not very accommodating for cyclists. One gentleman went to the extent of saying he had lived in Thunder Bay his whole life and is ashamed that Route 17 remains as poor a cycling road as it is, especially after several cyclists have lost their lives on this road over the years. Well, all the warnings were appropriate as the road had a narrow paved shoulder, rarely more than a foot wide for most of the way and often as little as six inches. To the right of the shoulder was soft dirt. Most of the drivers moved over a few feet to give us a little extra space as they passed, but several large 18-wheelers chose not to or didn’t have that choice as traffic was coming towards them. Thank goodness we had our mirrors and could see these situations develop. We would yell “Ditch!” or “Truck!” and carefully move onto the soft shoulder, swerving around in the sandy soil waiting for the danger to pass. I had one spill in the dirt, but no damage to me or the bike, just a few bruises and additional frustration for the crappy road conditions on a route that many cyclists use every year to traverse Canada.

Thankful we're not riding roads with so little shoulder all the way across the continent.

Thankful we’re not riding roads with so little paved shoulder all the way across the continent.

Overall, we really enjoyed the scenery and we would highly recommend the northern shore of Lake Superior as a road trip (by car) for anyone looking for something a little off the beaten path, especially if you bring your own canoe and fishing tackle. There are gorgeous views and lots of hiking and picnic areas along the way as well as campgrounds accommodating tents or RVs and motels. We even saw a moose on our way into camp one night and a river otter in camp that same night, on the Magpie River. Definitely drive west to east (clockwise around the lake) for better views and wait for the middle of June or later in the summer to have a better chance for nicer weather. But bring your bug spray.

Doug grabbed this photo of a moose while biking to the campground outside of Wawa, ON.

Doug grabbed this photo of a moose while biking to the campground outside of Wawa, ON.

Rolling past some of the oldest rocks on earth. The Canadian Shield is comprised of rocks from 4.5 Billion years ago.

Rolling past some of the oldest rocks on earth. The Canadian Shield is comprised of rocks from 4.5 Billion years ago.