Into mainland Europe! It has been three weeks since my last blog post, three countries, a change in cycling partner and some surprise cycling companions have made their appearance too.
First getting off of the ferry from Newcastle to the Netherlands was approached with some trepidation. Not because I was worried about the quality of the cycle paths or the ability for finding my own. I was more worried about being overwhelmed by the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands and getting in the way of the local cyclists. With the first few kilometers I quickly realized that I was in for a treat. The cycle paths are everywhere and entirely separate from the roads. Industrial areas, next to highways, in the middle of Amsterdam, it doesn’t matter their are separate cycle ways going both ways everywhere. At the intersections there is a light for the traffic, a crossing light for the pedestrians and a crossing light for the cyclists. It was the easiest thing to jump into and I will be honest it was very nice to be cycling on the right hand side of the road again after the UK. The culture is so ingrained with cycling that everywhere I went there were other cyclists and most of them were very casual cyclists on single speeds or pedal assist bikes to get from work, to school, to the store, everywhere. (all single speeds because it is utterly flat so no need for gears almost anywhere)
My dad was already waiting at a Cafe in Amsterdam, since we had to take the ferry on different days so I had an easy 25 km ride from the terminal into the city to meet up with him. Once arriving we talked about our appreciative hosts for the previous night and then set about exploring the city by bike (the best way to see Amsterdam). There were beautiful canals everywhere with trees on every street and of course the cycle paths. No traffic jams to be seen, it was very quiet for being in a big city and I have never seen more bikes anywhere in the U.S. no matter the size of the event or bike valet. There were probably more bikes than people.
After eating lunch in the main square and finding a place to exchange my last few pounds to Euros We decided to bike out of the city towards a Netherlands pole camping site. These are free places to camp through out the Netherlands and Belgium. The Netherlands will designate normally illegal activity in small areas as legal which I feel is a fantastic idea. At the pole site you can camp within a certain radius of the pole for up to a couple days. They vary in quality and condition but it is an easy place to just throw up the tent and not worry about sneaking on someones farm or into the woods, which in Europe can be hard to find at the right time for camping.
The next couple of days were the easiest riding I have ever done. Other than a strong headwind it was totally flat and we hardly ever had to deal with a single car. The biggest obstacle to our progress was matching up the ferry schedule with when we arrived at certain areas to hop from one island to another. We even showed up late in the evening at one that was closed for the day and we had to quickly look for another terminal on the Island and cycle towards it in hopes of it being open, otherwise we would have been stuck for the rest of the day, or would have had to cycle 40 km back and around to a bridge. Luckily the other ferry was still running and we made it to our pole camping site of that night.
The canals were beautiful to cycle by and the homes were very cool too, all built around these man made features. The whole area seemed so designed and man made but with an attempt to make it easy to get around and there were still green spaces nicely spaced out.
Upon crossing the border into Belgium the cycle paths changed once more to lower quality and frequency but it was still far better than in the UK and in the U.S. We ended up going into Antwerp and then back to the north into the Netherlands for our last pole camping site in the country. Antwerp had a lot of construction going on and it was a real pain to get through even with accurate gps and a cycle track to follow. Once we arrived at a large river and the way to get across was to take a cycle elevator down and into a massive tunnel going under the river. Inside were only pedestrians and cyclists going back and forth along the tunnel. My father and I quickly cycled down it and came up the other side in a much quieter and easier to manage part of the city. We then booked it towards the pole camping site as we were running out of daylight and the headwind was not letting up.
The following day we said goodbye to the Netherlands for good but I set our route to stay in the country till the very last 20 km of our day to take advantage of the cycle paths the entire way. Did I mention the windmills? They are everywhere old ones and new ones, being so flat the wind is very consistent. Our destination for Belgium was the city of Bruges where we had an awesome warmshowers host waiting for us, Nele! It was great to stay at her place and a wonderful home base to see the city from. Walking around the old city was a great experience, and the weather matched it nicely. We impulsively ate lunch at a Brazilian sandwich shop since we were attempting to avoid the higher prices in the center of the old city. We also found a Belgian beer store and I quickly got excited wandering around inside. I even found a beer that had cascade hops from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S! Chris and Jeff would have had a great time. My dad and I each bought two beers and enjoyed one at Nele’s house over a great salad and conversations.
With our brief foray into Belgium we cycled the next day into France and headed towards Dunkirk. We had an easy riding day along canals for most of the day and we even enjoyed a tailwind which was a first in the last week of riding as opposed to a headwind. In Dunkirk we stayed at a very cheap campground for only 6 Euro for two people and spent our time exploring a bit of the coastline. Knowing a bit of the history from the evacuation that took place in world war II made it a powerful place to walk around, I have yet to see the movie Dunkirk.
From Dunkirk we set a route nearly straight south to Paris, avoiding the main cities. The weather was perfect for riding, the first chance to practice my very limited French was met with great humor and patience by the people we met. We were quickly learning to stop at the bakeries to get fresh pastries and bread since it was so tasty and relatively cheap! Everyone was very nice about letting us fill up our water bottles as well so it was a wonderful start to France. The countryside was quiet and beautiful and with the increased Catholic influence we began to see a change in the common town church and many roadside chapels. We found wild camping to be extremely easy too since with not as much livestock as the UK there were less fences and so sneaking into the woods on the edge of a farm was a nice easy way to get a free place to stay and not disturb anyone as well. Many of the towns we went through were beautiful and the people all were interested in what we were doing. One town we got groceries in had two kids helping at the store and they were very excited to see us and quickly took the bottles off of our bikes to fill them up for us with a simple hand gesture for water!
Heading into Paris was a bit stressful. We had to cycle on a busy road for a few kilometers but were rewarded with another very cheap campground only 40 kilometers from the Airbnb that I had set up a few months in advance with the planned arrival of Heidi in Paris and my dads departure around the same time. After a noisy night, and a long conversation with the campground weed dealers, asking many questions about Colorado and how cool Colorado must be with legal weed, we set off into the city proper.
With another push through the edge of the city we made it to the Airbnb and awaited Heidi’s arrival. It was the perfect place to stay for three cycle tourers. There was plenty of room for three bikes and the space to build them up from a bike box and break them down. We had laundry and were literally a quarter of a block from a transit station to get into the city proper within 30 minutes.
We spent three and a half days exploring Paris and in that time we celebrated the end of my Dads amazing bike trip and the beginning of Heidi’s! We went out to walk around the main sites, checked out the Louvre, went to an awesome dinner in the Latin district, walked around Notre Dame at night and during the day and explored much of the water front. With the morning of our last day in Paris my dad had to leave to the airport, it was a quick goodbye but I will miss him, it was such an adventure to begin the trip with him, a hard transition at first but in the end I wouldn’t have had it any other way! I am looking forwards to my whole family joining for three weeks in mid November in southern Spain!
Heidi and I cycled through the heart of the city and stumbled across a few other beautiful views before heading upstream along the Seine towards a campground to make it a manageable first day for Heidi. The directions worked out well but there were a few places where we had to make it up as we went along and one place where I had to carry the fully loaded bikes up three flights on a concrete stairwell to get onto a bridge we needed to cross the river. At the end of the day we went across a pedestrian bridge that was a part of a locks system for river barges and we stayed at a moderately priced campground. No one spoke any English at the campground so Heidi did a great job of putting her French lessons to good use in communicating what we needed.
With the beginning of a rainy morning we slept in to avoid the weather and started the cycling for the day at 1:30. The riding got easier and more relaxing the further we got from Paris and soon we were on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest south of Paris. This place is famous for its various bouldering sites all through out the forest and we wild camped there for one night. We didn’t have too much time to explore as we had set ourselves up for a warm showers host in Orleans and we continued on. While riding that day we stumbled across a beautiful medieval town and we got a coffee after eating lunch along the river trying to get whatever sun we could for the solar panels.
Once back on the cycling track we ran into two other cycle tourers, Clive and Noushin! We quickly hit it off and decided to cycle together for the day. It was fantastic timing to meet and talk with them since Heidi was getting herself into the rhythm and head space of long distance cycling and that is a tough process in the beginning. They were great company and hearing about their previous cycling trips was great inspiration. They had spent three years cycling around the world all through Europe, Asia and South America! It made us feel better about what we are setting out to do for two years and their great humor and relaxed perspective set the tone nicely for a few great days of cycling with them.
The first night we camped with them we ended up at a campground that was closed and jut camped in a park near the river with no problems. The next day we cycled along more canals and the weather slowly deteriorated through out the day. They headed towards a campground and Heidi and I decided to wild camp along the canal paths and reconnoiter with them in a nearby small town before we made the final approach to Orleans. We also ran into a very kind French woman who spoke Spanish so we could communicate and get some directions to another camp site if we wanted to go there.
Once Heidi and I arrived at the canal the rain really started pelting down so we quickly tried to find cover under some trees. This only worked for ten minutes until the trees got extremely saturated then I quickly remembered an old shack we had passed. Returning to it I found the door was open and we hunkered down in their with our little camp chairs with just enough room to be out of the rain and to sit down listening to a podcast to wait out the storm. When the rain broke we made a run for a good site along the canal to camp before it got dark and quickly made dinner and fell asleep.
The next day we met up with Clive and Noushin in the aforementioned town of Chatenoy. Heidi and I got coffee at a little hotel and waited near the town church. Clive suddenly appeared from a building across the square from us and we got together to cycle for the day together. They had a much worse time of it than Heidi and I in our dirty dry shack. The campground wouldn’t let them stay and they ended up in the town soaked in the rain storm with no where to go. Luckily a local woman living right in the middle of town saw them and allowed them to stay the night at her house! It is amazing how a person will help a complete strange when it is so obvious help is needed!
With greatly improved weather and a start to a new day we headed towards Orleans. In Orleans we spent a little time appreciating our first views of the Loire river and then made our goodbyes. It was a wonderful three days of cycling with them and I am so thankful for having met them so early on in this journey. We parted ways since they are going to turn south and east from Orleans to make it to Germany for Oktoberfest before turning back to head towards the same route Heidi and I are on. There is a chance we could see each other again around Gibraltar in early December!
Currently we are in Orleans at the warmshowers home of Paul and Anne who have been fantastic and kind in allowing us to stay, delicious food to boot! We will continue along the Loire river valley towards Tours and then decide whether to continue on towards the coast or follow the Euro Velo 3 south inland towards Bordeaux and then Spain.