Monday, June 17, 2013

From East Friesland to Holland

After our 5-day, 7-train experience of getting us and the tandem from Budapest to Vienna to Warsaw to Berlin to Norden, Germany, wondering with each new train how much hassle the bike would be, we seriously needed decompression time. 

Using, which has proved easy and effective in finding good lodging for us, we identified a family-run inn just outside Norden in the village of Hage that looked promising, the Parkhotel Phoenix.  After a warm welcome from the owners and one look at the spacious bedroom with rhododendrons blooming out the back window, we knew we would be staying longer than the two nights we had booked.  We ended doubling that.


On the 7 km ride from the Norden train station we had already been impressed by the quality bike and pedestrian paths that took us door to door.  We stopped at a bike shop and paid 6.50 for a detailed bike map of the area.  That had seemed like a bit of change for a bike map, but it was money well spent as it led us to quiet roads and interesting bike paths that made the next four days a cyclist's paradise.

The map had icons for historic windmills, and without much effort we went by about a dozen.  Here are just a few.

This area is quite flat and gets some strong winds off the North Sea, and we cycled past a few hundred more modern windmills on those same days.


Next to one ancient windmill was the 130-year-old home for the miller's assistant and his family.  A member of the local organization that keeps it up saw us peering through the windows and came over to give us a personal tour.  He pointed out that the left side of the home had a thatch roof to let out the animal aromas (and those from the privy in the far corner).  The miller's assistant and his wife got one of those cubbies for their bed, and their 8 kids somehow fit into the second cubby on the left!

We did not unfortunately take any photos to illustrate it, but we were astounded at the universal attractiveness of the homes and countryside in East Friesland.  The houses are extremely similar in size, with no "McMansions" and very little architectural showing-off, but uniformly brick, well-maintained, and surrounded by flower gardens.  We never saw a weed-filled yard or pile of trash anywhere.  The busier roads almost without fail had bike paths alongside them, often separated by a strip of grass or trees, but there were also miles and miles of quiet country roads where we encountered more cyclists than cars.  All in all, it was a cycling paradise.  We're not throwing away that 6.50 cycling map!

We did baggage-free rides for three days, and the best ride was one we took to see the North Sea.  We reached a trail that ran just behind the main dike for eight miles, then came to a spot where we could cross the dike with our tandem and ride on the dike itself for another eight or so.  As you can see, they never have to mow the dikes, they just bring in a flock of sheep.  Every few kilometers we came to a fence line with a sheep-proof gate, so they can get each section grazed to the correct amount.

Over the weekend, Jeff began to get some tooth pain, especially when biting down.  Neither innkeeper spoke English, but Jeff's German was good enough to understand that an emergency dentist was available if it got much worse before Monday morning.  It was annoying but did not worsen, so on Monday our innkeeper got Jeff an early appointment with a dentist a few blocks away.  It was an interesting experience.

It started with a medical history questionnaire. Jeff was pleased that he could answer 37 of the 40 questions, such as whether he had diabetes or liver disease, or had ever had a stroke.  With some prep the night before using a German-English dictionary app on our mini iPad, he was able to say to the dental assistant "Es schmerz mich im Oberkiefer, auf der rechten Seite, besonders wenn ich beisse" ('I have pain in my upper right jaw, particularly when I bite down').  The dental assistant took a look, didn't see anything, so suggested an x-ray ("Roentgen").  "Ja, eine ausgezeichnete Idee," said Jeff.  Five minutes later she showed Jeff that there were no problems with his teeth or their roots, but that there was some periodontal inflammation.  She cleaned the area, applied some medication, and told Jeff to return the next day if it didn't feel better.  The bill for everything: 21.78, or less than $30!  And not only did Jeff's mouth feel better (and stay that way), but he also felt surprised and pleased with himself that his two years of German in high school and one semester in college, almost fifty years ago, had sunk in far more than he had ever imagined it had.

After three days of dental care, haircuts (we won't need another for quite a while . . .) and bike rides to the east, north and west, it was time to say goodbye to our charming innkeepers at the Parkhotel Phoenix, put the panniers back on our bike, and head south to get around the Dollard Bay that divides Gemany from Holland along the North Sea.  From there we would turn westward into the Netherlands.  Our terrific bike map got us 2/3 of the way, 2 km of it on a dike path, to a ferry that holds two cars or about a hundred bikes or pedestrians. 

The last part of the journey was off the good map, but we just learned how to create "screen shots" on the iPad, so we had Google Maps in bicycling view to get us the last few kilometers, even though we were "offline," aided by excellent signage for cyclists.

And so it was that we entered the Netherlands on a traditional Dutch drawbridge at Bad Nieuweschans.  Our plan to bike "From Hungary to Holland" was now, officially, to bike "Mainly in Hungary and Holland."  We'll give you our first impressions of cycling there in our next blog post.

Taking Our Tandem by Train Across Europe

We had struck out on our original plan to assemble our coupled tandem in Amsterdam and take it as a tandem by train to Vienna, because there was no room for a tandem on our reserved train to Berlin, nor for a bike of any kind for the second leg to Vienna.  We ended up taking our bike in its two cases to Vienna, rebuilding it there, and sending the empty cases back to Amsterdam by FedEx.  The problem arose from the fact that one can reserve train tickets for yourself on the Internet, but not for your bike -- those can only be obtained at the train station.  We had gotten the former a month before.
So we were nervous about taking our tandem, fully assembled now, by train from Budapest to Vienna.  It turned out to be remarkably simple, with only two minor glitches.  The first was that the early train had no bike places.  However, there is a train every two hours, and the next train was fine.  In fact, as you can see, we had the only bike on that train, and we had a compartment on the train to ourselves.


The second minor issue was that the Hungarian ticket-seller could sell us a ticket to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we would have to change trains, but not the next leg from there to Vienna, Austria.  Again, not a biggie, as there is a train every hour!  When we got there, we easily obtained passage for ourselves and the bike on the next train.  Once again, it was lonely.

Three days earlier, we had tried to book passage by hydrofoil boat from Budapest to Vienna (3 times as expensive, 225 vs. 75 for two people and one bike, but guaranteed to take the bike).  To our surprise, the sailings had been cancelled for the coming week because of high water.  Half-way from Budapest to Bratislava, a British couple got on our train with their bikes, and told a tale of high water.  They had been biking from Budapest to Vienna but had just quit when high water covered a section of the bike trail and forced them onto a busy road near the great cathedral of Esztergom, which we had just photographed from the train.

Whoa!  That was a trail we had ridden 5 days earlier, with no problems.  They then told us that the flooding was more serious upriver.  We looked again at another photo we took fifteen minutes earlier, which (barely) shows a section of bike trail we had been on, next to the thin black railing.  But look closely at the far shore of the river:  there are trees standing in water.  Little did we know it yet, but those trees would be entirely under water a week later, and possibly the road next to our train tracks!

We returned to our friends Cordelia and Jazz in Vienna, said our hellos, and checked the news on the TV and Internet.  Within a short time it was clear: there would be NO chance of biking the Danube this summer.  NONE!  The clincher was the report that Passau, 7-8 days' riding from Vienna, had just recorded the highest river levels since 1501! 

Nor was it just the Danube.  Trains had either stopped running or were close to stopping on the lines through Salzburg (Salzach River), Innsbruck (the Inn), Prague (the Vlatava), and Dresden (the Elbe).  Going south to Italy sounded like a plan, but trains from Vienna almost always go first to Innsbruck to take advantage of the Donner Pass tunnel, so that was a non-starter as well.

It took hours to come up with a plan: take the train northeasterly through the eastern part of the Czech Republic and Katowice, Poland to Warsaw, then head due west to Berlin, then to a place yet to be determined near the Dutch/German border.  We went with Cordelia to the train station the next day, and were able to get tickets to Warsaw for us and the bike.  It would require two trains, the first two of five we would board on our exodus.

Things did not start auspiciously.  We waited in the middle of the platform, not knowing what sort of train would take us the first hour to Breclav, Czech Republic.  It turned out to be a fairly crowded double-decker commuter train.  There was a car with space for bikes, but it was one car back from where we waited, and we didn't see it until later, when we got off in Breclav.  Not a lot of room for a long tandem, but better than what we had to do: hold the tandem in a vestibule area for the first 20 minutes, with Jeff repeatedly saying "excuse me" in German, 'til we got past a stop where almost all remaining passengers alighted and we could put the bike in the aisle.


We did have one tandem-related issue in Breclav -- dealing with stairs.  We had to move from Platform 1 to Platform 2, but the elevator was too short (Vienna and Berlin had great elevators by contrast).  So all the luggage had to come off, carried down a flight of stairs, jog back up to the bike and together carry the bike down the staircase, then repeat the dance step on the up staircase.  Another reason to pack light!

The through train to Warsaw was, by contrast, a breeze.  Once again the tandem had the bike area to itself, and we had a comfortable ride across the flat plains of Poland.  It was a modern coach with a sign at the end identical to ones in Chinese high speed trains, telling us our next destination and our speed (we topped out at 159 kph/100 mph).

Because of our last-minute plans and need to find lodging near the Warsaw train station, we had to settle for a fairly expensive place that, at least, billed itself as a glitzy boutique hotel.  It was glitzy -- but the bathroom sink didn't drain (and didn't get fixed after our call to the front desk), the bed was rock-hard, and we had no hot water for a morning shower.  We cancelled our plan to do a day of sightseeing, checked out, and headed to the train station.  The ticket agent spoke German, at least, so Jeff was able to buy us tickets straight to Berlin.  Again, a train every two hours and, again, the first one was filled.  As soon as we knew we had a train, we headed to a McDonald's in the train station to get on free wifi.  Yes!  The hotel we used a month ago, a block from the Berlin train station, had a room at an affordable price.  We locked that in and waited for our train.

We had reserved seats and a reserved bike spot in car 267.  Down on the platform we found a diagram of our train, clearly showing that car 267 is ways the car right behind the locomotive.   Bingo, another easy time of it.  At lunch time we went to the restaurant car, which was fairly quiet, so we had a private compartment in which to enjoy our pierogies, salad and soup.  That evening we walked along the Spree River, following the route of the Berlin Wall for a ways as it zig-zaged across Berlin, and had another good meal at an outdoor cafe.

As soon as we had arrived in Berlin, we had booked the final leg to Norden, Germany, where we had found a country inn that sounded like a good place to recover at from all this train travel.   Having hopped on five trains in four days with only one half-hour of awkwardness with the tandem, we were feeling like it was not such a big deal to take a tandem by train around Europe.  We were about to be re-educated.

There is one direct train each day from Berlin to Norden, but it was fully booked already.  That should have been a warning sign.   The ticket agent got us a two-step passage, changing trains in Hannover.  The train had booked more passengers than seats, but luckily fewer bikes than bike hooks.  By resting against three bike-parking spots we were able to avoid blocking all passage with our 8-foot-long bike.  We even managed to get two fold-down jumper seats and chatted with a German couple who had a Beer Bike: a bike with its own keg!




The last leg was the hardest.  Waaaay too many bikes, waaaay too many passengers, about fifty of them pre-teens returning from a school trip.  Luckily we got our bike on early so it sat against the window as others stacked up against it, and luckier still we got two seats.  It was less than four hours but felt like twice that.

But end it did, and we hopped off one station stop short of the North Sea in Ost Friesland, the most northwesterly part of Germany.  In our next blog post we'll tell you about our regeneration at the Parkhotel Phoenix, which was so wonderful our two-night stay stretched to four.

In short, it's possible to travel by train with a tandem, but sometimes awkward and always potentially unfair to other cyclists, as bike hooks and bike spaces are mostly designed for single bikes.  We were lucky because early June is not high season, and three of our four travel days were weekdays.  It may not be a coincidence that our hardest leg was on a Friday, with many people on our train heading to resorts in Ost Friesland.  On many weekends and during the entire months of July and August, a trip like ours could easily become a nightmare.

We think we have now educated ourselves enough on the possibilities and perils of taking a tandem by train across Europe.  We hope we don't have to do it again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Győr to Budapest

The first half of our ride from Vienna to Budapest was on easy, well-built trails.  The second half, starting in Győr, alternated between country roads and rather bumpier trails, with a few segments of busy roads thrown in.
We left Győr following the blue Eurovelo Route 6 signs using low-traffic streets, then a 4 km trail that appears to have been converted from a train line.  For 3 km EV 6 next had us riding on a dirt road that made us happy we had put wider tires on for this trip.  Finally we came to a rural highway that was not overly wide, but not at all busy, either.  A car passed us about once every 2 or 3 minutes, always with no problem to pass well wide of us.

About 25 km past Győr we came to an important turning-point, where we left EV 6 and the directions in our Bikeline Guide to Biking From Vienna to Budapest, and took an alternate route to the small town of Tata.  Jeff had printed out a map on the computer back home which made it look easy, and indeed it was despite Hungary's scarcity of road signs.  Twice we turned to a pedestrian, pointed where we thought we were supposed to go, and said "Tata???"  Each time we got a sentence or two of Hungarian, but a smile and facial expression were easy to translate as "Yup!"

We chose Tata as a destination because the usual overnight destination, Komarom, didn't sound that interesting, and Tata had three possible attractions: an old mansion of the Eszterhazy family, an old castle, and a lake.  It would also be an adventure and force us to climb a ridge 400' above the Danube where we might get some views.  In the end, these last two were the main advantages.  Our small inn was across a mill stream from the castle and a block from the lake, so we did get to enjoy their pleasures, but they were quite modest ones.  The Eszterhazy mansion was in need of so much repair work that we were too embarrassed to even take its photo.  The once grand parish church was in only slightly better shape, and illustrates the reality that Tata is not yet one of the communities prospering in the post-1989 world.  But there were some elegant homes under construction along the lake nearby, so perhaps Tata's day is coming.

The ride over the ridge back to the Danube put our biking preparedness to the test, as it included a kilometer and a half of climbing at 7%, about the limit of what we care to do anymore.  And we did make it in our lowest gear, 27th.  We never had to go to "28th gear," our euphemism for walking.

The descent took us through wine country and indeed past excellent viewpoints across the Danube to Slovakia, including the small town of Radvan, Slovakia.  The road was so steep and bumpy that we had our drag brake on full, and even so we had to use the rim brakes so much that we stopped twice for 1-2 minutes to let the rims cool.  We know three people who have had tire blow-outs from rims that got so hot they melted the tubes!

This now put us on National Road 10, a road no wider than the one we showed you a few photos up, but busier.  We had 9 kilometers that we tried to do as fast as possible, which was 24 kph (15 mph), a speed we were happy with considering we had a headwind.  A fair number of vehicles passed us, 1 or 2 of which felt rather too close for comfort.  We had one more 5 km stretch that day and 4 km the next on busy national roads, and hope similar stretches are few and far between when we start biking west from Vienna next week.

Our next destination was Esztergom, home to the largest and most important church in Hungary.  Cardinal Mindszenty was archbishop of this church and thus leader of the Catholic church in Hungary when he was arrested here on Christmas Day, 1947 and charged with crimes against the state, becoming a pawn in the Cold War for the rest of his life.  The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is the first foreign news event Jeff remembers being aware of as a child, and he recalls how Cardinal Mindszenty was freed from prison during the uprising, then had to take refuge in the American Embassy when Russian troops crushed the rebellion.  He remained there 15 years, and never again saw his beautiful cathedral at Esztergom.

The cathedral is an enormous church, made all the more imposing because it sits next to an ancient castle on a hill that towers over the Danube.  From the old castle ramparts behind the church we could look upriver to the Maria Valeria Bridge connecting Slovakia with Hungary.  It was built in 1895 and destroyed in WW II, but not reconstructed until 2001.

From those ramparts we also looked ahead to the next day's ride through the Great Bend of the Danube, just beyond Esztergom, where it goes from east-flowing to south-flowing,  simultaneously cutting through the Visograd Mountains.

Leaving town we had 6 easy km on a bike trail close to the Danube, then our last 4 km on the national road, luckily not too busy.  The remaining 80 km into Budapest were all on bike trails or side streets, but about a fourth of that distance was fairly bumpy, particularly one 5 km stretch of dirt trail on top of a dike.  But we'll take a bumpy trail over a narrow busy road every chance we get.

We took a ferry across the Danube right after the Slovakian border turned away from the river, i.e. where it began to be Hungary on both shores.  The current is so strong that the ferry crosses by pointing upstream and just a little towards one shore or the other, to keep from washing dwnstream.  Looking upstream, the hills on the right are the last we will see of Slovakia until we return through parts of it on our train trip back to Vienna.

15 km downstream we were about to finish our passage between the mountains when the high point, literal and figurative, appeared: the ruins of the Visograd Castle, up there above Louise's right shoulder.  Quite a few boats went by in the hour we lingered over lunch, including a typical ultra-narrow river boat that the local ferry had to wait for by running in place in the middle of the river.

Our next overnight was on an island in the Danube, in the countryside 2 km from a village with the intriguing name of Szigetmonoster.  All our overnights in Hungary included breakfast, always with cheese, cold cuts, a few fresh veggies like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, plus yogurt, pastries and eggs.  The Rosinante Country Inn, however, had an omelet chef with various veggies before him.  You pointed, he cut, he cooked, you enjoyed.

With help lowering our big bike on, we took a foot ferry to Szentendre, hoping to visit an open air museum outside town where old buildings from around Hungary have been gathered.  However it rained all morning so we parked our bike at a pension (a cross between a small hotel and a B&B) and walked the town instead.  It was very quaint, but because it is and because you can get there by suburban train or boat from Budapest, it had far too many shops selling tourist kitsch.  One such shop caught our attention, however.  It had knickknacks with reproductions of famous Gustav Klimt paintings, including "The Kiss" that we saw a week ago in Vienna, and "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," a painting that was stolen from the Bloch-Bauer family after the Nazis annexed Austria and only returned to them after a bitter lawsuit, less than a decade ago.  In fact, we both just read a wonderful book about it all, "The Lady in Gold."

At last, Budapest! We arrived coming down the west bank, and stopped for a view across the river of the over-the-top gothic masterpiece that is the Hungarian Parliament.  That evening we walked up closer along the east bank for more photos of it and of the city taking on its nighttime magic.

By the time we returned to St. Stephan's Basilica, it was night.  We rented an apartment that looked out at the basilica (it's just to the left of the church in the photo) for less than the cost of a mid-range hotel in an inconvenient location, thanks to  It was a great base for exploring the city.  In three nights and two days we hit most of the sights.  Here are a few of the best shots.

Since we had an apartment, we cooked in two evenings and made an interesting discovery: tourists visit restaurants, so restaurants have menus in multiple languages;  tourists do not visit grocery stores, so . . . We did a certain amount of guessing as to what we were purchasing.  It all tasted fine, though.

Then there was the washing machine.  In this case, you had to figure out the meaning of some fairly cryptic icons.  Our first batch put in creases, so we ended up ironing most of it to get the creases out.  Then we tried what we guessed was the delicate setting, and it didn't spin the clothes out at all -- they were drenching wet!  Jeff tried a few things and one of them spun out some water.  This time we ironed the clothes in order to dry them out!

With our clean clothes, we took a walk on Budapest's most elegant street, Andrassy Avenue, past various embassies, the State Opera House, and an assortment of elegant buildings, some still looking great, some needing a bit of work.  We came back underneath Andrassy, on the world's second oldest electric subway (after London's).  The stations are very short (the photo shows about half of the platform across the tracks), as are the subway cars (3 short cars per train).  The stations have been restored to look much as they did in 1896 when it opened in time for Hungary's 1000th birthday party for itself, based on the first arrival of Magyar tribesmen in 896.

 Our last two special moments in Budapest had to do with the Saint Stephen's Basilica across the street from our apartment.  On Sunday morning there was a procession out the church just as we came out to the plaza. We gathered that it was a special event, not something they do every Sunday, but never could figure out what the occasion was, or where the dividing line is between church and state in modern-day Hungary, for that matter.

That evening we returned to the church for a concert by a 7 piece string orchestra that filled its vast space with sound.  At times there was perhaps a bit too much echo, a minor matter when the heart is filled with awe at the architecture that surrounded us.

After one day in Slovakia and nine in Hungary, it was time to head back to Austria.  At the time, our biggest worry was getting space on the train for our tandem.  As it turned out, that was no problem at all.  HOWEVER, a huge problem awaited us in Austria, one which would fundamentally alter our plans for the next two months.  We'll tell you more in our next entry, once we ourselves have figured out just what those changes are to be.