Epic European Cycle

2015-04-30 : Preparation and Notes
Important links that we may need throughout the trip.
This trip came about when I was working for NorQuest and found out that they have an employee program where you can take a reduced salary for a number of months, take some time off, then return. Brent and I thought it was a great opportunity to take a long vacation. Brent had mentioned wanting to ride the "Orient Express" trail in Europe, so that became our goal.

As fate would have it, I quit the job at NorQuest just as I became eligible to apply for the program, but we decided that we would just plan and save differently, but still take the trip.

As our research progressed, we discovered that there is no "Orient Express" trail per-se, but what that referred to was the Danube Cycle Trail, so that became our plan. Since we didn't need a full six months to do that, we added a few more countries to supplement our time in Europe. As the plan gelled in the last few months before the trip, the plan became Iceland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, England, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, then home.

When we arrived in Iceland, we were informed that we were limited to 90 days within 180 within the Schengen Area. We didn't know what a Schengen Area was, but lo, turns out that most of the countries on our list are in an agreement which restricts foreigners from being within the collection of countries greater than 90 days. Oops. We had looked into visa requirements for the individual countries, but didn't know there was a collective agreement with such limitations.

After much research and deliberation, we moved on to Croatia, which has not yet joined Schengen. That was a lucky stroke - Croatia is fantastic!

2015-05-01 : Fly to Iceland
We had to open the bike boxes for the customs lady to inspect the content. We didn't need my duct tape, though - she had tape to tape them back up. Amazingly fast and easy process going through. We paid $254 extra to ship the bikes to Paris. No charge for the packing boxes.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to check our boxes all the way through to Paris. If the connecting flight is on a different calendar day, you need to collect your baggage and take it with you. DANG! We are seriously considering leaving our bikes behind in Europe when we come home. I should have planned the Iceland stopover for the return trip. It would have made things a lot simpler if we didn't have to deal with the bikes on the stopover.
Doug drove us to the airport in his pickup. He decided at the last minute to come visit for our last week at home. It worked out really well. I wasn't sure how we'd get all of that big stuff to the airport. I looked into taxis, but there just aren't really any that are big enough. I asked Colleen to drive us, but when I looked at her truck, and compared to our enormous bike boxes, I knew we wouldn't be able to make everything fit. I ended up reserving a rental truck and enlisted Colleen to help. We were going to load up the truck, go to the airport, and Colleen was going to return the rental truck. It was going to cost about $120 or $130 since both of us would have to be on the rental agreement and insurance. It was a whole lot simpler having Doug there to take us! Saved a bunch of $dough$ and a bunch of hassle. And still had lunch with Colleen anyway. :)
The boxes that we used for packing are:
- Cardboard bike boxes from any bike store. They're thrilled to give them away - just go in and ask.
- "Large" size moving boxes - they're the exact dimensions that airlines allow before they're considered oversized

We re-inforced the bikes inside the boxes using some old throw-away towels, and Styrofoam inserts saved from computer boxes.

2015-05-02 : Reykjavik and Blue Lagoon
Approximately six-hour flight. I slept most of the way. Brent got maybe one or two hours of sleep. The area around the airport was a lot flatter than Brent had imagined. The mountains are all off in the distance.

We walked down to the grocery store and picked up a few things then walked back to eat and "Facebook". We can officially check in at 2PM and then the bus to take us to the Blue Lagoon comes by at 3PM.

I had planned on putting our boxes into storage while we're in Iceland, but the storage was a half a km away from the terminal, which is no big deal... until you're trying to transport four enormous boxes. So, instead, we paid the 10,000K fee (approx. $100) to bring the junk with us to the hostel (round trip). We got to the hostel way too early to check in, but they let us put our junk in storage while we explore a little.

When we came through customs at Iceland, the customs agent there informed us that we can't just stay six months in Europe. The Euro Zone is like one big country and we need a VISA if we're going to stay more than three months. That will be first on the agenda when we arrive in Paris.

Iceland has public washrooms that remind me of the ones I saw in the UK years ago. Really nice and clean, and each stall has proper walls and a proper door. It's a little claustrophobic, but man is it nicer than north American washrooms with the flimsy little tin walls with doors that start far enough off the ground for inquisitive youngsters to peer underneath, and gaps wide enough for anyone to peek through to see if someone's in there. Ahhhhh... sweet privacy!
I chatted for a few minutes at the hostel with an Iceland native. She was saying that they've had a terrible winter here - very volatile and stormy. She says she's never seen a winter like it. It's making her contemplate leaving the country... but then the sun comes out and everything is beautiful, like today, and we get so excited and forgive everything! And I thought 'how very like Canadians'.
Laura, who's coming to meet us to cycle the Danube in July, has been contemplating changing her strategy for bringing her bike. She has a fancy bike box that she's planning to bring, then, after she lands in Frankfurt, I think she's planning to ship the box to Budapest to wait for us there. Now she's thinking about using a cardboard box instead, like Brent and I do.

It looks like it's a really common practice. Since I left home yesterday I've seen three (non RnB) bikes packed in cardboard boxes (from bike stores). Since we got to the hostel, I've seen three people assemble their bikes out of cardboard boxes, and there's a special shelf in the storage room for empty cardboard bike boxes. The biggest problem is that the boxes really take a beating. We've used some Styrofoam padding (like from computer boxes), towels, and cardboard supports to make the boxes a little stronger. Ours are still taking a pounding (but holding up so far), and one that we saw at the Edmonton airport was in tatters, although the bike inside looked to be ok.
We went to the Blue Lagoon. It was nice. Interesting. A very good hot spring, to be sure. The lava field surrounding it was extremely cool.

2015-05-03 : Golden Circle Tour
Brent and I are thinking of ways to be frugal during our travels. The hostel we're staying in has long-term storage. We might be able to find one in Frankfurt that would be cheaper (maybe free?) than putting our bikes into a storage facility for a month. We'll see.

Food is hideously expensive in Iceland. It has made me a lot more aware of every single morsel we've paid for, and I make sure we consume those morsels. We've re-discovered the "Free Food" bins at the hostel, as a potential source of food, rather than as a depository for our leftovers. We scored a couple of nice apples and some chocolate to take along on our tour today. WOO HOO!

At Barbara's encouragement, I think we'll also be dabbling in a little couch surfing during this trip. We're supposed to spend the nights of May 6 and 7 with Pierre in Paris, and Aleyah in Ljubljana towards the end of August.
We did the "Golden Circle Tour" with Reykjavik Excursions today. It was really great. The countryside around here is crazy! Lots of lava beds, glaciers... the weirdness never ends. We saw Gullfoss (waterfall), the active "Strokkur" geyser at Geysir (the namesake of all geysers), and Þingvellir national park where the European plate and the North American plate are pulling away from one another. There are cliffs on the east side where it's the European plate, and on the west side where it's the North American plate, and the space in between. We walked the trail to North America.
As part of the Golden Circle Tour today we visited the Friðheimar greenhouse, which grows amazing organic tomatoes. They import bumblebees from the Netherlands for pollination. We got a good close look at a box of bees and some of them are crazy big! The proprietor, who gave the overview of their operation had a fairly thick accent and a great sense of humor. Funny highlights:
- He said "We don't use any pesticides on our tomatoes"; I heard "We don't use any pasta sauce on our tomatoes"
- He said "The queen produces many babies which come out of her eggs"; I heard "The queen produces many babies which come out of her ass"
- When talking about the bees, he mentioned that they import boxes of 60 bees, including 59 female worker bees and one queen. He says, "The bees work very hard every day to pollinate the tomatoes. When the queen produces babies, though, some of them are man bees, and they don't like to work, so we have to import more bees."

2015-05-04 : Fly to Paris
We are staying at an apartment on Rue Chanzy in Paris that I found through airbnb. It is wonderful, although, it wouldn't have been very good if we didn't pre-assemble our bikes at the airport. It is pretty much a regular apartment building. Hefting those huge boxes around wouldn't have been much fun. Turned out to be a good thing, in so many ways, that we could build the bikes at the airport. Disposing of the boxes would have been just the start of our worries. How to get them actually upstairs would have been a disaster. We probably wouldn't have been able to do that. We probably would have had to assemble them in the foyer of this really classy, peaceful apartment building. I would have felt like a complete schmuck. Instead, I just had to feel like a complete schmuck assembling our bikes in a busy international airport!
I had it in my head that, if possible, I would like to assemble the bikes at the airport. That way we could either ride, or take the LRT, to where we're staying. It wouldn't have been possible with the bikes we'd used when we went to Australia. They were smaller, and so the bikes had to be torn down quite a bit more to go in the boxes. This time we had mondo boxes and the bikes didn't have to be very disassembled to fit in.

When we go to the airport, I asked airport information if there was a place we could dispose of the boxes anywhere at the airport. It took a bit of "frenglish" and a few charades to get the point across, but in the end, she made a call and then instructed us to assemble our bikes right there, leave the boxes by her station, and the janitorial staff would come by and remove the boxes. Wow! That worked brilliantly!

Then, because all I'd had to eat so far was a bit of yogurt with coco puffs in it, we took a cab to the BnB instead of riding or LRT. Good thing because it started to rain soon after we left the airport.
If we'd had to transport our bikes in their boxes via cab, we would have had to use a special oversized cab for that. Since the bikes were assembled, we got in line for a regular old cab (minivan). The driver didn't speak (much) English, and was doubtful that the bikes would fit (and reluctant to try), but eventually he folded some of the seats up enough that all of our stuff fit in nicely. He was a good guy, but a little distracted. At one point, he was zooming along fairly fast. Brent was looking away, and I don't know what the cabbie was thinking, but I know it wasn't the road ahead of us, because "the road ahead of us" was actually traffic stopped at a light. Just in the nick of time, someone (ahem) yelled WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA and the cabbie stopped us just before we rammed into the back of someone. At least he thanked me for it rather than treating me like a backseat driver!
We had to get up at 2:30AM to drag out bikes up from the hostel storage and get ready for the bus that was going to pick us up at 3:30AM to go to the airport.

Thankfully, departures at Keflavik is a lot easier than arrival (at arrivals you have to go down a steep spiral ramp - imagine that with one cart each with a packing box and a bike box perched on top of the packing box). Yeah, it was pretty. Anyway, arrivals was easy, and unlike at YEG, KEF's oversized luggage scanner is big enough for the bike boxes to go through, so in no time at all we had shed ourselves of the baggage burden.
Iceland - $10 potato chips and no fat people. Coincidence? I think not.
Iceland airport - not for the agoraphobic. Almost no waiting lounge seats - everyone just waits around in the hallway. Flights being boarded on both sides. There are very few auditory announcements. Boarding announcements are made on the flight signs only.
The best thing about Icelandic washrooms? They're called Snyrtingar. You know... for when you need to snyrt!
Of course it makes perfect sense... I arrive in downtown Paris, ravenous from a long wretched day fueled only by a paltry portion of yogurt with coco puffs in it... and none of the restaurants start serving dinner until 7:00 or later. Brent and I settled for having a beverage (which went straight to our heads) and then buying some groceries to make our own dinner of some "rug bread", cured meat, and three amazing kinds of cheese. "Rug bread" is actually Vollkornbrot, but the way it was labelled in Iceland looked like "rug bread", which just makes so much sense that I will have to call it that for the rest of my life.

2015-05-05 : Paris - Taking Care of Business
Straighten out our visa issue and get set up with a phone
We visited the Canadian Embassy this morning and they can't help us. We need to contact the country we're visiting to inquire. I've sent off a message to the main Schengen area support web site asking about options. Maybe we can still get visas, or maybe time spent outside of the Schengen area will help us to stay in compliance. We're already planning on spending a month in the UK, and perhaps, when we're done in Budapest, rather than staying within the Schengen area we just have to move on to Turkey at the end of the trip. Hopefully we'll have some more information soon.
We got a phone today. It's a cell phone, not a smart phone. I bought the cheapest one with a full qwerty keyboard, which was €60, plus the sim card with a €5 credit on it for €10 (total €70). The guy at the store advised picking up separate sim cards in each country we visit because roaming fees are expensive.

Bless his heart, Brent has taken it upon himself to learn how to use this stupid device. My brain is near full, so that's really helpful.

We have received text messages from a few friends back home to confirm that texting works, and replied to Laura. Yay!
After we got a message sent off to the Schengen people, we decided to go walkabout in Paris. We had day passes for the Metro, so we took the subway downtown and walked around the islands. We saw Notre Dam, the Louvre (from the outside only), and l'Arc de Triomph du Carrousel (among other things).
When we were done sight-seeing we did my favorite thing (so far) in Paris. We didn't want to ride the subway back during rush-hour, so we decided to sit someplace and have a drink to kill some time. We stumbled onto a place called Les Trois Quartieres which had its outdoor patio set up in an intriguing manner. The door faces a T-intersection, and they had rows of small tables and chairs all set up facing the intersection. I decided it would be interesting to sit facing the road, so we had our (very expensive) drink there.

The intersection was extremely interesting to watch, and I'm really glad we stopped there (in spite of how expensive the drinks were). The traffic was crazy, with two lanes of vehicle traffic, and one motorcycle lane turning left at the T into one lane. The motorcycles all rode in the oncoming lane, or down the center line to get in front of all the cars. There was no protesting from the cars. The cars all pushed into the lane any old way they could. At the same time there were pedestrians and bicycles pushing their way into the fray. Brent and I speculate that there's some kind of law in Paris which allows motorcycles to pass by all the cars to the front of the line... maybe something to encourage motorcycle use or something. In any case, it was great entertainment while we sipped those very expensive drinks!
We're staying in Paris for an extra couple of days. Tomorrow we ride from our AirBnB place to our Couch Surfing place... straight through Paris. It's less than a 7km journey, but we're both a little nervous about riding in the big scary city.

2015-05-06 : Ride through Paris
Category Type Name Description Service Provider Cost Kms To Date Total
Activity Cycle Across Paris to Pierre's
Google Maps $0.00 8.00 8.00
This was our first actual day riding, so we were a little apprehensive about riding, fully-loaded, through Paris. Turned out we had NOTHING to worry about, really. I felt like "Marlin" (the daddy clownfish in Finding Nemo) as we left Maguy's place, first tracing out the route on Google Maps, then walking a couple of km of the route and back, then finally getting on our bikes and riding back and forth a little before setting out on the actual route.

It was less than 7km from Maguy's place to Pierre's place, and Paris is set up GREAT for bicycling. There are separate bike lanes in lots of places, and "sharrows" everywhere. Drivers are skilled and watch out for cyclists. It's nothing like trying to ride in Edmonton at all.

We made it to Pierre's neighborhood really quickly and then had a bunch of time to kill before we could go to his place. We ended up having some beverages and doing a load of laundry.
Tonight was our first time ever "Couch Surfing" with a nice young man named Pierre. He met us at the door of his apartment building and then helped us lug all of our gear (including bicycles) up six narrow flights of stairs to his Spartan apartment that he shares with his friend. The apartment is tiny... I bet it's not even 300sq feet. We shared some wine and good conversation and then Brent and I took over the roommate's bedroom (he's out of town). Very nice experience.

2015-05-07 : Day in Paris
Today we left our gear at Pierre's place and spent the day in Paris. We walked over to Sacre Coeur, which is close to Pierre's, and is very big. Then, we took Metro down to have a look at le Tour Eiffel, which is very big. Then we did some research and booking accommodation for the next night. Oops, I accidentally booked us to stay in Chartres, which is 100km from where we're staying. I thought it was about 60. It'll be a long day!

2015-05-08 : Ride to Chartres
Category Type Name Description Service Provider Cost Kms To Date Total
Activity Cycle Paris to Chartres
Google Maps $0.00 43.00 51.00
We got up early this morning, with 100km to go to reach Chartres, where we've booked accommodation for tonight. Thankfully, Pierre woke early as well and helped carry the bikes down the amazingly steep and narrow six flights of stairs.

Today was a national holiday in France, which was lucky for us, because it meant we could get out of Paris before the traffic got at all thick. It worked out great. We headed west out of town, and then south through Bois de Boulogne. We were both surprised at the number of prostitutes at work there. After we left the park, we encountered a couple of locals who wanted to help us find our way, but didn't actually think it was possible to cycle from Paris to Chartres. They did get us pointed in the right general direction, though. We went past Versailles, but then had to double back to find our route which mostly followed D10 and paralleled N10 most of the way. There were great bike lanes and trails most of the way, but I'm sad to say that by the time we reached Verierre, I was done. It was only about €22 for the two of us to hop a train from Verierre to Chartres, with a connection in Rambouillet, so I talked Brent into doing that. We made it to Chartres, and to our host's place, by 6:00 on the nose.

Chartres is beautiful and interesting. The old city is narrow streets and old old buildings, including the impressive Chartres Cathedral. The old city is built at the top of a steep hill. After settling in to our B&B, we went for a walk and slogged up the hill to the old city, had a look around, and had some amazing canard at Brasserie les Changes.

We decided to book a second night in Chartres to give ourselves some time to rest and do some research. Since I've confirmed, the hard way, that 40km with fully-loaded paniers is about all I'm good for in a day (exactly the same as Australia), it gives me a good idea of how far we'll make it in a day over the next while. I do expect my distance to improve, but time will tell.

2015-05-09 : Day in Chartres
We have a new plan! We looked at the number of km I can reasonably do in a day, fully loaded (40km-ish, same as in Australia) and realized that the route I had chosen for us was too big. The solution, of course, is that we'll use trains to "catch up" on our itinerary. This was always the hope, but now that we've confirmed that train travel with bikes is possible and reasonable, we know that it will work.

We have, however, altered our intended route. We were originally going to go south from Paris to (approximately) Orleans to pick up EuroVelo route 6 and head to the west coast (and the continue north). When we got to Chartres, though, we discovered a less well-known route to the coast called La Véloscénie. We've bought a map/book which describes the route and we're going to ride out to the coast on Véloscénie, then head south to Nantes, then head back east through the Loire Valley.

I expect the plan will change constantly. That's why we didn't make much in the way of plans in the first place. We'll see in a couple of days whether this plan will be the "final answer".

La Véloscénie starts in Paris and passes through Chartres. We sure could have used this information yesterday! Sometimes it was really frustrating to try to find a route, especially leaving Paris.
From Brent: We haven't been in France very long and are shaking off the last of the jet-lag. We've had a couple of short rides but mostly we've been hauling the bikes around like baggage. The plan is to start riding in earnest tomorrow. Chartres to Illiers-Combray. There are so many hyphenated place names here and a lot with pronunciations that French class didn't prepare us for. Chartres is pronounced Shart and I still haven't found out about the next town's proper pronunciation.
From Brent: So far the French people have been wonderful. As long as you make an effort, folks are very forgiving. I got a French lesson from a bar-man a few days ago over several glasses of wine. Each time he came to the table he gave me a new phrase to learn and corrected my pronunciation on the previous one. The lesson has made it easier to get what we want in a café or restaurant.
This was weird. Yesterday was our first real day of riding on our cycle tour. We've been planning this trip for years and I've been really excited about it. I've had a little trepidation about being away from work for six months but that's just my own thing.

Instead of moving on from Chartres immediately, we decided to take a day off to rest and do some research. In the evening I had a short but extremely intense bout of depression. I felt old and done and tired. I felt very strongly that I was not interested at all in cycle touring, especially not for six months. I did not want to be there. I did not want to cycle another day. Yet I also did not want to go back to Canada and back to work. There was truly nothing that I wanted to do. All the spark... all the life had gone out of me. I felt fat. I'm packing around way too much weight and it made me feel like I can't move and I don't want to move. I wondered if there's anything else besides eating and laying around that can bring me pleasure anymore. I just wanted to be at home on the couch with the TV and a bag of potato chips. I just wanted to eat until I was Jaba the Hut and explode and die and be done. I felt that there was nothing left for me.

Strangely, this depression lifted just as quickly as it had come down on me. Brent bought me wine and talked me through it. I don't know why it happened. It might have just been because I found yesterday to be very very tough physically and mentally.

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