This blog post was written by Whangarei Vegan Society member, Ian Duffield.
If you’ve ever stewed in the traffic porridge waiting to crawl over the harbour bridge, or at the entrance to the Wellington tunnel where four lanes compress to one, you will have wondered if there was a better way to organise your transport.
And you know the answer: it’s the century old bicycle.
Europeans worked out decades ago that the best way to reduce car congestion is to invest heavily in bike paths, and marry them to an efficient public transport network. The marriage has been so successful that cycling, for all ages, has become the norm. Trains throughout Europe carry bicycles at little or no cost, the carriages are clearly identified with large bike logos painted on the side, and on the larger trains these are predictably the first and last carriages.
Europe is crisscrossed with bike paths, the tracks on which our ancestors walked for centuries, with many now adapted solely for bicycles, and some of them finessed to a level better than the “best“ roads in Aotearoa. More recently, the European Cycling Federation has had government support to upgrade many of these routes for thousands of kilometres in the Eurovelo network (www.eurovelo.com), a score of north-south and east-west routes, to a standard comparable to the new Kamo cycle path.
It’s not perfect: despite good signage, you still get lost, or you unexpectedly meet gravel detours, and occasionally the paths are combined with roads. Fortunately, in such cases, the route blends into minor roads with little traffic.
Cycling is undoubtedly the best way to travel in Europe. You can puddle along quietly at the speed you choose, stop at will to enjoy the visual splendour of river landscapes, the beautiful architectural styles of the towns and villages, and your encounters with other travellers and Café staff. A huge advantage for vegan Kiwis like us, is that in Europe, you see very few farm animals. Perhaps the animals are well hidden, but the upside is that the fields are unfenced… you can enjoy a vista of acres of sunflowers swaying in the wind, without them being framed with barbed wire.
In June and early July, Cathy, Jesse and I, (and Danielle for a week) traced a route along Germany’s bike routes, following four rivers which link some of Europe’s World Heritage towns. We began in Frankfurt, and trained to near Rothenburg ob dem Tauber which is one of the few towns with its mediaeval wall still intact. We then climbed over the divide between Germany’s two great waterways, and followed the Altmühl river, through contours of wheat and rye, down to the Danube, and then eastwards along Eurovelo 6 which bowls along beside the famous river to its mouth at the Black Sea. At its most northerly point the river reaches Regensburg, another Heritage town, and the cycle path actually crosses the town’s famous Steinebrücke, the world’s oldest functioning bridge built in the mid twelfth century.
Following the Danube took us to Passau, renowned for its cathedral with the largest pipe organ in Europe. (They hold daily lunchtime recitals.) From Linz, in Austria, we trained up into Czechia to Cesky Krumlov, which with a fairy tale castle, is billed in tourist literature as a mini-Prague. The cycle path north through Bohemia is called the Greenways Route, and winds around the Vlatava river on its way to the Czech capital. After a brief sojourn here (a great sampling spot for vegan kai), we resumed cycling and joined the Elbe cycle path which flows from the Czechia hills for hundreds of kilometres to the North Sea. The Elbe is dotted with famous cities, including Wittenberg and Dresden, where we were lucky to be able to spend a few days before completing our journey in the vegan Mecca of Berlin.
Travelling can be like cutting your finger: it’s hard to stop bleeding…. money! But biking and camping, and going vegan, provide possibilities for drastically cutting costs.
Camping grounds, although very basic, are well spaced along Europe’s rivers – our biggest stretch was 60 km – and often charge about 10 Euro per person, much cheaper than hotel or pension alternatives. Note that camping grounds have a high and low season (for prices); if you travel when most Europeans themselves are on holiday – from mid-July to late August – I’m sure you will find accommodation costs correspondingly higher, camping grounds crammed, and many tourist sites, like the Berlin Wall, or the John Lennon Wall in Prague, absolutely clogged with fellow tourists.
Vegan food is readily available, although you might have to innovate in the villages, just as in NZ. Happy Cow cafes and restaurants have listings for most larger towns and cities, but seemed quite expensive. Bio shops are prevalent, and like “Denns” in Berlin have a delectable selection of vegan cheeses and milks and meat alternatives, and are usually labelled as such. Supermarkets often contain Bio (organic) fruit and veges (we timed it nicely for the apricot harvest hitting the shelves), and if you are lucky enough you might come across the occasional growers’ market. Preparing your own meals, though not always practicable, is a good option, for invariably you will find that prices are less than at home. One catch is that on Sundays, and public holidays like Corpus Christi, most shops will be closed.
If you haven’t travelled like this before, here are a few pointers:
- Do your research; crazyguyonabike.com is a cyclist blog site with masses of information. If you want to go to Berlin or Cairo or Dunedin, another (probably non-vegan) cyclist will have been there, and written about it. It also has a lot of topic-specific info, such as Graeme Dawe’s catalogue of the riverside campgrounds in Germany. Mapy.cz is a good locater site for which you don’t need to be online, and the google sites are also useful when you are unsure of your route.
- The Whangarei library has a copy of the Danube cycle guide, as far as Budapest, and we were given a copy of the tourist guide to the Elbe route, but it’s in German! If you’re interested in borrowing it, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
- You can also buy detailed guides online. (esterbauer.com). This, if available, might be a good idea if you intend to spend some time in Czechia, for which our internet research found limited info regarding campsites.
- Choose your gear carefully to minimise weight. When you push your bike up the occasional hill, you’ll wish you hadn’t brought that second pair of shoes.
- Get fit before you go. You’ll toughen up biking on successive days, but unless you spend a lot of time on bikes or bike machines prior to leaving, the muscles in your nether parts will transmit pointed protest messages in the first week.
- Average temperatures don’t tell you the details. It may have been summer, but we experienced a temperature range from 39 down to 9 degrees. So pack your thermals.
- It’s not much fun biking or tenting in the rain. Check the forecasts, and have your Plan B. Taking a train, or boat, or holing up in a beautiful city in a cheap hotel, are options worth considering during horrible weather. (We braved the heatwave with the help of a hotel room with AC in Dresden.)
- Knowing some local language helps. Luckily for us, the English iwi seems to have given the tourism sector a second language in northern Europe, but railway and shop staff in smaller places often understand little. Having key phrases and questions in their language will help overcome some difficulties (unless you have great mime skills). At least, research your unwanted zutaten (ingredients). Often they have close English equivalents, like milch (milk) and honig (honey).
- If you ride hundreds of kilometres, something is bound to stress on your bikes. We had two punctures plus a blowout, and two gear cables stretched. So you need some basic tools (and know-how) in your kit. Towns invariably have a bike shop, and we have found they switch tasks quickly to help, but you can’t always pick where you break down. Again, if you have unusual bikes (like our folding Bromptons with smaller wheels), you will need to carry a few spares like tyres and tubes.
- Working round in a loop has advantages. We flew into Frankfurt and then biked and trained anti-clockwise round to Berlin. This allowed us to take advantage of the prevailing Westerly wind down the Altmühl and Danube rivers. The downside was travelling down the Elbe, but upwind. A loop can have another advantage in that you might be able to leave some gear and collect it when you return. We stayed overnight after our flight in the not-so-cheap Hotel Post in Frankfurt, but they stored our bike bags for no cost till we returned from Berlin.
- Cycling and camping aren’t everyone’s favourite travel combination – not everyone wants to bike their quota of kilometres, and then put up a tent, prepare food and finally try and sleep on a blow-up mattress. But there are dozens of fellow cyclists doing it, and chatting to them is all part of the journey. Many of us haven’t experienced, or have simply forgotten, the feeling of travelling remote from the incessant noise of major highways. Rather, in our cycling world, it is the quiet of the rivers which creates the continuity of our journey, and which can help us explore the lives and achievements of the people who have lived beside them for centuries.