July 1st was my take off date. Ireland to Italy Summer 2013!
I've always wanted to cycle around Europe. I loved the thought of getting to mainland Europe without getting on a plane. The thought of slow travel, taking in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people has always enticed me. Summer 2013 was the summer for it. My partner was off travelling the world so I decided to live my dream and have my own adventure.
I spent a summer in Italy six years ago and I've always wanted to go back to visit my friends so Trento in Northern Italy became my final destination. Ireland to Italy, one girl and her bike!!!
I set a very rough route defined by where friends lived along the way, cycle routes and places I've always wanted to go. It ended up being a 1800km cycle.
Day 1 involved taking the ferry, bus, train and bike to my first destination, Cambridge. I was nervous before I set off. My bike was now carrying everything I needed for the next month so it was heavier than usual but once I got moving it was amazing, I could hardly feel the extra weight on it. Cycling around new places was great too. Dublin was easy, such a flat city! Coming off the ferry in Holyhead was a bit sketchy as I was between all the arctic trucks but once I left the ferry terminal and got onto the minor roads in Wales it was great. Rolling hills, beautiful scenery and lovely little villages that you don't see on motorways. The UK surprised me with its really beautiful villages, canals and polite drivers. It has many cycle routes, sometimes they can be confusing but for the most part, when you're on the cycle route and you're going the right direction it's a lovely place to cycle around.
I took the Eurostar from London to Belgium. Two and a half hours and I'm in a completely different city, country and culture - amazing. I really enjoyed cycling around London, there's a great cycle culture that I wasn't expecting and so many people cycling. Brussels was very different, there are lots of cyclists but cars and cyclists don't mix so well. The cyclists have to use the cycle lanes and if you happen to venture onto the road you need to be very careful as the drivers don't seem to respect cyclists as much as they do in countries where cyclists and cars share the road.
My route took me from Brussels to southern Belgium, through Luxembourg and over to Trier in Germany. From Germany I went south along the Saar river to France, met with the Rhine canal which took me into Strasbourg and then followed the canal south again to Colmar. It's amazing passing through the different countries by bike and experiencing the different cultures, languages, foods, bicycle routes and how the differences can be so apparent even though the borders aren't! I cycled through the Flanders region of Brussels where they speak Flemish and give 3 kisses as hello and then all of a sudden it was Bonjour from fellow cyclists in the Wallon region, 2 kisses, not as many bicycle paths and a lot more hills. Luxembourg is also hilly with lovely quite roads through the woods and along rivers. I cycled for quite a while looking at Germany over the river and when I finally crossed the river it was interesting how different the cycling experience was. Cycle paths and cyclists everywhere of all shapes and sizes. Germany is a very bike friendly country. Cycle paths in the cities, between cities, along rivers and everyone cycles. It's their way of commuting, great to see!
As there is free travel between European countries I never passed an official border from one country to another but they were obvious in other ways. The most obvious difference was cycling along the Saar river to Saarbrucken in industrial Germany, cycling along a very busy and fast cycle path under massive pipes used for the steel industry there and a few kilometres later cycling along the same river, on the same cycle route through a pretty French town with lots of flowers, less cyclists and everyone going a lot slower!
I met so many people along the way. Some, old friends that I had arranged to stay with, others, people that hosted me through websites such as warmshowers.org and couchsurfing.org and many more that I just met along the way. Cycling, although a solo adventure can be very sociable and people often like to chat along the way and help and encourage one another.
From Colmar I cycled along the Rhine wine route, then across to Freiburg, Germanys most cycle friendly city and then to the mountain in the Black forest. From there I cycled to Lake Constance and my entrance to the Alps. The Alps were definitely what I was most scared about but they weren't so bad, slow and steady that's the secret. I actually really enjoyed the climbs. Such a sense of achievement to have reached the top of my first Alpine pass, the Alberg Pass, 1800m, all by pedal power. From Landeck in Austria I joined Via Claudia Augusta, the first route the Romans took from Germany to the Mediteranian. It is now a really nice cycle path the whole way. Beautiful scenery, mountains, rivers, villages, really well signposted and so easy to follow. And for those that don't fancy cycling the uphill parts there's shuttle buses for cyclists! The route crosses from Austria to Italy via the Reschenpass. This pass although not as high as Alberg Pass was definitely more spectacular and it also meant I had reached Italy, home of gelato and my final destination!! Only two days of downhill cycling left which of course was wonderful!
What surprised me most about the trip is that it didn't hurt. At no point where my legs or bum sore. I took it easy on the bike, spent time taking in my surroundings, took plenty of breaks and ate lots of food. I think that all helped, well, as well as my padded shorts, cyclists bum cream and a bit of yoga some evenings.
What was hardest about the trip was finding my way. At the beginning of the trip I would look at the distance and think ok, 20km an hour so that should take maybe four hours. How wrong I was! It didn't take long before I realised that I needed to factor in reading maps, road signs, asking for directions and getting lost as an integral part of every day. One hour extra at least every day for route finding, and 20km an hour was too fast. Ok at home when I'm going from one place to another but here where I wanted to take pictures, get lost and take it easy it was more like 15km/hr and that would sometimes include my route finding time, depending how lost I got!!
What was my favourite part of the trip? The journey! I loved it all, every day offered new scenery, challenges, people. Cycling is such a lovely way of travelling and I really got to see the countryside so much more than I would if I was in a car. It's also such a simple type of holiday. Just me and my bike, I know I can only travel a certain distance every day so I just visit the nice places along the way. I can eat massive amounts of food (according to my Garmin watch I burned 96,000 calories but I'm doubting that), have a beer or wine along the way or in the evenings. Take in the scenery, listen to and smell nature, go for a swim, stop and watch the boats go through the locks at the canals and best of all there was no stress!
My partner and I rented a car when we met in Trento and straight away I missed my bike. Everything happens so fast in cars, getting lost on a motorway is very stressful, driving on the other side of the road is stressful, tackling mountain passes with a little rental car, parking, getting fuel, speed limits, tolls, it's all so tiring. I was more tired after two hours in a car than a day on the bike!
Would I recommend a cycling holiday? Absolutely, the best holiday I've ever had!