June 22 – First day in the Netherlands

It is Thursday night, we’ve been awake for a day and a half, just rode 90 km (57 miles), and it is almost 10 pm, so this might work better as an enumerated list of thoughts.

  1.  I can’t sleep in planes. I can fall asleep in 15 seconds on a hard church bench with a loud sermon, but put me on a plane and I’m wide awake. At least I was able to read a good book. Natalie is about the same (at church too).
  2. I over-stressed about bike transport. It ended up working well. We lucked out though, because when I picked up our bike box from the odd sized luggage claim area, the bottom ripped off and everything in the box came pouring out. We had panniers, tools, shoes, and helmets loose in the box with the bike. Had that happened in the plane cargo hold we would have lost things. Yesterday Natalie said “shouldn’t you tape the bottom of the box?” Laughing at her naivety, I informed her the bottom was stapled shut and needed no tape. Everyone knows that, right?
  3.  It took us about two hours to assemble the bike and maybe two more to find the place to assemble it, get organized, change our clothes, fill water bottles, etc. We landed a little after 9 am and started riding a little after 1 pm.
  4. Then we got lost leaving the airport. Our navigation system works good once on route, but not so much for finding the start of the route. We figured it out, eventually. Like after an hour…
  5. We meet several (not exaggerating) other couples, mostly retired, doing the same thing we were. This was exciting and encouraging. We were able to give our bike boxes to a couple who were packing to head back to the US. 
  6. The Netherlands is beautiful! Seriously beyond description. The bike trails are more than abundant (which can help one get lost) and the drivers are super bike aware. The landscape was amazing. We were gawking so much we often forgot to take pictures. 
  7. The last 2 hours of our ride was in light rain with thunder. It caused us to push for speed a bit. Once we stopped for Natalie to put on a rain coat the rain stopped. She left it on to keep the rain away. Pete had had a last minute great idea to pack our 2 rainproof covers that we use on backpacking trips, and those worked perfectly to keep our 4 panniers dry. 
  8. We are staying at a beautiful bed and breakfast in a little town called Bruchem. We found a simple cafe and had fries and salad for dinner. We learned how to say hi and thanks in Dutch.
  9. We are baked. I don’t anticipate the timezone change messing with our ability to sleep tonight.
  10. Tomorrow we go about 100 km (64 miles) and into northwestern Germany.

June 23 Bruchem to Dilsen-Stokkem

We slept in… longer than ever… Birds woke us up at about 4, but we put in earplugs and fell back to sleep. I slept until 8:30. It was amazing. The bed was really comfortable and there were 4 windows open and a fan. The temperature was perfect. We loved B&B De Bloesemgof. Highly recommend it, especially if you need a place that also can securely store your bike.

No Alpine start for us. We didn’t roll until after 9:30. We rode a few miles and found a place with smoothies and fruit – our standard breakfast.

When we finished eating and got ready to leave it started raining, so we put on our coats and that made it stop.

After a little less then 2 hours we stopped at a farmers market in Saint-Michelsgestel and bought fruit and veggies for lunch.

We then rode through Eindhoven, Achel, and Bocholt. We are staying in Dilsen-Stokken in the House Max B&B. The hosts are super nice – the husband even offered a ride to a restaurant, which our tired bodies gratefully accepted.

Today’s ride was mostly on beautiful bike paths. Some of the route had us next to large canals with barges and other boats. The few roads we had to use seemed to give bikes high priority. The drivers seem extra courteous.

The highlight of the day for me was finding a place that served popsicles. Seriously, popsicles straight from heaven.

Our ride was a little over 100 km and involved about 500 turns (there are so many paths – and our routing software tends to offer zig zag routes through the larger cities.) Amazingly we only took 2 or 3 wrong turns which we quickly recovered from. I have no idea how people did this without phones and bike computers with GPS.

Dinner was nice. Another salad for Natalie and veggie spaghetti for me.

Everyone has been nice to help us with our complete lack of Dutch language skills. Although we confuse them when we say we don’t want cheese or meat. Crazy Americans.

June 24 from Dilsen-Stokkem to Monschau

Natalie here, writing about our 3rd day of riding. We usually kinda co-write….

Last night we had a harder time getting to sleep. We wondered if our sodas at dinner may have been caffeinated or something. Or it could be our body clocks still adjusting. We really speak/read no Dutch! So menus and labels are mysterious to us. Thank goodness for translating apps. And also GPS and Google maps! How did people do trips like this before then?! Haha

Breakfast at Huyze Max B&B was simple but very yummy: fruit, plain salad, bread, OJ. We really appreciated our host’s effort to make something we could eat. We are also grateful that he let us park our bike in his garage!

The weather today was perfect: cloudy and breezy and cool. Great biking weather, especially for a day with hills to climb.
As it was a Saturday, we saw tons of bikers on the trails and roads, especially groups of road bikers. We had one short ferry crossing early today, and the only customers were in fact groups of bikers! 

Early today we also experienced our first detour of the trip: a closed bridge. Thanks to our routing software we were pretty easily able to re-route, and the detour was through beautiful farmland.

We began in Belgium of course, then we were in Netherlands part of the day, and finally Germany. We rode 48.8 miles (78.5 km) and gained 2700 vertical feet. That’s a lot compared to our last two days which have been pretty flat. Our legs are tired but happy. We’re staying in Germany tonight. It’s fun to keep crossing borders. We’ve never had to show our passports except at the airport. I love having Euros, as compared to when I did my Belgium internship 30 years ago and was constantly exchanging money in every country. (Go E.U.!!)

Much of today’s ride was in kind of more industrial but small towns. Interesting! Then as we climbed higher we got into more green and wow it was beautiful!!!

A couple of the cities we passed through were Heerlen, Netherlands, and Aachen, Germany (where we rode through a cool little cobblestone shopping area).

Today near the end of ride we had 10 miles of sustained climbing. Then we ended the ride going down a bunch of super steep, twisting, narrow, cobblestone streets and being amazed by this old German town of Monschau! Google it! We did not expect to be staying in such a cool place! Monschau Germany is a 300-year-old town and we are staying in a 200-year-old house (B&B found through AirBnB), up a tiny cobblestone crazy-steep street. We have a sweet old German lady host who helped us stash our bike safely in a random small room at the bottom of her house. After cleaning up we found a simple but good dinner at an outside cafe, surrounded by many different languages, and ate slowly and just talked. Then we strolled through the quaint old town, happy to relax and stretch our legs. 

Tired but happy! It really was an amazing day. What a great adventure! What great variety we have in our world. 

30 years ago

Natalie again… Thirty years ago this summer (so, 1987) I did an internship in French-speaking Belgium, after completing an intensive university program of French. It was an amazing experience; I learned so much, and not just about French. I traveled for 2 weeks before beginning work, to London, Paris, Dijon, Geneva, and Interlochen. On weekends I traveled with friends to other places in Belgium like Brussels, Bruges, and Luxembourg. I had two consecutive jobs: one at a grocery store in Bastogne and one teaching English in Thiaumont. I’ll write more about Bastogne later — we head there tomorrow!
In this post I want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed are waaayyy different about this Europe trip for me.

Finding your way around: “Fodor” travel book and paper maps vs GPS and Google maps. What a world of difference. Can’t even compare. Seriously, I don’t know where to begin to compare these two methods. Technology is amazing despite its “problems.”

Google translate. You can hold up your phone’s camera to text in other languages and it translates right there before your eyes. It even matches the fonts. I would never have believed that was possible 30 years ago. We had little pocket dictionaries and hand signals.

Euros. Once again, go E.U.!! Soooo nice not to have to be trying to use up your cash before you leave each country so as not to lose too much with the exchange rate. Or just trying to find somewhere to exchange all your different money all the time. Boo Brexit. And 30 years ago I just had a pile of traveler’s checks (and an emergency-only credit card). Did ATMs even exist 30 years ago? Haha, I forget!

Of course my mode of travel is completely different this time. A recumbent tandem orange bike vs trains and buses. That affects where you travel and of course speed and what you are able to notice and experience.

Eating simply:  In 1987 I had “no money,” so I ate simply out of necessity. Now we are eating simpler by choice (vegan and mostly gluten-free for going on 8 years, and what a difference it has made in our health). I have been eating a little bread, sometimes out of necessity. So far I’m doing ok. But I am worried about long term effects, as that is what I have noticed mostly in the past. This time, 30 years later, despite eating simpler than many people would in Europe, we are enjoying some very nice meals in fun restaurants and cafes. Again, a big plus for 30 years later.

Contact with the U.S. In 1987 I wrote paper letters to family and friends. I think I called my parents 3 times the entire 3-month internship (remember how crazy expensive long distance calls used to be?) This time we have social media, texting, and email at our disposal and if we want to call it’s much cheaper.

Photos! 30 years ago I had one camera and a few rolls of film. You never knew if the photos turned out until you paid to get them printed (which I didn’t do until I got back to the US). Sadly, the film was not advancing in my camera due to user error all the time I was in London, Paris, and Interlochen so I essentially lost all my photos from that time. It was a devastating feeling. I only had postcards and my memories. You had to “conserve” your shots/film. Now we are taking a ridiculous amount of photos and videos everywhere we go. It is great!

And saving the best for last: Being a 19- and 20-year-old woman traveling alone (and with another young woman I didn’t really know very well) is also obviously very different from traveling as a 49- and 50-year-old woman with my husband/ best friend! That is definitely the biggest win of this trip by far!!!

June 25 – Rest day, day of rest

Today we slept in, awaking to the sound of rain. The air was clear and cold. A perfect Sunday morning. Our host left us a basket of food for breakfast. We are really pleased with this Airbnb.

We wanted to attend church but the nearest congregation of our faith is in Aachen. Unfortunately the bus service doesn’t run there on Sunday, so we were left to come up with a different plan for our worship. We planned to attend Mass at the nearby church, but found that had been temporarily cancelled. We went to the cathedral and sat peacefully for about and hour. It was a good opportunity to meditate. In the afternoon we went to an Evangelical musical sing along. Most of the music wasn’t religious, but a few at the end were more so. We missed our normal Sunday experience and hope to attend church in Paris next Sunday.

In the evening we ate dinner at a simple Asian restaurant, and then strolled around the town. This place is amazingly beautiful. We can only imagine how magical it must feel during Christmas.

Tomorrow to celebrate Natalie’s birthday she gets to ride about 70 miles with the same elevation gain as Saturday — with the first 30 – 40 minutes spent pushing our bike up and out of this beautiful town. For her birthday present I’ll let her rest her feet on my back while I pedal for a while. We hope to start early and beat the rain in the forecast, as wet cobblestone could be treacherous.

Birthday girl rides to Bastogne

Natalie didn’t sleep well last night. Maybe her body clock is taking some time to adjust. Maybe it isn’t used to getting more than 5 hours of sleep the night before…. She eventually fell asleep but we were up early getting ready for the ride to Bastogne.

Our Airbnb host provided a nice breakfast and we took off before 8:30. We chose to push our bike for about the first 15 minutes because of the steep, narrow, cobblestone roads. We started riding once our legs were warm and the road widened. The weather was overcast and cool. Perfect for riding.

We rode most of the day on two bike paths without the noise of cars. This has to be one of the most beautiful ways to see Europe. Not only to see it, but to hear and smell it too. (Natalie’s note: all day we were passing through beautiful mountain forests, rolling hilly farms, and lovely villages with flower boxes in pretty much every window! Amazing.)

As promised, I let Natalie rest her feet on my back as I pedaled, because after all, she is the birthday princess. Luckily for me she is more comfortable with her feet clipped into the pedals. (Natalie’s add: this is all true.)

Today’s route was moderate physically. We gained 2600 feet but none of the climbs were sustained. Some of the hills were 8 and 9 percent in grade, but we feel like our legs are getting stronger and making it up hills that would have challenged us a few weeks ago.

We ate lunch (snacks) in the middle of nowhere with broad fields and rolling hills in a beautiful empty picnic area off the bike trail that appeared to be there primarily for bikers. (Natalie here: we could have taken a nap or gotten a suntan on these nice comfy chairs!)

Natalie is enjoying speaking French. So many people greet us with friendly comments as we ride by.

Arrived in Bastogne at about 3:30. Our hotel allowed us to store our bike in their basement. Our first order of business (after showers) was to take care of laundry. When everything you can travel with has to fit into a small pannier, you don’t have a lot of clothes. We were both at the point that either we find a laundromat or start wearing dirty clothes. Luckily we found one about a 20-minute walk from our hotel. I chose to wear my swimming suit (not a speedo) and a shirt to maximize my laundry opportunity and to establish myself as a bold American with little sense of fashion. My black shoes and grey REI socks topped off my ensemble nicely.

I got a slushy on the way and pretty much was in heaven from that point on. There is something about sugar water and ice and food coloring that brings me to my happy place after a long day’s ride. Natalie seems to have a more refined palate. Her loss. (Natalie again: I was craving nuts, which I bought while he sat with laundry.)

The laundromat was in the same building where Natalie worked at a grocery store 30 years ago. So while I got dizzy watching the clothes going around Natalie went back to her old stomping grounds and bought us snacks. We  chugged grapefruit/orange juice, ate nuts, and finished with chocolate rice cake sandwich thingies.

Then we walked back to our hotel, went and ate a slightly more normal but less satisfying dinner, and finished our day planning our next.

Happy birthday #50 Natalie! 30 years ago you probably never would have guessed that you’d be on some crazy trip riding a crazy bike with a crazy husband staying in the same town in which you celebrated #20. I raise my slushy high in the air to you. (Natalie’s note: Thank you, Pete, for inspiring all this craziness! What a memorable birthday!)

Wonderful Reunion in Bastogne

Natalie writing today.
This morning Pete and I went to “Le Mardasson,” the beautiful World War II memorial in Bastogne. I of course had been there in 1987, but in 2014 they had built a new museum. The outdoor memorial really is as beautiful as I remember. The new museum was very nicely done, with many interesting artifacts, interesting audio, informative displays, and readings. But our favorite parts were probably the three rooms where elaborate scenes had been created with films and narration about three parts of the Battle of the Bulge, in and around Bastogne near the later part of the war in Europe. The whole memorial/museum experience was sobering and very moving. It was good to go and reflect. 

But the afternoon and early evening today were the most memorable for me, and we accomplished one if the major goals and reasons for this trip: We were able to visit Josiane and Maurice, the dear couple with whom I lived 30 years ago when I worked at the grocery store here. It was so very good to see them! And I was able to see most of their family as they stopped by throughout our visit. It was truly a delight. They were so good to me and welcomed me into their family and lives back in the summer of 1987. We talked and laughed and took pictures. I tried to translate for Pete occasionally, as he really doesn’t speak French, but he had to be (and was) very patient, and that meant so much to me. Thank you, Pete! Merci encore, Josiane et Maurice ! Je vous aime. 

Rainy ride to Sedan

Pete writing… 

We slept great. Our body clocks must have caught up.

Woke to rain, a lot of it. Forecast was rain all day, so after breakfast we rode off into the rain. We followed a route suggested by Google – you know the ones that have a note that says ‘this feature is in beta, so don’t blame us if this route stinks’ or something like that. Within the first 100 yards we were bouncing along a rocky path. For most of the day we alternated between remote roads and trails and crowded roads. We’re going to go back to our other routing software tomorrow. Sorry Google.

It rained hard most of the day, but somehow it was still fun. The rain made the colors more vibrant and saved us the trouble of sweating. Our Houdini coats turned out to be not as rain proof as we hoped. Maybe next time we will bring plastic overcoats for days like this. We are grateful it wasn’t colder today.

Today we rode through lots of small towns. Sometimes our route would take us off the main roads and onto small unpaved village roads that have probably been there for hundreds of years. Crazy cool way to see Europe.

We were so soaked we decided not to stop for lunch or rests – just photos. We worried if we stopped moving we would get cold. Plus, we wanted to get to Sedan before it got worse. And we wanted to get dry.

We arrived in Sedan relatively early and checked into an older hotel near the center of town. It has character. (I mean that in a positive way.)

We showered and then scrounged for groceries, walked around a few hours, and found an open bike shop where we got some chain oil. We sat in a pretty garden park for a while. Then we looked at the massive castle fort of Sedan. The didn’t seem to be much else to see, so we found a simple dinner, bought some groceries for breakfast, and headed to our hotel.

Rain is in the forecast. We are excited to see more of France.

Winning the bed and breakfast lottery

This morning we rode from Sedan – rain was threatening, but never materialized. The weather was perfect.

Today we didn’t have any sustained climbs, but several short ones over 10% grade. Our legs are getting stronger, but still hurt on these steep climbs. (Natalie’s note: Emphasis on the word “several.” And we rode through such beautiful rolling hillside farms!)

We arrived on Guignicourt around 3:30 and found our accommodations. A simple bed and breakfast on a working farm. The home was destroyed in World War I, and rebuilt shortly after. It was eventually gutted and used for storage. Recently the owner (probably a grandson or great grandson of the original owner) refinished the inside, so it is a unique combination of an old exterior with a very modern and well-appointed interior. It is very nice, but the hosts are even nicer. We talked for an hour or two, cooked dinner together (exceptional yet simple meal) and then talked for at least another hour. (Natalie again: They are so delightful and welcoming. We really feel at home. And we even got to see up close all his cool huge farm machinery! Pete loved their homemade apple juice.) Every bed and breakfast we have stayed at has been great. It’s like we’re winning the bnb lottery.

(Natalie’s PS about our hosts: Such a friendly and fascinating couple. She was born and raised in Siberia but has also lived, worked, and studied in France and Sweden. She speaks excellent English and of course French. She teaches languages online now. He is a farmer and has done agricultural internships and studies in other countries (like Australia, New Zealand, Sweden). He is amazingly organized. He knows a great deal about the area and its history. They are both fascinating to talk with.)

Now turn left onto cow path

Pete again…

If your trip through Europe doesn’t include the GPS directions lady saying “now turn left onto cow path” you might be doing it wrong.

Today we woke up and had a big breakfast. The biggest yet. Our bnb hosts went out of their way to accommodate our crazy diets and we had also shopped for breakfast for all four of us, so by the time we were done eating we were stuffed. We said goodbye to our new friends in Guignicourt and headed for Compiègne about 60 miles away.

Today’s route took us through parts of France that few tourists and perhaps few locals see. At one point we were riding across fields on the paths the farmers use for their farm equipment. Another time we popped out of some trees on a non-trail behind some workers running heavy equipment loading barges. In all cases we’d wave as of to say “Yeah, we know where we are and we belong here.” There were some confused looks today, but none were on our faces.

The poor GPS directions lady had to keep saying “the tour is being adjusted, now make a u-turn.” She said it at least 50 times and somehow always maintained her composure, repeating that phrase kindly in a clear but authoritative voice. We hope to be as level-headed in the face of disobedience someday. We’re hoping she doesn’t call in sick tomorrow — we certainly wore her out.

When we weren’t on the less-traveled paths we tended to be on busy roads with no shoulders, fast cars, and puddles. Natalie was splashed several times. We remained calm, rode on, and looked for cow paths.

It rained several times today (thus the puddles) but now when it would start to rain we’d think of our bnb host Jean-René and his crops and yell “hooray for Jean-René.” We of course realize that is silly, but mentally it changed how we processed the weather. Once we are far enough away from Jean-René’s farm we’ll revert to hoping for sun.

The view from tonight’s bnb window is crazy good — right in the middle of the city across from a cathedral. It is a small apartment to ourselves with a modern interior and an old exterior. It has a full kitchen which we put to good use for dinner tonight. It has a safe place to store our bike in a small interior courtyard, but it was super tight getting it in. Our bike is over 8 feet long. Years of elders quorum moves, slogging pianos through impossibly tight stairwells, have prepared me for this very moment.

After showers we walked around Compiègne. We just missed visiting the palace museum by an hour. We needed to ride faster on the cow paths. We bought dinner and breakfast at a grocery store and headed back to our apartment to rest and cook.

Tomorrow: Paris!

Getting breakfast ready
Minimal path
“trail” came from the left and ended toward the right
Single track on a recumbent tandem!
View from our window
Eating dinner with Natalie