Sufferfest from Compiègne to Paris

(Co-writing today, but the “I” is usually Pete as he was typing.) We are writing this from an Indian restaurant near where we are staying in the 18th arrondissement. We are happy to have found a vegan-friendly place to eat (recommended by a local on the street and also our Happy Cow app). The real challenge of this tour is less about riding a bike through Europe and more about finding food that fits our diets.

Today we woke to rain. A lot of rain. Hooray for Jean-René! We had no idea if it would stop, so we put on our Houdini coats and started to ride in the rain. 5 hours later it was still raining and we were soaked! The wind and cold added to the experience. The Houdinis held up poorly. We were drenched and cold. (Yes this paragraph is repetitive on purpose because it rained a lot and we were cold.)

We had our first gravity check today – we hit some very loose gravel and tipped over. Luckily we were already in the process of pulling over and going slowly. It caused minimal damage to us and the bike and we learned something else to watch out for. Part of the learning experience.

I had Barry Manilow singing “I made it through the rain” in my brain for hours today. That may have been the worst part of the ride. The situation called more for an “eye of the tiger” vibe than Barry’s slow jams. 

The traffic became more and more dense as we approached Paris. I think there are a few good bike routes into the city. We weren’t on one, but we survived. Occasionally a driver or pedestrian would give a thumbs up or honk or shout a cheer to encourage us on our way. It would always make us smile.

Today’s ride was between 40 and 50 miles. We were slowed by the weather and the last 5 miles we were slowed by traffic. Imagine a big long tandem bike trying to navigate New York City during rush hour. That was us. Natalie has to pedal solo much of the time as I have my feet on the ground to catch us as the cars stop and start.

We drug our tired bodies into our Airbnb flat on the North side of Paris. This is clearly a non-tourist part of town. Our flat is really small but we have it to ourselves.

Upon arriving we showered (we were both chilled) and started doing laundry. This Airbnb has a washer but no dryer, as is common in Europe, so we had to get our clothes washed quickly so they would have 36 hours to air dry.

Next we headed into the center of the city on the metro. We found the bridge from the movie Inception that Amy wanted us to find. That was cool! It’s called le Pont Birk-Hakeim and it’s close to the Eiffel Tower. That area was of course insanely busy but we wandered around and took some photos. It was fun and touristy. Despite the crowd, is a pretty part of the city. We have both been there before but not together. Later we took the metro back to our AirBnB flat and bought a few groceries. Then we took on the project of finding dinner with vegan options and finally happily ended up at the aforementioned Indian place which turned out to be excellent! 

Now we are pretty beat and looking forward to a rest day / day of rest tomorrow. It has been a good four-day haul to Paris. Fun to be here together! Crazy how diverse each day’s experience has been so far. 

Rest day?

(Pete writing)  We slept great. We are at an eclectic artsy Airbnb flat. At first it seemed extra cramped, but after a short adjustment period it felt great. It seems like the owner just goes and stays with friends when she is able to rent it out – so it feels really lived in.

We attended church in the center of Paris in a beautiful historic building. There were many visitors because a BYU study abroad group attended today. I was so impressed by the diversity of the local membership. It was great to be in the minority in almost every possible way, yet feel so united.

The church is in the building on the left

Once church was over we started walking. Then we walked, and walked, and walked some more. We walked like pioneer children. We walked around Paris for more than 4 hours. We saw Notre Dame, le Palais de la Justice, le Jardin (and le Palais) de Luxembourg, le Pont Neuf, le Louvre, le Jardin de Tuileries, la Place de la Concorde, l’Arc de Triomphe, some kind of giant parade, and probably other places we can’t think of right now. It was easily 10 miles.
We are now sitting on the metro heading back to our flat where we will have dinner: vegetable soup, fruit, and salad.

I can’t wait to get on the bike tomorrow and get some rest. My body can’t keep up with the rigors of hard-core tourism.

(Natalie’s PS: This was a “just-right” Paris day with Pete. Paris really is amazing — the architecture, the museums, the gardens. It can seem almost unbelievable. I loved strolling around together. … Also interesting: Along the Champs Élysées this afternoon there was a big parade for Carnaval Tropical, and as we were going into the area we had to have a quick bag check and pat-down by police. There were so many people, it was a bit overwhelming. But it was a pretty fancy parade, very colorful, musical, and lots  of dance.)

Au revoir Paris!

(Pete writing again) Another good night for sleep! We thought about trying to time our departure from Paris so that we could miss rush hour, but rush hour is several hours so we just decided to embrace the madness and roll whenever we were ready to leave, which turned out to be just before 9. 

Traffic was crazy, as expected. It is good that we started in Amsterdam and gave ourselves more than a week to acclimate to navigating in Europe before attempting Paris. We did fine and about 10 minutes into the adventure a Paris bike commuter befriended us and we were able to follow him through the worst of it. 

It probably took an hour and a half to clear the city and its suburbs. Then it was peaceful farmland and small roads for a few hours. With about 20 miles left our route took us down a path that cows would struggle on. Eventually we had to retreat and piece together a bypass (which required a few bypasses itself). 

Eventually we hit Avenue Verte and finished our ride on a beautiful bike trail to Gournay-en-Bray where we are in a quaint Airbnb effectively staying in their attic. They make such good use of space here.

They also apparently never go to the bathroom. Seriously. Gas stations don’t have bathrooms. There are no rest stops on the highways. And when we ask at a gas station or store if they have a bathroom we could use they look at us confused, like we just asked for something super personal and awkward, like if we could borrow their socks to wear for a few minutes. 

We went looking for food tonight, on empty stomachs, which never ends well. The fries, cashews, and orange juice combo we put together at a random market and a Lebanese grill had the effect on our stomachs you would expect. We followed that up with a trip to the store for breakfast food, where we bought some fruit, vegetables, juice and almond milk.

Tomorrow will be a long day as we head for Berck on the northwest coast of France.

Natalie’s additions:

Miles today: about 65

Vertical feet: about 2000, but all nice slow gradual

Weather: Beautiful!! No rain!! A bit cloudy in the morning and sunnier in the afternoon. Around 70F. Perfect. 

A really nice day!

Great ride to the beach at Berck, France

(Natalie writing)

Happy Fourth of July, America!

Today’s ride was the longest segment of the trip: 85 miles. But it was also one of the best so far. We really had perfect weather, some clouds for about half the day, becoming sunnier in the afternoon, a nice breeze, and temperature in the low 70s F. The route itself was very enjoyable, perhaps our favorite thus far. It was one we adjusted rather late in our planning, so we weren’t sure how it would turn out. We had only a few climbs at 10% grade or higher, which were briefly painful but manageable. We only had minor routing problems. We rode on lots of small farm roads, some bike paths, and through some especially beautiful forests. As we got closer to Berck it became just a bit more touristy but much less busy than most beach destinations. 

Our biggest disappointment has been that we didn’t schedule a rest day here! It is a quiet but quaint beach town and we really like it! (I’m sure it’s much busier on the weekend…. We’re here on a Tuesday evening, after all.)

We’re in an excellent Airbnb, too. 

Dinner was from a grocery store again, to give us more time on the beach, but this time it was honestly delicious: Pete found some microwavable tofu rice lentil dishes. Really yummy! We added some fresh produce and nuts to our meal as well.

Then to finish the evening we walked to the beach where we snacked, strolled in the sand and tide, took photos, and enjoyed the setting sun. We even saw a seal playing in the water near the shore.

A few more notes in general about the trip:

It has been delightful for me to be able to have all sorts of little conversations with various people in French! Of course our bike and our trip usually are part of the conversation, but all kinds of other things come up as well, like politics, family, and education. I am so happy I have strengthened my French in recent years so that I could use it and benefit from it on this trip.  

Pete and I have often remarked to reach other that we have experienced an amazing variety so far. Each day, each ride, each location has been so different from the others. Pretty cool!

And finally, as we anticipated, we are definitely having an atypical European vacation. But that’s exactly what we wanted. It is a great adventure!

“Independence” day

(Pete today)  Today’s ride was to Calais, a simple 50 miles jaunt to the North. When you are skilled at navigating as I am you don’t need a GPS, so today we decided to declare our Independence from the oppressive GPS directions lady. Using my carefully honed scouting skills, I identified a way to get around the only significant obstacle we faced today: a half-mile climb maxing out around at around a 14% grade.

It was beautiful riding out of Berck this morning. If you want to spend time at a less crowded beach in France, Berck may be your ticket. Granted, we were there mid-week. We meandered along the coast until the trail ended.

Early in our ride nature made her morning call, so we went through the normal gas station rejection ritual. Natalie made the comment “we need a McDonald’s” and within minutes we saw one. There are very few over here, so it was kind of weird. McDonald’s didn’t disappoint and earned our purchase of a small order of fries for breakfast.

The next few hours went about the same, with several visits to beach towns, although none as charming as Berck. 

Natalie adding: towns such as Boulogne-sur-mer and Wimereux. Today we were also able to see England on the distant horizon across the channel, from near a little town called Wissant. That was neat!

The final segment of our trip provided me with my chance to shine. Shifting our route to the east to avoid the big climb brought us into beautiful farmland with distant views of the sea. This little detour added about 5 miles to a trip that had already grown by 20%. Unfortunately this route had a couple nasty climbs of its own, each similar to the one we were avoiding. Climbing these on a big, heavy, tandem bike hurts. There is no better description. Lots of lactic acid! As we rode to the end of my bypass route we were greeted by the start of another climb – the one that we were trying to avoid. It must have moved. We had no choice but to ride it. So my routing basically tripled our pain. 

Natalie again: it was ridiculous and yes painful and now in hindsight rather funny. But we did it! We did them all. Never got off once to push. Also, another thing Pete forgot to add was that part of our change of route was due to a very kind, well-meaning man who pulled off the road in his car to point out a route with much less traffic. He was also a biker and knew the area and trails very well, so it seemed reasonable to take his advice.

I don’t think I was getting the silent treatment after the third climb – I just think Natalie was too tired to talk. (Natalie: yes!) The marriage is still strong and tomorrow I’m going to make amends with GPS navigation lady.

Natalie’s ending: Tonight we are in Calais, the port city, also where the “Chunnel” connects from the U.K., although not near it. We are in the beach residential area before Calais, however, so it is not too busy. We are at a traditional B&B, not an Airbnb. Very nice couple running it, nice old home, comfortable and clean. We strolled on the boardwalk and pier in the late evening. It was amazing to see the giant ships and ferries coming in to port. We will sleep well tonight! Tomorrow we head to Bruges, in western Belgium.

Calais to Bruges

We are team writing today.

Today’s ride from Calais to Bruges felt a lot longer than 77 miles. We are physically and mentally tired, so it is great that tomorrow is a rest day.

We made up with GPS navigation lady. She likes us and we like her. We mostly stayed on course, only straying when tempted by beaches. We had a few route segments we had to work around when the bike wouldn’t fit through bike gates or similar. We are getting better at dealing with such issues with minimal hassle.

Today was mostly flat roads through smaller towns. Dunkerque had a beautiful beach, although we also rode through some grungy areas. It had all of the characteristics of a large port city.

As we crossed into Belgium there was a distinct change in cycleways (better maintained and more of them). We saw many more cyclists and the drivers were more attentive.

The weather was pretty good, even though it rained off and on. Every time it would start raining we’d stop and put on our rain gear, which would make the rain stop. And we just keep thinking how much better it was than the cold constant heavy rain we had on our ride into Paris. The hardest rain of today is falling now, as we sit under a canopy at a restaurant getting dinner.

We are staying in a 200 year old home in Bruges, Belgium.  Bruges is amazing. Venice-like. Architecture is charming. It is old but clean. The rain stopped after dinner and we enjoyed strolling around. I (Natalie) am so happy to be back here again! (I visited here with my friend Greta during my internship.) It is a delightful little city. We are looking forward to a day to explore it tomorrow.

A pretty place we liked in Dunkirk
Bike looking out at the beach at Dunkerque, wishing it could swim….
Border between France and Belgium

Rest day in Bruges

(Natalie writing today) 

I am beginning this post in the early evening at a small shady park in Old Bruges, a quiet respite from the tourist area. People are napping, talking, reading, walking. The sound of the fountain is calming.

Pete did laundry for us first thing this morning, at a nearby laundromat, while I got ready. That was greatly appreciated and needed! Once again our room is decorated with drying clothes. 

Excellent breakfast this morning at our AirBnB. It’s such a beautiful, old, tall home. Our hosts are very welcoming yet more business-like than some places we’ve stayed: again, we are amazed at the unique experience we manage to have each day. It is great to be almost in the center of Old Bruges, yet it was quiet last night.

We did a boat ride tour first thing, around the many canals, and it was a perfect start to our more touristy day. Our guide was fun and knowledgeable (and gave the tour in both English and French for our group) and it was cool to see the city from the water. There are 43 bridges in Bruges. There are some impressively old buildings too. I am glad to be here again, 30 years later, this time with Pete!

We’ve been sampling Belgian chocolate throughout the day (well… mostly I have been), and we also enjoyed some yummy raspberry and coconut sorbet and (of course) Belgian frites. 

Pete’s comment: Natalie is to chocoholics what Otis on the Andy Griffiths show is to alcoholics. I think if we had a better way to keep chocolate on our bike from melting we’d be loaded down. We can keep one chocolate bar from melting by packing it in our CamelBak next to the bladder of cold water. We call it “the fridge.”

Another treat for me from Pete: we toured a local Belgian art museum (the Groeningemuseum). Art museums are not his thing, and while I am no art expert I do really enjoy many art museums. This one was really good but not too big. Very nice! Thanks Pete! 

Just walking around this city and enjoying the buildings and ambience has been delightful! It is one of the cleaner cities we’ve been in. It became busier with tourists as the day went on, but it is still much less busy than Paris.

We found a site that recommended a free daily harp concert in the city, so we found it (in the Site Oud Sint Jan on Mariastraat 38), and it was really unexpectedly good! We even bought a USB of one of his CDs (something we rarely do). Not only does he play the harp, but several other interesting instruments. His name is Luc Vanlaere. Pete admittedly snoozed a bit for the more traditional harp parts (that’s good because he needed a little nap), but when the musician began the unusual instruments it really got Pete’s attention. If you go to Bruges, go to this concert!

The weather today has also been delightful: sunny, light breeze, mid to high 70s F.

We used the Happy Cow app again and found a vegan-friendly restaurant for dinner. It was great. We strolled around a bit more, stopped inside a beautiful Jesuit church built in 1619, enjoyed the cooling evening, and watched the city change into the night scene. Now we’re retiring a bit earlier, getting ready to ride again tomorrow. Bruges has been great!

This has been a good rest day. We head to Antwerp tomorrow. Our trip is going too fast!

This is a paintbrush made of really dark chocolate! Yum!

Wind at our backs

(Pete writing)

Today’s ride from Brugge to Antwerp was much easier than the ride from Calais to Brugge. It helped that it was about 10 miles shorter (66 miles) and that we had rested and that we had the wind at our backs. The trails were good, with a few well groomed single tracks, and the weather was almost perfect at 75 degrees. Because it was a Saturday, we saw a lot more bikers.

Riding in Belgium and Holland requires a stable ego. Imagine riding along in your spandex kit, on an expensive engineering masterpiece, working hard, high heart rate, sweat dripping off your face, only to be passed by a 70-year-old lady on a 3-speed wearing a skirt, sitting straight up in the least dynamic position possible, with a big front bike basket where her dog is sitting, and she’s toodling along with no more exertion on her face than she does when playing bridge and drinking tea. I find it best in such situations to pretend I’m lost. 

Americans are weird. We’re way too concerned about riding faster than someone else. It drives me nuts to get passed by someone on the way home from work. It’s like they are challenging my human worth. Over here the speed you go is more a sign of how fast you need to be somewhere than it is an indicator of your physical prowess. It’s kind of like when you see someone in a hurry shopping at the grocery store. You don’t think: wow, that person is a really strong shopper, I wonder how they would do at Costco… You think they must be in a hurry.

Back to today’s ride…. We had our first major drawbridge, saw a tandem hand bike, had several happy interactions with others on the road, and managed not to get lost, although we came close. GPS navigation lady led us to the banks of the river Schelde and directed us to ride in. We were in the process of rerouting ourselves when a kind elderly couple pointed out the 0.5 km pedestrian/bike tunnel under the river. Of course there would be a tunnel under the river…. It was a great route into the city center.

Our house tonight is another Airbnb. This one we don’t have to share with the owner. We have the apartment to ourselves. We went and shopped for the next two days, cooked a big meal, and are now winding down. Tomorrow we go to church and then will walk around the city center of Antwerp.

Belgium has windmills too.
Cool way to say “share the road”
Another lovely bike path along a canal
Our bike!

This is what part of our route looked like today

Very big jump

The reason for the drawbridge…
St. Anna’s Tunnel under Schelde River, for cyclists and pedestrians to get to Antwerp
We should know better than to go grocery shopping on empty stomachs…. This was 3 grocery stores later….

Simple Sunday in Antwerp

Team writing today…

We slept well, as happily has become our pattern on this trip. We are not looking forward to returning to our 4 AM wakeup routine once we return. It has been amazing to not awake to the sound of an alarm clock. We both are ready to retire and make this permanent.

With the help of Google and friendly people at bus stops, we were able to navigate Antwerp today. When you travel by bike, public transportation or your bike is the only way to move about a city. Our bike is a little hard to find parking for, and we were dressed for church, so public transportation was our chosen mode of travel.

We attended the Antwerp ward. During each meeting we had kind and competent translators. After church, while we were waiting for a bus a church member recognized us and gave us a ride to the city center. We walked around the city center, market area, city hall, the river, and an old castle fort. It was warm and sunny so we took the opportunity to go and sit peacefully inside the Church of Saint Paul. We finished our journey on a tram back to our Airbnb apartment where we are resting and trying to decide which chocolate to eat next.

We are just under 800 miles of riding at this point and are sad that we only have about 120 miles left. There is rain in the forecast for the next few days. We are so grateful for the good weather we’ve had for most of our trip. And if it rains on us, hooray for Jean-René! (Although he sent us an email saying his farm has had enough rain.)

We’ll be heading back into the Netherlands tomorrow.

Back in the Netherlands

(Natalie writing today)

Surprised ourselves by sleeping in. That’s always nice, especially on vacation, right?

We had expected a little rain but happily didn’t get any until we were checked into our AirBnB. It was a perfect temperature again today, some clouds too. 

Lots of great cycle trails and roads today. Some smaller towns, some farmland. A few cool bridges over big rivers or industrial/rail areas. Sometimes the bike lane/path would be paved and the road for cars would just be dirt! We had some detours due to construction in Antwerp on our way out, but we quickly worked around them.

We really love this way of seeing and experiencing all different aspects of Europe. We love the variety we’ve had: farmlands, cities, gorgeous green forests, rolling village streets, all kinds of bike trails, centuries-old buildings and churches, quaint cottages, touristy places and middle-of-nowhere places, museums, castles and palaces and forts, parks of all shapes and sizes, subways and buses, beaches, canals, drawbridges, ferries, giant towering ships, forever-long barges, strong tugboats, fisher boats and fisher people, steep city streets, crazy narrow alley ways, sketchy underpass bike routes, cobblestone, brick-paved streets, kids (of all ages) laughing happily and pointing at us, truck drivers giving us thumbs-up, fellow cyclists of all varieties, different languages, helpful English speakers, a great variety of lodging experiences, lovely restaurants, fun cafés, navigating all kinds of grocery stores, and the list goes on. 

We gained very little altitude today; in fact, we almost wished we had planned more miles for today so that we could have stayed on the coast tonight. (We rode around 65 miles today.) But we are learning, and we are taking notes about what works and what doesn’t (for us) so that next time we do this it’ll be even more amazing!!

For example, we are realizing that in general we like smaller cities. (Of course there are exceptions to this.) We also really like water rides (as in coastline or riverside).

Rotterdam seems a bit smaller, cleaner, and greener than Antwerp. It also doesn’t have the same old-old architecture. Our host explained that much of Rotterdam was burned down in the 1940s, so that’s why. After arriving and cleaning up, we walked the city a bit and found some fun snacks. Then as it began to rain, we opted for groceries for dinner and breakfast, so we found a good store and returned to the apartment. It’s a small but well-appointed attic flat, with a small kitchen and bathroom of its own. Our host is welcoming and helpful and even let us put our bike in a rather inconvenient (for him) but safe place in the hallway entrance. 

We are very sad to think that tomorrow is our last ride day. What an excellent adventure it has been!

Paved bike path next to a dirt road. They have good priorities in the Netherlands.
Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
Green in Rotterdam
Making dinner
Having fun exploring the city