#9 Europe: Back Again (Barely) (summer 2011)


It’s Great to be Back!

    I was quivering with excitement by the time my feet hit the cobblestone path along Frankfurt’s Main (sounds like “mine”) River in late June. Being in the thick of all those runners, fitness walkers, bike commuters, and loaded cyclotourists on the broad multi-use walkway energized my jet-lagged brain. What could be better than being surrounded by the buzz and smiles of all of those folks enhancing the day with their vigor?

    Luckily we’d dropped our bags in our tiny, familiar hotel room and headed for the promenade to be among them instead of flopping on the bed like our sleep-deprived bodies had begged us to do. Nothing like the old world charm of Frankfurt’s riverside overlaid with the almost festive tone of the recreational athletes to rekindle years of delightful memories accumulated while pedaling along other scenic rivers in Central Europe.

A pedal-powered, roving beer-mobile in cheery Frankfurt.

    Before we left home a friend had commented “You must be excited about going soon.” Careful scrutiny revealed no excitement: the dreary side of my too-practical mind had taken over and my brain was totally absorbed with being in the moment. Rather than anticipating the thrill of being in the saddle again, I was doing things like refining my packing so fresh underwear, essential toiletries, and the food needed for our first dinner and breakfast  in Europe were clustered in the top few inches of my duffel bag.  But with our arrival in Frankfurt by train, the biggest ‘in transit’ hurdles were behind us and it was time to absorb the thrills of my vicarious sporting experience before we headed for bed.

    Luck combined with our years of traveling experience had served us well and our trip was off to an excellent start. Well, one set back had been that the otherwise smooth flight had been among our worst because of the chorus of almost constantly screaming babies and the group of toddlers that had discovered the flight attendant call buttons were within their reach. The fully booked and exceptionally noisy flight to Amsterdam prevented us from getting a wink of sleep during the 10 hours but on our arrival night we both slept much better than usual after the long flight.

    The immediate pay-off for the unexpectedly good night’s sleep was being able to fully enjoy the 7 hour train ride to Vienna the next day instead of nodding off in a stupor of fatigue. The day before it was being in the swirl of urban recreational athletes that had “Yee-haa!” rippling through my mind and body; on this day it was the sight of the German countryside out the express train’s big window that sent me buzzing. “This is what I love, this is what I’ll miss as we regrettably shift our itinerary to traveling in the US” bubbled up as the lush scenery grabbed my attention.

    The little towns of tightly clustered 2 story homes faced with slate-colored brick surrounded by green fields and clumps of trees were the epitome of charming. Perhaps it was their look of miniature Christmas villages that stirred child-like delight in me as I fixated on the brief image of each as we flew down the tracks at over 100 miles an hour.  Like perfectly composed photos, each in the stream of mental snapshots had visual interest in the foreground, the mid-ground, and the background. The solid homes were quaint and neat looking; the large assortment of crops resulted in multiple textures and varying shades in the surrounding fields; and the communities we nicely framed by rolling hills and blue skies. I knew from experience that the villages were equally beckoning up-close and at 5 miles an hour on a bike. Somehow the combination of factors like tradition, zoning laws, and an extensive public transportation network gave the German landscape an orderly and scenic quality that is far less abundant in the US.

    As I purred at the sight of the idyllic countryside peppered with historic villages, I thought again about my seat-mate on the flight to Europe--a Swedish student living in Portland. He was enchanted with the grand scale of the US West and was especially taken with big open spaces on his visit to Montana and the imposing presence of the Rocky Mountains.  Amusingly, we each were captivated by what was familiar to the other: I loved the human-scale of the old European villages; he was loving being humbled by the vastness of nature in the US.

In the Saddle

    The debate had been on for the last 6 months: “Will we be motivated to spend the time, money, and energy needed to take the bikes back and forth to Europe for 3 months of every 12 or not?” Bill was leaning towards “Yes;” I was leaning towards “No.” As we racked up hours and hours on the trains that were costing us hundreds of dollars to make our way to Vienna where our bikes were stashed and then beyond to our venue, Bill found himself leaning more towards “No.”

Ooops! A regrettable execution on a bike path in Italy.

    But it only took minutes on the bike paths in Austria for the dialogue about the in-transit hassles and aggravations to shift from “Will we or won’t we be doing this again?” to “Isn’t this grand!” We knew that even though our itinerary was decimated from the usual 9-10 months to a little less than 3 months that we would be there for the stand-out 3 months of the year and we felt the pleasure of it instantly.

    The area of south-central Austria we were traversing on our dash to the Italian Dolomites is a top-notch cycling destination. One can ride for days out of traffic on multi-use paths through idyllic valley floor pastures and along forest rivers. Charming little traditional villages decked out in overflowing geranium flower boxes and cheery riders enhance the experience on the paths. The almost constant chirp of birds and the sound of rushing river water or village fountains adds to the ambiance. Wildflowers, occasional sweet scents, and soaring, jagged peaks keep the sensory channels satisfying filled.

    But even along the rivers, Austrian bike paths are decidedly athletic with a daily dose of 10+% grades that helped to keep us fit.  The bursts of occasional near-maximum effort intensified the pleasure of the stops to sit on a shaded bench or coast along on a flat stretch. “It doesn’t get better than this--who cares about what we’re going to do next year?” was the new answer to the “Will we or won’t we” question.

Stinging Reminders of the Unwelcome Change

    Little did we know when we prepared to depart from Europe in December of 2010 that that year had been the last chapter in our 10 year cyclotouring book. We packed for the flight back home fully expecting many more years of leisurely travel to follow. But stricter enforcement of the EU visa rules abruptly changed that for us and all subsequent visits would be timed like student summer vacations instead of meandering along like a lifestyle.

    We spoke many times while we were packing for our briefer stay on the continent at how different it already felt; how different it would be. The truncated itinerary, the single season, and bringing the bikes home in the fall all meant that every item being packed had to be re-evaluated instead of simply following the old list. And then there were all of the little pauses along the way that were triggered by “But we might not be going back at all after this.” It felt different packing and we wondered how different it would feel being there with the meter running.

    The first behavior change reflecting our new traveling reality was made before we left the Amsterdam airport in discovering a loop-hole in the fees for flying with bikes. We were Delta customers for the flight over and the return in 3 months but the passengers flying as KLM ticket holders would pay half the bike fee as we would. “Make a note for next time...but there may not be a next time” was my immediate reaction. A sad little pause and then I vowed to send the tip on to friends that would be making the flight with bikes in the future. The same thing happened 2 days later in southern Germany and Austria when we were inconvenienced by a minor holiday that hadn’t popped up during my online search for holidays: it may not matter to us again but I made a note in the Austrian Country Details file of velofun.us for others

2005: Vukovar’s water tower told the tale of the recent war.

    Listening to the BBC story on the TV news regarding the odd coincidence of the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Vukovar, Croatia occurring on the same day that Croatia was formally recognized as being on the path to entrance into the EU caused me to pause too.  It made me glad we’d gone to Vukovar. It made me again appreciate how the luxury of time had compelled us to go to decidedly “un-touristic” places like Vukovar. It had been a difficult bike trip there, it was a dreadful place to be, but it made the recent war between Croatia and Serbia extremely palpable without actually hearing the bullets fly (we only had to avoid leftover land mines).

   Being in Vukovar deepened our understanding of that terrible conflict and primed us for venturing into Serbia the next day. It was an experience that made us edgy for months afterwards and that in itself reinforced that it had been important for us do. The whole journey was a prime example of the type of complex experiences we wouldn’t likely stumble upon in the future because of our compressed schedule, which further underscored my sense of loss due from our truncated itinerary.

    “They finally are going to make it” we chimed when hearing that Croatia was on the final, years-long, approach to EU membership. We spent many months in Croatia over a number of years and wondered if they would pursue membership. Many of the Croatian’s we spoke with didn’t think they would enter the EU and many didn’t want to--they didn’t want to conform. I can’t imagine that with the visa restrictions that we’ll spend our precious months on returning to well-visited Croatia but we will continue to watch their progress towards membership from afar with great interest.

Better Than Ever

    What surprised us the most during our first week back on the bikes was how strong we were. The hair-raising wobbles and unsteady steering that we always experience the first hours after 3 months off the loaded bikes weren’t there, even though it had been an unprecedented 6 months out of the saddle of a bike loaded for touring. We could tell that our average speed was up, that we felt stronger, and that familiar, difficult pitches on our route were no particular strain. We were baffled, especially since we were doing what we hadn’t done for years, which was to begin our riding while still in the depths of jet lag.

    After almost a week on the bikes and traversing several days of the same route we did at peak fitness at the end of our 2010 riding season we were convinced that we had finally done effective off-season cross-training this year--it wasn’t turning 60 that had made the difference.  By chance, the 2 months prior to leaving for Europe we  had done a daily DVD exercise routine called P90X. In hindsight, it was clear that it was what had dramatically enhanced our performance. That hour or so workout each day made us stronger on the bikes than if we had spent that amount of time or more riding. Amazing. Check-out our “Fitness Focus #5: Cross-Training” to learn more about what we learned. 

A wrong turn resulted in heavy lifting to use a pedestrian bridge.

    Our P90X-enhanced fitness this summer was a source of joy and amazement to us every day. Daily we directly felt our greater strength, our greater power, and our snappier biking and hiking speeds. And especially sweet was our improved recovery time. We’d take a break from exerting or be done for the day and still feel like we could do more, that we weren’t  yet ready to stop.

    On one of our first days back on the bikes a fellow rider carefully quizzed us in German.  He was so sure we were riding electric-powered bikes because we were speeding along--he’d only had a chance to ask us after we’d passed him because we had stopped to make an adjustment. And for the first time in our travels when some one commented “You must be very fit” I could unequivocally say “Yes.” I always squirmed in the past because I felt just strong enough to be doing what I was doing and didn’t feel worthy of agreeing with the “very fit” label but now I did--what a thrill.

    As the weeks rolled by, I became convinced that ‘being active’ my whole life hadn’t been enough even though I had thought it was. Active is great, but it falls short of delivering optimal health. I now could feel the difference between being active and being fit. We’d both crossed an invisible line into greater fitness, a line one can’t see but can feel both while exerting and when recovering, and we were thrilled to finally be on the other side.

Sport’s Camp in the Mountains

    No doubt about it, our peak experience every year had been being in the Italian Dolomites--the “Dolomiti”--and that was were we chose to spend much of our precious 3 months in Europe this year. We love the ambiance, we love the culture, we love the views.....we love the place.  In the Dolomiti we are in a charming, peaceful village with a grocery store within a few minutes walk of our apartment and the trail heads to the peaks are out our door. No car is needed to fully enjoy the hiking and biking venues and we can cook the food of our choosing in our fully-equipped little kitchens....ah.

    Each of our stays in the Dolomiti have been memorable for the hiking and walking but this year we felt like we were at “Sport’s Camp.” Two relatively small things intensified our sporting experience: one was having our DVD workouts with exercise bands to maintain our cross-training on our easier hiking days and the other was the new slackline park in Selva, one of our favorite villages.


Challenging & fun: hanging in there on a slackline in Selva.

The slackline rentals were about $7 for a half day. On our slackline days, we’d go for a 1-2 hour nature walk in the morning and then rent the the slackline just before the tourist office closed at noon. After lunch on our apartment balcony, we’d walk a few minutes to the slackline park and set up our line. For the next 1½ hours we alternated taking 15 minutes spins on the slackline. We had a rare, mid-line post to serve as a helper, so the non-walking person had 15 minutes to read or watch rather than having to assist. We’d take the line down after we each had had 45 minutes of practice time and head to the apartment for a break of eating fresh fruit and doing some chores. Before dinner, we’d head back to the park for another 30 minutes each on the line in 10 minute intervals, then return it for the day.

    We were surprised to feel how much this twice weekly routine of practicing on the slackline enhanced our stay in Selva. It gave us yet another way to be outdoors and taking in the grand views while doing something athletic without deeply fatiguing ourselves. Our initial bike ride into Selva, riding the 4 passes on the Sella Ronda Bike Day for the first time, and subsequent hikes and via ferrata outings were pushing us to our comfortable physical limits and it was satisfying to augment our light days with an easier-going sports activity. And the steady improvement in our skills on the line added to the overall contentment with the occasional half-day activity.

  The almost daily rains during our stay in the Dolomites crimped our hiking plans but luckily they were a perfect fit with our new cross-training program. The combination of accurate weather forecasts and generally no more than a half day of rain at a time meant that we were able to keep on track with doing a big outing every other day, which is all that we could muster, and doing strength work and short walks on the other days.

A via ferrata uses strength, flexibility, endurance, & courage.

    For example, our biggest effort was an 8 hour, 13 mile round trip hike to a peak near Corvara that had a short run of via ferrata on it, for a total of over 4,000’ elevation gain. We got in before the storm hit and it rained through the night and until about noon the next day.  Through the rains the next morning, we were stunned to see fresh snow on the upper half our hiking route. But that nasty morning weather was a perfect fit with our new “Sport’s Camp” routine, which was to do a DVD workout on some of our off days. The full-morning of rain meant there was no reason to rush outdoors for our relative-rest walk, so we did an hour routine of upper body resistance training with our exercise bands, then the bonus 15 minutes of ab exercises, and tossed-in some extra stretching.  Our legs had borne the brunt of the work on the trails the day before so we could stress other parts of our bodies with few complaints.

    The combination of the 4 slackline afternoons and filling-in with our P90X DVD workouts took our time in the Dolomites from feeling like a leisurely holiday with some big hikes to feeling like we were at a sport’s camp and we loved the exhilaration it brought with it. We didn’t get as may of our chores done, but we treasured the sense of vitality our heightened activity level gave us. The slackline presented skill building challenges and the DVD workouts were still new enough to us to tax our ability to follow the instructions and keep up with the tempo, all of which utilized skills different from those needed when we hiked. The new twist on complexity for our minds and our bodies added a delightful freshness to our time in the Dolomiti.


    When checking-out of our village hotel one morning in Austria, the hostess translated the German phrase that Bill didn’t understand to “I wish you good power on the bikes today.” We giggled at the awkward language but hours later my tone changed: “How sad that English doesn’t have an equivalent phrase.” We’ve learned that French and Italian have similar short phrases that go well beyond the best American equivalent we could think of, which was “Good luck.” The multitude of differences between languages is often fascinating and we wondered why our mother tongue lacked a handy standard phrase of non-competitive athletic success.  It seemed like English needed to adopt a phrase for such success like has been done for other well-wishing, such as “Bon voyage,” and “Bon Appétit.”

With that, “I wish you good power in what you undertake today.” Our next piece will be “A Day in the Dolomites” which details what we find so special about hiking in this region of the Italian Alps.

Below: the first 2 photos are of southern Austria; the following 4 were taken in the Italian Dolomites.