Embarking on the next phase of my life after working as a full-time Civil and Transportation Engineer in the San Francisco for 30 years. My wife and I will be following our shared passions for world travel, culture, and sustainable transport.
So after a relatively quick recovery from Covid in Lisbon, we finally made it back to the United States! We rejoined a revised and somewhat compressed itinerary and still arrived JFK via TAP Airways new fuel efficient A330. (Ok for airplanes at least…)
When our house sit in Boston fell through due to the owners case of Covid (ironic yes), Cheryl worked her magic and found a last minute house sit in Brooklyn. So after a quick change of plans and one obligatory night in an overpriced chain hotel close to the airport in Queens, we were off to Brooklyn by Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).
The house sit was a bit of a challenge with two old cats, lots of medications, and tight quarters, but certainly a memorable experience and in a part of Brooklyn we have never explored, Park Slope. It also was just a block from 4 subway lines!
It was a magnificent fall weekend and the weather was perfect for strolling, not to mention all the Halloween decorations and costumes, although admittedly, it’s often hard to pick out costumes from just “Friday” in uber hip Brooklyn.
The walking in Brooklyn also felt invigorating after Lisbon’s lumpy limestones. We could once again stride briskly, with standard crosswalks, and short light cycles. The fall colors and crisp weather were so magnificent that Cheryl belted out in Prospect park that “New England is so beautiful this time of year”. Wait, we are NOT in New England!! This is New York!
After some of her doubts were quickly settled by Google, we strolled on, but I was reminded that I was married to a true West Coast woman. I would be reminded again when she couldn’t believe we had passed through some states in an hour or less. Wait, seriously just 15 minutes in New Hampshire?! And how do so many Dunkin’ Donuts survive?
After three days loaded with good friends, perfect bagels and NY pizza, we were off via subway and Metro North train to New Haven, CT where we could pick up a rental car right at the station. The car was by far the best solution for our ambitious and compressed schedule we had to visit all our friends and family over the next 8 days.
It was nice to be back in the U.S., as things felt familiar and interactions were clear. We sometimes forget that we are even in foreign countries anymore as foreignness is our new normal. And we immediately appreciated small things like ubiquitous ice (just try to find an ice machine in a European hotel.) faster paced restaurant service (tip please), and giant American salads (Yes, Elaine Benes you can have a really big salad)
As for the things we didn’t miss? Crazy political ads on the TV, giant tailgating pickup trucks, ignorance, and shockingly high prices compared to much of Europe. (Not necessarily in that order -;)
The cost of living surprises people when we mention it, as many generally assume that Europe must be more expensive than the US. First off, the strength of the US dollar is peaking, and second, many people take short trips to the most expensive (A-list) cities only in Europe, and so get a skewed view of costs in general.
There also seems to be fewer corporate entities taking profits in the food chain of capitalism in other countries. Groceries, lodging, eating out, and transportation (except gas and parking), are cheaper almost everywhere we have been in the past 15 months. We won’t even bring up health care as costs are incomparable and often an order of magnitude less in Europe. (i.e. podiatrist in Bilbao, Spain $40, US $400+). Whoops, I brought it up again. So perhaps the social safety net and low health costs trickles through businesses to keep costs a bit lower.
But we had a wonderful time on our big New England driving loop, and still managed to work in some lovely walks, and a day of cycling into Boston. We really enjoyed reconnecting with folks and the mountains, rivers, ponds, streams, and trees that seem to fill 99% of New England.
I vow to come back to New England (and maybe even New York) more frequently, as staying in touch with your roots is important, and the feeling I had walking the neighborhoods of my childhood was joy, satisfaction, and peace. They are forever etched in my mind. No matter where else we go in the world, and whatever we experience, these memories of place will not be replaced. Experiences build in layers and hopefully growth and perspective with them.
So today is Election Day and we are now headed to Chicago for more family and friends recharge. We have our fingers crossed that people don’t take for granted the 200+ years of work it took to create the civic institutions and foundations for prosperity that we have.
Our system is not perfect and always a work in progress. But the institutions of democracy are unique, precious, and tenuous. And despite participating in many conflicts from afar, we have been physically isolated from the worst impacts of them, just as we are again isolated from the Ukraine invasion. We don’t share a border with an invader, and haven’t been occupied. But this could change in a flash. And the enemy could come from within. We can feel the fear in Europe as the free world knows a stable United States is still key to world stability.
Well, it was bound to happen. After over 14 months of travel, Covid finally caught up to us. Being really sick is definitely a low point of extended (or even short) travels. You just want to be home, have all your comforts, and be better. Luckily, our nomadic lifestyle has prepared us to deal with travel uncertainties a bit better and stay calm when a hiccup develops…even major ones.
After we tested positive earlier this week, we immediately prioritized our next steps: push back the flight to the NYC, extend our lodging in Lisbon, notify our friends we were to stay with in the US, and think about contingencies.
We respect this new virus and know that it has brought untold misery on the world, and uncertain outcomes to even the healthiest. And although Covid hit us hard for a few days, the worst soon passed. We are lucky to be quite healthy, with daily exercise, good sleep habits, and a good diet (mostly, as we do indulge in local foods that may not be on any top 10 health food lists).
Of course stomach ailments are a part of travel too, and we’ve had our share of them over many years, including India, Mexico, and Morocco. But one of the only nice things about stomach bugs is that they are usually over very suddenly. You often go from wanting to die on the toilet to wanting a double cheeseburger and a beer in hours. And we’ve always been lucky enough to only have one of us down and out at once. The other person is available to get hydration, meds, and make any travel changes.
But this hit us both at almost the same time. We were a bit fatigued as we left Bilbao, and fully masked on our travels, but it didn’t feel like anything more than maybe some post-Camino tiredness and a little stuffy head (No cough, no fever.). But it had settled in deeper by the time we got to Lisbon and we both woke up Wednesday morning with brain fog, extreme tiredness, more congestion, and some decent aches and pains. The Covid rapid tests an hour later confirmed what we already suspected…we both had it.
Luckily, we had booked an apart-hotel room for our 3 day stay and we were able to extend to 8 days in the same unit. It’s quiet and has two big windows looking at trees, and over 500 sq ft in two rooms, including (crucially) a kitchenette. So we are able to adventure out to grocery stores for supplies and have all our meals here, as well as lots of healthy fruit and veg, comfort food, and juices.
The two rooms allowed some space for us to relax separately in such cosy quarters. By Friday morning we both felt noticeably better, so Cheryl took another test. If she was still a strong positive, then we wouldn’t waste another test. So we were both thrilled when she tested negative, and I decided to test as well. Still somewhat positive…Today it was an almost imperceivable line, so I’m almost certain to be 100% negative by tomorrow!
So we are happy with our decision to push back our flights to the US to this Wednesday, as we’ve actually been able to start going out and enjoying some of this very beautiful city. We also had masked all day on our way to Lisbon, including the plane, and taxis, so hopefully we did not infect others, but it’s also made us realize that the virus is out there everywhere, and continuing our cautious ways in the future is smart, not to mention getting all the available boosters we can. We don’t want to go through this again (too soon) and don’t want to put anyone else unnecessarily at risk. But the virus is now a part of life, and part of travel, like it or not.
Another item of note is the fact that we’ll be on Day 89 of 90 allowable Schengen days this Wednesday, so we’re also really glad that we left 6 visa days of validity slack in our plans. For those who don’t recall, a U.S. citizen can only be in the 26 country border-free Schengen Zone of Europe for up to 90 days out of any 180 day contiguous period without a country-specific extended stay visa. It’s a rule that catches a lot of long term travelers out.
This is our second visit to Lisbon, as we were last here for 4 nights in early 2018, along with visits to Porto, and Coimbra. It’s still charming, and I especially love the extreme vertical terrain, where you never quite know which way is out of a valley. Surprises await if you get off the beaten track, but one thing that’s noticeable from even our last stay, is that the penetration of tourism seems even deeper into the neighborhoods.
It’s the age old conundrum of tourism development: by coming to see what everyone else wants to see, you are slowly changing it, and before long, the native and organic neighborhood elements are completely flushed out. Lisbon is still real, and there are Portuguese tourists here as well, but the relentless conversion of neighborhood properties into short term rentals via AirBnB, new boutique hotels and spas, and easy air access for cheap weekend visits, has made much of it feel a bit overrun.
It feels like a City fighting to keep its character. We recognize this from San Francisco, and know that locals will always know how to avoid the tourists and the touristy restaurants, etc. But San Francisco had a big advantage over Lisbon in the past 40 years, it was much more expensive to buy property, had strict development rules, and better tenant protections. As the Alfama neighborhood struggled and investment waned, rules were adopted that if someone would buy a property and renovate it, then all the tenants could be evicted. Period. It saved a lot of the buildings from ruin, but apparently decimated the local neighborhood.
It’s very evident today that only a few pockets of “authentic” neighborhood exist in the Alfama. But cities are always changing and Lisbon is adapting as well. Free transit for seniors and those under 23, a new waterfront revitalization, and a focus on preserving the unique culture.
There are also stricter rules on foreign Golden Visas, which have allowed many foreigners to settle in Portugal, but have really changed many neighborhoods in Lisbon, Porto, and smaller towns in the Algarve to expat enclaves. It’s a tough balance for a developing country that had a lot of debt and challenges in the past, but has an amazing extremely welcoming culture, good education and healthcare systems, and a fantastic climate.
But I have meandered a bit too far off track but do promise that next time we come to Portugal, we will see even more of it, and try to spread the tourism love further….perhaps walking along 200km of the Camino Portuguese.
Happy fall and looking forward to seeing some of you soon back in the USA!
Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.
Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.
Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.
But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.
The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)
We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.
There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.
The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.
One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.
Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).
The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.
All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)
We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.
Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.
The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.
So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.
The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.
The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.
But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!
We had a wonderful two weeks house sitting in Mt. Temple, a hilly part of the Irish Midlands. It was a chance to really slow down our pace, listen to the sounds of rural Ireland, and best of all, cook all of our meals for two weeks!
There was even a nice gas BBQ grill, so we took advantage of the excellent locally sourced meats and summer produce, and tried to replenish our diets from the challenges of constant eating out.
We really wanted to minimize train transfers, so I planned two nice days of touring from Mt. temple by heading southeast towards the charming village of Birr and then onto a train connection that would take us directly on to the City of Cork.
It can be challenging to make an afternoon connection when touring, as the further you are cycling, the harder it is to time the arrival. Wind, hills, dirt, cobbles, or dogs can all slow your progress. So we generally allow plenty of time, especially when you have one of the few bike reservation spaces and the next train is in 3 hours!
We arrived in Cork in early evening and found Ireland’s second city to be a bit of a work in progress with respect to bike infrastructure. The city is a working port city and downtown doesn’t overwhelm with charm, but the lively restaurant and pub scenes compensate, as well as some interesting hilly nooks and valleys to explore on the north bank of the River Lee. But it’s a good jumping off point for exploring the Southwest of Ireland and we couldn’t wait to set out the next morning in the cool coastal air.
We took a longer scenic way to Kinsale, to take in two nice sections of rail-trail/greenway along the sinuous coast that opens up towards the Celtic Sea from Cork Harbor. Cruising along the salty coast separated from traffic on flat paths was a joy. However, we then turned to the SW, where headwinds and hills started to make their mark and let us know that traversing County Cork by loaded bike would be hard work, but also reward with sublime views and lush valleys.
Since the prevailing winds are from the Southwest, we knew that we likely had two days of head wind ahead of us. And we did, but you are often buffered by vegetation along the small roads, so the winds are often mitigated (or unnoticeable when headed up a 10% grade!)
Kinsale is a picturesque town set at the head of a beautiful harbor, so we decided to take an extra day there and relax as it was our 25th Wedding Anniversary. And to be honest, there really aren’t any places that I would have rather been than cycle touring with my amazing wife across the friendly and stunning landscape of Southwest Ireland.
This is what we worked towards for many years, it does feel wonderful every day to realize that we are living our dream. And doing it while we still have some oomph in our legs. In the future, we won’t be shy about employing e-bikes to extend our years of cycle touring. It’s just such an amazing way to see the countryside and experience a place.
But like everything, cycle touring and Ireland has its ups, and downs. One of the downs for us has been cycling into a bit of car and truck mayhem in most Irish cities and villages, especially as traffic really peaks here in the mid afternoon.
Logically for original settlement needs, villages are almost always on a river or at the head of an inlet or protected harbor. Add hilly glacial geography to the mix, and you have every road generally meeting in one spot…across one bridge….just where the village and sights are as well. Kinsale especially suffers from this.
It’s also true that 90% of the lodging is along main roads as this is where the commercial development has been, so a number of B&Bs and hotels we’ve stayed at have been impacted by traffic noise. A fact of life, but especially disappointing to deal with when you are traveling only by bike and train.
We could opt for more country lodging, but then dinner is often an issue, since cycling miles into a town in the evening is not really fun (or safe feeling) after being out on the bikes all day. Not to mention we like to stroll about the towns and explore a bit each evening.
Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland, but it’s especially noticeable on bikes, and since there is generally not too much traffic elsewhere. But luckily, there just aren’t a lot of people in Ireland (6M), so the scale of the issues are small and manageable. This has been the biggest surprise in Ireland…despite a deep history, it’s modern, educated, and forward looking, and still living in a bit of a golden age of prosperity and development.
So after a relaxing few days in Kinsale, we happily set out on our bikes and meandered north to Bantry, Glengariff, and finally over Healy pass to Killarney National Park. The weather was lovely and the views constantly stimulating, so the miles just click by, even when heading up the many long and steep hills.
Plus, we always looked forward to finding a new pub each night to enjoy a fresh pint in a friendly atmosphere. Ireland really is a nice place to tour, and we’re going to miss it when we get back on the ferry to the UK next week. Happy September and happy travels!
When traveling long term, you strangely become both more tolerant of discomfort (especially when out of your control), and obsessed with small comforts. And sometime the smallest things can give you a feeling of satisfaction in an often disorienting lifestyle.
For example, our little down travel pillows always provide a modicum of comfort, even over the hardest “pillow” found in some lodging. Carrying our own salt, pepper, picnicware, and hot sauce brightens otherwise dull meals or take out on the road.
Another way to ease the stress of constant travel is to return to a place…maybe a few times. It’s always easier once you know the lay of the land, favorite neighborhoods, and how to get out of the train station in the right direction. In the past year we’ve been lucky enough to visit London and Paris multiple times, in completely different neighborhoods. Plus, you can venture deeper into new places, see obscure sights, and generally settle in with the more relaxed lens of a quasi-local.
As we left the Netherlands for the UK, the warnings of an impending heat wave across Northern Europe were growing, so we thought about where we could ride it out as we approached the next leg across of our planned 4 month summer European cycling, train, and boat tour.
Our primary goals in the UK were to see our friends in Wales, and connect to a ferry to Ireland, so we did not plan on too much cycling. The heat wave clinched the decision to settle in somewhere for a longer stay. So we looked back on places that we could (somewhat) easily get to with our bikes on trains…our train from the ferry landing in Harwich went to London, but London would be too hot(100+) and is $$$ in August, plus we wanted to get further west where it would be a bit cooler, and closer to a house sit we had scheduled in Gloucester.
So we decided on Bristol for a third visit, via a single train transfer in London. The only catch was one train came into Liverpool Station and the other departed from Paddington. But no problem on bikes, as the 10km ride across London on a Saturday morning was a pleasure due to all the new cycling infrastructure. London’s wide new paths, protected lanes and bike signals have made cycling a much more viable alternative in the Capital.
Bristol was also a good base for some day cycling trips and we could go back to our favorite falafel stand, noodle restaurant, and cat pub!
And yes, we could go back to the S.S. Brittanica and Brunel Museum…and for free! Ha, even the staff was impressed (and a bit surprised) when Cheryl pulled out our printed tickets from last year, which they sell at the relatively high price of £20 each, with the caveat that the tickets are good for a year.
Of course, most non-locals never make it back within the year…but these frugal Americans did! (Thanks to Cheryl -:) We enjoyed seeing more of the museum that we missed on the first visit due to school groups and also took another walk through the ship. This was a small satisfaction for these frequent travelers!
We spent one warm night in the top floor of a old school hotel in leafy Clifton (nicely near the Suspension bridge), but then strategically moved to an air conditioned room downtown for the peak days of the heat wave.
It WAS hot and the Hilton Garden Inn’s British AC system could barely keep up, especially when the sun bore down on our windows in the afternoon. Luckily we like this hotel due to its adjacency to a small park with nice mature trees that cooled it down a bit.
This heat wave set all-time records throughout the UK…43c/104f in a land not adapted in culture, architecture, or A/C systems to such heat. Southern England is now experiencing a drought along with about 50% of the rest of Western Europe. The adaptation to the climate change that seems to be happening is going to be difficult, expensive, and disruptive to life as we know it….and of course, we are the lucky ones that can afford to move and adapt, while other poorer and more impacted nations suffer unduly for greenhouse gases they contribute little to generating.
But let’s move on to happier topics, like house bunnies. We had a nice 70km cycle from Bristol to Stroud, a pleasant historic canal town on the edge of the Cotswolds. It was a little hectic getting out of Bristol as the cycle infrastructure is spotty and confusing to the first time user.
But the ride was generally pleasant, and Stroud made a good overnight stop, with the convenince of pub lodging….drinks, dinner, sleep, breakfast…check. We then rode back to the Gloucester Canal via the Stroud water, where we house sat for a nice young couple for the weekend, with primary duties looking after their two bunnies. The bunnies were super cute and lots of fun. Who knew rabbits had such personalities!? And Gloucester has an interesting revitalized docklands area and a spectacular cathedral.
So one of the surprises of our first cycle touring days in the UK was the fact that it wasn’t that bad! After spending the better part of last winter in the UK, we had not deemed the roads, drivers, or train system too hospitable to bikes and basically decided that we’d use our precious cycling time elsewhere where the cycling seems safer and offered more freedom to discover. However, a critical law enacted in February mandates passing clearances of 1.5-2m for cars, as well as improved cyclist and pedestrian rights at intersections and crossings. Way to go UK!
There is a also nascent national cycling network (with gaps), as well as local tourism loops and other marked routes in many cities and towns. But it’s hard to find online cycling maps and data, despite downloading and paying for the Ordiance Survey (OS Maps) App at the premium level. We had to piece together routing from Komoot, Google, and some of the National and local signage to find a good route. It should be easier.
And many of the A or B roads are still absolutely no go in my view. For example we crossed a few primary roads (A roads) that Google had routed us on, and spent a km or two on some, but quickly bailed or found an alternate route as they were just too high speed with no shoulders. Some have bike lanes that disappear or are just way too narrow for traffic speeds.
As we alway say, England is a pretty crowded place and car use has run rampant since the 1970s, without the concurrent development of connective cycling infrastructure. It’s a similar pattern to the USA; the cities have led the way, while the suburban and rural areas have been neglected or fallen through the planning/funding cracks. In the UK, the physical challenges of the narrow roads are also harder to overcome, whereas in the US it is often more a lack of political will.
On the quieter backroads though, the cycling can be very rewarding as the small scale and undulations of the historic road system is perfect for cycle touring. And millions of British cycle frequently and we saw many out there….but they are mostly in high vis vests and it feels like a bit of a road warrior mentality that is not going to get the other 98% of the population out on bikes.
The other huge positive was that almost all the drivers are respecting the new laws, so this did make it feel safer and more pleasant on many roads. However, heading up a steep narrow road with 5 cars stuck behind you waiting to pass safely is still not exactly the relaxing experience of a 5m wide Dutch cycleway. So we decided that we will try out a bit more of the National cycling network next time through the UK in September.
So we headed out of Gloucester by train to Carmarthen, Wales, where our kind friends picked us up in their van for the final leg to Tenby. It was great (as always) to see our friends and we still are so thankful for their kindness in providing us some grounding for our European travels. Cheryl has known them for almost 40 years, and we feel especially close as generations age and kids turn into young adults. But somehow, we stay the same age, right?
The swimming in Tenby was particularly pleasant in August and we enjoyed recuperating a bit before moving onto our next adventure; cycling and exploring Ireland, so we packed up our bikes and gear and our kind hosts shuttled us again to the Stena Line ferry in Fishguard, Wales for the 4 hour trip to Ireland. I’ve heard the Irish are pretty friendly too, but more on that next time.
So it’s hard to beat Sweden in summer for cycle touring, but despite our somewhat haphazard rambles, we had one date on the calendar for more than a year; the July 1st opening stage of the Tour de France in Copenhagen. Le Grand Départ!
But wait, isn’t the Tour de France in France? Yes, the majority is in France; however, more recently, they start in a nearby country for the first 3 stages (of 21) to help share in the experience and spread the Tour love across borders.
In recent years, the tour has started in Belgium, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and the UK. But this was the first time it had visited cycle-crazy Denmark.
And since we had been moving a lot in the previous month of cycle touring (a few 2 night stops but mostly single touring nights), we decided to head to Copenhagen early and get an apartment for a week in advance of our long-standing 2-night hotel reservation just a 100 meters from the course.
So we crossed from Helsingborg, Sweden to Helsingør, Denmark by ferry across the Kattegat Strait. This short 20 minute crossing was the primary crossing point until the completion of the Oresund bridge/tunnel in 2000, so has robust infrastructure on both sides of the crossings and multiple automated dock structures to load and unload trucks, cars, passengers and the occasional bikes. Very cool.
It’s still busy, and the Swedish side has a shiny new intermodal station, with great connections for rail, bus, and ferry passengers. As with most European vehicle ferries, bikes load with the cars and trucks, so we made our way around the maze of approach lanes and signs to find our way to a toll booth station where you ride up to window and buy your tickets for the next ferry out.
As always, it’s a bit of a rush to ride on and off in between big rigs and loading cars, and in this case, no stopping for any immigration as this is an internal EU crossing.
We highly recommend taking ferries where you can if bike touring, even if there is another option, as you get the continuous experience of the landscape, get to see some of the seascape, meet other cycle tourists, and can tune into the subtleties of the cultural infrastructure differences in every country. And yes, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands all are unique cycling experiences. More on that later.
Our friend Jason met us about half way along the way on the 50km ride into Copenhagen, and it was great to have an escort and some engaging conversation with a familiar face. Jason is a professor from San Francisco, and was spending the month in Copenhagen, continuing his field studies and collaboration on the politics and implementation of transport policies in Copenhagen and San Francisco.
Jason has literally written a book on the topic, and has great insight on how Copenhagen has become one of the worlds leading bicycle cities; however, noting the challenges facing a lax continued investment in car free space and the troubling growth of auto mobility throughout Denmark.
His insights would align with some of our experiences in Copenhagen and beyond as we toured across Denmark. The country has fantastic cycling infrastructure, but we did find traffic a bit heavy and passing often surprisingly a bit close compared to Sweden and Germany. And some interior towns and cities had very few bikes and large drive through bakeries?!
Our apartment was in Norrebrø, a trendy and leafy neighborhood just outside the more touristed core of Copenhagen. The neighborhood is great, so we took a chance on an Airbnb with only a few sparse reviews. It was fine, but had a few issues.
First, although it looked out over the beautiful trees of the adjacent cemetery/park, it was fronted by a fairly busy two-lane road. And since we were there during a rare heat wave, we were faced with the choice of open windows for ventilation or traffic noise. Secondly, we discovered that under the bed was full of clutter with years of thick dust. Cheryl, being the amazing travel companion she is, spent the better part of an hour cleaning under the bed to spare me from the misery of my dust allergies for a week.
We don’t use Airbnb very often, but this apartment highlighted some of the challenges of the platform. It had a few sparse 5 star reviews that we feel in retrospect were probably left by friends, and the lack of a specific location when choosing a rental is unprecedented in the lodging industry….and very annoying to me. You should know what you are buying when spending $1000++ for a weekly apartment.
Our week in Copenhagen was great, but let’s just say, there is now one very detailed review of this apartment, letting prospective guests know exactly the trade offs of what they are getting. I wrote the review that I wish I had read before renting. And to be clear, the apartment was a fine base , but we are particularly sensitive to traffic noise after spending months on the peaceful saddles of our bikes, so would not have chosen the place if fully informed.
Copenhagen was in full embrace of the Grand Depart, and the run up to the opening stage was a blast. Tour signs, decorations, stages, and buzz everywhere. Watching the time trial was fantastic as riders came by every minute, so there was hours of fun with the spirited Danish everywhere along the course. Seriously, every meter of the time trial course had at least a few people at the rails, and 10 or more thick at the popular spots. And yes, it helps to be 6’-5” to have a clear view almost anywhere.
The other interesting aspect of visiting at the end of June was the Midsommer celebrations and the somewhat bizarre 2-week tradition of “studenterkørsel”. This consists of students who are graduating from “gymnasiet” schools (upper secondary school) hiring old military/farm trucks to drive around and pick up other grads, visit each family, and generally rolling around Copenhagen (or anywhere in Denmark) blasting music, drinking, and dancing into the wee hours.
You can hear them coming blocks away and it’s all very charming at first, but after the third day or fourth day, the charm starts to wear a bit thin. Oh, and did I mention they all wear little sailor hats, unique to each school. This is just one of the quirky and unique traditions in the Scandinavian countries, as they express incredible individuality despite their low populations. (Denmark is smaller than the SF Bay Area!)
After riding the time trial course with 50,000 other crazed cyclists the morning after the first stage, we headed off to Copenhagen central for our intercity train to Nyborg, with the goal of catching the finish of Stage 2.
Despite a slightly frightening overcrowded situation with our loaded bikes on the woefully inadequate train platforms of the main station, we managed to beat the peleoton across the Great Belt Bridge to Nyborg. It was one of the busiest travel days of the year combining a summer Saturday, the TdF, and the massive Rosskilde music festival! Whoaa, we were missing our more usual shoulder season travel times.
The Danish train system is ok, but is not as extensive or user friendly for tourists or bicycles as other Northern European countries. You have to reserve bike space on intercity (IC or ICL) trains and they are all high boarding trains, so it’s necessary to hoist your bikes up after scrambling to load your bags. Some of the less common regional trains are first-come first served for bike space, as well as the S-trains around Copenhagen. Secondly, the DSB App and website will not accept US credit cards, and has only one bespoke mobile payment system, which you can only sign up for with a Danish phone number!
So we had to go CPH central and wait in the queue to buy our paper tickets and paid 3x as much as the discounted tickets still available on the App the day before….There are a lot of somewhat protectionist schemes in the Scandinavian countries, such as most shops in the Netherlands not taking visa and Mastercard, only “Maestro”. But I get that you want to keep the money and jobs local, and not pay Visa or Mastercard 2% of every transaction in your country with no benefit of employment or trickle down from the company profits.
I should note that once you are on the trains, the staff and seating is all very comfortable.
It was cool to take the train across the 18km Great Belt Bridge in advance of the peloton as you got an appreciation what they were going though. The bridge was closed for the Tour crossing, but you unfortunately can’t cycle across the bridge. (or maybe fortunately given the ever present winds.).
Once at Nyborg station, we scoped out a good spot about 1.5 km from the finish line and enjoyed the local crowd, some of whom had been there all day (and perhaps drinking!?) Since we were on fully loaded on our bikes, there was no chance of fighting the thousands who had jockeyed into the finishing sprint stretch. And although they went by fast, there were a lot of stragglers due to a crash that split up the peloton about 2km from our viewing spot.
After the stage ended, we rode to the accommodation we had booked about 25km north of Nyborg as the town itself was booked solid. It all worked out great, as we were able to escape the race area quickly, hit a supermarket, and have a lovely early evening ride to our modest row holiday apartment.
The next few days we had some great cycling across Funen, a vast island in the center of Denmark that is linked to Sjæland by the Great Belt and then onto Jutland by the Little Belt Bridge. It’s a nice rolling area of forest and farmland and really fun riding, especially when you get a bit lucky with the winds, which magically turned from the east to the west as we turned in the same direction! Nice.
We had a great visit connecting with some of my step family on the lovely coast for a few days, which gave us more opportunity to ask questions about the idiosyncrasies of life in Denmark. But as much as we would have loved to linger a bit longer enjoying the Danish summer scene, we had another deadline of getting to the Hoek of Holland to catch a night ferry to the UK on the 15th. So we spent the next few days riding south towards the German border and then made our way across to northern Holland by a few strategic train hops.
It was a bit hectic as the trains and station transfers in were a bit crazy, and one of our well planned regional trains from Flensburg to Hamburg stopped midway and let everyone off in the middle of nowhere due to a sudden line closure. So instead of waiting for buses that might take hours to get there and pick up the hundreds of stranded passengers, we loaded up our bikes and headed to the next station, hoping to bypass the issue.
Well, that still didn’t work as the next 3 stations were closed, so we came up with a Plan B, head 40km East to Kiel, a former Hanseatic League city and enjoy a night there, as we had heard the line to Hamburg would reopen the next day.
Although sometimes traveling with bikes on trains is (very) stressful, it also gives you a unique freedom to pivot when an issue arises! This flexibility helped us again as the line from Hamburg to Groningen, Netherlands has been closed for years near the border, due to a failed rail bridge. But we were able to bridge gap easily by riding from the last Deutsche Bahn station in Germany to the first town on the Dutch rail system 20 km away!
So we breathed a big sigh of relief as our local and mellow Dutch train rolled towards the famous cycling city of Groningen. We decided to spend two nights there to enjoy it sufficiently, but then realized as we headed out two days later that we left ourselves a bit of cycling challenge to make our ferry to the UK on time, especially with the “hills of the Netherlands” (aka wind!)….more on our next leg soon.
Happy June everyone and hope that you are are enjoying the summer so far. Getting out on the bikes has been nice, but we’ve hit a few bumps in the road along the way, and rambling without a detailed plan in the beginning of peak European travel season is a bit more challenging.
So we’ve been mixing up some regional train hops and full cycling days to make our way out of the state of Hessen, across Thuringia, and well into Saxony. The scenery has been beautiful in late Spring with full greenery and loads of wildflowers.
We’ve managed to learn a lot more about the local history via some great museums and historic sites. It’s an area steeped in history from the early Middle Ages to the tumultuous 20th century of 2 wars, partition, and reunification. The Forum museum in Leipzig is highly recommended as it’s an extremely well curated and interactive history of the GDR.
As much as we thought that we knew the basic history of the former Eastern Block, this museum will add to your understanding, and you can’t help put it in the current context agression in Ukraine, as well as a lot of the variances in prosperity that still divide the former East and West.
The biggest challenge of the past week has been that Cheryl has been less than 100% due to a nasty stomach bug, which hit her hard for a few days, with a slow recovery. Cycle touring and stomach bugs are not the best combination, so we’ve had to scale back our cycling distances and incorporate a bit more rest and recovery into our agenda. It was kind of rough for a few days. But she stayed in the tour and carried on.
Luckily, the train system has helped to shorten some days and get us on to places of more interest, such as Leipzig, and now Dresden, both vibrant and interesting cities. But Cheryl is a trooper, and despite running on fumes, continued to cycle most days, with my challenge being to make sure the day was not too tough or long! She’s on the mend now and we anticipate heading out of Dresden tomorrow with more oomph in our pedaling!
On the mechanical front, I started to notice as we left Bad Hersfeld that my back tire seemed to be rubbing the fender more and more. It turns out that my long lasting Schwalbe Tire had a bulge developing in one spot….definitely time for a new tire! Luckily we made it to Fulda, which had a half dozen bike shops listed, so I engaged on the hunt for a new tire.
The first place in town had a single lovely Schwalble Marathon 700×38 tire. These hand finished German tires are the clear global favorites in the bike touring and commuting community. Unfortunately, with my tight fender and frame, this tire was one size too big and they had no other similar tires. The next shop on the edge of town had no Schwable touring tires, but was able to sell me a right sized 700×35 Matrix touring tire. I’d never heard of the brand, but his shop was full of their parts. As it turns out, these Thailand made parts are some of the most available. I figured I better take it.
Since he spoke English, I was able to get an informative update on the global supply chain issues still facing the bicycling industry. I asked him about bike parts for a full group replacement on my touring bike, as all my well loved Ultegra parts are close to failing. (Hang in there right shifter!). He said that parts are still on short supply and that it may be cheaper or more plausible just to buy a new touring bike! Zoinkees.
He said that e-bikes, mountain bikes, and kids bikes are now more available, but that touring/hybrid/road bikes are still hard to get. He also noted that aluminum supplies have been disrupted from Ukraine war, so frame and part manufactures may have more issues! The last few years have really opened up the worlds eyes to the fragility of global supply chains, and the relative bounty we all had in the past 30 years of massive global expansion.
So I put on the new €20 touring tire and hope it holds up for even half the life of my trusty Schwable. So far so good.
But where to next? We are still discussing some options as are now eager to get further north to the Baltic Coast and cross to Sweden. We love Germany, but it does have many quirks, and we can tell that we may have had our fill for now of small town Germany (And even brats, schnitzel, and potatoes… hence our pull to the vibrant cities for Vietnamese food and burritos!).
The city and town connections via cycle routes are wonderful here, and it’s safe, pleasant, clean. The bigger cities, such as Leipzig and Dresden are diverse, fantastic to explore, and have very low automobile traffic. (So quiet in most central neighborhoods!). But there is indeed (a somewhat stereotypical) rigidity and other quirks to life here that can make make cycle touring more challenging. Like what, you ask?
No public drinking fountains…anywhere! Not along cycle routes, not in parks, not even outside bathrooms….and by the way, public bathrooms are also EXTREMELY rare. Museums or restaurants are your best bets. So if you can’t pee al fresco, frequently without hesitation, then cycle touring here is not for you. The only solution to the lack of water fountains is to buy water (which we only do as last resort) or bring a lot of water for the day (which we do).
And what is rarer than a public bathroom in Germany? A convenience store. They are not part of the culture, even in cities. They are everywhere in Denmark and Sweden, with fresh foods, and takeaway options….perfect for cycle touring.
But we have found that below the sometimes abrupt exterior of some Germans, there is a deep care the environment and the plight of others. We saw the heartwarming handling of the 2015 Syrian refuge crisis in Munich, and again have witnessed the real welcome signs for Ukrainians on 2022. And they don’t brag about it, they just do it.
So we head north this Friday morning by train, feeling our privilege to be healthy and free.
We’ve covered some ground since leaving Selçuk and have thoroughly enjoyed soaking up the culture, oceans, and food along the stunning Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Southwest Turkey.
The uncertainties of transport, food , and some customs has been more than offset by the friendly and helpful locals. And we’ve stuck to our slow travel ways and navigated by minibus, ferries, and the comfy longer distance coaches that connect all Turkish cities.
One thing we’ve discovered in our travels are the different experiences that you have in a tourist destination that is popular mostly with local versus foreign tourists. Places that are predominately filled with foreign tourists obviously feel less authentic, but also can comfort you with more familiar foods and languages.
But in the extreme, the experience can be virtually cut off from local customs and people, instead replaced with recreated versions of travelers home cultures. (Full English Breakfasts, Schnitzels, and Guinness anyone?). On the other hand, you have a much better chance of meeting other travelers to share a drink, meal, or good chat with. When you’re on long term travels, this can be a nice respite:
In cities, you can get out of the tourist zones by just heading to other neighborhoods. In San Francisco, this would mean heading out of the Wharf and Union Square to the Mission, NOPA, or Inner Sunset.
However, in smaller places, there is often little escape. Some of the coastal areas of Western Turkey are heavily impacted by foreign tourists seeking sun and swim holidays, with the priorities to relax, and eat and drink comfortably. I get it, as sometimes that’s all we want to do too.
That said, we generally cherish the smaller cities and towns that are off the tourist track completely or more locally touristed. But if you don’t speak the language, getting way off the tourist track takes an adventurous spirit, and can be tiring in the long run. A happy medium is to visit places that are full of local tourists, such as Datça. More on Datça shortly.
We spent 6 days at the end of Ramadan and the Eid Al Fitr holiday in a great apartment in Bodrum. Transport during this big Holiday can be difficult, so we decided to ride out the celebratory heart of it with the local masses who flee Istanbul and other inland areas to head to the coast.
Bodrum does have some foreign tourists too, but the Turkish tourists dominate, so we did feel like foreigners who dropped onto Cape Cod for July 4th weekend. Bodrum has two big bays separated by a rocky peninsula topped by an ancient castle and a fantastic underwater archeology museum.
The West Bay is a glitzy promenade lined with cafes, restaurants, and dozens (hundreds?) of large, bulky boats called “gulets”, which are made locally in Turkish boatyards. The East Bay has a more chill beach vibe, and a good public beach at the far end, where we swam at least once a day.
As we also discovered on a hike in the surrounding hills, there is a ferry dock with daily boats south to Datça… I looked up the intriguing geographic position of Datça and we had found our next move, especially as we could walk to the ferry.
Datça is near the end of an amazing peninsula that juts out into Aegean and is surrounded by dramatic hills, ocean coves, small villages, as well as signature nut tree and olive orchards. We spent the very end of the Eid Al Fitr week holiday period in Datça, and loved sharing the holiday spirit and great restaurants in the downtown area.
The locals were very friendly, and we did not hear another English voice for 3 days. It’s also very light on car traffic and just has a great cozy feel on the small grid of downtown streets, many car free. As we liked to say when we are in such places, we’re experiencing someone else’s holiday, and it feels that Datça is still a little bit off the radar.
We headed out of Datça by minibus (via Marmaris) down the coast to Fethiye, a beautiful small coastal city, surrounded by steep hills and (still!) snow capped mountains from every vantage. Lots of ancient Lycian ruins in the area, not to mention beaches and turquoise tinged waters. It’s got a big broad waterfront connected by a lovely 5km promenade, but definitely not as cozy as Datça.
Sadly, we realized that our days in Turkey were actually running out, so choose to head directly to Antayla via an inland coach bus (4 hrs) versus continuing along the Mediterranean which would involve 10 hours of sinuous mini bus hops, and leave little time left for other experiences. A friend had told us we could easily spend two months in Turkey and he was spot on, and we definitely plan to return sometime.
Antalya is a large coastal city with a nice old town perched above cliffs of an ancient Roman harbor. We enjoyed a few days there, but wanted to head inland to explore a few more less visited spots, so choose to break up a 7-hour bus trip to Konya with a two night stop at Lake Egidir.
It’s a huge inland lake, but fairly shallow, and like many areas in Anatolia, a history formed by the Greek exedous/partition following the Greco-Turkish war in 1923. (Officially it was called a “population exchange ”) Somehow it all now feels a bit spooky, and it all has an air of being neither here or there. But since there are only a few places catering to foreign travelers in town, we did find a vibrant scene at our Pension; reminiscent of Pre-COVID times!
We are now in Konya, a more conservative large city, where a smaller number of of “western” tourists visit, as it is a major pilgrimage center for Muslims.
We wanted to spend some time in somewhere quite different than many of the more liberal coastal areas we’ve been enjoying. So we’re spending two nights here in advance of a 13-hour night train back to Izmir. There a few long distance night trains in Turkey, but make sure you book a week or more in advance to get one of the limited 2-person sleepers, especially as they are very reasonably priced ($30 for 2). We’ll let you know how it goes, but as Cheryl knows, I really love night trains -:)
As much as we are still enjoying new experiences in Turkey, we are both getting excited about getting back on the bikes next week and more long distance bike rambles in Northern Europe. We want to cycle the Baltic coast Eurovelo route, but with issues in the region now, it adds some logistical challenges getting past Kaliningrad, as well as questions of the appropriateness of traveling through Poland and other areas dealing with the stresses of refuges and possible energy shortages.
As we enter our second week in Turkey, we have finally adjusted to the time zone, food, and some of the customs of Turkish life; even the complex and nuanced lives of the ubiquitous street cats.
Meanwhile the world changes faster everyday. Just as it seems we were looking the worst of the pandemic in the rear view mirror, here comes Putin’s invasion! And now a geopolitical, migration and energy crisis is gripping Europe and rippling through the world. The future is always uncertain, but it feels especially daunting heading into the summer of 2022.
The truth about extended travels is that it is hard sometimes, a fact that travel bloggers and instagramers don’t always highlight between the pretty pictures. For us, returning to the US for a month was a mixed blessing. It was so nice to see friends and family, but at the same time, it brought a bit of angst, especially to me, as I have to fight my strong urge to settle down again. I believe nesting is a basic human instinct, especially as you age…. Luckily, Cheryl is more happy go lucky and able to take the long view better than me, which is one of the reasons our life together works so well -:)
San Francisco was at its finest in April, and after our travels, the fruits of vast prosperity, including high quality food, water, parks, and services really stood out in my mind. Not to mention the spectacular scenery, good weather, and tolerant attitudes. It really is hard to beat. But the very purpose of our extended travels is to break us out of our comfort zone, so we pressed on to Istanbul for the next leg of our adventure. San Francisco, we always miss you:
We have flown coach the past two transatlantic legs (via TAP), but we managed to use miles for two non-stop business class tickets on Turkish Airways for the 13 hour SFO to Istanbul journey; a worthy investment for the comfort of this 6’-5” carcass. It’s also nice to fly the flagship carrier of any country you are visiting as a bit of the cultural experience can start earlier (even if that culture includes talking loudly while everyone else is trying to sleep-;).
The service and comfort on the flight was great; but regardless, the 10 hour time shift was pretty harsh! We had forgotten the luxury of the previous 7 months of travel in just a few European time zones, and never trotting around a busy foreign city half zombie like…most of you know the feeling.
Luckily, a friend and infrastructure colleague in the Bay Area connected us with a local American who has taught and is an administrator at Bachesir Univeristy (BAU) for over 20 years, and is married locally with a child. He gave us a fantastic tour of some of the less touristed neighborhoods, including his home in Kadiköy, a more livable and somewhat hipster neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus. There is no better way to stay awake then to have an energetic local share his local knowledge and insight over 5 miles up and down the hills. Thanks Sean!
We also landed in Istanbul at the height of Ramadan, which meant locals were out by the thousands (tens of thousands) visiting the city’s beautiful sights and passing the daily fast with family and feasts after sunset. Major holidays are always a mixed blessing when traveling. They can mean that lodging and (especially) transport can be at its limits, but you also get the joy and insight of seeing unique traditions unfold.
We stayed in the heart of tourist Istanbul of Sultanahmet. Although convenient to the big sites, touts and overpriced restaurants abounded, and it often felt like we were not getting the Istanbul experience we craved. However, it also turned out to be a major destination for local tourists to see the tulips in Gulane Park, or, for the more devout to visit The Hagia Sofia or Blue Mosque.
Our hotel also suffered from online ratings bloat, as was ranked near #1 on most booking sites. Just as a “top pick” rating in Lonely Planet used to inflate prices, the hotel did not suit our independent travelers nature. Some people love being doted on night and day, with freebies and gifts, but as long term travelers, we definitely stray towards independence and found it all a bit tedious. And poor Cheryl had to listen to my jet-lagged rants on all the poor design elements and annoyances of the hotel!
If you are staying more than a day or two in Istanbul, then I recommend staying across the Golden Horn in Karaköy or Beşiktaş, or even on the Asian side as the Marmaray raíl can get you to the key sites in 10-15 minutes (or scenic ferries). This is where we will stay when we go back, and I think we will go back. So much still to see.
Istanbul is truly unique, and a teeming blend of cultures set on an ancient backdrop. The city is fast paced and hectic, but we enjoyed just diving into the stream of humanity and going with the flow.
The public transit is also pretty good, but was very crowded, especially the very useful T1 tram line. Make sure to buy an Istanbul transit card at a major metro or Marmaray rail terminal first and charge it with 50 or 100 Lira. Recharging is easier than buying a card.
We had to ask for help using the quirky machines that sell the plastic cards and often seem to be out of service. But there are always genuinely helpful people all around in Turkey. Just ask. Even if they speak no English, they will still go out of their way to try to help. By the way, you can use one card for multiple people, by tagging them through the turnstiles first. There are turnstiles for the trams as well, as they used a platform pay zone system. Amazingly, we saw no fare dodging anywhere, even when it would be easy at low boarding tram stops.
The trams are also nice new Bombardier built rolling stock, and everything is clean and safe, as is most of the City. The new Marmaray Rail system is an extensive system that runs deep under the Bosporus, and is a crucial link for the mega region of 22 million. The new airport lacks rail service and is way out there, so we took a taxi for about $20 and an hour ride, although there are bus options. Apparently rail is planned, although given Turkey’s financial crisis, it may be an unlikely priority give the distance and cost.
So after 5 nights in Istanbul, we had to figure out our next move: East towards Ankara and Cappadocia, or down the Aegean coat. As often happens in just in time travels, the transport situation pushed us towards a decision.
Turkey has been building a backbone high speed rail network, and it is quite successful, but unfortunately so reasonably priced ($3.50 for 4 1/2 hour trip!) and in demand, that all the trains to Ankara and the east were booked out for 2-3 weeks! Doh!
We thought about flying to Cappadocia, but didn’t want to burn the carbon for our convenience, nor face another hour plus trip back out to the airport in traffic. However, a fast ferry to Bandirma and convenient train connection to Izmir still had tickets. So the lesscarmorelife choice was clear. The slow way to Izmir!
Izmir is a cosmopolitan city on the Aegean that is the heart of liberal and secular Turkey. We really enjoyed our three days there, and did what we love to do in cities…walked though neighborhoods, wandering and exploring, all served by great tram and ferry links.
And again our next move was influenced by transport during the end of Ramadan, and a bit of fate pushing back. Our hotel was walking distance to and from the Basmane train station, and trains continued south, so this was the logical choice; however, we did consider the holiday crowds and thought that renting a car in (as was recommended by many) Izmir could make sense, especially as our flight out of Turkey is from Izmir in 3 weeks.
Luckily, the Budget site in Europe would not take our credit cards on booking. (also a problem on the Turkish rail site, so we have had to book at stations). So no car for now and we were off to Selçuk by train for a few days.
One of our mantras is that we see what we see, and don’t fret about what we don’t see. You may see more renting a car or flying, but will you experience more?
And Selçuk was a lovely big town of about 30 thousand, where we stayed in a very homey and neighborhood located guest house. Selçuk is one of the gateways to Esephus, but as most people visit by cruise ship shore excursion from Kundasi, Selçuk is more of a travelers town, with a very local and relaxed vibe. More on our visit to follow in the next post.
So we are now in Bodrum, a big coastal city that heaves with summer visitors and is quite busy during the Ramadan holiday, but most locals think the weather and water is a bit too cool to swim yet, the beaches are just nicely populated. Sweet. We have a comfortable apartment for 5 days, and are mixing swimming and sightseeing with laundry, sewing, cooking, and blogging -:)
We get a lot of questions about long-term travel and what is it like when you return after 7 months abroad. First off, it’s wonderful to see friends and family again. Nothing beats it.
But now that we’ve been back in the US a little over a week, I can tell you that it IS a bit of culture shock. We have experienced so much together, and adjusted to a life where people and places are constantly unfamiliar. Our first reaction when landing in Chicago was how clean everything looked. As much as we loved Rome and live in awe in the layers of history, there is little arguing that it is a pretty untidy city. Dirty, some might say. It’s hard to get 2,500 years of urban stains off things, right? America is actually pretty tidy, or at least we hide our trash well.
The second thing we noticed immediately is the change in scale and space. Ah yes, precious elbow room, as almost everything in the U.S. is upsized. It felt nice to stroll the endless connected Chicago sidewalks, with plenty of room to pass, and streets wide enough to turn a stagecoach.
And after arriving in Colorado this week, we can’t help but be awestruck by the vastness in which many of us live, especially in the American West. There is really nothing in Europe that even comes close, and I think this is why Europeans (and Americans of course) especially love to travel to this area, and always insist on going to Vegas. They are unique, vast, and truly American. And they do define who we are, as most Americans are more comfortable in a Costco than a compact urban Bodega.
Finally, I realized that the past 7 months has changed us and our outlook. Cliches about travel aside, we absorbed more European (and Moroccan) culture and, as with all good travels, take the positive aspects with us. For me, I have learned to truly enjoy slow coffee and the plaza cafe culture. The impact on your psyche from the wet and dark Northern European winter. (Gimme sun!)
And the pure and simple pleasure of a 3-hour Italian dinner with new friends. You need to have a general humility when you approach foreign cultures as an outsider. Embrace the new, and adjust your expectations. And maybe now I’m a bit more patient….maybe.
Travel is also always unique because it happens in the context of the time. We experienced the end of one COVID wave and rode out the first surge of Omicron. The pandemic has mostly been a shared global experience that immediately connects you. The recent drama and tragic unfolding of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is of global concern, but also a way to immediately connect with other travelers or locals.
So first a few logistics updates on how we got here? From Bari in Puglia, we caught one of two daily intercity trains to Rome. (They actually start further south in Lecce). We opted for the morning train, as the late afternoon train arrived Rome at 9pm, and we always find arriving a foreign city is especially disorienting after dark. We stayed in the Travestere neighborhood of Rome, which is an excellent alternative to the more touristed and hectic side of the Tiber river.
It was also easy to catch the bus or tram to the airport trains at the Roma Travesterre train station. The train connection to Rome Fucinolo airport is excellent and nice new trains leave every 15-20 minutes.
For our air travel, we again flew TAP Airways from Rome To Chicago via Lisbon. TAP is a member of Star Alliance, and has nice new A330s on most of their long haul services. Very comfortable seats in a 2-4-2 layout in economy. I also highly recommend getting the Plus fare, as for just a bit more money, you get seats in the ExtraEconomy section, two checked bags, and priority check-in. Worth it if you’re tall, and as we noted, our section was less crowded that standard economy. The other big upside of TAP is that they sell one-way fares à la carte, so no penalty versus outrageous one-way fares still charged by the bigger legacy airlines such as Lufthansa and United.
The downside of TAP is the Lisbon airport itself….it can get very crowded, and the gate/plane connections are often via shuttle buses from the tarmac, as were both our arrival and departures this trip. But they do pass the savings in to you! They also allow free stopovers in Lisbon or Porto, which is great, and a way to break up the LIS airport experience.
We arrived to Chicago pretty late, so stayed at a convenient Airpot hotel before visiting family near the Airport, and then two Metra trains to connect with other great friends, who generously hosted us for 4 nights. As a bonus, it was St Patrick’s Day and the Chicago river had a visible green tinge. Americans love to celebrate our immigrant culture, which is still a huge differentiator from many countries in the world. The brave and bold immigrants who continually arrive in the United States are a strength that should not be underestimated.
Another wonder of America is the food, as we quickly checked off 3 major food cravings; a great Mexican platter, Thai/Lao delight, and a heaping bowl of ramen. Oh, soooo good! The food in Italy is amazing, but these American taste buds miss the foods of the world.
So as we head back to California this week, we are filled with the anticipation of the familiar world of the San Francisco Bay Area, but also both feel a bit of apprehension. We are different people than the working, locally engaged homeowners of a year ago. We have embraced the vagabond life, worked hard to get to this place of freedom, and both know know that we still have a lot of the world and new passions to explore.
We will settle down again some day, and when we do, will invite everyone we have met to join us…but not quite yet.