Friday, August 31, 2012

A memorable meal

Judith writes: Now we are back from our cycle trip across France we’ve had time to savour not only the ride but also the meals we had en route. This reminded me of a meal I enjoyed in India way back in 1984, linked by both bicycle riding and France. I had been fortunate enough to spend a sabbatical away from my normal secondary school job teaching geography. It enabled me to find out about agricultural and health programmes in parts of rural India that few teachers ever see as well as to take a real interest in the lives and aspirations of a wide range of people. I hope I was able to pass some of these experiences to my classes later.
I stayed mostly with Indian families and tried to eat the same fairly simple diets that they did but like many people away from their home comforts I sometimes found myself dreaming of European style food. One trip south of my main base in Madras took me to Pondicherry, formerly a French colony, where many of the older buildings still looked as if they were part of a film set, amid palm trees and paddy fields. I stayed a guest room of an ashram here and found food hard to find, according to my diary my staples were bread, bananas and peanut brittle, all available at streetside tea stands. The following day I hired a bike from the ashram and was able to widen my explorations. At that time Pondicherry was a very quiet place with few vehicles apart from other bikes, rickshaws or animal driven carts so I felt relatively secure although the bike seemed unwilling to turn right. After a somewhat expensive trip by taxi out to Auroville (founded in 1968) where the Matrimandir was then just a stark mass of spherical concrete girders, surrounded by scrub land and under darkening skies, I returned to the ashram a bit dejected and hungry. 
But I had a bike! So I rode into the town again and located the Grand Hotel d’Europe with its French restaurant, talked to the manager and booked myself a meal that evening at 7.45 pm.’’ Don’t be late’’ he warned ‘’I don’t want to give your meal to anyone else.’’
I remember I rode there as fast as that boneshaker would allow, really to escape any police since it was dark and I had no lights, of course. Air conditioned with potted palms, a large table set for one, it really was a film set. In former French Pondicherry, then at least, there were few restrictions about alcohol, grapes were grown here, wine and even brandy produced. However the manager advised me to have a beer, since the litre bottles of wine would be too much for one. 
The food came, a garlicky fish soup with large chunks of fish and tomatoes, together with garlic toast; a main course of a tender fillet steak and buttered rice; eggs mimosa with shrimps and mustard flavoured sauce, garnished with lettuce. I note in my diary that I could barely manage to eat a delicious almond egg pudding, though I found the coffee useful. It was a fantastic meal and gave me enough courage to cycle back to the ashram through the dark. There was little danger of being caught by the police, though running into  some cow lying in the road was real enough. 
Next day I cracked the secret of food in the ashram, there was a simple restaurant on the floor about my room, so I did not starve but was glad I hadn’t found it too early in my Pondicherry sojourn.
And what of Auroville? It has continued to develop and has achieved some of the goals of its founders, the Matrimandir is now a golden dome as you can discover from Wikipedia.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A winter excursion to Copenhagen Part I

Deutsche Bahn (DB) German Railways offer BahnCards - a range of reduced price cards giving substantial discounts on travel. One of the side benefits of buying a card is that you are offered a cheap trip to a specific destination from time to time. Recently we were offered a trip to Copenhagen and decided since this is probably the most cyclist-friendly city in the world, it would be a good place to exercise our Bromptons. In addition because we would be travelling on ICEs, we could check out the ease of travel with a folding bicycle on German high speed trains.

We took the midmorning ICE from Mannheim to Hamburg via Hanover which takes about four and a half hours to reach Hamburg. We had two seats in the middle of the open plan section of the first or second generation stock which was ideal, near to the luggage stand and with room between the seats to slip in a Brompton. We had 50 minutes or so to change trains in Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, but were rather surprised to see a very short ICE-TD with just four carriages arrive to take us to Copenhagen. Normally ICEs are nine or ten carriages long. However anything longer than four carriages would not fit on the ferry. Again the train was full, but there was room enough between seats to store the bikes. If we had needed we could stored them on luggage racks in the middle of the train.

The run from Hamburg to the German ferry port at Puttgarden is pleasant enough through Holstein. Passengers must leave the train once it arrives on the ship. The trip on ship was not so exciting. It was a pitch black November night and so we did not see anything. The ship's journey takes 45 minutes which is just enough time to eat a moderately expensive snack, or hit the duty free shop to buy chocolate, beer and spirits. Our Danish train conductor announced that due to urgent bridge repairs that we would transfer to a bus to Copenhagen in Nykobing. This went well and there was no problem popping the bikes and our bags in the lockers under the bus.

We arrived at the central station Københavns Hovedbanegård at about 20:30 on cold windy pitch night. The cycling facilities in Copenhagen are mind boggling, e.g. wide physically separate cycleways and green wave traffic lights for cyclists. We suspect that any British, American or even German cyclist cycling around Copenhagen would think they had popped their clogs and gone to heaven. However we are from the North of England, so any chance to complain should be taken: There are no town plans on display in the station and thus no cycle routes on display. We needed to go the south of the city to the Amager Youth Hostel. Fortunately drawing on many years of carrying out research for our cycle touring guide books, we had a city plan tucked in the back of a guide book and had googled and printed out the approach to the Youth Hostel. We peered out of various entrances, managed to orientate ourselves with the help of the lights of the Tivoli pleasure gardens and studied our maps. We worked out our route and moved out. It was Saturday night. Road traffic was fairly heavy. There are few signposts for cyclists, but we had no trouble getting out of the centre and across the Langebro bridge over the harbour canal. We turned off into a area of tenements still on a cycle track and then got lost. In the ensuing efforts to find our way we lost the guide book, but not the map. Finally we found our way past the university campus to the hostel. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Christmas in August?

A friend told us this morning that she visited the REAL store in Käfertal, a suburb of Mannheim yesterday (28 August 2012) and was horrified to see Christmas cakes - Stollen, Dominosteine on sale. It does seem much too early for us. It would appear that in Austria that the law is such that no Christmas confectionery may be sold before 1 November. This strikes us also as being too early, but better than starting in August.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Putting your bike on a long distance bus in Spain

It came to pass that we needed to travel to Oviedo from Irun and the quickest and cheapest way is to take the ALSA bus. ALSA are the biggest bus company in Spain and offer a good network of services all over the country. If you read the ALSA website you will see that you can reserve storage for up to four bikes, golf bags or surf boards per bus in advance and the bus driver must take them, unlike in the old days where the bus driver would accept the bike if he liked the cut of your jib and if not you were doomed to sitting by the side of the road until the next bus came along, which can be twelve hours. We had reserved room for our two Bromptons for ten Euro per bike at the same time as we booked our own tickets. I printed the tickets out at home. We arrived in good time at the bus station in Irun, a bus stop in front of the railway station and showed the driver our Bromptons expecting to load them directly into a padded luxurious pair of compartments. No, we had to put them in a cover, which meant folding them and then he insisted that we hadn’t paid for the bikes, so I had to return to the booking office for this to be validated. We had problems because the bus driver spoke no English and my Spanish is limited to buying a cheese sandwich and a draught beer. I went to the ticket office and the appropriate section of the ticket was ringed by an angry employee who was not happy having her time wasted. I returned to the bus, waved this under the driver’s nose and he grudgingly agreed to let us and the bikes on the bus, though we had to help him stack the bikes with our luggage in the space beneath the bus to protect the other baggage against our bikes. There was no talk of protecting our two thousand Euro or so worth of bikes. In contrast, the journey afterwards was superb in comfortable leather seats with coffee and snacks and a good in-bus entertainment system.
I am quite pleased that we had booked the Bromptons as bikes, although normally I am ready to fight for the principle that a folded covered folding bike is baggage and should not be charged as a bike, but if you don’t speak the language… One plan we had originally considered was to pack the bikes folded in their covers and in a blue IKEA shopping bag. I suspect this would have been a no no in this case.
When we got to Oveido I checked the ALSA website and found a sentence I had overlooked earlier:
“Because of the limited space, we admit 4 objects (bicycles and surfboards) total in each coach, one per ticket. They have to be good conditions to travel without causing any damage to other baggage, so it is obligatory for them to be well packaged in boxes or bags suitable for transportation.”, i.e. if you are going to travel with bike on a Spanish long distance bus then you will need to find a friendly bike shop beforehand for a cardboard box or take a bike bag with you. It is probably not a bad idea either, if you print out your ticket yourself at home, to highlight the bicycle booking.

Monday, August 27, 2012

French Maps

On our recent trip across France we bought a number of the excellent Michelin 1:150 000 departement maps. These maps classify roads into motorways where cyclists are forbidden; “red” roads – international and national with heavy lorry traffic, less congested interregional “yellow” roads and “white” roads which are often very quiet. The white roads are further classified into D (departement), C (community) roads and unnumbered roads (think of tarred farm tracks). The latter suffer from the disadvantage that they are rarely signposted. Conventional cycling wisdom is that “white” roads are almost traffic-free and they are the best to follow. However the lack of signposting on the most basic roads can mean slow progress due to the need to orient oneself at frequent intervals. We did find that some of the “red” and “yellow” roads had painted stripe bike lanes. We felt safe cycling on these.

Other good maps to use for touring are the IGN 1:100 000 ‘Carte de Promenade’ maps with lots of detail. Their web site is at: We have had difficulty finding these maps in smaller towns. The company publishes 1:25 000 and 1: 50 000 maps that are excellent but do not cover enough area for cyclists. These maps are easier to find.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bike Hire in Copenhagen

We were most impressed with the cycling facilities in Copenhagen. If you land in the city while  touring without a bike, a good way of experiencing la dolche vita à la Copenhagen is to hire a bike. This company offers guided tours and bikes to hire on a daily basis. We used our trusty Bromptons the last time we were there, so we have not hired from the company, but I was quite impressed with the no nonsense approach shown on its website.

Bike Mike
Email: - best way to get in contact with Bike Mike
Phone: (45) 26 39 56 88
Address for Bike Mike tour base - meeting point for all Bike Mike tours:
Sankt Peders Stræde 47
1453 Copenhagen

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Cycle touring and wine tasting

The Moselle Valley is good area to drink wine, look at castles and enjoy the twists and turns of the meanders as the rivers wriggles its way towards the Rhine. The good thing about Moselle wines is they are well flavoured but low in alcohol, which means that a pleasant evening is not followed by a heavy head in the morning. The valley was one of the first in Germany to develop cycle ways and is still one of the leading areas for cycle touring. The regional tourist authority is offering a seven night self-guided tour on the River Saar and Moselle stopping in small hotels with five days cycling for 332 Euro. Bike hire and luggage transfer is extra.  Check out:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Value for money accommodation in France

We recently cycled into Poitiers in France and had some trouble finding the Office de Tourisme. The whole story is reported on the Crazy Guy on a Bike website:
We found the Lamartine Apparthotel by chance, but were very impressed, as it offers not only a comfortable ensuite room at a reasonable price (63 Euro), but a kitchenette as well, meaning we could prepare and eat a salad, rather than having someone choose this for us. After almost four weeks on the road, eating out every night this was very welcome. The company Séjours & Affaires has hotels all over France ( and are worth checking out if you wish to spend a day or more in a French city.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bike Hire in the Loire Valley

In addition to any number of castles or palaces, the Loire Valley offers good cycleways, excellent food, superb wine and the beer is better than you would expect. It is an ideal place to enjoy a leisurely cycling holiday. However transporting a bicycle to the start of your trip can be a problem and you may want to spend some time in Europe travelling, but not always on a bicycle. The regional government in Cher has an initiative to encourage bike hire in the Province of Berry ( Bikes can be hired on the Loire in Belleville-sur-Loire. Boullert, Cosne-sur-Loire, Sancerre, Charité-sur-Loire and Cuffy, and away from the Loire at Sainte Montaine, Vierzon and Bourges. The prices are reasonable ranging from 14 Euro a day up to 59 Euro for a week. There are good bike carrying train links along the Loire, so you could cycle down to Nantes and take a train back to your starting point.

Whether the bikes come equipped with a tool kit and a lock is not clear, so it would be worth your while taking a spanner, tyre levers, a puncture repair outfit and a bike lock. If you are wandering round Europe with a rucksack, you don't need to wear the thing when you are cycling, you can lash it to a luggage rack with a bungee. Cycling with a heavy rucksack raises your centre of gravity and can lead to swerves ending in attempt to kiss the asphalt. Not to be recommended.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Eating out on Sunday evenings in France

We have just come back from a trip through France and will try to write about various things that struck us there over the next few weeks.

Finding a restaurant that is open on a Sunday in France is an activity that can be difficult. Sunday lunch is a very busy time for French restauranteurs and restaurants often shut on Sunday evening. This means that in small towns often only one restaurant is open. If it is an expensive restaurant and you need to eat, well, grit your teeth and pay the price or cycle up to 10 or 15 km to the next village where there might be a restaurant open. Count yourself lucky! We once found ourselves in a village on the Canal du Midi some years ago on a Sunday evening. We waited patiently outside the only Auberge in the village for it to open. It didn’t open and we found out later that if the landlord had a good Sunday lunchtime, he took the evening off. We were forced to boil up a dried chicken soup using our primus and pan. If I remember correctly the soup packet had the immortal words "No animal was harmed in the making of this soup" on the back.

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