Thursday, April 21, 2016

CROSSING THE ALPS! Germany - Austria - Italy to Venice

  • Biked from Lake Bodensee (Konstanz) to Fussen and then joined the Via Claudia Augusta bike path over Fern Pass into Austria.
  • Passed through Innsbruck (Austria) and over Brenner Pass into Northern Italy.
  • Spent a few days in the Dolomites – a UNESCO World Heritage Park, leaving from Brixen over Gardena Grodner Joch and Valparola passes, descending into Cortina d'Ampezzo.
  • Cycled down through  Belluno, Lago di Croce, Vittorio and Mogliano
  • Celebrated crossing 2000kms of riding and are currently just outside of Venice, back on the coast for the first time since the start of our time in The Netherlands.
What a journey the last week has been! It has included our biggest ascents and descents, some spectacular scenery, great people and of course, good food! Whenever you see the words “CROSSING THE ALPS”, you need to imagine these being said in a very excitable, enthusiastic, adventuresome way, which could include feelings of exultation but also despair!

We were enjoying Germany so much we continued on through to Fussen, a town at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, famous for two huge castles and the best serving of “Pork Knuckle” within the Bavarian region - a delicacy we attempted to try but the only place open on a Sunday night had none left! Gutted! It was with much anticipation that we set off from here to CROSS THE ALPS, following the Via Claudia Augusta, the earliest trade route through the mountains to Austria.
For those who love a bit of context!

Heading off from Fussen into Austria, towards Fern Pass - the first big climb.

** A note about cycle paths – we have a love/hate relationship with them. While offering great scenery and some time away from traffic, they almost always detour through every village and past every church steeple – fun for a while but not so awesome if you are trying to get from point A to B. Roads are often graded perfectly for cycling, while cycle paths often seem to be built by people who don’t actually ride bikes – with steep ascents sending you frantically changing gears just to make it to the top of every small, unnecessary rise in the path! We have sometimes given up on them and found our way back to the road for some fast kilometres and some kinder gradients!

The climb to Fernpass on the Via Augusta started well, then turned steep and gravelly so we headed for the road. This worked well until we came to a sign with a picture of a bicycle, tractor and old fashioned car. It said something underneath – perhaps “please look out for cyclists, farmers and old-car enthusiasts…..”, however a few km later we realised it probably actually said “PROHIBITED!!!” as a motorcyclist zoomed past us wagging his finger. We weren’t sure why until around the next corner the road started descending, big walls appeared and the dark mouth of a tunnel appeared…..a good lesson for our first day in Austria. We turned back, found the cycle path and enjoyed the scenic tour through the Austrian countryside – a delightful mixture of green pastures, cute houses and stunning mountain backdrops!

A more relaxing tunnel experience than the one mentioined!

The last few kms were back on a steep gravel road which we slowly chugged up (hard work on a fully loaded bike, but expected when CROSSING THE ALPS!!!), but we were rewarded when we found a path from the top which rejoined the road – an opportunity we took with great enthusiasm – 30km of fast, smooth downhill in the evening light. The first of many fun descents on this mountain crossing journey!!
Thank God! An old coin box to deposit your thanks to the gods for safe travel over Fern Pass!

From Nassereith we left the Via Claudia and headed east along the Inns valley to Telfs and Innsbruck, an awesome town surrounded by mountains on all sides. This is serious mountain country (we are, after all, CROSSING THE ALPS!!). Everyone here skis, climbs, goes hiking and wanders round in outdoor gear. I was particularly impressed by one guy I saw riding his bike in his ski boots through town, complete with ski’s and poles stashed expertly along his frame!!
A bit more context...!

From Innsbruck it was up and over Brenner Pass, the next big push in CROSSING THE ALPS! The climb started immediately out of Innsbruck, but we were biking on the old road, looking up at the (new?...newer) autoban which meant we had little traffic. This is the main goods route from Italy to Austria and the highway just seemed packed with trucks. Even the trains were pulled carriages and carriages of trucks! 40km uphill (again, completed with determined enthusiasm as we are CROSSING THE ALPS!) to the top of Brenner Pass – an alpine pass, complete with a HUGE outdoor retail outlet centre. Just what every alpine pass should have!!! (not!) ** see below for more on Brenner Pass.

From Brenner, we again had a sweet downhill (another advantage of CROSSING THE ALPS) to Brixen, 50kms down the valley from the border. This valley boasts a river, railway line, old road, autoban and cycle path – often all crossing above and beneath each other, with the autoban being almost entirely built off the ground! An impressive engineering feat – one that is no doubt made easier by the vast numbers of people and goods which travel along it daily.
This valley knows some infrastructure!

Great to be in Italy – the first impressions was that we had indeed CROSSED THE ALPS! It’s warmer here, people drink wine at lunchtime, there was a jazz clarinettist in our village as well as many pizzarias and cafes. Very cool.

Here we met Moritz and Nadja, an amazing couple who were very generous to us – hosting us, feeding us and even setting us up with their friends and further accommodation up the road which we so appreciated! We really enjoyed a few days of good socialising, resting and route-planning.
Great fun hanging out with Moritz, Nadja and Nevis in Brixen.

Our CROSSING THE ALPS adventure continued into the Dolomites – a UNESCO World Heritage Site which we were anticipating with great excitement! Sure enough, it provided a few days of FANTASTIC riding – our biggest day ascending from 1400m to 2100m twice over as we passed through the La Gardina area. Very cool riding, despite the second pass being covered in mist and fog, complete with hail, rain and a wind chill temperature of well below zero (seemingly appropriate for CROSSING THE ALPS!).

The first of the Dolomite mountains to appear...

Biking towards Gardner Joch Pass, 2141m

Ohhhhhhh, yea!!!!

Heading towards Valparola Pass, 2168m

Brrr. Made it.

Our descent into warmer climes has seen us through beautiful valleys, past mountain lakes and onto the plains of Northern Italy which are covered in vineyards and small towns.
On the way to Vittorio from Lago di S.Croce

We stopped biking 15km outside of Venice and jumped on the train, and then a ferry to our current spot – Lido, an island just off the coast of Venice. It has been a highlight to wander aimlessly through the alleyways, people watch on the side of the Grand Canal and just take in the atmosphere of such a different city!
Gondala boats along the Grande Canal

Late afternoon - Venice

**Brenner Pass and Refugees: Brenner Pass was (still is) the border between Austria and Italy. The only people who lived and worked here were army officials who managed the border, but as both countries opened their borders in line with the EU the town emptied out of jobs available (hence the shopping centre to bring back some income!). They are currently building a huge refugee holding centre here as from May, the border will again be controlled, the first time in 30 years. As the main “Balkans” route for refugees is closed, Italy is anticipating a huge influx of people making the treacherous crossing from Libya to Italy and then up Brenner Pass and into Austria. Austria will only accept a certain number of refugees each day so work is being undertaken to ensure there is somewhere for the overflow of refugees to stay.

I find it incredible that people will make this journey, hundreds of kilometres, by foot or however they can, with little food, money and resources available to them. It is really interesting being in this part of Europe at this time as the refugee crises is a very real part of life here. Outside most supermarkets we have seen people asking for money, which seems like a hard way to get settled and sorted in a new country (although of course, many won’t be getting settled and sorted in these places and are maybe just passing through also). I have been pondering how I should respond to them in a way which is helpful, respectful and appropriate?!
Our journey through Italy, up to now. From here we head east towards Slovenia and Croatia.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Germany: The "Journey", Political Borders and the Kindness of Strangers.


  • Train journey from Rotterdam to Bonn (for a night hanging with CHCH friends) and on to Tubingen, a old school university town complete with castle, cobblestone streets, gelato icecream and our amazing warm showers hosts, Sonya and Sebastian.
  • Cycled along the Neckar Valley, up to Schamberg and onto Triberg (Home of the cuckoo clocks!)
  • Spent an amazing few days cycling down past Lake Titisee and Lake Schulsee and the Alb River Valley before meeting the Rhine.
  • Followed the Rhine to Konstanz, crossing the Swiss/German border multiple times!

This week I have been pondering the freedom found in being on a journey. It has been awesome setting off each morning with our route to follow, but not knowing where we will spend the night. There has been a real sense of adventure, as we accept challenges as they arise and relish the sweet downhills that appear when we least expect them. Part of this feeling has been because we haven't actually known heaps about the route - we have stumbled (cycled) into cool old towns from the Middle Ages, come across brass band celebrations, discovered waterfalls and been surprised by towering cathedrals and scenic river valleys. It has been cool just rolling with it! I have enjoyed having no set end point and just being free to travel for as long as feels good.

Navigating a wee rockfall on the road.....thankfully no OSH standards to turn us round!

Enjoying the down...

Enjoying the grand....

Enjoying sleepy villages...

I have also been so thankful for the blessings found in the kindness of strangers! One day stood out as having particularly hard navigation - which made for slow travel. As we pulled out the map (yet again) at about 5pm, a friendly local came out of his house to help. After helping us figure out what we were looking for, he convinced us to stay and spend the night with his family. This turned out to be such a cool night - we were treated to classic German food and beer and Gerold and David (father and son), both biked with us the following morning to give us a taste of the local mountain bike routes! It was awesome being able to follow their local knowledge, which took us over snowy tops and long downhills, even up a shortcut walking track which ended up being too steep to bike. I was pretty stoked when Gerold insisted on pushing my bike (much appreciated!). It was so much fun having some friends on the bike beside us and we really enjoyed the few hours riding with them! We bid them farewell at the top of a hill and rejoined the road down through the Black Forest.

Turning round after deciding snow at the bottom might equal snow at the top...

The shortcut route instead...

Black Forest cycle paths

Cruising down the Alb River valley

We enjoyed a few good nights camping down the Alb and Rhine River valleys and have ended up in Konstanz. Being by the Rhine was actually pretty cool - we came across Rhinefall, a huge step in the river which made for an impressive waterfall as well as Stein en Rhein, a really old town with intricate paintings on all the buildings.

It has also been interesting wondering about the borders in this part of Europe. Instead of following the Rhine, which makes for a sensible natural feature, they seem to be all over the show! We stuck to one side of the Rhine and crossed in and out of Switzerland two or three times over the course of an afternoon. Apparently, this relates back to the middle ages when Monastries held all the power and land. As people died, they would gift their land to the monastries and borders were eventually made along these lines. Politics at its best! Even the town of Konstanz has the border running through the middle of it, with food 30% cheaper on the German side of the border (but the good Swiss chocolate on the other!)

Stein en Rhein village

Along the Rhine

Lunch - WINNING!

Last night we met up with a Konstanz local (a friend of our neighbour in CHCH) who was able to give us some more inspiration for the route from here and again, we were blown away by the kindness of strangers. Gero met us, fed us and was super eager to help out, even giving our bikes a good grease and oil up before we biked off again into the night - warm, well-fed and full of ideas of the what the next week or so might look like.

Konstanz has felt like a bit of a milestone - our route from here through the Alps into the Dolomites has taken some time to plan so it has been nice to spend a few days here thinking about the next phase (which will see us through Italy, Croatia and into Greece.)

Not so long ago I read that if you need to be inspired by the kindness of people again you should go cycle touring - the people we have met so far are definitely making an impression on me and I am so thankful for their kindness!!
A fun night route planning with Gero in Konstanz

Warm Showers Hosts - Sebastian, Maya and Sonya in Tubingen

PostScript: Three Things Germany does well...

Wood stacking
Statues of Jesus
Solar Panels

Friday, April 1, 2016

Netherlands - The Map

Maps and facts are cool:

Fastest ave speed (over an hour) = 30 km/hr (back wind along a dyke)
Slowest ave speed (over an hour) = 7 km/hr (terrible head wind)
Ave dist/day when cycling = 60.1km (a bit less hard core than Morroco)

Netherlands Journey

Cycling Paradise!


  • We’ve spent the last 12 days in The Netherlands
  • Have biked a further 400kms, (a small circuit from Amsterdam-Heerhugoward-Zwolle-Apeldoorn-Utrecht-Rotterdam)
  • We’ve met lots of Andy’s mum’s cousins and their parents– an awesome bunch!
  • We’ve been stoked on Dutch sweet treats, the cycle path network, the “gezellig” (cosy) hospitality and sharing lots of stories from the family archives.
  • From here across most of Germany by train to the South, Austria and Northern Italy….

After an amazing night with a Warm Showers host family in Casablanca (Merci, Anthony & Sandra) we arrived to Amsterdam Airport, found a quiet corner and set up our bikes. With our Moroccan train experience (trying to get our bikes on) fresh in our mind, we ventured out into the Dutch train system, bound for Heerhugoward where we had arranged to meet Paul and Jany – cousins of Andy’s mum.  As it turned out - the Dutch train system is awesome!! We rolled our bikes on, got whizzed away and then just rolled them out again at the other end. Everything we had read previous to arriving had suggested that Holland was a fantastic place to cycle tour and it certainly has been! Sweet bike paths and networks, which mean you hardly go on a road, easy train transfers and road rules that favour cyclists. It’s very cool!

Some of the bike paths we've travelled...

A real highlight of our time in Holland was staying with Paul and Jany, Pieter and Els, Jan and Bap and Saskia – all relatives of Andy’s mum. A huge thanks for their hospitality – it made for a pretty special time.

Once on the road we used the Fietsplanner website, which was awesome – essentially you enter in your start point and end destination and it gives you the number for each cycle path intersection you will visit along the way. So once you have a list of the numbers, you set off and just follow the signs! No maps, GPS or compass needed! This system only let us down on one day, when the signs weren’t quite as well placed, but in general it was super easy to navigate around the country and even through cities. 

The family!

From Heerhugoward, we cycled around the side of the Zuiderzee – a large lake, to the city of Zwolle. Then south to Apeldoorn to the home of Andy’s Nanna’s sister and her husband which was a real highlight. Both in their 80’s, we were fed a constant supply of food, stories from their trips to NZ and old photographs. We were really grateful that Paul joined us for the night to help translate, as it meant we really enjoyed getting to know Jan and Bap. With our bags stuffed full of Apple Tart, biscuits and an amazing lunch we headed off the next morning bound for Utrecht. 

Our route took us through a national park which was lovely, through farmland (very similar to Southland, just in miniature) and to Utrecht, an old university town where we spent Easter Sunday. It was incredible to spend two nights here, within a stone’s throw of the Dom – a 13th Century Cathedral, whose bells kept us entertained all day. Utrecht has classic canals running through it and is very picturesque – it quickly became a favourite spot for us! 

The classic Dutch canals...

From here, it was 60kms into a head wind as we headed for Rotterdam. HARD work!!! It was blow you off your bike stuff so it was a relief to arrive into the centre of Rotterdam and know we had completed our cycling in the Netherland and risen to the challenge!

The following day we left the bikes behind and headed to Delft, a small town where Andy’s Grandad was born, and onto The Hague, where we hit up the Binnenhof (Parliament) and the Peace Palace (International Criminal Court). Pretty cool to see these spots, but the small towns remained my favourite in terms of their cuteness, and general good vibes!

The Hague

And then it was onto the train, bound for Germany. Wow, what a privilege to have had such great people to look after us while in Holland and to be able to spend some time here. It has been fantastic!! 
The Boats (just for the Wood Whanau)

And just a few of us...!

Andy’s Philosophical Musings:  Where We Live & How We Live – Have we got it right NZ? 

Our experience of the housing and layout of the cities and towns in The Netherlands and parts of Germany we’ve been in has lead me to wonder – have we got this right in NZ?  There is a lot that we’ve seen and heard here, which seems to make a whole lot of sense here!  Apartments seem to be the natural living situations for the majority of Europeans resulting in towns and cities that are much more compact, easy to travel across, more bike friendly, efficient and affordable.This compares to the sprawling large-homes and fenced off sections of Urban New Zealand towns and cities, which have comparatively high rents and house prices, require extensive car travel and can be very inefficient.

From talking to people we have stayed with in Germany we hear that there is a completely different mentality to property ownership and renting.  We understand that this is partly due to government controls resulting in rent prices that are considerably lower.  A weeks rent in NZ might equate to a month’s rent in Germany(even when taking post-taxed income into account).  Property investment in housing therefore isn’t such a lucrative option here, which leads tomuch more affordable renting and living.

 How people live and the way they transport themselves also seem to be very positive flow on effects of this increased density.  You can walk across the town of Bonn in less than an hour, which has a population the size of Christchurch.  Much less of the population needs to own a car, as you can easily bike to work or your local bakery or supermarket (which are smaller and much more common), rather than travelling to the mega super market to load up on groceries for the week.

This has lead us to wonder, have we got our planning and controls for urban housing, transport and renting right in NZ?  AND what needs to happen to improve or change this for the better?  Is our NZ love of stand-alone housing the way to continue, or can we embrace the humble Apartment?  

Thoughts to ponder on the road this week…

A & M