Saturday, January 22, 2005

Europe by Foot and Bicycle

Nowhere is it mandated that seniors should avoid active vacations. And what more active way to enjoy a vacation than by biking and hiking in Europe? …A bicycle tour through Holland and a hiking trek through some of Austria's most scenic locales…all in a budget-friendly two week period. The year was 2001. Only in hindsight can I acknowledge what a great time that was to visit Europe. Since then the dollar has depreciated by almost 32%, making it much more expensive to take the same trip today.

I called my tennis buddy, Otto. "Listen pal, you have to hear me out before you say I'm crazy. How about the two of us doing Europe the way so many kids are doing it, but with a twist? We'll walk and ride bicycles but skip the tents and sleeping bags and stay in some nice places. The bike paths are terrific, the scenery is great and what better way for two 60 something guys to keep a grip on these expanding waistlines?"
Otto suggested that perhaps I had overextended my cocktail hour. He also indicated that although the idea had appeal, we were not up to the physical requirements. He finally asked for more information, which I provided from the liberal supply available on the Internet.
To my surprise his call the next day was, "OK, maybe we are nuts but if you are willing, so am I." So what started out as a web surfing dream one rainy winter evening began to take shape as we plotted and planned the details of the forthcoming summer venture. To our surprise we received unexpected encouragement and support from our wives, who made plans to visit the grandchildren in our absence.
The Internet is the traveler's friend. We found vast numbers of offerings and narrowed down our selections, but in the end it was still the province of a good travel agent to bring it all together. We were able to work closely via telephone and E-mail with our agent to make sure everything worked to our advantage. It might have been possible to do some of these things without an agent, but only for the very experienced. The one thing we knew we had to do for ourselves was to make sure we were in shape for the physical demands of the venture. We started a walking and biking routine on alternate days to make sure we were equal to the tasks ahead. For the inactive, it is essential to start slowly and build up. The tours we selected were not overly strenuous but required a reasonable degree of fitness.
We arranged our air travel to mesh with the bike week starting dates; checked schedules so that connecting travel arrangements dove-tailed with the hiking week and allowed us time enough to make our return flight home. Almost all travel and activity costs, including lodging and meals were known in advance and could be prepaid or budgeted.
Our biking week began in Amsterdam aboard a luxury motorized passenger ship, the Liza Marleen, built in 1997 on the superstructure of a seafaring motorized freight barge. We dined and slept aboard this boat which was moored on the Ijssel Sea, as the "Zuiderzee" is now called. With our provided 21-speed hybrid bicycle and a packed lunch, we departed after breakfast each morning. We had the choice of following our guide or heading out on our own, visiting museums or other sights along the way and returning to the new mooring point for the boat that evening. A hearty dinner awaited us at the end of the day and the cabin accommodations were first rate…a real necessity in order to be up, rested and ready for the next day. This is where the get-in-shape preparation paid off. We found we were up to the regimen with a minimal amount of aches and pains. One important aspect of this adventure was the safety net of knowing that you could always stay aboard the boat and enjoy a leisurely cruising day if inclement weather or aching muscles demanded. Fortunately, we experienced none of that. The weather as well as our shape up work paid off and each day was truly a new adventure.

Heading out along a dike for a full days ride
We opted for the guided tour route and enjoyed the days by not having to worry about following a map. Our guide was well versed in the area, multi-lingual and totally dedicated to seeing that we had the very best cycling experience. The great thing about bicycle travel in Holland is that you are not competing with cars for the roadway. The Dutch cycling paths are separated and well marked; they criss-cross literally all of the country. We found we were seeing things we would never have been able to notice if traveling by automobile. The language barrier was minimal; practically everyone in Holland is well versed in English.
Cycling around the Ijsselmeer is the ideal way to discover and experience the rich past, the 17th century when Holland was a powerful seafaring and trading nation. In a week's time we passed through four different landscapes: first the typical Dutch polder area with its' windmills and drainage ditches. In Friesland the panoramic lake area with the greenest grass you will ever see. Then the heather and wooded area of the Veluwe and the unique lake and peat bog region around the rivers Vecht and Amstel.
We racked up 295 kilometers on our bikes the first week, without incident save for the numerous stops at bakeries and coffeehouses. OK, so how many calories could we possibly burn off in a day of cycling? When it comes to Dutch pastries and the ever-delicious Apfelkeuchen (apple cake) who cares? If there was any question that we might be running a deficit on nourishment, the frothy mug of Dutch beer at the end of the day handily quelled that fear.

Break Time
The morning of the eighth day marked the end of the biking week. After breakfast, we bid fond farewells to our many new cycling friends, a diverse and friendly group. They had come from Holland, Iceland, Switzerland, Egypt, Canada and the U.S. All vowed to keep in touch by mail or e-mail. Now only a few hours remained until we could pick up our reserved rental car for the drive across the Netherlands and Germany into Austria. The time disappeared quickly as we poked into the side streets of Amsterdam and vowed to come again to spend more time in this intriguing city.
We planned to do as much driving as possible by daylight in order to see the sights along the way. By noon we were motoring through the countryside. Our destination was Salzburg/St. Gilgen, in the Salzkammergut area of Austria. This is the locale where Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer made the hills come alive in the movie "The Sound of Music."
After an overnight in a quaint guesthouse in Germany, we arrived in St. Gilgen on Sunday in time for a welcoming dinner and overnight in our first inn, the "Motzartblick". We received a thorough briefing by the proprietor and were given a package of information and hiking maps which would guide us during the week from inn to inn, all which had been reserved in advance. The next morning we prepared for the day's hike. We brought well tested walking shoes and small backpacks for carrying the days' necessities. We found this was not going to be a marathon for distance hikers. Today we walked about 3.5 hours along the beautiful Lake Wolfgang to the village of Furnberg, then via the "Falkenstein Wall" to St. Wolfgang, and returned by ship back to St. Gilgen. The scenery was inspiring but the altitude and the exercise had taken its' toll. After a hearty dinner and stroll through the village, we turned in early.

Heading up into higher ground
The next day we boarded a bus to Bad Ischl, had just enough time to walk around the town, then boarded a train to for a short ride along the river Traun via Bad Goisern and then along Lake Hallstatt to Obertraun. Here we walked along Lake Hallstatt, via Steeg and St Agatha, then back to Bad Goisern; dinner and overnight - 4.5 hours flat, 15 km bus, 17 km train.
Each day brought a new and different itinerary. We averaged about 4 to 5 hours of walking each day. Breathtaking scenery met us at every turn.. A week with a mixture of hiking, boating, train and bus travel…all arranged so that we could simply experience the enjoyment and friendship of our congenial fellow hikers, a charming couple from Denmark. We stayed in four different lodgings during the week, our luggage transported for us by the innkeepers and awaiting our arrival at each new hotel. The Inns all ranged from good to superior, some even offering unexpected amenities such as indoor tennis courts, swimming pools and saunas. The food was superior and we both enjoyed the testing of the various European beers and wines. Luckily, we were walking off the excesses each day.

Pause to refresh
Again, the time came too quickly when we needed to bid our farewells and prepare for our return flight home. As our plane lifted off the runway Otto leaned over and said, "Next time, let's plan to stay longer." I could only nod agreement. I found myself day dreaming the next chapter in our yet unfinished travel journal. Visions of cycling along the German Rhine and hiking in Ireland filled my imagination as I drifted off to sleep.

If you go? Good planning is key. Do your research and decide what you want to do. Then present your plan to your travel agent. Information can be gathered by reviewing recent travel books or gathered from the Internet. Remember it can be cold along the North Sea and in the Mountains of Austria. Summer is ideal. We were well served by our travel agent, Kennewick Travel American Express (800) 323-8728, and their tour division, 4Winds Specialty Tours (509) 967-3448

© 2005 David Agniel


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