Tag Archives: bicycling

Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.

Last Night in Paris

I’ve been putting off writing this last blog about our trip, partly because it seems a little unfair to reflect on what was a lovely end to our summer travels given the recent news about Ramatou, and partly because I’m hesitant to give up this last tangible link with being on the road. But here goes…

We left Cahors early the morning of the August 17th, taking “forced luxury” (as Rick Steves calls it) in the form of first-class seats to Paris. Because of some strange promotion SNCF had going on for the summer, these tickets were considerably cheaper than 2nd class tickets on this particular day and route. Otherwise, I’d never advise springing for the upgrade. It’s kind of like flying first class domestic in the States – the seats are only marginally wider, the bump in service from paltry to disingenuously attentive doesn’t justify the premium, and the people you’re surrounded with are bound to be road-weary frequent fliers and stuffy bluebloods rather than the more interesting rucksackers you’re apt to find in coach.

Hopping on the Paris Metro after getting in early at Gare d’Austerlitz, we unwittingly took the scenic route to our hotel by getting off at the Invalides stop. We’d stayed at the Hotel du Champ de Mars when we had passed through in June and so were quite confident we knew the way. Finding the hotel on foot didn’t give us any trouble, but hoofing it for more than a kilometer under the weight of our port- and cured-meat-laden packs turned out to be unnecessary.

Anne-Claire’s friend Julie from Marseilles met us that afternoon for dinner. “You’re joking, right?” she said, when I told her, yeah, the hotel was nice, but wasn’t well located for catching the Metro. “It’s just right around the corner.”

A lot of times people will say something’s right around the corner, when in fact something’s considerably farther away. Even with Julie’s excellent colloquial English, I didn’t believe her…until we walked right around the corner to the École Militaire station.

We have few excuses for this flub up. It wasn’t a language barrier or a lack of travel experience. It was just the arrogance to think that we didn’t need to check the map of a Metro system we both thought we knew well, or to not ask the hotel clerk the best way to get around, or to not just simply be a bit more aware as we were walking around. Oh well, I suppose there are worse places to take a long stroll through than the 7th arrondissement around the Eiffel Tower.

We met Sophie at her office to pick up a few of our things she’d been kind enough to hold for us while we’d traveled through Spain, Morocco and West Africa. Strangely enough, the very next morning Sophie and her boyfriend flew to California for vacation, and they’d end up staying with us in Pacific Grove not a week later.

After a quick “see you soon” to Sophie, we set out in search of a drink. Paris has automated kiosks all over the city crammed full of bicycles for rent. It’s not a terribly new system, but it’s light years ahead of similar programs that have taken off at places like Washington, D.C., and New York in the past year or so. As long as you’re a member (which Julie is), you swipe your credit card, pop the bike of the rack and start pedaling the big city. There are rules about how much you’re charged for the duration of the rental. The system’s optimized for short trips, like the one we were taking to get from the business-y 8th arrondissement back to our hotel, which ended up costing us about a euro each.

Biking through some of the busiest parts of the city was a whirlwind adventure. Yes, there are bike lanes (which you often have to share with buses), and in my two very short pedal-powered trips in Europe, I do think drivers are generally more aware of cyclists. However, I haven’t quite figured out how that dovetails with Europeans’ hell-bent need to get to where they’re going as fast as possible. Relaxed – bordering on lackadaisical in certain situations – Europeans, and the French in particular, never seem in a hurry when not confined in the cabin of a vehicle. But stick them behind the wheel of an automobile, and no amount of swerving, hedging traffic lights and breaking the occasional traffic code is too much if it shortens the journey. Maybe they’re just jonesing to get back to all that good living. Perhaps that’s another vestige of their culture they’ve left behind in West Africa.

Regardless, just because I had the impression that I’d been noticed (often not the case here in the States) didn’t mean I felt safe. We barreled through oceanic intersections with starfish-like (the sunflower type, not the classic 5-legged variety) patterns of streets coming in from all directions, only to come up on Place de la Concorde. The mammoth, oval-shaped roundabout swallows streams of cars, all eager to reach another of the oval’s access points (again, as quickly as possible) and get on their way. Unfortunately, none of the drivers seemed to have seen this oh-so-helpful video from my hometown on how to properly and safely navigate this traffic feature. The half-hearted attempts at lane lines appeared to be mere suggestions, and the traffic lights, presumably protecting gawking tourists brave enough to cross a dozen lanes of traffic, seemed to be more starting gates than safety devices.

Taking the second turn onto the Champs Elysées, we somehow ended up in the middle riding along the center divider. After a hair-raising left turn on a just-turned-red light toward the Seine – and a brief *chat* with a few police officers who mistook Anne-Claire and Julie for monolingual tourists but were quickly assuaged with a little eyelash batting – we crossed the Pont Alexandre III and were soon clicking our bikes back into the rack just off Rue Cler before having (at least for me) a much-needed drink.

The end of any journey is always a bit sad.

Staying true to form, Julie, Anne-Claire and I headed for a known entity, reprising the meals we’d had in June at Vins et Terroir in the Latin Quarter. Some of Julie’s friends met us for the evening, and mercifully, one couple had traveled and worked quite a bit in Australia (where they met Julie), so they spoke excellent English. Apart from not having the steak tartare we’d enjoyed so much in June and that Anne-Claire had been dreaming of on our long hikes and bush taxi rides through Africa, dinner was superb and the conversation excellent.

We held down the table for more than three hours, unfortunately outlasting the gelato shop down the street that locks its doors at 11 pm. Julie and her friends were bent on making a night of it, inviting us to have a drink somewhere else, but we opted to stroll Paris’s streets one more time before leaving the continent the next morning.

Like so many visitors, the pull of Notre Dame is a force too strong to shake when we’re the grand cathedral’s neighborhood, so for perhaps the fourth time in as many days in Paris (including June), we crossed the Seine and set off toward the twin Gothic towers. Of course, the square out front was packed, on this evening gathered around a fire dancer. Transfixed by the light show, it occurred to me that, five hundred years ago, a crowd might have enjoyed a strikingly similar show in Renaissance-tinged Paris, or that in another five hundred years, a similar scene would perhaps unfold right where we stood.

The Paris Opera House

We wandered back up the Seine toward those icons of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Through the Tuileries Garden, across Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées we walked, until finally, exhausted, we caught a quick Metro ride back to our hotel. And this time we didn’t take the scenic route.

Thanks so much for joining us on our summer trip. It’s been great to hear from everyone who’s been reading. Keep an eye out for weekly updates, as I’ve got a few stories I hope to go into more depth on. I have a few ideas beyond just a summer jaunt to keep this blog going, so I hope you’ll continue to read and let me know what you think.

Spanish Whirlwind

As so often seems to happen at the end of a long trip, the places we visited in our last weeks of traveling fell behind more quickly than we wanted. This wasn’t helped by the succession of quick stops we made as we headed toward Burgos in the Castile region of northern Spain, where we hoped to see Anne-Claire’s host family.

We traveled north from Porto with the vague goal of getting to Santiago. Two trains, a cross-border cab ride with a tri-lingual taxi driver later, and a short hike from the train station, we arrived in the bursting endpoint of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Our original intention had been to hike a few days on the Portuguese Camino, but backpacks laden with too much port and cured meat discouraged us from hitting the trail.

Santiago was pleasant enough, beautiful in fact, with its winding streets and sprawling cathedral. But not having done the hike, I felt more like a spectator as most of the folks in the town’s streets – many of them with 

Reflections of Molinaseca

bandaged knees and taped-up feet from 500 km or more of hiking – were basking in the catharsis of their journeys’ end. Still, it didn’t stop us from bellying up for some delicious food and beer.

The next day took us to Molinaseca, a charming little town on the Camino that Anne-Claire and her dad had both fell in love with on their hike a few years ago. We spent the afternoon napping at the river on the edge of town that greets pilgrims as they trek toward Santiago. If you know Sycamore Pool in Chico in Lower Bidwell Park, it’s sort of like a miniature version of that. At some point, the

The cathedral in Burgos

townspeople paved part of the bottom of the river and built walls along the banks to make a nice swimming area. Many pilgrims can barely keep their shoes on long enough to cross the stone bridge before they plunge into the icy water.

From Molinaseca, we took a bus to Burgos, now home to a Disneyland-like town center with another sprawling Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) begun in 1221. From there, we took another bus into the countryside, through streets in tiny villages that didn’t look big enough for a Smart Car, let alone a full-size motor coach.

Antonio and Michel in Castrillo de Murcia

Our destination was one of these small towns, a place called Castrillo de Murcia, where Anne-Claire’s host mother Amablé (who we’d seen in Aix-en-Provence in June) was born. Like many of the town’s residents, she moved away for work and to raise a family, but she returns every summer, when the population swells from a winter-low of 100 to about 500 in the summertime. Built around a hillside, with a skyward-reaching church at its axis, the village feels like a permanent block party. Folks mostly rest during the heat of the day in their houses built of chilly stone, but at night, kids fill the streets of the walled center, playing (as their parents do) well into the night.

Once again, we were treated to meal after meal of fantastic Spanish dishes. The first night, we sampled morcilla de Burgos, a local blood sausage made with rice, onions and salt. Lunch the next day repeated a favorite meal I’d had in quite a few countries on this trip – lamb and fried potatoes. This time, Amablé’s partner Michel cooked the steaks over a wood fire in the fireplace he built in their courtyard.

Michel has this insatiable curiosity that’s led him to pick up Spanish (he’s French by birth) and English in the last five years, and he loves to tinker (called ‘bricoler’ in French). Amablé’s mother’s house (where we stayed) is littered with small improvement projects he’s done over the years to the hundreds-of-years-old structure. Little would tip you off that he’s 70 years old, apart from the thick shock of white hair on his head that shows no signs of thinning. He and I took a 25-30-km bike ride through the countryside and through a handful of small towns that sit on the Camino de Santiago, which Michel has biked twice. He has plans to pedal along the route from Castrillo de Murcia to Molinaseca this September.

We rode up a short hill to a plateau that afforded us unimpeded views of the wheat and wind farms that stretch across the rolling hills in every direction. We each rode bikes Michel had salvaged from the trash and fixed to usable condition for just these types of rides.

After coming down the other side of the plateau, we happened on these spectacular church ruins in San Antón just outside Castrojeriz, which boasts its own specatular ruined fortress perched on a hill high above the town, a vestige of the protection once needed from Moorish invaders. The church in San Antón now houses a hostel for pilgrims on the Camino, but standing inside the roofless walls, you get the sense of what a grand cathedral this must have once been. Huge buttresses arc right over the roadway, supporting now-imagined walls that must have soared. Later that night, we drove out here with Amablé and Anne-Claire to see the church in even more splendid light.

Before dinner that night, Michel took me to the family’s cave, which Amablé’s father and his friend had carved out of the thick bedrock decades ago. True to his French roots, Michel brings a few dozen bottles of his favorite French wine with him every summer, and he stores it, along with vegetables in this chilly cellar with a green door and an almost-comically huge key.

It’s a big key

Given the hospitality they’d shown us not once but twice on our journey, it was tough to say goodbye the next morning. Amablé is pretty good with farewells, perhaps thanks to the practice that hosting 9 or 10 students over the years has given her. A few touches of cheek to cheek and we were off in Michel’s car as he drove us to the bus station in Burgos.

Still traveling guidebook-less, we wanted to head toward Pamplona and then up through the Pyrenees to see another of Anne-Claire’s host families back in France.