Saturday, August 3, 2013

A couple of Terns around Europe

There was a time when we were real cycle tourists. We started at the beginning, pointed our bikes towards a destination and pedaled 100 or so km a day until we got there. But age and reduced attention spans mean we are getting choosy about what we ride. Which is where the idea of folding bikes came in.
A conference in Vienna raised the possibility of cycling some Austrian bike trails. Marg had unfinished business in France: previous attempts to see Monet's gardens at Giverny near Paris had been stymied by the fact that trips had been planned at the wrong season. But the idea of carting full sized bikes across Europe was daunting, even though over the years we've got the assemble/disassemble routine down pat (my personal record was starting a Greyhound ticket queue with a rideable bike, and getting to the counter with a bagged bike ready to check in). Wouldn't it be easier with folding bikes? Just hop on and off buses and trains, nimbly flicking a few levers to reduce them to an acceptable package? But could a folding bike cope with the distances and loads of cycle touring? What compromises would we have to make? In fact we'd been compromising for a while anyway, substituting credit cards for the tent and primus we used to cart around.
Simon Kennett kindly lent me one of the GWRC Dahon folding bikes. I loaded it up with a bag of stuff that I'd plan to take on a Europe trip, and set off on a mini cycle tour around the GHW and up Mt Vic. So long as I didn't look down at the almost invisible front wheel, I felt like I was riding a real bike. By the time I'd returned to the city (via the Lord of the Rings off road track, no less) I was hooked. I biked over to Marg's office, folded the bike, and took it up in the lift to show it off. So it was decided. We'd do the trip on folders.
Dahon test ride on the Wellington waterfront
But what breed? Bromptons pack small and are great for commuting, but I was worried about whether the 16" wheels were good for long distances. Custom built Bike Fridays are the Rolls Royce of touring folders, but cost almost as much as a real Roller. Simon suggested I look at Terns, a new brand created by a breakaway group from the family that established the popular Dahon brand. After a while I started to get my head around the bewildering range of models on the website, and targeted the P9. Nine gears going down to 32” (that quaint measure of gearing, the diameter of the equivalent penny farthing wheel): this looked like the best we could do without going to the extra expense and weight of multiple chainrings; 11.5kg, about as light as the Tern range went to.
Next problem was buying them. I got varying reports of who was going to import Terns into NZ, and when they’d be available, so started to look at acquiring them in Europe. Evans Cycles in the UK offered good prices, and would ship anywhere in Europe. But I was nervous about getting them sent to a  Paris address. For a start, our favorite Paris hotel had an idiosyncratic proprietor who would either welcome the fact we were embracing something as French as cycling, or would chuck the bikes in the nearest skip as an inconvenient nuisance. Then what if something was wrong with the bikes when we collected them? After some emails to Tern’s European distributor, we located a bicycle shop in Paris stocking them. A Google Translate email exchange established that Franscoop could have a couple of P9 velos pliable for us. The rouge/noir colour scheme sounded good, so we committed some credit card numbers to seal the deal.
In early July we arrived in Paris, and rode a couple of Velib public bikes out to Franscoop in the 19th arrondissement. Guillaume was enchanted to meet us, and efficiently fitted the extras we needed: red and black water bottle holders to differentiate our bikes, a pump, spare tube, etc. So we returned to the hotel on our Terns, at intersections fielding queries from admiring passers-by as to where we’d brought our bikes.
Marg and Guillaume with Terns
So to the first of our expeditions. Giverny is near Vernon, an hour or so train trip down the Seine from Gare St Lazare in Paris. We loaded our gear onto the Terns, and biked over to the railway station. To our slight disappointment, we didn't actually have to fold the bikes: there was a generous bike rack space on the train. At Vernon we biked through streets of Tudor style wood framed houses, and crossed the Seine on a bridge decorated with guerrilla art project of cloth strips. 
Crossing the Seine at Vernon
At this point the weight of electronics that I’d taken to support my digital lifestyle was starting to tell. Despite Tern’s ingenious bungee system, my bag was threatening to join the roadway at every bump. Marg took a break in a park while I returned to scour Vernon for extra bungees. Once the bag was secured, we carried on to find that the railway that used to carry Monet to Giverny has been converted into an excellent bike trail. 
On the rail trail to Giverny
Soon we’d found our hotel, La Musardière (“the idler”), an 1880s mansion at the end of the village, and conveniently close to the garden’s entrance. At this point jetlag caught up with me, and things were a blur until the next day, although Marg assures me that the hotel restaurant dinner was excellent.
The next day the Terns got a rest while we explored the gardens, making an early start to avoid at least some of the crowds. The Canon got a workout, as it was hard to resist the reflections in the lily ponds, the fields of blooms surrounding the house, and the strutting heritage breed chickens that I dubbed “Monet’s Chooks”. We were a little too early in the season for the famous water lilies to be in bloom, so Marg is already plotting return visits at different seasons.

Back at the “Idler” the excellent crepes recharged us for an afternoon of exploring the museum (devoted to the wannabe Monets who invaded the village in the 1890s) and the winding lanes of the village. 
The next day we took the Terns for a cross country spin to La Roche Guyon, a medieval castle overlooking the Seine. 
Haystacks and Velo Pliable (after Monet)
Then it was back along the bike path to Vernon and the train to Paris.
Next morning we were biking down the Seine in the dawn half light to the Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV to Zurich. We arrived with plenty of time to queue for a coffee and pastry, then fold up the bikes on the platform, stowing them in utilitarian bags that Marg had stitched up from $2 tarpaulins. There was a bit of a scrum with the dozens of students going on camping holidays with their circular pop-up tents, but we eventually found luggage rack space for the Terns, and settled back to watch the French countryside flash past at 200 km/hr.
Terns stowed in the TGV luggage rack
In Zurich we spent the two hour wait between trains doing a “Tern Tour” - following the bike path down the river to the lake and back. 
Setting out to explore Zurich
Tern touring the Zurich lake shore
Then we boarded the OBB train to Austria, enjoying the increasingly alpine scenery on the way through to the Tirol. At one point a glance at the map showed that we’d ticked off another country on our lifetime visit list - the route passed through Lichtenstein, though sadly no Lichtenstein immigration officer was around to stamp our passports.
At Landeck, a small town in the Inn river valley in the Austrian Tirol, we swapped from train to Post Bus - the Austrian Post Bus system reaches even remote hamlets in the mountains. We’d been told they were bike friendly, but even so it was a surprise to see our bus towing a large bike trailer. It seemed that the next part of the plan, to bike downhill from Pfunds, near the Swiss border and the source of the Inn river, wasn’t particularly original.
In Pfunds, we settled into a comfortable pension with a view over the town and settled back to enjoy the scenery. Next day we continued our avoidance of cycling uphill by hiring the local taxi t take us and the Terns up to Tschey, a high alpine meadow in one of the side valleys.From the carpark, a gently climbing road wound through the fields of wildflowers past grazing cows, cowherds huts (now converted to holiday homes with solar panels and satellite dishes; I suspect the actual cowherds find commuting from Pfunds more convenient), and a small church. 

Then we enjoyed a speedy descent back down the gorge, with a stop for Würst, the inevitable Austrian sausage based lunch.
Next day we started the tour in earnest, following the Inn River Trail (Innradweg) down valley. The green markers were easy to find, leading us down minor roads and dedicated cycle paths to Landeck, including a crossing of a traditional covered wooden bridge. 

After a brief tussle with Landeck’s Saturday morning traffic jam, we were spat out the other side, following the trail down the Inn river. When admiring the mountain scenery palled, we could enjoy the antics of river rafters, clad in kermit green wetsuits. After about 80km the joy of cycling had started to wear off (I mentioned our reduced attention span), so we ducked into a railway station and took a train through to Innsbruck. After a brief tour of the marketplace, and admiring Archduke Friedrich’s golden roof, we carried on down river to Hall in Tirol, and spent the evening walking around the well preserved medieval town. Marg made plans to kidnap Leo, the resident St Bernard at Gasthof Badl, but sadly he exceeded the Tern load specifications.
From Hall we cycled down valley a bit further to Jenbach, exchanging text messages with our Canadian friends Clive and Wilma. They had arrived in Zell am Ziller after a hiking trip, and after a train ride on the branch line from Jenbach up the Zillertal valley, we were there too, reflecting on the impact of technology, and how difficult a rendezvous like this would have been to arrange in the days of Post Restante.
Although Clive and Wilma’s bike tour the previous summer had been the inspiration for our trip, they’d left their Dahons in Scotland, so our Zillertal expedition was a hike. But not too strenuous - the main altitude gain was on the Ahorn cable car. From the terminus a trail sidled around the mountainside and ascended gently to Edel Hut, where we were welcomed by yet another St Bernard, and enjoyed the hut speciality, Kaiserschmarrn, chopped pancake with apple sauce.
Clive and Wilma headed off for their cultural experience in Salzburg and Vienna, and we decided swap valleys. The bus to the Gerlos pass took the folded Terns without a problem, and we started our descent in the Salzach valley to pick up the Tauernradweg, a cycle path leading to Salzburg. We were pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic on the road, and soon found out why - the storms of the previous month had caused the road to subside, and we had to pick our way past cracked tarmac and a jovial digger crew repairing the damage.
Soon the valley opened out, and we wound down the side of the valley past grazing cows and neat homesteads clinging to the grassy slopes. We got a brief glimpse of the powerful Krimml falls, but decided that we lacked the motivation to trek back up the valley to them. The Taurenradweg wound back and forth across the valley, giving us views up to heads of glaciated valleys. 
Despite the mountains, the sun made conditions hot, and we were glad to stop in the shade of some trees for a picnic lunch. Having started in Zell, it seemed appropriate to stop in Zell as well - the lakeside town of Zell am See offered a comfortable pension, and a chance to admire a fountain designed by Hundertwasser, the Austrian artist who commuted between NZ and Austria for much of his career, and whose posters decorated many 1970s Kiwi student flats.
After carefully scrutinising the contour lines on the Taurenradweg map we decided to leave the Salzach valley, and take an alternative route to Salzburg. The Radwegs, incidentally have excellent strip maps sponsored by Voltarin, which gives an indication of the age and condition of many of the riders on the paths. One group that we met several times along the route was the “flying forty” - a highly disciplined group from the Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club (ADFC). They proceeded along the trail in strict formation, a regulation metre between riders, with a hi-viz vest wearing leader blowing a whistle, and a tail end charlie making sure that no-one strayed down interesting side paths, or paused to read an unauthorized information sign. 
The "flying forty" lose formation slightly on an uncharacteristically rough stretch of track
[I should point out that this tongue in cheek description belies the fact that ADFC is a fine organisation, the equivalent of CAN in NZ or CTC in the UK, and has campaigned effectively for improved cycle facilities in Germany].
A leisurely day saw us at the town of Lofer, and given the name, it was hard to resist stopping. The skilift above the town looked attractive, so we whisked up to the alpine meadows with the Terns, enjoyed a short walk in the forest (including a chance to practice traditional tunes on a rack of cowbells) then had a fast descent on the sealed road back into town, and a coolish swim in the pool next to our hotel.
Marg rings the changes on the cowbells
Coming from an island, I get quite excited about land borders. I recall the tingling feeling I got when we cycled through Finland in 1975, and realised that the people fishing on the other side of the river from where we were camped were Swedish, and fishing from Swedish soil - the river was the border. Unfortunately the Schengen Treaty has removed much of the romance (and any other visible sign) of crossing European borders, but I had hopes for our last day on the Taurenradweg, which crosses the Berchtesgadener tongue of German territory that sticks down into Austria. The pleasant trail was on the opposite side of the river to the main highway, traversing forest and small farms. The border seemed to be at a small bridge, but the only confirmation that we’d crossed was a little later when our mobile phones beeped that we’d changed roaming providers. A bit later a whistle blast signalled the approach of the ADFC flying forty, riding even more confidently now they were on home territory. After a brief tour of Bad Reichenhall, we followed the trail back over into Austria and through the suburbs to Mozart Platz in Salzburg. Here our “no reservations” policy of not bothering to book ahead  for accommodation took a battering - our recommended hotel was full, but after wandering up and down Linzer Gasse a few times, we put together a comfortable if expensive arrangement.
Salzburg is definitely a cycling city - the large bike racks on most side streets are packed, and it was tricky to find a space to slot the Terns while we walked back over the river to get the cable car up to the Fortress. The car is very like the Kelburn version, except that a glass roof makes it easier to appreciate the rapidly expanding view of the town on the quick trip up the hill. After a rather slow coffee and cake at the rooftop cafe, we joined the throngs exploring the battlements and museums of the castle. I rather liked the story of the painted ox: during a siege the occupants were down to one ox for food. This was painted a different set of colours each day and paraded along the battlements to convince the besiegers that the fortress was well supplied. Apparently this worked, and the besiegers withdrew, rather sadly for the ox, which presumably got eaten by the ravenous fortress folk!
Salzburg is of course the heart of Sound of Music country, so our cultural experience that evening had to be a performance of SoM, at the Salzburg Marionette theatre - which has kept alive a long standing Salzburg tradition of puppetry. The skill of the puppet operators was shown by the complexity of actions, including having Rolfe and Leisl mounting a realistic looking bike and riding around the stage without tangling with themselves or other characters.
Salzburg is also Mozart town, and we made the ritual visit to his birthplace (in fact Mozarts Geburtshaus is a compact well organised museum, with lots of insights into his upbringing and family relations). 

Salzburg underpass
But with time running out, the next stage of the Austrian Cultural Experience had to be Vienna. Westbahn, the EasyJet of Austrian railways, offer a €25 fare for the 2.5 hour trip to Vienna (we could have got a €10 seniors fare if we’d gone mid-week), and although we folded and bagged the Terns, we could have just rolled them on. With more time, we might have considered doing part of the Danube river trail (Donauradweg), perhaps using of the bike friendly boats plying the Danube between Melz and Krems.

In Vienna we crossed town to our hotel, not using the ubiquitous bike routes as effectively as we did later when I acquired a copy of the excellent Vienna Radkarte bicycle map from the Information Office. We learned a number of bike lessons for navigating Vienna:

  • Avoid the Innere Stadt (central old town) on bikes - the crowds and winding streets make walking much more pleasurable.
  • Avoid tram tracks - Viennese cyclists seem to treat them with aplomb, perhaps having a tram track avoidance gene inserted at birth, but a quick test showed that although the gap was narrow, the tracks were capable of trapping a Tern wheel, so we treated them cautiously.
  • Use the excellent tree shaded bike paths on Ring surrounding the Innere Stadt. As well as being an efficient way to get around, the Ring exposes you to the amazing architecture of this city that was built to rule an empire of 50 million people, even though now it is the capital of a relatively small EU state.
  • Use the paths along the Danube canal, enjoying the cafes, impromptu sculptures and concerts, and sandy sunbathing beaches (truely!). Just remember to count bridges, so you don’t overshoot your destination.
Avoid routes used by the horse drawn carriages -
biking through horse piss is not pleasant!
Over the next few days we explored the culture and cuisine of Vienna. At Heiner, we enjoyed coffee and torte in a traditional cafe atmosphere - despite its proximity to the tourist crowded Graben, the clientele seemed to be local Viennese bent on quietly getting in touch with their inner calories.
Soon, it was time for Marg to start the 36 hour aerial trek back to Godzone, and I immersed myself in the world of bibliometrics at the ISSI 2013 conference in the magnificent halls of University of Vienna, our breaks watched over by UV alumni such as Schrodinger, Doppler and Freud.
A spare day after the conference gave me the chance to try yet another Radweg, and add another country to the list. From Vienna it is 60km on the Donauradweg to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.In fact this wouldn’t really be a new country, since Marg and I had cycled there in 1976 when it was part of Czechoslovakia.
The route started out by crossing to the Donauinsel, a 20km stretch of parkland dividing the two branches of the Danube, which Marg and I had visited over the weekend, marveling at the normally formal Viennese disporting themselves in minimal dress.
After following the island for a while the route crossed to the northern bank, and after a short tour of an oil refinery, traverses the Donau National Park, following a wide bike only road in almost a straight line through forest and lakes. Only occasionally did I see signs of civilisation, the main one being the bike friendly cafe at Schonau, where I downed a sprite as a precaution against the increasing heat. At Hainburg I stopped for lunch at a restaurant advertising bike parking and supplying a stand pump for topping up bike tyres.
Since I was still recovering from a week of generous hotel breakfasts and conference dinners, I chose a likely looking dish from the section of the menu helpfully labelled “meals for when you don’t have much hunger”. The result was two large sausages, a generous plateful of goulash, and a request from the waitress to let her know if the accompanying loaf of bread wasn't sufficient. It’s hard to be underfed in Austria!
On to the border - Marg and I crossed this in 1976 when it was the Iron Curtain. We’d had to arrange visas in London, committing ourselves to contribute US$20 a day to the Czech economy (rather more than our normal free camping budget). We rolled up to the border, a bit dismayed by the long queue of cars, and the sight of great coated, helmeted AK47 wielding border guards. In fact the guards cheerfully waved us to the front of the queue, processed us efficiently, and we were on our way. The $20/day, by the way, was the main problem we had on that trip - we decided to splurge it on a good hotel in Prague, only to find that all the hotels were booked out. We set up our tent in a small park in the centre of Prague, to be woken in the morning by a policeman attempting to take it down the tent, which we’d erected in what turned out to be the main entrance to the Czech national police headquarters. We packed up apologetically and headed for the border, spending up large at every pastry shop along the route.
In 2013, of course, Slovakia is part of the EU and cyclists breeze past the deserted border post without a pause. Even local kids can bike internationally.
Abandoned Slovakia/Austria border control point
A few kilometres from the border I entered Bratislava across the iconic cable supported bridge with a restaurant on top of the main pylon - we’d biked across the carriageway in 1976 with no other vehicles in sight, but now a clip on cycleway keeps bikes away from the busy bridge traffic. 

Marg enters Bratislava, 1976
I had an enjoyable afternoon exploring the old town, almost unrecognisable compared to the drab streets of 1976.

Bratislava heat: tourists cool off with icecream,
local tries to drink fountain dry
It was tempting to keep following the Donauradweg on to Budapest (at one stage my mobile phone had actually welcomed me to Hungary!) but the flight back to NZ beckoned, so in the evening I caught a high speed ferry back to Vienna.
Leaving Bratislava, 2013
So what’s the verdict on touring on Terns? Thanks to having the confidence to use trains and buses, we’d managed to bike in four countries in a couple of weeks, and across the most mountainous half of Austria without actually biking uphill. The rail trip across Europe was greatly simplified by being able to treat the folded bikes as normal luggage, and our 2 hour “Tern Tour” of Zurich would have been impractical if we’d had to assemble/disassemble standard bikes. Although a standard bike would be a better choice for long distances and heavy loads, the Terns performed well for the 60km days and 5kg loads that we favour these days.
Cycletouring on folding bikes - Tern it on!

Alastair's photos of the trip on Flickr


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  2. What a fabulous trip. It's going on my bucket list! Especially the fact that you managed to do most of it without having to climb up any uphill stretches, makes it sound ideal. Thanks for an interesting blog. Desiree

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