20 July, 2015

Railways


Many people romanticize rail travel, even though the age of billowing steam and luxiurious passenger coaches has long since passed. Still, taking the train can be a good way to get to your destination in Europe without having to deal with traffic, or worse yet, finding a place to park your car. Here in Germany, the national rail line, or Deutsche Bahn as it is known, is fairly accomodating of travellers on bike. In neighboring Netherlands, you can also travel with your bike fairly easily, but it is a bit more complicated.


When you wish to bring your bike aboard a train in Germany, you purchase fare for yourself and then separate fare for your two-wheeled companion. This is known as a Fahrradkarte or a bicycle ticket. Typically, they are €5-6  and are valid for one day of travel. This can be done online, at a ticket counter, or at a kiosk on the platform, wherever you are purchasing your own train ticket. Some of the long-distance trains, such as ICE lines, usually require a bike reservation as well. On a local train, you'll just need to locate the train car with the bicycle emblem, and bring your bike inside.

As I mentioned, if you're travelling in the Netherlands, it is slightly more complicated. This is because there are several different lines operating on the Dutch railway network, some of which charge extra for a bicycle and some that do not. NS, the primary state-operated line, requires a bike ticket whereas on Veolia you can roll your bike onto the train no questions asked. This policy, of course, can lead to many bicycles in a car at once, and as victim to it I once ended up having to stand with my bike in the bathroom for the duration of my journey. (The real victims in this case were those that needed to use the bathroom I occupied.)


So, depending on where you are going, you may end up transfering onto several different lines, and its best to know beforehand whether or not you require a bike ticket. The ignorant American technique only works 67% of the time, otherwise you'll end up paying a fine.

Another distinction you might find interesting is that on Germany railways, you can drink a beer or any beverage you'd like, whereas on Dutch trains, public consumption of alcohol is expressly forbidden.


Either way, one shouldn't shy away from utilizing a country's train system when travelling via bicycle. It really shortens the time between two waypoints and gives you a chance to relax, talk to others, and adjust those things on your bike that you've been meaning to for the last 40 kilometers. And even if you find yourself travelling by train without a bicycle, many major hubs have them available for rent. Germany offers the Call-a-Bike in every major city, and the Netherlands have their OV Fiets avaiable at just about every railway station in the country, usually for less than 10 a day.

Of course, cost is always a factor, and in some cases a train ticket might set you back more than you can afford, so be sure to keep an eye out for special deals. These are offered at different convenience stores or online. Also, travelling in groups is almost always cheaper than travelling alone, so if you've got two or three more people headed to the same place, a group ticket may be a very affordable option. And if you're planning on spending a long period of time riding the rails, a pass might be your best option. Here are some links that will help you out on your journey:

http://www.raileurope.com/index.html [All of Europe]
http://www.eurail.com/europe-by-train/itineraries
http://www.bahn.de/p_en/view/index.shtml [Germany]
http://www.ns.nl/en/travellers/home [Netherlands]

- Bicyclist Abroad












06 July, 2015

Fiet in the Sand (The Hague, NL)

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I'd never really heard of the Hague until recently when some friends suggested we spend the weekend there. "Where's the place?" "Somewhere on the coast." "Alright." went the conversation. Looking then at a map, I see that it is indeed a coastal city south of Amsterdam. Amsterdam. That's all you ever hear about when people talk about the Netherlands. Anyway, we packed our bags and drove out to the ocean to see what this place is all about.
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Basically, the Hague is the Dutch version of Atlantic City, minus all the casinos. Well, Scheveningen beach, anyway. There is a boardwalk, lots of restaurants and bars and places to shop. The beach is sandy and mostly clean, save for a shard of glass here or there, but no hypodermic needles or anything. The particular weekend we were there, the beach was populated by dozens and dozens of volleyball nets, and the rest of the people seemed to be taking part in a giant square-dancing festival. Just when you span the globe to escape American Country Western music, it sneaks up and fills your ears with its twangy warbles.

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The rest of the city is all business, though. In fact, the Dutch Parliament and the International Criminal Court are both located in the city, amongst other governmental and business establishments. You also have your centrums, lined with cafes and bakeries, through which you may want to stroll in a leisurely manner. Like almost all Dutch cities, the bicycle infrastructure is quite robust, though there were a few times it just seemed to disappear beneath you and you had to share a road with trolleys and automobiles and guys "walking" their dog.

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The hotel we stayed at rented out bikes (or fiets as they are called in Dutch... get the title now?) for €16, good for a 24-hour period. That's a pretty nice deal. They were Gazelle M.P.B.s and for a city bike, very responsive. We rode them down the boardwalk, stopped for ice cream, wandered through the town some more and basically saw most of the Scheveningen area. I would have liked to spend the rest of the day riding, but we had dinner reservations and not everyone shares my enthusiasm for getting lost via bicycle.

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When we return to the Hague in the future, I’d certainly like to check out the other parts of the city. But the main attraction, like most seaside towns, is the ocean itself and we were happy to enjoy a couple days taking in the sight of it.

- Bicyclist Abroad


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17 June, 2015

Mediterranean Scene


Having now returned from a couple weeks worth of globetrotting, I can reflect on the experience enough to whip up an overdue blog post. Sadly, this trip was exclusively as a pedestrian, and the places we visited were probably the least bike-friendly I’ve ever seen. No kidding, I should title this post Top 3 Places To Die On A Bicycle. Nevertheless, there were still cyclists in each city, proving that… well, proving that even the worst odds can play in your favor every so often.


The first destination was Istanbul, (not Constantinople… thanks, Amelia). Spending a few days here we visted many of the historical places they’re known for like the Turkish Bazaar and a couple of the Mosques. Istanbul is really an amazing place, but it’s also gigantic, spanning two continents and several districts. Also, the traffic is frequently approaching absolute gridlock at any given time, which means if you’re on a bike you’ll have to hop some sidewalks. Granted, there are probably areas of the city better suited to cycling, but where we stayed in the historic section, you’re better off taking the metro.


We boarded our cruise in Istanbul and set off for a number of stops on our way to Rome. Malta was one place I could see being suited for bike travel, being an island and all. According to their official tourist website, they’ve got "over 1,000 kilometers of new cycling routes“, though from what I saw, "cycling route“ means, "normal, narrow Maltese roads that cars have trouble navigating through, so why not ride a bike instead?"


Finally, after a couple visits to Italian coastal towns, we reached Rome. Now, while there have been some improvements and initiatives to the cycling scene in Rome, it is still, altogether, an awful place to ride your bicycle. The traffic is egregious, the congestion is outrageous, and the entire transit situation is most oftentimes dangerous. Clearly, the mopeds have rule of the road here in Rome, but even riding in a car is stressful. The infrastructure is lacking, even for pedestrains, as we witnessed first hand by walking along raised shoulders in place of sidewalks just to get to where we were eating dinner. Sure, when you’re in the cobblestoned city center just across the river from Vatican City, it’s easy to get around on foot, but that’s where the entitlement ends. Italian traffic is insane. The cyclists there are also, probably, insane too, because I saw not one but several riding on what we tend to refer to as “highways“ where the speed limit is 100KPH. Not to mention some of the routes that are glamourized by the Giro d’Italia that any other day of the year are populated with tour giant tour busses passing other tour busses.


So you can imagine the serentity we felt flying into Eindhoven in the Netherlands and seeing the peaceful roundabouts and the segregated bike lanes, all flowing beautifully in stark contrast to the abysmal chaos of Italian traffic. It was like having a nightmare and waking up to the reality of everyday life, except that the Italians are forever stuck with these narrow, crowded streets, and they’ve given up hope of anything better several hundred years ago. So to anyone that complains that cycling infrastructure in the U.S. is bad, I invite you to visit southern Europe and I’m certain you’ll find you’ve probably got it much better where you live.


The vacation was a good time, and it was great to see some of the most ancient places on Earth, but at the end of it, I think we were all ready to get back to Germany. And I was as eager as ever to get back to riding my bike.

- Bicyclist Abroad

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