Highlights and Lowlights

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People keep asking us what our favorite part of our recent cycling trip to Central Europe was. It’s a tough question to answer, since we both enjoyed the trip quite a bit, and each day brought different experiences. But I thought I’d gather a few thoughts on the high and low points of the trip. You’ll have to read the rest of our blog to get the details, photos, etc.

  • Highlight: daily cycling. I really enjoyed the rhythm of the days we spent cycling. We weren’t riding fast, and we didn’t have a quota of kilometers to cover each day or for the trip, so we could enjoy the riding, stop for snacks and photos and points of interest, and make a longer stop in the middle of the day to change out of our cycling shoes and walk around. I enjoyed the days we didn’t cycle too — mostly when we were visiting cities — but it felt good afterwards to get back to cycling, and it was a bit of a letdown when we got to Leipzig and realized the long-distance cycling portion of our trip was over.
  • Highlight and lowlight: cycling conditions. We had good maps for most of the route, and most of it was very pleasant cycling (reasonably good weather, not too strenous hills, good scenery, low traffic bike trails or small roads). We did run into a couple of places with very poor conditions. These included deep mud, gravel and sand loose enough that I had to get off and push, narrow spots and stairs that we had to carry bikes over/through, and many short stretches of cobblestones. These weren’t as much fun as the bulk of our cycling; luckily, they were a very small percentage of the time we spent cycling.
  • Highlight: cycling culture and infrastructure. We were impressed by the cycling infrastructure we encountered — good directional signs, many bike trails and bike lanes, and long-distance routes — especially in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The number of people we saw cycling was also impressive in these countries, between commuters, people running errands, and people just out for a Sunday ride. The cars were definitely used to having cyclists around, and there were even special cycling traffic lights in many of the cities.
  • Lowlight: mechanical difficulties. I can’t complain too much about our mechanical difficulties. We only had one semi-flat tire between our 7 wheels in 6 weeks — and even that was only a slow leak in one of my trailer tires, which occurred about a week before the end and I had to pump it up only every few days — hardly worth mentioning. Other than that, I found that my trailer hitch was not up to the demands of the trip, and Zach had problems with his brakes and his internal hub shifter. Not too bad, and nothing we couldn’t overcome (though still each problem was discouraging when it occurred).
  • Highlight: cities. We visited many large and/or famous cities in our trip: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin, Frankfurt — including capitals of five of the six countries we cycled through. It’s hard to pick a favorite… Budapest was the least tourist-overrun and very pretty, so that’s probably what I’d say at the moment. It was also fun to see the smaller cities whose names we knew from games that we play: Ulm, Sigmaringen, etc.
  • Highlight: small towns. We cycled through many small towns, and enjoyed staying in small towns many of the nights. Each had its historical buildings and “something-est” points of interest (e.g., the longest bridge made of logs in Europe, the biggest flat-ceiling fresco in Germany, etc.); they were peaceful and pleasant, and we soon got used to the church bells chiming every 15 minutes, day and night — so much so that we missed them when we left Austria (they didn’t seem to be as common for the rest of the trip).
  • Highlight: scenery. We cycled through many scenic areas, but I guess the most spectacular scenery was probably the day we spent hiking in the Bohemian Switzerland National Park in the Czech Republic. The rural countryside we were cycling through every day was also very nice, and we frequently had spectacular cliffs along the Danube and Elbe rivers.
  • Highlight: music. We went to a few musical performances on the trip; my favorite was in Vienna. As we were nearing Vienna, we stopped in a park briefly, and a local guy came up to us to learn more about our strange bicycles. He spoke excellent English, and when we said we were interested in classical music, suggested we go to the Sunday mass in the AugustinerKirche. We did — and it was a beautiful performance of a Haydn mass, in the setting that it was intended for (as music for a mass in a church from his time), by a very good chamber orchestra and choir. A close second was the performance of all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on period instruments that we went to in Berlin.
  • Highlight: recent history. I was really impressed with how the city of Berlin has chosen to preserve and present the sobering events of their recent history, and in particular, the Berlin Wall. Other recent history of note: a church in Berlin bombed in the second world war, preserved as a monument, and evidence of more WWII bombing in Dresden.
  • Highlight: museums. My favorite museum that we visited was the Musical Instrument Museum in Prague. They had a huge collection of interesting instruments, and many sound clips you could listen to that were played on those same instruments. Another favorite was the Bach museum in Leipzig, which conveyed a good understanding of the course of his life, as well as the interesting process of cataloguing and preserving the archives of his music and other papers. I also enjoyed a small bicycle history museum that we visited in Ybbs, Austria.
  • Highlight: ruins. The most interesting church we visited along the way was the St. Laurenz Basilica in Enns, Austria. When remodeling, they discovered roman ruins of a much earlier church in the basement, which they had excavated, and they were amazing. We also saw a large Roman ruin site in Slovakia, just downstream from Bratislava, and a really nice ruined castle (not as ancient but still interesting) at Spitz, Austria.
  • Highlight: food. Pretty much every guest house and hotel we stayed in came with a good Central European breakfast: a variety of breads, meats, cheeses, jam, yogurt, boiled eggs, fruit, juice, coffee, and tea — perfect for hungry cyclists! We also enjoyed sampling other food along the way: pastries (my favorites were the sour cherry ones; Zach favored chocolate croissants, and we both enjoyed many apple streudels), grilled bratwurst from sidewalk stands, goulash, etc.
  • Lowlight: hostel in Budapest The worst place we stayed was a hostel in Budapest that I booked on-line. It had no good place for us to park our bikes, no good breakfast, and because we were shuttled off to a separate building, no Internet. But it was at least clean, and definitely cheap!
  • Highlight: camping with thermal bath. The nicest camping experience we had was in Komárom, Hungary, where there was a thermal bath attached to the campground, and some friendly German folks staying in the next camping spot that gave us food, beer, and good cheer into the evening. We also visited even better Hungarian thermal baths in Györ (a very elaborite bath complex, my favorite) and Budapest.