One trip of 53 little trips: planes, trains, automobiles. And ferries, bikes, feet, hovercrafts, cog trains, busses, streetcars and a cruise boat.
When I turned 30, I celebrated by going out to an Irish bar and then a Russian restaurant with my best friend and later experiencing one heck of a hangover as well as a hum-dinger of a story from my then-boyfriend, who spent the evening differently.
My 40th went by without much fanfare at all. I was enjoying my 30s, I suppose! As I approached 50, so did my husband and we thought about what we’d like to do, to celebrate.
We’d both been to France, but not together. We enjoy cycling. I love France, but hadn’t been there since 1999, on a memorable, even dreamy trip with my father and aunt Joanne. Steve and I had been together for 18+ years and a France trip had eluded us! Traveling to/in France was too expensive, 5 and 10 years ago and various other trips were easier to make happen. So: we did some research and settled upon a weeklong self-guided cycling tour in Brittany that included a visit to Mont Saint Michel – the island monastery that neither of us had visited before. We realized later that it had been on our life/bucket lists!
And then one thing (friends in Germany we wanted to see) led to another (someone’s genealogy kick) and we had ourselves an exciting 2.5 week itinerary that included a few days on England’s Isle of Wight and also a few days in Köln (AKA Cologne), Germany and finally a few days in Berlin. Steve booked every last bit of our transportation between – and lodging in – these places, ahead of time. So much planning and research! I was in awe.
My prep for this trip? Getting ready to bike 6 days in a row. We’d be covering 20-40 miles on each of those days, with some rolling terrain on most days. I did a few rides a week, with mileage between 5 and 25 miles, for a month or two.
If it looks like Steve did a lot of thoughtful, careful planning, looking for interesting places to visit and considering each element of travel with infinite detail, that’s correct. If it looks like I simply waited for the trip to start, maybe doing some cycling in the meantime, that’s correct, too. I was excited, of course but relatively passive in my anticipation.
Here’s how it went.
The Big Reveal
Early on in the trip, I realized I’m 50 (whoah).
I have long loved feeling independent and also the feeling of victory when I figure out how to make the cheap options work. Chiefly, public transportation or even self transportation (AKA my feet).
And yet I’m … souring on some of that. On one or two particularly tiring days, I was thinking that I’ve now got the resources and also an older body that could consider taking a cab instead of walking 1-2 miles, on occasion, especially if a backpack is involved. On stronger, better-rested days, I’d look at this situation a little differently. Is it ok to want to consume and enjoy travel differently? What this boils down to is: we found that we need to get very intentional with trip planning: down time (which is not the same as recovery time) needs to be booked in.
I am so glad I speak French so well! Not perfectly, but sufficiently to engage in conversation with locals. And yet … what if I also knew German? And Icelandic?
On our plane ride from Berlin to Reykjavik at the end of the trip, I was looking at the information card attached to the back of my tray table. It had six languages, only 2 of which I could read. I was fascinated by how different one was – I think it was Polish.
This trip was the first for me in a long time during which I was surrounded by any number of languages being spoken. While in Germany I felt a little embarrassed to not even have some rudimentary travel vocabulary at the ready.
I realized that I’d really like to learn more languages. Maybe even one or two that uses a different alphabet. Bucket list, big goal, whatever, but the details, the math, the culture, the ways to move my mouth muscles… I’m fascinated.
What We Loved
Adorable hotels in tiny Breton towns. Visiting Mont St. Michel and learning about its amazing and stacked architecture. 2 adventurous days with Mike & Gaby. Galettes. The Cathedral in Köln. Bikes in Germany, in general. Finally tasting garlic ice cream, at the Isle of Wight Garlic Festival (and it was good!) Waking up in a forest of echiums. Baggage transfers by the cycle company. Galettes. France! Again. I’d missed it. Dining with Susan & her beau in Berlin. Phone apps that make public transit work so easily. Galettes. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Well-maintained walking paths on Isle of Wight. Every single lodging stay on our trip.
What We Didn’t Love, So Much
The maps and directions from Saddle Skedaddle. Finding ourselves hungry or thirsty at times when no restaurants were open (like, noon on a non-raining Saturday. Or 2:30pm on another Saturday).
- Hotel: Hôtel Montgomery in Portorson. Hunting-lodgy charm with an adorable, sunny inner courtyard.
- Meal: breakfast at Hôtel Arvor in Dinan: charming view of the village and a tantalizing spread of local pastries. Maybe tied with dinner at Hôtel du Château in Combourg: a more formal, special celebration with wall-sized windows facing a shining lake.
- Moules: at Le Vieux Chien Noir but mainly because the chips were freaky good.
- Item I brought: pajamas. And my Hokah running shoes: big win for long walks.
- Ride: The 7km out to Mont St. Michel. See above photo.
- Beer: Duchess Anne Tripel.
- Card game: team women beat team men, playing Skip-bo in Köln. (But the host team won in general for their generosity. Mike had döner kebab for us at the train station!)
- Transportation leg: the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St. Malo. We had a sleeper berth/cabin. And we slept well!
- Attraction: Köln Cathedral. All of the art, the hands that made it, the years it took. These left me breathless and near tears.
On Cycling Tours
Above, I mentioned that we opted for a “self-guided cycling tour.” This type of tour means that we signed on to a touring company’s pre-made itinerary, selecting the date we wanted to go. Saddle Skedaddle, based in the UK, selected and booked all our lodging, moved our luggage for us each day, gave us route instructions and supplied a handful of phone numbers to call if anything went wrong. SS arranged much of the affair with French touring company France à Velo, to take advantage of local connections.
We also opted to rent bikes from them. I’ve schlepped a bike overseas before: it’s complicated and also worrisome if you love your bike as much as I do. Once we started adding other countries to the itinerary, before and afterward, it became clear that renting was the way we needed to go.
As mentioned above, we had a lot of frustration with the route-finding. It’s possible that it would have gone more smoothly had GPS files been in the offing, instead. However, we both feel that if we do another cycling trip, we’d go fully guided. On day 3, I considered this: blissfully following a leader through all the bizarro turns that get a group to primo scenery and 2-wheeled fun. I’ve been that leader and I’ve also followed such a leader. We opted out of this type of tour because our last few big trips were group travel. They were good trips! But we had soured a little on the idea of dining for 15 and also the logistics involved in moving 10-15 people – who just met each other – constantly for a whole week.
But you know? I’ve always enjoyed meeting and getting to know those people! You have a bunch of strangers who have one really important thing in common: they want to be in this place. There will be lots to talk about as you learn a little about each other.
Then again, we may not do a bike tour again at all. A week later, back in Minnesota, I did a 30-mile cycling event around town with Steve and my brother. It was so much simpler and simplicity is one of the big things I love about riding my bike. There would be no begging for a garage slot for the bikes. No rush to sink-wash the bike shorts so that they might line-dry in time for the ride the day after tomorrow. No need to pack clothing 2 weeks ahead of time so that you could handle any kind of weather contingency. No need to spend several bike rides at home testing shoes and pedals so that you know whether or not the flat pedals on the rental bikes will drive you nuts or not (they didn’t: we stopped every .75 kilometers to confer on directions or make a turn together. Clipping in and out constantly may have resulted in a repetitive-stress issue for my ankles!)
Regarding the rented bikes (pictured above): they were… meh. The fatter, nubbier tires and gearing were ok, given the hills and also the crushed stone paths were on, some of the time. The front suspension fork made everything feel slow, and the bike was kind of heavy over all. But the stinker for me was the handlebar (and seat height/hip angle) situation: if the ride is going to be longer than 10 miles, a hybrid bike isn’t something I want to be riding. The more vertical spinal orientation of this setup over several hours just did my body a cruel blow. I’d already been dealing with some pelvis/sacral issues and this was a downer for a vacation.
On Brittany and Normandy
Go there! It’s beautiful and folks are friendly. Food is good – try any of the 10+ savory buckwheat crepe (galette) offerings on most menus. Or the mussels! Cider, too. Town design and architecture is fascinating and often drew me in for a closer look or longer gaze. Also: art. Some survived World War II. Art that didn’t has gotten some worthy replacement.
We were blessed with rare dry and mostly warm weather. I know the dryness is rare because a) I lived in Brittany in the summer of 1989 and b) in our pre-trip briefing with the touring company’s liaison Christiane, we learned that the entire prior week was rainy. She had seen the forecast for our upcoming week and was excited for us.
On Northern Germany
Go there! I loved how integrated and ubiquitous bikes were in both Köln and Berlin. It was pretty rare to see a cyclist kitted up in lycra: most people were using the bikes to get around in their normal lives.
With our friends in Köln, we had a great time, renting bikes for a day and using them (and a cruise boat) to check out the Rhine and one of the many castles (Drachenburg) along it.
On Unusual AirBNB Rentals
Try them! But first research transportation options. Know what to expect if the locale is remote in any way. It was fun to live in a botanic garden for several days! Our legs got a good warmup for the cycling week to come.
Here’s my album on Smugmug. Enjoy!