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#6  Northern Portugal to the Northeastern Italian Alps On Multiple Trains:  June 14 - 25, 2010

 

Our Annual Dash to the Mountains

 

Not As Anticipated

Each year our new cyclotouring season begins in the relative warmth of southern Europe's spring and then we turn north so as to enjoy summer in the cool of the mountains. Each previous dash to the mountains occurred on our bikes but this year was different. This year the 1,600 mile race from the Atlantic coast of northern Portugal to the Alps of northeastern Italy was made almost entirely by train and it was far more grueling than expected. 


Riding our bikes was suddenly a thing of the past.

The first couple of rail days in southwestern Spain went as planned, which involved mixing pedaling our bikes with riding a train for an hour or 2. But after eating emergency rations of muesli cereal in water for dinner 2 nights in a row, it became clear that the better part of our days and evenings for the 2 weeks allotted for the eastward journey would be spent on and around trains.  That harsh realization had us almost exclusively using our bikes as very expensive, awkward luggage carts and had us planning for a cold dinner instead of a hot one every night.

Delightfully, our evening cold menu dramatically improved for our 3 dinners while in France as we were able to buy the familiar prepackaged salads at the supermarkets each morning. We added canned lentils to the "Oriental" version of couscous salad; enjoyed shredded carrots in vinaigrette sauce (sometimes with a lot of horseradish); and had cubed beets in a tangy mustard sauce several times. Lunch was our usual tuna on bread and a shared bar of dark chocolate. Happily, muesli was again confined to its traditional place as a quick and easy breakfast dish.

On our unexpected 'muesli for dinner' days, our targeted 10 servings of produce were chopped back to a single apple for each of us. But after that, we greeted our first train of the day with a load of washed apricots, cherries, red peppers, carrots, cauliflower, and other easily eaten fresh items to put the color and crunch back in our diet. 

 

Planning Nightmare

Map Man drew heavily upon his information base accumulated over 9+ years of bike travel to plot our course eastwards. His knowledge of the roads, passes, tunnels, junctions, and train routes of Europe were overlaid on his paper and electronically stored maps to devise a route for us, day by day, on the fly, ever hoping to include some cycling in the itinerary.

The most appealing route through southern France was unexpectedly discarded because of the flash-flood induced train line closures that were occurring as we entered the country from the west. The most direct, middle route through Switzerland was tossed out because everything would be excessively expensive, including food, lodging, and train fares. The northern most route through Germany was a contender, but would entail more miles than the middle path through Italy and would also carry a high price tag. We settled on the second intermediate solution, which was aiming towards Torino in northern Italy as we left Spain and crossed France.

Finalizing the trajectory through eastern France on about Day 5 of our traverse of western Europe was essential, but new challenges arose. We dodged around a line closed due to track work; narrowly missed being affected by a cancelled train; stayed flexible through the barrage of conflicting information about which lines would accept bikes in France; and kept on our toes while decoding timetables for exceptions to the schedule based on days of the week and holidays--in multiple languages. Luckily, we weren't affected by any federal 'austerity plan' triggered strikes and there was no Icelandic volcano eruption to again snarl ground transportation across the continent.

 

The Daily Regime

Early in the journey, we found ourselves arriving at our destination for the night somewhere between 7:30 and 9:30 pm, which crowded our usual 9:30 bedtime. On the worst nights we then spent over an hour at the station checking the timetables for 'puddle jumper' trains accepting bikes that were going our general direction.  It was going to be a long, drawn out process, so we elected to protect our sleep and safeguard our belongings by not taking any overnight trains, if any would even take our bikes. Selecting a series of lines for the next day that originated and terminated where we were and where we were going would take away some of the time pressure in getting our bikes and bags on and off the trains. Once we established the earliest train we'd be willing to take the next morning given our late arrival time, which was usually a 10 am departure, we'd head for a hotel.


After hanging up the bikes on the train, we
 noticed a snail (center) that hopped on during the
night spent in the hotel's garden.

Showers and washing our underwear were all we had time for before collapsing into bed. Munching on muesli in water with added California walnuts for breakfast was the routine while we starting packing for the day. Once partially packed and more awake, I'd head for a supermarket to buy food for our next 3 meals, beginning with that day's lunch. One day I brought back a trophy: small casaba-like melon to eat in the room as a consolation for the previous night's cold cereal dinner.

While I was shopping, Bill would pack and then go online if we had access, plus scan his Garmin maps, to make the final selection for that day's destination. The information from the train station the night before was key to devising the plan for the approaching 12 hour time block. Our collection of electronic travel guides and our own Country Details files were additional resources he drew upon for finalizing the destination and selecting a hotel near the train station for that night.

Back with the groceries, I'd finish packing while Bill washed the produce, prepared our sandwiches, and otherwise readied our food for discreetly eating on the train. I'd also slip on the compression knee-hi's that I mainly use when flying as they enhanced my comfort on these days in which hours of sitting had suddenly replaced hours of physical activity. Then it was off to the station, perhaps little more than 13 hours since walking out its door the night before, to confirm the plan with the rail company and buy tickets for the day (some places wouldn't sell them to us the night before).

Once on the train, we were intent on making the time as productive as possible, as we often had about a 2 hour ride ahead of us.  We'd start by looking for power outlets to keep our electronics charged, which we found about half the time. If plug-ins were available, they were usually in the seating areas but on one French train they were limited to the mobile phone area in the baggage compartment with our bikes--not surprisingly, we were the only passengers that day who discovered the secret. Bill would continue looking at electronic maps and developing options for the next day as he now had a destination for our travel day that was underway. I spent my time working on current web page files and on old travel journals from 2001, 2002, and 2003 that predated our webpage with the goal of getting them online this year.

While in the stations awaiting our next in the series of trains for the day, we'd again scan for power outlets to recharge or keep charging our electronics while we worked.  At the Lyon, France station we only spotted a single electrical outlet available to travelers, which was charging someone's cell phone. Out came our treasured 3-way plug from Bill's heavily used 'electronics bag of tricks' at the top of his pannier and we were drawing the needed juice in a flash. As we took turns sitting on the floor with the laptop in its namesake, it was amusing to watch the dance the French travelers did when they spied the unused, 3rd, plug-in. Some were shy and aloof; others were quickly on their knees to plug in with few or no words spoken. For almost all of the 2 hours that we took turns using the laptop on the floor, there were 2-3 devices hanging off our our little white 3-way.

 


A less-rushed debarking from a train.

Aches & Pains

As our bodies quickly de-conditioned from the lack of cycling or robust walking, our backs developed aches and pains from the contortions of lifting and toting of our panniers and bikes on and off trains. Many stations lacked elevators from the station house to the platforms, so the panniers had to be removed and carried down one set of stairs and up to the our departure platform, as did the bikes.  The panniers were reloaded onto the bikes while we awaited the train, never knowing quite where we should be and desperately hoping that there wouldn't be a last minute platform change.

As the train approached, we sized up the height of the interior floor from the platform surface as "Roll-on or lift-up the bikes?" was always the first question. Then we'd scan the markings around the doors of each passing car, watching for the magic word or symbol indicating the appointed sector for bikes. If it wasn't obvious, we'd begin trotting along side our bikes, going in opposite directions, looking for the right car. If we still couldn't determine where the bikes belonged, we'd search for anyone in a uniform to ask. As a last resort, starting to load them on to any car would flush the official out of hiding to correct our error. If we were lucky, we could roll the loaded bikes right on board; if not, everything came off again to be lifted up, rarely as much as 6'.  The worst day we were ticketed for 3 different trains but had an unexpected, unannounced transfer to a 4th train en route--not a trivial issue for us--more lifting and we lost our prized electrical outlet.

Early in the journey my vulnerable SI (sacral-iliac) joint in my pelvis got jerked around and resisted calming down. Bill was then stuck with doing all of the heavy lifting of our 200+ lbs of bikes and bags  as I saved my reserves for the rushed carrying situations, which usually occurred once a day. Bill became extra vigilant in caring for his back with the additional burdens of hoisting my gear as well as his a dozen times or more a day, day after day. As the days of my mild, chronic pain marched on, I began losing confidence in being able to do the hiking that we were dashing eastwards to do as even wearing my fanny pack stressed my back. But we had 3 weeks of apartment reservations in the Dolomites, so we pressed on as I kept revising my treatment plans.

 

A Complete Absence of Courtesy

The very worst experience in our entire journey was a terrible combination of a high, narrow train entrance; cramped quarters for the bikes; and incredibly rude, belligerent  passengers when debarking in Bordeaux. The bikes were hung in a very narrow slot and the panniers were stowed around behind an interior door. We knew it could be dicey getting off at a busy station and we organized for it early. We removed the bikes from their hooks before arriving at the station, knowingly blocking an interior door with 1 bike as there was nothing else to do with it. We had both bikes and our 6 parcels poised at the door to be the first off and with maximum efficiency as we knew that there would be no break between the press of passengers getting off and on.

But we got no slack from the other passengers as we unloaded, with people jumping over our bags, trying their best to push our over bikes, and yelling at us. No one thought to help us, including the man old enough to know better who jumped over our pile to be the first out. A helping hand from 1 person or 30 seconds of patience from a single person would have kept us from feeling mauled by the stampeding crowd and having 1 bike rack damaged by excessive exuberance with the train door by the lead man. Even the boarding passengers that were in full sight of our predicament chose to compound the situation by pressing to board while we were descending with our bikes and bags rather than relieving the congestion by waiting or helping. The lack of any insight, courtesy, or creativity on the  part of any of our fellow passengers had us shaking our heads in disgust for days--clearly not the group of people you would want to be around in an emergency.

 

Our Prince Charming

The most heartwarming event in our 2 week traverse to the Italian Alps from Portugal was when leaving France for Italy. We were in tiny Modane, the last train station on one French line, and were boxed in. We'd repeatedly been given conflicting information from the French rail staff as to whether we could put our bikes on the train at Modane to travel through the long tunnel into Italy or not. The definitive answer is always at the location, so we gambled and took a evening train to Modane.

The pleasant French conductor on the train into the mountains told us we could make the journey through the tunnel the next morning by bus, then later retreated and said to ask both the train and bus conductors for an exception to the rule in hopes that one would allow our bikes on board. The only other options for crossing the border at Modane were taking a very expensive taxi through the car tunnel or biking on a longer, tunnel-less road. The threat of snow on the high pass from the lingering storm system made biking too risky for our tastes.

The next morning we arrived at the train station and, as instructed, asked the French platform manager about putting our bikes on the next train. The young man who spoke little English almost took flight as he lashed out with words and flinging arms that bikes were never allowed on the train or the bus going to Italy. We were shocked that he was so hostile so quickly and we retreated to the small station building to regroup and to escape his inexplicable wrath--we hadn't even asked him about the bus.

Ten minutes later when the train arrived, Bill approached the older man in the huddling new crew that was clearly boarding the train. Completely dead-pan, he looked at us and our loaded bikes and gestured towards the nearby baggage compartment at the end of the TGV fast train. In a flash he and his colleague had loaded our bikes into the high compartment and we threw our bags and bodies through the adjacent passenger entrance that had 8 second class seats in an otherwise 1st class car. Our 'shock and awe' at the whole event intensified as while standing inside the door immobilized by disbelief with what had just transpired, we noticed the familiar symbol indicating space for bikes in the baggage compartment ahead where our bikes had just been stowed.

We made the 30 minute journey with an enthusiastic Alabama woman our age and a younger French woman who has been living in Italy for 10 years. She apologized to us for being treated so poorly by her countrymen and empathized with the telling of our story, adding in the descriptor of  us being rebuked "in a very French way" when I laughingly told her of the explosive rebuff by the platform man.

The TGV conductor notified us 5 minutes before our arrival in the first town in Italy, the first stop outside the tunnel. Bill mentioned that we needed to pay, knowing that this was an expensive train and unlike the other trains in France, would require a hefty fee for the bikes. The conductor said it was very expensive to buy the tickets on the train, that instead we should pay in the station when we got off. Knowing what we knew about the ticket window staff and the automated ticket machines, we were puzzled as to how we would pay for a ride just taken as we stood poised at the door to debark quickly with our bags.

At the platform in Bardonecchia, Italy, our conductor was quick to open the baggage compartment door and as he lowered the bikes down said in mixed Italian and English "biglietti OK" or "tickets OK".  As the train had come to a stop, we'd wondered if he was giving us a free ride.  With his latest comment about the tickets, we finally understood that the impossible "pay at the station" comment was probably for the benefit of the other 4 passengers. Not only had he prevented us from retreating into France to find another route east, he'd given us the short but expensive lift for free. What a contrast to the 90 or $110 we were quoted by the French taxi driver for a ride through the tunnel into Italy, which was our last direct option.

The kindness of this man in so casually lifting us out of our boxed canyon in France, transporting us through the monstrously long tunnel, and gently depositing us in Italy rippled through us for hours. "What a nice man" we said over and over again as Bill occasionally interjected "I love being in Italy".

We sat on a breezy outdoor bench munching our sandwiches while waiting for the next train and tried to imagine what was going on that had created this peculiar incident with the TGV train. We came up with numerous theories with the most amusing one being that there was a pissing match going on between the French and Italians on this French train that crossed the "frontier" and switched from French to Italian staff at our boarding town of Modane. I'd missed it but Bill noticed that our Prince Charming's companion had witnessed the rebuff we'd received from the French platform minder--perhaps the Italian conductor welcomed the opportunity to even an old score on a prior grievance. Yet another story we'll never understand the whole of but we sure loved the happy ending.

Our many years of traveling through Europe with bikes has left us with strong stereotypes as to where various cultures fall on the continuum that has "Always follow the rules" at one end and "Be sensible" at the other. Getting our bikes on planes, trains, buses, boats, and in hotels pushes the edges enough for cultural biases to be repeatedly revealed.

The Greeks are by far the most obliging in solving our bike transport/parking problems, regardless of the rules, and their frequent distain for following rules is considered one of the causes of their now-legendary financial crisis. The Italians run second to the Greeks in being accommodating about our bikes, seemingly with pragmatism rather than disdain making them willing to bend rules, as we experienced in Modane with the boarding Italian train crew. The Germans are very rule-loyal but their sense of practicality results in many of their rules being sensible, especially when it comes to bikes. The French typically stand their ground with their rules, whether it makes any sense or not. Other countries fall in the middle ground.

 

A Hearty Welcome

Arriving in Bardonecchia, Italy we were met with the familiar obstacle: how to get from our platform to the main station with the bikes without taking the stairs. We spotted the usual wooden ramps across the tracks at the far end of the yard which were the easiest way to cross but highly irregular. There were too many eyes on us this day to risk the traverse we'd occasionally taken at  other stations over the years. Then Bill spotted a tiny elevator and proceeded to unload his bike so as to upend it, thereby allowing the door to close behind him.

The elevator didn't budge and the workmen in orange suits milling around at the station building across the tracks seemed disapproving. They trotted over the pairs of tracks and instructed Bill to get out of the elevator. Unexpectedly, they started to carry our bikes back across the tracks for us, but the station master objected, so they carried them down the stairs. They gestured for us to take the panniers down in the elevator. A second try in the lift revealed it required holding the operating button down for the entire trip, which would have been next to impossible for Bill to do while holding the heavy bike upright.


"The Kids" snuggled together on the way to Torino.

Once in the station, the clerk who had apparently watched the whole episode cheerily answered my questions about the next train to Torino. She finished my sentence and inquiry by adding "with the bikes." Before I could ask, she volunteered with a grin that we'd leave from Platform 1, which meant that there'd be no second trip across the tracks for our bikes at that station. 

When we arrived in Torino, people actually helped us unload, rather than trample us like in Bordeaux. We've endured our share of pushing and shoving by Italians in various lines and on trains, but this was our day to feel like the welcome mat was out, even in busy Torino. Even better, the young tourist info woman at the station happily secured us a hotel room with a place for the bikes.

 

Looking Up

We both let out huge sighs of relief upon arriving in Italy. We were still days from our destination, but the biggest obstacles were behind us. The most serious unknowns of the cobbled-together route, like the "no bikes at the border," were gone. Several years ago I made a rough estimate that at that point we'd spent at least a total of a year in Italy, so we had a good understanding of the rules of the game in this, the last country of our dash to the mountains. We'd crisscrossed it many times on bikes and we'd hopped trains enough times over the years to feel that the unpredictable elements ahead were small issues. If there was a strike or other barrier, we'd have little difficulty crafting an alternate strategy. Now Map Man's task was a matter of choosing a route from among familiar ones that would permit resuming some cycling while allowing for the limitations of my ailing back.

We celebrated our arrival in Italy by vowing to make our next several train days shorter. We'd walk away from the train station for the day before dinnertime; we'd eat more 'proper' meals; and we'd begin catching up on our pile of laundry. Enough pressure was now off of us that we could start recovering from the stresses of the difficult journey before it was completely over.

Coincident with our first full day in Italy was a drastic improvement in the weather. The storm system that had caused the severe flooding in southern France a week earlier was currently hanging over the Balkans, with its more benign tail damping  southeastern Italy. As we'd traveled eastwards with the storm, we'd increasingly pushed our light weight clothing to the bottom of our bags (with our cycling shoes) and were adding successively more layers of fleece. We were the coldest at mountainous Modane which was at 3600' and the harsh wind made us even colder as we contemplated being stranded there. We'd been just warm enough in our unheated Modane room, though the chilling scowls from our host and hostess hadn't helped. But suddenly the challenge would be surviving temperatures into the 90's--both we and our chocolate stash were at risk of melting.

 


Limoges, France train station: one of our quick glimpses of grandeur.

Regrets

The biggest regret of this journey was flashing by, instead of taking in, so many sites we'd seen before or we'd like to have seen for the first time. On our rushed train trip we had brief tastes of grand architecture in Spanish and French cities; we glimpsed at the twin steeples of Clermont's black basalt cathedral that we'd have liked to have again seen close up; and Torino's wonderful Egyptian museum called to us as it was worthy of a third visit. Even looking at the map brought back memories of places we'd been. And potential destinations for the night had us reviving deeply buried memories as when looking at a photo album. The practical issues of remembering where we stayed, if we'd want to stay there again, where the supermarket was, and what were the business hours/days in that area triggered even more memories.  But this short, intense segment of our traveling year was a business trip, not a pleasure trip, and we had an appointment to keep in the mountains.

Bike lanes starting appearing as we entered France and we longed to be on them. Not that they'd necessarily go for the dozens or hundreds of miles that we'd want, but they left us itching to pedal nonetheless. Lush green valleys, gray foreboding mountains, rushing streams, and empty roads all called to us as they whizzed by our often wet train windows.

We did however note that the recent/current storm system had many of the rivers we saw from the trains bulging. None were over their banks, but many weren't far from flooding the adjacent lands. Our access to news was spotty during our 2 week traverse of Europe, but we didn't hear anything more about serious flooding in our path. Once in Italy, lap marks on some exposed vineyard banks indicated that the water level had already receded 2' or more.

Only once we were safely in Italy, with the worst of the uncertainty behind us, did Map Man have the heart to tally the length of our train journey from the Portugal/Spain border to Bolzano, Italy. It was a jaw-dropping 1,600 miles (2,600 km) by bike. Zigzagging as we did by train surely added miles to that number. With our general average of 1,000 km or 600 miles per month when we are on the move, it would have taken us 2 1/2 months or more to travel it on our loaded bikes. Had we set out to pedal the entire distance, we would have arrived in the Dolomites as the hotels and cable cars were shutting down for the end of the summer season in September instead of arriving as we did when they were opening up.

  

A Little Worse For Wear

There were far more casualties from traveling by train with bikes over the course of 2 weeks than we'd normally accrue by pedaling for the same period of time. Bill's steel back rack had been crimped by an aggressive French passenger when debarking at Bordeaux; my aerobars were akimbo from the bikes dumping over in the baggage area on a curve somewhere in France;  my SI joint still limited my activity; and we were pooped and a bit disenchanted with traveling. But nothing was lost, nothing irreparable happened that mattered, we were gradually getting caught up on our sleep, and we were still speaking to each other.

 

Bonuses

The good news about the menu challenges we endured was that we both felt we lost a little weight along the way instead of gaining as we would have expected from the decreased exercise. Usually when we aren't cycling we put on a few pounds. But the challenges of finding food each day and not wanting to add any unnecessary weight to our load kept our pantry lean. We did add a little to our non-food inventory as we were in countries that had our favorite shampoos and sunscreen but our food reserves were continuously at a low.

Towards the end of our journey we also appreciated that being on the trains was the best place to have been during the first 10 days of our trek as the massive storm systems had hammered much of Europe. As it was, we were never hit by the worst of it, but we'd have been biking in chilling rain most of those days had we been in our normal travel mode.

 


Vineyards on the foothills of the Alps outside of Bolzano, Italy.

Success!

Map Man had stayed at least a half day ahead of us in his route planning on the fly and we made it to our Selva di Val Gardena destination on time to take the keys to our apartment. We even had enough time to spare to ride our bikes for 2 of the last 3 days, though my back necessitated keeping the distances modest to compensate for the unavoidable elevation gain. Luckily, getting off of the trains and back on the bikes helped my ailing back reorganize itself and eventually heal.

It was a far more stressful and exasperating journey than we anticipated, but the objective was achieved. Despite the planning challenges and uncertainties, we progressed at a steady pace, never had to backtrack, and never were stalled out by wasting a half or full day of travel by waiting. It's the first time we've made such a long traverse with the bikes by train and we hope it will be the last.

 

Where We Are Now July 2, 2010:  Ah, in the Dolomites!

As hoped, we arrived at our first reserved apartment on time, a week ago. This "pre-season" week has flown by as we made lower elevation 'neighborhood' hikes for 2-3 hours a day and enjoyed picnics in a new spot everyday. A couple of bike rides have been mixed in with the walking to round-out our conditioning program and we've escaped the threatening thunderstorms.

Once again, we are wishing we could stay here forever but in 2 more weeks the lodging prices will double and then after a 3 month fall closure period, they'll almost double again for the ski season. So as before, we'll absorb the experience as deeply as possible and then we'll crest a pass on our bikes to the nearby village of Corvara that is less expensive. Then it will be on to Austria for more hiking in an area that doesn't have a high season at all.

 

Our best to all of you,

Barb

 

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