Bicycling Montenegro with the Burbanks

As our final adventure before returning to real life back in the US, Michael and I spent six days biking around coastal Montenegro with my parents. After a week of all feeling unwell, we were a bit trepidatious to set out on bicycles, but also excited to be feeling like ourselves again. Michael had planned out the whole route and booked apartments along the way; the days were relatively short (20-30 miles) but mountainous, with several days having over 3,000 feet of climbing.

What a fabulous trip it was! The back roads were nicely paved, with very little traffic, and the countryside was absolutely beautiful, especially as the foliage was just starting to change color for fall. (It actually reminded Michael and me a bit of our hikes in Seoraksan last October!)


P1110337We climbed up to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, full of embassies from the late 19th century when Montenegro was first created as an independent nation. We coasted downhill to the shores of Lake Skadar, where a series of tiny monasteries dotted the offshore islands and the only road wove through olive trees and fig trees and vineyards along the shore.

We climbed over the coastal mountains to the ancient cities of Bar and Ulcinj, where old fortress cities kept watch over stunning beaches, olive groves, and delicious seafood. And then we climbed our way back up over the mountains on a quiet road over the hills, through a kilometer-long old train tunnel open only to bicyclists, and downhill to a tiny train station where we hopped on a train back to Podgorica.


IMG_4836Logistics-wise, we arranged to rent two more bikes through 3e travel in Podgorica, where the friendly Angelika met us ahead of time to try out an electric bike and then offered to arrange our luggage transfer for a very reasonable price when we ended up renting a road bike and a touring bike instead. Having our luggage driven around made all our riding much easier, and my mom could go incredibly fast on her lightweight road bike!

IMG_4868It was amazing. And beautiful. And everything a bike ride should be.

P1110264And when we rode back into Podgorica, we went for a walk around the city and then disassembled our bikes into their suitcases and returned them to their rightful owners – my parents – for their flight back to the US. It had been a wonderful, wonderful adventure, but it was sadly time for it to end.

Our last hurrah: biking coastal Montenegro

For our last adventure, we planned a six-day bike tour along the coast of Lake Skadar and the Adriatic Sea near Podgorica. Well, really, Michael planned it, and my parents and I got to enjoy a deluxe self-guided bike tour complete with route planning and fancy apartments.


Our route is below, exactly as we planned it in Komoot – check out the next post for details and photos!

Biking Transylvania: delightful at last

Despite getting off to a rocky start (entailing mud, busy highways, and bicycle discombobulation), our bicycling through Transylvania ended up being quite lovely. We rode from Alba Iulia to Miercurea Sibiului, took a train into Sibiu to avoid a busy highway, and over the next three days rode from Sibiu to Biertan to Sighisoara and on to Fagaras, from which we will start our train journey to Montenegro. Map:

The roads were quiet backroads, mostly paved, and wound through valleys of tiny villages dotted with fortified churches. Back in the 13th through 15th centuries, the area was populated by Germans and these Transylvanian Saxons built fortifications around the churches in their local villages as protection from the Ottoman invasions. Originally there were 300 such churches in this region, of which about 150 still exist. We probably saw twenty over four days of biking, and I could imagine putting together a wonderful bike trip through this region just winding your way from one fortified church to another!

The first fortified church we visited, and a UNESCO world heritage site, in Câlnic.
The first fortified church we visited, and a UNESCO world heritage site, in Câlnic.

In addition to the fortified churches, we had overnights in three impressive medieval towns: Sibiu, with a gorgeous church and a well-preserved walled inner city of Baroque and Renaissance buildings; Sighisoara, with nine different towers for the different craftsmen’s guilds; and Fagaras, whose main point of interest is a huge 13th-17th century citadel complete with a moat full of swans. And in Alba Iulia, we explored the star-shaped fort at the center of town, built in the 1720s, before heading out for the day.

The 12th century Gothic cathedral in Alba Iulia
The 12th century Gothic cathedral in Alba Iulia
The walls of Sibiu
The walls of Sibiu
The fortress in Făgăraș
The fortress in Făgăraș
A view over Sighisoara's old town
A view over Sighisoara’s old town
The most elaborate of the fortified churches, in Biertan.
The most elaborate of the fortified churches, in Biertan.



Views of the fort in Alba Iulia:

Scenes from our third day biking, from Alba Iulia to Mercurea Sibiului:

Sibiu’s medieval town was amazing:

Our ride from Sibiu to Biertan and the next day to Sighisoara took us by a multitude of tiny villages and fortified churches:


Sighisoara was impressive but much less vibrant than Sibiu, with mostly tourists wandering the narrow streets. I really liked the clock tower.

And finally, our last day biking!

And now we hop on a series of trains to get us from Romania to Serbia and on to Montenegro – wish us luck!

Biking Transylvania, part 1: Cluj-Napoca to Campia Turzii

After a day of relaxing in Cluj-Napoca, doing laundry and admiring the interesting architecture, we set out for our six-day Romanian bicycle adventure. Here’s a map to give you an idea of where we are and where we’re headed:

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 8.56.05 PMToday’s ride was a short one, just 55km from Cluj-Napoca to the small town of Campia Turzii, but it turned out to be tremendously varied.

The first ten or fifteen miles out of town took us up into the hills surrounding Cluj, then along rolling country roads through beautiful villages teeming with plum and pear trees and elderly women in scarves and skirts collecting fallen fruits from where they had landed overnight. We had a lovely view down over a few small towns to some distant mountains, and very few cars were to be seen.


That blissful ride soon came to an end as we merged onto a four-lane highway, which we’d thought wouldn’t have too much traffic because of the nearby autoroute, and figured would likely have a shoulder. Wrong on both counts – we biked miserably up over a small hill as trucks and buses hurtled by us too close for comfort. We pulled over at our first chance, a small truck stop, and took a breath. Desperate for any option that didn’t involve getting back on the narrow shoulder and hoping to live, I explored a small farm road that seemed to lead the direction we were headed. It seemed to be still in use, and from Google Maps’ satellite view it appeared to probably lead into the next small town, paralleling the dreaded highway.

On the dirt road before it got sticky!
On the dirt road before it got sticky!

So we set off on the narrow dirt farm track, up over the crest of a small hill and into the valley below. We walked our bikes and as we headed down the hill they became increasingly encrusted in the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered. At one point Michael’s tires seemed to pull the entire hillside onto his back wheel, with a clod of mud the size of a fist gathering on his back brakes. But anything was preferable to the freeway at this point, and we continued on down the hill into town as it started to drizzle. We celebrated when the road turned a corner to meet a paved road (huzzah!) but then spent half an hour slowly scraping the accumulated inch-thick mud off our bikes and shoes in the rain. Ah, lovely.

But the rain soon faded, and we took a short detour into Cheile Turenilor, a gorge cut through limestone and karst with spectacular rock formations on either side of the narrow valley. The road was dirt but had enough rocks in it to keep from sticking to us; we’re really learning to differentiate between all qualities of biking surfaces!


From the gorge we avoided the highway on side roads – mostly dirt, some mud, some rocks – to the salt mine of Turda, in continuous use from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and now converted into a tourist destination complete with Ferris wheel, boating lake, minigolf, and bowling — all underground. Ridiculousness of this setup aside, the mine was beautiful and fascinating, with rippled patterns of salt on the walls and some of the original machinery used to extract salt and transport mined salt to the surface. We spent an hour wandering through kilometer-long tunnels and climbing down hundred-foot-tall staircases to explore various cavities in the mine, marveling at its scale and at the salt coating that everything left in there long enough seemed to acquire.

Stalactites of salt!
Stalactites of salt!

And then we made for Campia Turzii, a town with no particular claim to fame but with a comfortable and inexpensive pension from which I’m writing. For our first day of biking after a two-day hiatus, it was not too bad! Our muscles remain intact and our energy levels high. We’ll see about tomorrow …

From Slovak Paradise to Hungary and beyond …

After several days of bicycling in Slovakia, we learned that despite being well-marked and incredibly well-mapped, with bicycle maps of the region posted in every village and even at some isolated intersections, the bicycle routes of the country varied dramatically in quality and pavement type. Our offroad adventure en route to Spis Castle was not entirely an anomaly, and we traversed every sort of pavement, from smooth macadam to single-track dirt paths to grass and gravel as we traversed the eastern part of the country.

A sample bicycle map, this one from Hrabusice. We took the red dotted route in from Spisska Nova Ves and then the left-hand blue route through the park to points #3 and #4, then followed the red dots past #2.
A sample bicycle map, this one from Hrabusice. We took the red dotted route in from Spisska Nova Ves and then the left-hand blue route through the park to points #3 and #4, then followed the red dots past #2.

Our first day’s adventure was across Slovak Paradise, slowly climbing over a 3,000-foot pass to the southern side of the national park. Trees lined the road the whole way, providing welcome shade as we made our way up the gradual but steady slope, and the descent into Stratena was smooth, with the pavement a patchwork of repairs but nonetheless largely intact.

At the highest point!
At the highest point!

After dropping our bags at our pension for the night, we biked back uphill a few miles to the Dobšinská ice cave, a UNESCO world heritage site and a very striking one, with layers of ice a hundred feet thick and giant caverns once used for figure skating year round! We were glad to have brought all our warm clothes, though the temperature in the cave was just above freezing. It felt like walking through a glacier, with layers and layers of ice on all sides. Photos weren’t allowed so here are a few from the internet:


By three in the afternoon we’d finished at the cave and biked back to our hotel, with striking rock cliffs above us at the edge of the Slovak Paradise plateau, and it was such a beautiful day that we decided to strike out on a short hike up to a viewpoint above the hills. We quickly climbed between the cliffs and through the forest to a series of caves and to the top of a prominent rock outcrop with views over all of Slovak Paradise and all the way to Spis Castle. Our hike brought us back out to a section of road we’d biked three times already, an old road built in 1840 but converted to a bike-and-hiking “educational path” when a tunnel was built through the rock nearby. It hugged the sides of a narrow gorge, with eight different bridges over the stream below and placards on geology, flora, and fauna. By 6 o’clock or so we were back at the pension, where we couldn’t figure out how to run the sauna but had a lovely hot shower and a dinner of pizza, kielbasa, and langos, the amazingly delicious Hungarian incarnation of fried dough, usually served with a smear of garlic butter. Pretty much the best garlic bread in the world!


View from the top of Havrania Skala. Spis Castle is just visible in the top right.
View from the top of Havrania Skala. Spis Castle is just visible in the top right.

Our next day’s ride took us down a long valley to Kosice, the second-largest city in Slovakia and by far the largest on its eastern side. Beyond the sheer variety of riding surfaces – dirt, grass, rocks – that had been labeled as “suitable for road bikes” on the signs, the valley was a study in contrasts to our riding on the north side of Slovensky Raj: a series of former mining towns ranging from downright poor to just getting by. After one long series of bumpy, grassy dirt roads, we realized that Michael’s pannier had fallen apart, with two of the screws that hold the rack in place having fallen off! Luckily it was a relatively simple fix, but we’re definitely starting to learn about the different things that can go wrong in long-distance bicycling! We stopped for lunch in a field and continued on to Gelnica, where the castle we’d looked forward to was visible above town but largely in ruins, and finished our ride in Margecany, where we hopped on a thirty-minute train ride into Kosice on the nicest train yet: USB ports, outlets, and a screen showing the current and next stations! It was lovely and we enjoyed whipping rapidly through the countryside after hours of bicycling slowly on less-than-paved routes.


Kosice itself was a lovely surprise, with a beautiful elongated town square boasting a gorgeous cathedral (the easternmost western-style cathedral in Central Europe, according to Wikipedia) and a number of other gorgeous buildings. People were out in throngs, eating ice cream and shopping and visiting a recreated 1918 army train that was on special exhibit. We stopped and had a trdelnik before biking out of town a little ways to our hotel for the night, where we dined on pork schnitzel and blue cheese farfalle and slept soundly.

Our ride out of town the next morning was full of excitement, when we first realized that the route komoot had chosen for us was a glass-scattered dirt trail from an industrial site and then, on rerouting, learned that the bridge depicted on Google maps did not actually exist. Undeterred, Michael mapped out a route along an old cycle route along the river, and we pedaled our way along old dirt roads and a long stretch of single-track to finally reach a road and a bridge over the river!

Seriously, this is our route?
Seriously, this is our route?

We passed millions upon millions of dead and dying sunflowers as we climbed out of the valley to Slanec, home of a 13th century ruined castle in the middle of restoration, where we hiked up to the ruins and then paused for lunch at one of what turned out to be a long series of bicycle rest areas on the incredibly nice – and wonderfully smoothly paved – bike route across the border into Hungary.

Slanec castle!
Slanec castle!
Actually, it looked more like this, perched well above us, but we hiked up.
Actually, it looked more like this, perched high on a hill, but we biked down and then hiked up.
At the border into Hungary!
At the border into Hungary!

Once in Hungary, we cycled on quiet rural roads to another castle, this one fully restored and perched high on a hill over the town of Fuzer.


We settled for admiration of the castle from below this time around, and as we cycled southeast we soon found ourselves on an honest-to-goodness rail trail for bicycles, complete with stands for bird watching. It was lovely and relaxing and surrounded by yet more sunflowers. This would have been absolutely gorgeous a month ago, before they started to wilt! We stopped for crepes and beer in Satoraljaujhely before taking another bike path all the way to Sarospatak, our home for the night, where our hotel turned out to be in a beautiful old college building – and had air conditioning, of which we made delighted use. Our dinner involved a treat for both of us – gazpacho and a bottle of an IPA – and we took a short walk around town before heading back to our room.

The building we stayed in! (Our side was much less ornate!)
The building we stayed in! (Our side was much less ornate!)

By now we were entering the plains of Hungary, and it was HOT. We got an early start, with a short visit to the castle at Sarospatak, and cycled on the EuroVelo route on a backroad all the way into Tokaj, the center of the UNESCO-listed wine region we’d visited by car two years ago when I spoke at a conference in Budapest. We took a break from our picnic lunches and ate royally: chicken cordon bleu, a traditional Hungarian pasta of cottage cheese and bacon, and an amazing cold sour cherry soup that struck the perfect note for lunch on a hot day. Most importantly, we looked up whether there was a train from Tokaj to Nyiregyhaza, our destination for the night, and decided to take a nice cool train ride instead of biking along the main road in the hot hot sun. Of course from the train windows we could see that there was actually a lovely paved bicycle path alongside the main road we would have taken, but it had little shade and we were glad to be on the train instead!

Vineyards around Tokaj
Vineyards around Tokaj

Our joy at having taken the train was especially strong when we finally emerged from the Nyiregyhaza train station two and a half hours later, after working with two ticket agents, one information desk, and three helpful fellow passengers who worked as translators, with tickets for our train the following day. It turns out that Michael’s skill at navigating train schedules to figure out which ones accommodate bikes is unmatched – even by the professionals who sell train tickets! They repeatedly refused to sell us tickets, saying that the train would not take bicycles, even as we pointed out that the schedule said it could carry bicycles internationally

Train layout clearly showing bicycle car
Train layout clearly showing bicycle car

(although not domestically) and showed a
diagram of the train layout that was posted on the station wall. Eventually – somehow – they said, “oh wait, maybe it’s possible!” and spent ten minutes on the phone and then another fifteen sorting out the tickets with things like our full home address. And now I am writing this from the train into Romania, where we managed to obtain seat reservations and bicycle reservations and now have our bicycles safely stowed in a bicycle car — where they are the only bicycles because no one can figure out how to actually sell the tickets for them! We feel victorious.

langosAlso I managed to eat langos two more times in our 36 hours in Hungary, so life is good.

We ride the train all day today to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, from which we will head out on a six-day bike adventure after one day of rest. My sense is that we’ll go further along the spectrum away from Germany’s impeccable bicycle infrastructure, past Slovakia’s incredible network of bicycle paths that just sometimes could use some grooming, to a series of unmarked dirt and asphalt roads, but we’ll see! We’re excited to discover Transylvania — and we hope to have equal (or maybe even greater) success in buying our next round of bicycle train tickets …

Venturing into Slovakia

Well, yesterday wasn’t the best day for us, but I have to say that if it turns out to be the worst day of our bike trip we will have been incredibly lucky.

After crossing into Slovakia on our first day of biking, we headed deeper into Slovak territory from the town of Kezmarok to Hrabusice via Spis Castle. Doesn’t that make it seem like Spis Castle is on the way? No such luck.

Ignore the walking time, but here's our bike route!
Ignore the walking time, but here’s our bike route!

The day started out with a later start than we’d planned; Michael hadn’t slept well and so we got out the door at 10:15 instead of 8. With 6 hours of biking ahead of us, that made for a long day, but we figured we could fit everything in. Our road out of town was lovely, a quiet back road where we passed ten cyclists and maybe two cars, and we turned onto another back road marked as a cycleway that slowly climbed up into the hills above Kezmarok, with sights like a herd of cows and the site of an abandoned Russian village that had existed from the 1200s until 1952. It was perfect – gentle enough of a grade that we could easily bike up the 8km to the top of the hill. Until we got near the top and the nice pavement disintegrated into a crumbling strip of asphalt surrounded by small rocks, and stayed that way for the next 10km. Descending the hill was a challenge – my hands are too small to hold onto the brakes all the time! – but we made it down into the valley in one piece and said, phew, well, glad we survived that.

Our first stop was in the UNESCO-listed town of Levoča, where a beautiful church and town hall form the center of a walled town on a hill. We biked around the central area, chatting briefly with two Danish retirees who were very interested in our folding bicycles and taking photos, then had a picnic lunch on the square. Michael had brought a beer with him!


We’d had good luck on bike routes so far, so we weren’t too worried when we headed out of town. But soon our paved road turned into dirt …

Michael didn't fall, he's just taking a picture on that hill over there.
Michael didn’t fall, he’s just taking a picture on that hill over there.

… and then steep dirt we had to walk up …

IMG_3968… and more dirt …

That's our route, coming from the left.
That’s our route, coming from the left.

… and then it became just grass!

A "bike route" according to komoot!
A “bike route” according to komoot!

We soldiered on through the edge of a grass field, which clearly was still traveled every so often by hapless bikers like us who were following an old map. Eventually the route came out at a paved road that went underneath the freeway. I glided down and up the other side, only to turn back and find that Michael was not behind me, still not behind me, still not there. With visions of bicycle accidents in my head, I turned back to find Michael walking toward me completely intact, but with a flat tire on his back wheel from all that cross-country riding. We settled into the shade of the overpass and changed our first flat tire. Not bad after several long weeks of riding, but still a drag on a day when we’d gotten a late start.

Looking back at Levoca
Looking back at Levoca

When our route turned back into dirt on the far side of the freeway, we gave up on our nice little side route and headed up to the main highway – not the freeway, but a state route alongside it, with a decent amount of traffic but also a good-sized shoulder. We soon turned off onto another small country road, this one mostly paved except for some hairy bits down a steep hill into Buglovce. The highlight, however, was that starting here we had crackerjack views of our destination, Spis Castle, the largest in Central Europe. What a castle! We rode closer and closer and got better and better views of its amazing construction.


Sadly, it was almost 4pm and our ride to Hrabusice was another 2.5 hours, so we didn’t ride all the way up to the castle, and instead turned back after some great views of the castle perched on a hill. Our route back took us by a hugely popular “sheep dairy chalet” and then a set of mineral springs bubbling ferociously and smelling of sulfur, then along the main road and some side roads to another small town, where a friendly old man persistently tried to help us with our bike route despite the fact that we didn’t speak a word of Slovak. He soon roped a whole carful of retirees into pointing at the map with us, and we headed on down the road.

The mineral springs
The mineral springs

We took a variety of busy roads and back routes to Spisska Nova Ves, then a wonderfully labeled bike route that cut 10 miles of road down to 3 miles but which was paved with concrete blocks that made us go bump-bump-bump-bump down the road! By this time it was starting to get a bit dark, so we turned on our lights and just powered through it – and were actually relieved when the road turned to ungraded dirt instead of the concrete slabs!


We arrived in Hrabusice just after sunset, having spent the last few miles wondering whether the town would have any restaurants or we’d have to survive on making a quesadilla from the tortillas, cheese, and salami left over from lunch. But joy! o joy! The hotel owners sent us to a nearby pizzeria, where we feasted on pizza with sheep cheese and smoked cheese and bacon and kielbasa and reveled in the fact that despite roads made of rocks and dirt and grass and concrete, flat tire and all, we’d made it! After dinner I collapsed straight into bed and slept for almost 10 hours.

Biking the Tatras to Slovakia

Our day began early, with a 6am alarm and setting out riding shortly after 7 in an effort to beat the traffic headed hiking in the mountains for the weekend. We didn’t entirely succeed – we were passed by dozens of minibuses and private cars driving up to the glacial lake of Morskie Oko, the most famous hike in the Zakopane area – but we were nonetheless glad to miss the worst of the crowds and to beat the heat of the day. Three long uphills and a few downhills and we had crossed the border into Slovakia and descended the other side, passing through a ski resort village and then following a narrow old road converted to a bike route just off the main road down into the valley.

At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.
At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.

img_3895.jpgOnly a few miles after our side trail rejoined the main road, a beautiful new bike path took us the rest of the way into Spissky Bela, where we stopped for some sightseeing of a beautiful old church and its bell tower. Multilingual signs everywhere let us discover the town’s rich history, like a mathematician who invented lenses used in telescopes and a doctor who treated the Roma and also did taxidermy and archeology and mountaineering in his spare time.


On the road out of town we stumbled on a castle that is now part of the national art gallery. We never did figure out how to get into the actual museum, but we had a lovely stroll through the riverside sculpture garden and a very relaxing beer and lemonade on the shaded terrace in the castle courtyard.


Across from the castle - a church with Renaissance bell tower!
Across from the castle – a church with Renaissance bell tower!

And then our amazing komoot app found that by turning for 50 yards down a bumpy side road we could join a perfectly groomed bike trail, which took us across a suspension bridge and directly to our hotel in Kezmarok. It’s called the Pension Andrea, though Michael insists the name was not a factor in his decision.

IMG_2658Leaving at 7 meant we got here at 2, giving us plenty of time to walk around town and admire the many historical churches (one designated by UNESCO) and the impressive town castle as well as enjoying 40-cent ice cream cones and picking up groceries for breakfast tomorrow. Dinner brought us the Slovak specialties of pork coated in mashed herbed potatoes and deep fried (yum!) and sheep cheese pierogis with bacon and onion, followed by Nutella crepes. Plus soup and two beers, for $16. I like Slovakia.

Tomorrow we bike to Spis castle, one of Slovakia’s more famous sights. Hopefully tonight’s lighting doesn’t develop into too exciting a storm!

Bicycling Wisconsin: our last two days

We awoke on the farm to warm pancakes and homemade strawberry and blueberry jam as well as another interesting conversation ranging from the solar eclipse to California’s water consumption and age discrimination in Silicon Valley tech companies. By 10 we were on the road again, headed inland to Richland Center and to our home for the night in Gotham (pronounced “go-thumb”), along the Wisconsin River. The sunshine was a pleasant change from yesterday’s mist, and we again had three big hill climbs for the day.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.23.42 AM

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.24.20 AMWe spotted an overgrown prairie dog and a few more cranes along our route, rolling through farms and countryside before stopping for a cheese-curd-and-bacon panini at the Cheese Cellar in Richland Center. We were on track to be quite early to our host’s historic home, so we browsed in the local bookstore and stopped for frozen custard in town before hopping on the bike path south – only to find that it was closed a few miles south of town! Luckily for us, the bookstore owner had told us about an alternate route on County Road TB, so we added a few miles of rolling country road and made it to Gotham just at 5, as arranged.


Our host for the evening, James, owns a historic house in town and has fully embraced its history. The house was actually relocated from its original location – along with most of the other buildings in town – because the Wisconsin River was shifting and the town of Richland City was soon to be inundated by its flow. Now it sits in Gotham, and James gave us a driving tour of the whole area on our way to dinner in Spring Green, showing us where the city used to be, where various other houses had ended up, and even the Frank Lloyd Wright complex on the south side of the river! We had dinner at sunset at Shifflet’s overlooking the river, and Michael and James stayed up until after midnight discussing everything from politics to economic development.

The next morning James biked with us the 5 miles to breakfast next to the small county airport, then we bid farewell to our generous host and biked off to Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center. We didn’t spring for a tour, but enjoyed reading about the site and seeing its situation above the river. From here, we’d received a full route description from none other than the father of the groom at last weekend’s wedding: take route C, then CC to Helena and side roads to Arena, hop on 14 for just a mile before turning left onto Blynn and Hudson to Mazomanie, then KP to Cross Plains. From Cross Plains we took some more side roads through part of the National Ice Age Scenic Trail and into Madison, arriving at 4:30. It was perfect for our last day: flat, but still scenic, and getting us back home in plenty of time to shower and relax before dinner.

What a fabulous bike trip! The farms and country roads were beautiful, but above all we really loved the richness of experience of meeting four different WarmShowers hosts and sharing meals with four different families whom we never would have met otherwise. What a wonderful way to explore a different part of the country.

And now, we’re delighted to have two rest days to recover our sore muscles before we fly to Poland.

Our final route:

Day 1: Madison to Baraboo. 67km, 500m climbing
Day 2: Baraboo to Hillsboro. 65km, 400m climbing
Day 3: Hillsboro to La Crosse. 108 km, 800m climbing
Day 4: La Crosse to Soldiers Grove. 89 km, 800m climbing
Day 5: Soldiers Grove to Gotham. 78.5 km, 660m climbing
Day 6: Gotham to Madison. 73.5 km, 330m climbing
Total: 481 km (300 miles), 3500 m climbing (11500 ft)

In case you missed it: part 1, part 2

Bicycling Wisconsin part 2: Baraboo to the Mississippi and beyond

It’s now day four of our bike trip. Tonight we’re staying on a small farm outside Viroqua after three more great days of biking, but each night we find ourselves exhausted and find ourselves collapsing into bed rather than writing about our adventures. This will likely get posted sometime tomorrow, but here goes …

Our route so far! We've found that ridgetop back roads provide great views and wonderful riding.
Our route so far! We’ve found that ridgetop back roads provide great views and wonderful riding.
A typical route plan in Komoot, which gives us turn-by-turn directions and an elevation profile so we know what we're in for.
A typical route plan in Komoot, which gives us turn-by-turn directions and an elevation profile so we know what we’re in for.

Each day of biking has been quite different from the previous one. After our first day on a bike path along the highway, small country roads, and a ferry, we headed west out of Baraboo for a quarter mile of busy highway before turning off onto small country roads for the next ten or fifteen miles. A chaotic stretch of busy road in Reedsburg took us to the start of one of Wisconsin’s famous rail trails, the “400” state trail linking Reedsburg with Elroy and named for a train that once traversed the 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes. The problem with a rail trail that used to travel at 60mph including stops, of course, is that it didn’t have a lot of stops. So unlike other rail trails we’ve biked in the past, with little towns and stations along the way, this one was pretty much just a strip of nicely groomed ground limestone between two aisles of trees and shrubbery. For miles. The shade would have been a pleasant respite on a hot day, but ours was cloudy, and so after lunch in the small town of La Valle, we decided to wing it and, using our county-level bike maps, struck out on our own on some parallel country roads. Which were beautiful and scenic, with corrugated cliffs and a pair of cranes and thousands of rows of corn, but also full of not one or two but three big hill climbs! I’m glad we did the detour, because the scenery was lovely, but it was also nice to know that the rest of our route would be on the flat-as-a-pancake rail trail as we struggled up some of the steeper inclines. And over the course of the day we saw quite a bit of wildlife, from a family of raccoons on the rail trail to a pair of fawns, a number of beautiful red-headed cranes, and turtles lounging in the ponds on either side of the trail.


We spent the night in Hillsboro, which has a surprisingly nice independent hotel, before heading out the next morning to La Crosse. There’s actually a full series of interconnected bike trails linking the two, but from our experience the previous day we decided to strike out across country instead – and this time we carefully looked at elevation profiles as we chose our route. We ended up with a 108km ride with three big climbs, but only a few short stretches of busy highway and a few jaunts on roads helpfully labeled as “rustic” on our Wisconsin map – whatever that means! As it turned out, we had the pleasure of riding quiet country roads mostly along a series of ridges, with small farms on both sides and nice views down to the farms below. We climbed up to Wildcat Mountain State Park for a panoramic view of the countryside, then dropped down and climbed back up again to another ridge, this one the “rustic” route of Irish Ridge Road, which turned out to be a fabulous choice: lined with small Amish farms, the road was full of horse-and-buggies and each farm sold some kind of product on the weekends: soft pretzels, jams, homemade candy, quilts, rugs … We stopped at a self-serve farmstand and picked up rhubarb strawberry jam and pickled summer vegetables for our hosts and a small packet of homemade graham crackers for our snack. Perfect. After a picnic lunch in Cashton, we climbed up to yet another ridge and followed it for quite a distance before descending into Coon Valley and then slogging through our final long climb of the day before a long ridge and then a long descent down the bluffs into La Crosse, a town of 50,000 right on the Mississippi River. Our hosts for the night had other plans, so we had delicious Mexican food for dinner and then walked around downtown, only to emerge to increasingly heavy rain and arrive back home soaked through! Luckily we had the luxury of having done laundry, so we just popped our wet clothes in the dryer alongside our clean ones and they emerged good as new.

Part of the county-level maps we used for route planning.
Part of the county-level maps we used for route planning.

This morning we had a late departure from La Crosse so I could field a work phone call, then headed south along the banks of the Mississippi for 6 miles to Stoddard. The Mississippi here is wide and swampy and beautiful, with rocky cliffs on the Wisconsin side. Unfortunately the weather was still pretty misty, but it made for a lovely view nonetheless. From Stoddard we climbed slowly up a valley and then more steeply, stopping for lunch in a small town just when the mist turned into downright rain. The skies were dramatic all day, but it was after our quick stop in Viroqua – an artsy town with a cool marketplace of crafts and vintage goods – that the skies really made for some amazing HDR photos (if only we’d had a fancy camera). Dark clouds overhead with sun breaks in the distance, green fields of corn in curving rows — it was beautiful. We biked some rolling hills south of town and ended up at this lovely farm, miles from the nearest town but self-sufficient, with solar power (turned off at 10pm!) and chickens and fields of fruits and vegetables. We all helped to chop onions, garlic, and tomatoes for a delicious salsa, and sat down to dinner with the family! We got to trade tales of biking adventures and generally have a wonderful time. We were their first WarmShowers guests – they’d just signed up ten days ago when they set out on their own bike trip to Madison! – so we really got the royal treatment, with brownies for dessert and plans of pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. I’m really loving the opportunity to meet people through WarmShowers, and Michael is already thinking of how to help it scale to greater success. It’d be fun to host in Seattle!

The Mississippi!
The Mississippi!

But in the meantime, after another 90km of biking and 2500 feet of climbing today, I’m all set to crawl into bed. Until next time …

[posted on tape delay from Madison due to exhaustion]

Bicycling Wisconsin: day 1

When Michael and I moved to Chicago for his MBA seven years ago, my bicycle-loving uncle sent us an email describing great biking in the neighboring state of Wisconsin. We never did manage to fit in that cycling trip, and so when we found ourselves in Madison for Hayley’s wedding, we decided to add in a week of bike touring. After all, we’re all geared up after our European adventures! Michael read various cycling blogs and put together a route through the Driftless Area, a region that the glaciers missed during the most recent glaciation and which is thus much hillier than much of the neighboring country. Allegedly these hills will make it more picturesque and not just more painful.

Our planned route over six days, though Google maps tends to show the most efficient route and we often choose a more scenic, less direct, one! See how wrinkly this area is?
Our planned route over six days, though Google maps tends to show the most efficient route and we often choose a more scenic, less direct, one! See how wrinkly this area is?

Day one of our bike trip across Wisconsin took us from the western edge of Madison to the small town of Baraboo, a surprisingly thriving hamlet of 12,000 people with a cute old town square and even a board game store. We cut through suburbia to a lovely bike path whose only drawback was that it paralleled the busy highway of US Route 12, but which nonetheless took us through rolling hills and pleasant scenery of farms and cornfields. We turned off the main route just as the bike path ended, and the rest of our ride was on beautiful country roads with hardly any traffic and a lot more picturesque farms.


Our midpoint was a (free!) ferry across Wisconsin Lake, complete with two scoops of ice cream on one side and a bacon cheeseburger and fries on the other. (Yes, we eat very healthy!)

On the ferry, eating Fat Elvis ice cream (banana with peanut butter swirls and chocolate chunks).
On the ferry, eating Fat Elvis ice cream (banana with peanut butter swirls and chocolate chunks).

After lunch we tackled our big hills for the day, climbing up out of the valley to Devils Lake State Park, where bikes don’t have to pay admission and we took a lovely swim in the lake, which turned out to home to thousands upon thousands of tiny minnows who, like the ones in fancy Thai massage spas, nibble at your feet if you don’t keep moving. After a few very ticklish minutes, I settled into treading water while we listened to the sounds of children exclaiming (“there are so many! it tickles when they nibble!”) and then stood for a few more nibbles of our own before getting our bike gear back on and climbing our last two hills of the day before a long descent into Baraboo.

The only hiccup there was with our new combination cable lock, which somehow managed to reset itself to a new (and unknown) combination when we locked it outside one of the shops. A harrowing twenty-five minutes of trial and error later, Michael managed to get it unlocked so that we could go the last half-mile to the village square, where our host for the night owns the local used bookstore. He invited us to join him for spaghetti, so we had the delight of a home-cooked meal as well as a hot shower and a cozy bedroom, plus an evening chatting about biking and watching him train a two-year-old black Labrador to be a service dog. Zoey is already pretty good at tugging open the fridge and various drawers and cabinets on command, then nosing them shut again, but she can’t stop herself from barking at other dogs, so the jury is out on whether she’ll end up in service. In any case, we were allowed to pet her when she behaved well, so I had a lovely time scratching her belly and under her ears and generally enjoying having a dog around! So far, I’m a big fan of this whole WarmShowers thing (whereby bike tourers host one another, in case you missed my last post). Let’s see how tomorrow goes …