Mini-Multi-Modal Trip to Europe, April 2024

This week I’m taking a mini-multi-modal Europe with my Brompton bike. My goals are to spend time with family, visit a friend, and to pedal around different cities to experience better biking infrastructure than what we currently have in West Hartford, Connecticut. Learn about bad infrastructure decisions that other Bike West Hartford board members are dealing with while I’m away. This is my second-ever trip to Europe, as my daughter Eva and I rode our bikes and the train from Amsterdam to Copenhagen in 2021.

Beth and I flew overnight from Hartford to Dublin to spend a day and explore that city on foot and bus. Walking downtown along the river to visit food establishments recommended by friends was lovely. We enjoyed breakfast at the funky Brother Hubbard - North Location, where we sat next to a lobster-themed bachelorette party, followed later in the day by pastries and cake at the Queen of Tarts Bakery. We also visited EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, with our common interest in public history and how people tell stories of their past and present. Its focus on the multiple paths taken by people leaving Ireland was fascinating (famine, war, colonialism; forced or voluntary resettlement; etc.), followed by an emphasis on successful Irish descendants around the world. Very short video biographies of everyday people from the past telling their stories were very effective, and the museum relies heavily on digitized multimedia rather than historical artifacts. Surprisingly, we saw relatively little mention of the Gaelic language or the role of Catholic institutions, but more stories of Irish women and lesbian & gay communities who left in part due to these culturally conservative powers in their nation.

Dublin images
Beth and I visited the Dublin EPIC museum, after enjoying brunch while seated next to a lobster-themed bachelorette party.

The next day, Beth and I returned to Dublin airport and departed in different directions: she to meet our daughters in Paris, and me to visit my friend and co-author Ilya in London. Prior to leaving the US, while packing my Brompton bike inside my cardboard-padded double-bag carrier, I inserted Trader Joe’s snacks as requested by Ilya: one large container of chocolate-covered Dunker cookies and two packages of corn puffs (which also served as extra padding to protect my bike). After my luggage and I landed at London Heathrow airport, I unpacked my Brompton and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the snacks survived both airline trips. But I couldn’t easily carry both bags of corn puffs on the bike, so gave one to a Heathrow info booth employee who had been very helpful.

Snack images
Packed snacks for my host inside my cardboard-padded bike bag, which Moose carefully inspected.

While the Heathrow airport website includes an informative cycling page and map, and several airport employees ride to work and park their bikes on site, the ideal way to pedal out of the airport is still unclear to me. Currently, one cannot bike straight out of the Central Terminal Area (Terminals 2 and 3) due to construction on a roadway tunnel under a runway. My two choices were to pay for a short bus ride from CTA to a stop along the roadway, or to take the free London Underground train to Terminal 4 and ride out from there. I chose the latter, not to save money, but to experience London’s transit system, which I also believe had more room for me and my luggage than a bus. Thank you both Dublin and Heathrow airports for your free luggage carts! But I would have appreciate more bicycle signage when riding out of Heathrow Terminal 4, as I felt utterly confused when facing double roundabouts designed for cars, but no clear cycle path. My maps did not match my reality. I found a Heathrow employee who was riding home on his bike, who kindly pointed me in one direction. But after pedaling where he pointed me, I soon decided this was backwards and started pedaling in the opposite direction, then passed him while he stood at a bus stop, waiting to board with his bike. We waved at one another. Guess I’ll count that as an American-to-English miscommunication, and probably my fault.

Heathrow map
Still wondering about the best way to bike out from the Central Terminal Area at London Heathrow Airport.

Eventually I found my way onto the walk-and-bike route out of Heathrow T4 that matched my 30 km (18 mile) Cycle.Travel route to Ilya’s neighborhood in northwest London. This unseasonably warm and sunshine-filled Saturday was an absolutely delightful time to pedal along the Union Canal path for walkers and cyclists. Fortunately, a day before my trip I suddenly realized that driving on the left side of the road also meant biking on the left side. To drill this foreign concept into my head, I carefully studied twenty minutes of British safe-cycling videos. Once I got past Heathrow airport, I quickly adapted to left turns being easier than right turns, and going left and clockwise at roundabouts, rather than right and counterclockwise. One surprise was that on the narrow Union Canal path, oncoming walkers and cyclists generally (but not consistently) stayed to my right, the opposite of what I’m used to in the U.S. Hug left, I kept telling myself, worried that in a moment of panic I might accidentally revert to staying right, as we do in the States. One downside is that my right-eye vision loss means that cyclists from behind pass me on my blind side, and with my mirror mounted on the (US) left side of my handlebars, I was lucky to catch a glimpse of them before they overtook me. Remain calm and carry on, the British say, and it will all get sorted out.

Canal images
Beautiful ride along the Union Canal with houseboats, and my Cycle.Travel route from Heathrow to Ilya’s neighborhood.

Ilya and his husband Harry were not just fantastic, but amazing hosts (a word favored by marketing pros, I’m told). They warmly welcomed me into their flat, cooked me several delicious meals, and engaged in delightfully witty and insightful conversation. Also, it’s possible I was an unwitting marketing test subject for a new service called Ilya’s Invigorating Tours of London by Foot and Bike, as we walked 3 hours through neighborhoods and parks on the Saturday afternoon after I arrived by bike, then pedaled 55 km (33 miles) to more distant neighborhoods and parks on Sunday. Ilya is now a doctoral student in geography at University College London, and he and I both share an appreciation for biking around cities—on our matching Brompton folding bikes—to experience the wide variety of places where people live, work, and visit. London’s biking infrastructure is very good, by US standards, and many riders pedaled with us on their blue-painted Cycle Superhighways and extensive network of smaller local bike routes.

London images
Top left clockwise: Amazing hosts Ilya and Harry; View from Primrose Hill; Our Brompton bikes outside the market in West Hempstead; Blue-painted Cycle Superhighway near Big Ben.

On Monday morning, as the warm sunshine turned into a cold rain more typical for mid-April in London, Ilya kindly led me by bike through morning traffic to the St. Pancras International Station to catch my EuroStar train to Rotterdam, Netherlands. As Eurostar requested, I placed my Brompton inside one of my IKEA bags (without cardboard padding), carried it on board, and placed it in the luggage rack at the rear of my coach. My train trip went very smoothly, except for two Americans in front of me who realized that they were in the right seats on the wrong train (and disembarked, fortunately, just before we left London), and also a very-friendly-yet-mildly-annoying window-seat passenger who politely asked me to let him out at least five times during the two-hour leg of my journey through Brussels. I asked if he wanted to trade seats and sit next to the aisle, but he wasn’t interested. More American-European miscommunications, I suppose.

Eurostar train images
Ilya navigated me to London’s EuroStar train station, where I bagged my bike before boarding.

On Monday afternoon, I arrived in Rotterdam, a city full of separated bike paths and crazy architecture. Was so happy to roll my bike out of the train station (after a police officer kindly explained that I needed to scan my EuroStar train ticket to pass through the turnstile) and into the sunshine! Then I pedaled about 2 km to StayOkay Hostel-Rotterdam, where I slept inside one of the Cube House rooms. The building also serves as an architectural museum. Kept the door locked to avoid any unexpected visitors or further American-European miscommunications.

bike and hail images
In Rotterdam, surrounded by bikes at the central train station, and later, briefly by thunder hail.

I did not expect the sunshine to last as long as it did on Monday, which was wonderful, but also surprising to experience a totally unexpected thunder hail storm for three minutes while walking around the city center that afternoon. (Foreshadowing events to come, it turns out.) Fortunately, it passed by very quickly. Hoping for clearer skies later this week.

Cube House images
Spending the night in a funky Cube House room at StayOkay Hostel-Rotterdam

On Tuesday I pedaled from Rotterdam to Den Haag (The Hague), about 25 km (15 miles) mostly on bike paths and rural roads in the light rain. Spent the night in another StayOkay hostel located near the city center. Thanks to their friendly staff for finding my pocketknife with hex keys that slipped out of my water bottle bag as I carried my Brompton to the downstairs luggage room. Explored the city center on foot in both the late afternoon and early evening, and dodged more showers. While dressed in my rain jacket and hood, what surprised me about the Dutch is that many bike or walk straight through the sloppy weather with just a light jacket and no hat. More foreshadowing of events to come.

Den Haag images
Spent the night where young folks hang out at StayOkay-Den Haag

Wednesday was my longest ride on this trip, from Den Haag to Amsterdam, about 60 km (36 miles). Timed my departure perfectly as the morning rain faded away, so I enjoyed warm sunshine and blue skies on bike paths and rural roads for the first 20 km to Leiden. Then I pedaled through some light rain showers for the next 10 km, so pulled my rain jacket out of the red knapsack strapped on the back of my Brompton, and thought I had avoided the worst of it. But that false hope was rapidly extinguished very dark clouds and drenching rain for the last 30 km, including a powerful thunder hailstorm! At one point I was biking through 1cm (0.4 inches) of ice pellets on the ground. Wanted to take a photo, but my fingers were freezing (despite wearing bike gloves and waterproof gloves) and did not want to remove the plastic rain cover from my smartphone, which runs my navigation app. Although the top half of my body was relatively dry under my rain jacket, my bottom half was colder and wetter than I have felt in a long time. Took a short break as the bike path crossed under a highway overpass near the Schipol Airport, then pushed on to Amsterdam as the rain gradually subsided. Finally met up with Beth and Maya for lunch, and needed two hot chocolates to warm me up.

Leiden and hail images
Beautiful day when I biked from Den Haag to Leiden, but got walloped by a thunder hailstorm on the way to Amsterdam. (Not my photo of the hail because my fingers were freezing at that point.)

When meeting up with family in Amsterdam, I realized that my red backpack was missing from the back of my Brompton. Although I had secured the backpack with a cargo net, when I removed my rain jacket during the storm, it probably loosened the tension and it all went overboard, including a second-hand wool sweater and other clothing items. Need to find a replacement bag and a better way to secure it to the Brompton.

My bike tour ended in Amsterdam, but adventures with Beth and Maya continued. We stayed in a spectacular houseboat on the Amstel River, which allowed us to explore the canal section of the city on foot. On Thursday I pedaled around Amsterdam for a few hours, just going wherever its amazing network of bike paths took me, to explore more city parks and neighborhoods. Snapped several photos of Dutch cyclists: one riding with a puppy in the front bike box, another transporting their cat in a hand-held animal carrier, and a third pedaling with high heels. Also, saw the famous Amsterdam city public works barge scooping discarded bikes out of the canal.

bike path images
Scenes from the bike path around Amsterdam: cyclists with puppies, cat carriers, high heels, and canal barge scooping up discarded bikes.

Beth, Maya, and I finished our travels in the nearby city of Haarlem. On Saturday we rode the bus to the Keukenhof tulip gardens, then rented bikes to ride into the tulip fields, which were spectacular – see short Instagram video. I love riding in the Netherlands, where the cycling infrastructure and culture make me feel safe on my bike, and look forward to returning in the future, perhaps during months with less rain.

tulip image
Biking in the Keukenhof tulip fields with Beth and Maya.