castle-in-santagata-di-puglia

Say What, I’m (Almost) An Italian Citizen?!

sudtirol bike path
Bike touring magic in Northern Italy in 2015.

I never met him, but I suspect my great-grandfather Annibale Marchitelli was a wily dude. Thanks to that wiliness, I am en route to having my Italian citizenship recognized.

Allow me to explain.

According to a ship manifest on the internets, in 1903 Annibale left the classic hill town of Sant’Agata di Puglia with $11 in his pocket. He landed at Ellis Island, settled in Jersey City, and got down to two jobs: carpentry and having sex raising 11 kids (yegads!).

In 1927, a few months after the final kid was born (my grandma), Annibale naturalized as a U.S. citizen. This means that: a) between work and tending to 11 whippersnappers, he didn’t have time to naturalize before then or b) he realized by having kids first, they could get dual citizenship. (This is all conjecture because he died young and took the secret to the grave.)

This all rocketed into my universe a week ago when a cousin called my mom to say, “hey, I found the original naturalization certificate. It looks like we can all become Italian citizens!”

Cue fanfare and cries of sorprendente! We’re moving to Europe!

Not so fast.

The Long and Winding Road to Italian Citizenship Via Jure Sanguinis

Turns out the Italian government doesn’t simply hand out passport if you text their consulates with a crappy iPhone photo of a naturalization certificate. (“I was told I also get a Tuscan villa?”) Farrrr from it.

The official route for this kind of situation is called “jure sanguinis,” which (for me) means “your great-grandpappy was Italian when your grandma was born, so you can be too!” Or, if we’re technical, “right of blood.” (Check if you do!)

Side note: In many countries with lots of immigration in the past (e.g. the U.S., Australia, Canada), citizenship is often “jus soli,” or “right of soil.” If you’re born there, you’re a citizen. Europe is mostly bloodline, which creates complex quandaries given all the immigration happening there.

Basically, since my grandma was born with unrecognized Italian citizenship, so was my mom, and hence me. BOOM. Given that I’ve signed my emails ciao for years, this makes so much sense.

All we have to do is prove the chain of lineage and I can buy an abandoned castle, acquire a taste for wine (uh oh), learn more Italian than “ciao,” and move to the Old Country!

The Fun and Games of Proving Citizenship

There are services that handle the process for a paltry $8,000. NEVER. I, Captain DIY, do not pay for such things!

Luckily, generous people have sailed these seas before. They are willing – no, happy! – to help noobies like me navigate the process for free. There’s even a Facebook group with an incredible amount of well-organized information and tales of victory. It’s possible! Just…a bit complicated.

Using the document list from the San Francisco consulate, my list includes certified naturalization records, plus birth, death, and marriage certificates. Cakewalk: I’ve got the internet, free time, and I love spreadsheets. (Yes, I already made one. #engineerdorkalert)

Just 2-4 things for each person. For FOUR generations. From Italy. New Jersey. Florida. Wisconsin. New York. California. Idaho.

Don’t forget this curveball: some U.S. agencies aren’t currently sending hard copies thanks to 2020’s major strikeout pitch, CoronaLameGawdIHateYou.

Uh oh. Why does my brain suddenly feel like a soggy plate of my grandma’s pasta?

OH, and once I receive documents, it’s necessary to mail them BACK to the Secretary of State in the issuing state for an apostille stamp that double-certifies the document is official for international use per the Hague Convention. (Apparently in Italy you CAN triple-stamp a double-stamp?)

Then everything has to be translated into Italian. Yup. Not kidding.

Did I mention it’s currently impossible to book an appointment at the San Francisco consulate? Just a TWO YEAR wait, except you can’t search more than two years out in their system, so only cancellations are available.

This is officially the most bureaucratic process I’ve ever launched into in.my.entire.life.

Hmmm. We love Oregon and can already travel to Europe for three months at a time. (Well, before covid.) Is this worth it?

Why I Give a Hoot About Italian Citizenship

Clearly all of this is a pain in the left lobe of my brain as well as time-consuming and costly. Why bother?

  1. Options are never bad.
    Who knows what happens during our lifetimes! We have no desire to leave Bend or the U.S. right now (well, depends on the day), but goals morph, presidents change (please pleeeease), and we do like adventures….
  2. I can help my family get citizenship.
    My mom, my brother/sister, and extended family can piggyback on my efforts. Chelsea and I don’t have kids, but my brother and cousins do. What a gift for their kids! Free college, the ability to live and work in the EU, healthcare that doesn’t bankrupt you. Amazing.
  3. Genealogy research is strangely satisfying.
    This one surprises me since I’ve never investigated my roots. Now I’m engaged in a giant scavenger hunt via FamilySearch.org and Archives.gov. Even if the whole process doesn’t work out, I think it’ll feel worth it.

And so, ONWARD. In two weeks, I’ve already made substantial progress. While this process takes years, at the end is a maroon Italian passport with my name etched inside and access to living anywhere in the European Union.

In the meantime, we shall study Italiano and dream of hill towns. Sto eccitato.

Ciao!

Sant'Agata di Puglia view
Sant’Agata di Puglia, birthplace of my great-grandfather! Can’t wait to visit.
(Photo credit Sant’Agata FB page)

Moonscape Trekking in the Icelandic Highlands

Trekking Iceland highlands canyon

In 2010, Iceland’s impossible-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. The resulting plume of ash shut down air traffic in Europe, and all eyes were suddenly on Iceland. “Hey, what IS that place?” asked people around the world. “I thought Iceland was just a big, boring glacier?”

Nope! Turns out Iceland is green (and Greenland icy) and features spectacular scenery. Especially in the middle of the country, where hut-to-hut treks weave through a surreal landscape of volcanoes, glaciers, and hissing sulfurous vents.

We crossed dozens of streams and hissing steam vents along our route.

After 2.5 great weeks in our camper van, we laced up our hiking shoes and headed out for five days and 55 miles of hut-to-hut trekking in the highlands. It was hands-down one of the coolest hiking experiences I’ve had.

For the first three days, there were no trails. Our destination was a GPS point over distant mountains and we simply hiked over whatever lay between us and shelter. Switchbacks? Pfffft. Just get to the top any possible way. My kinda hike! (We did have a guide to show us the way.)

Trekking Iceland highlands

Chelsea and I travel a lot, but we rarely plan ahead. This creates issues when there are, say, limited sleeping berths in huts. Luckily, her mom is a genius planner and we joined her parents for the trek. Hey, at least we aren’t living at home with them! As usual, C’s folks were tough as hell and hiked 10-15 miles a day on uneven, tricky terrain. (Linda, thanks for handling everything.)

We tromped up volcanic slopes and waded glacial-melt rivers. At lunch we’d sit in thick green moss with views of expansive valleys. Smoking fumaroles belched sulfur and steam, waterfalls poured off cliffs, and we even rambled through short, gnarled birch forests. Our final day was a stunning climb up to the location of the 2010 eruption, a pass between Eyjafjallajökull and the sleeping giant Katla.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Ground zero for the 2010 eruption at Fimmvörduháls.

Sleeping in Style

Iceland’s highlands are sprinkled with sleeping huts, remnants of the sheep herding days of yore. Instead of drunk shepherds, these huts now frequently house trekkers exploring the middle of the country.

We stayed in four different huts, each with a different feel. All featured a kitchen with (cold) running water, a propane stove, and flush toilets. A giant pot of water was kept hot on the stove to fuel hikers with tea and coffee.

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times...

10 steps from our hut on day 1, this is a panorama view of a river valley we hiked through, fording through coooold water a few times…

The one similarity: nightly snoring contests a chainsaw festival would envy. To fight the rippling snorts of tired hikers, bring good ear plugs or your life will suck! I’m a light sleeper, but with ear plugs was able to zonk out every night. (Chelsea’s pro tip: not all earplugs are the same. Look at the rating on the package before you buy and test them out before the trip to make sure they fit your ears and get the job done. She obviously didn’t sleep as well as I did.)

Trekking Iceland highlands colorful hills

How’s The Weather, Wally?

We hiked in early August, but the Arctic Circle ain’t famous for sunny, warm weather. Most days we donned rain jackets to ward off a stinging-cold shower for at least part of the day. Expect to hike at least part of the time in gusting wind and rain. At least the clouds add to the moody mystique and keep noses from getting sunburned.

Still, inclement weather simply added extra zest, and thanks to many warnings, we were prepared. Remember, it’s not bad weather if you have the right gear. (Or have lived in the rainy Pacific NW.)

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Moody, gray skies and a striking landscape.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Bright green moss along a stream fed by a snow field.

Choosing a Route

There are tons of potential highland trekking routes. However, Nat Geo’s “Ultimate Adventure” article about the Laugavegurinn (also called Laugavegur) trail means that just about everyone starts at Landmannalaugar and ends at Skógar.

Thanks to Linda’s travel planning genius, we spent the first three days on a different, less-traveled route to the west that dovetailed with the main trek. We literally didn’t see a single other hiker those days, just open vistas.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain's lack of switchbacks.

Chelsea and Linda contemplating this mountain’s lack of switchbacks. No, the background is not CGI…

After hiking with just our group through empty landscapes, it was a shock on the 3rd night to arrive at a hut jam-packed with people and drying rain gear and see 75 tents pitched outside on any flat surface. It felt like a mountain favela, or perhaps like Everest base camp in busy season.

To avoid that, I highly recommend getting off the main trek. Any guide company (we used Fjallback) can set you up with a quieter, less-trafficked path. If you’re going with a group of friends, it will be even easier to select a remote trip. Even if you’re self-supported, the extra effort is totally worth it to reap the benefits of solitude in nature. Here’s a list and map of all the huts.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

A moonscape of moss and lava.

Add It To the Bucket List

To see the remote, beautiful landscapes of Iceland, for my money there’s no better way than a trek in the highlands. The peaceful, lengthy communion with nature that I felt hiking for long hours left me tired, happy, and dreaming of visiting again. Don’t let the snoring in the huts or the inclement weather dissuade you – exploring the center of Iceland on foot is not to be missed.

Trekking Iceland highlands ridge

Smitten with Iceland

Lovely Seljalandsfoss drops 180 feet. Wildflowers are firing this time of year!

Interested in visiting Iceland? Check out my guide for traveling here in a camper van!

**

It would be wrong if I didn’t immediately say WOW, Iceland is beautiful! The varied terrain, stunning waterfalls, glaciers, and sweeping vistas are stomping my expectations. If there was a I Heart Iceland shirt, I’d wear it.

A week into our trip, I’m struck by how everything here reminds me of somewhere else…almost. Instead, trying to reconcile the landscapes with past experiences – “this beach is like Big Sur mixed with New Zealand!” is proving impossible. I’m failing because Iceland is so singular, a unique island planted a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.

I’m writing this at 10:30pm and the sun won’t set for an hour. It takes forever to drop six inches on the horizon – golden hour wears out my camera batteries. The sky stays so light that we don’t even need a headlamp at night. Sadly, this means the Northern Lights don’t appear, but that just gives us an excuse to come back.

The tide rolling in at midnight...

The tide rolling in at midnight.

What Are We Up To?

In a big counter-clockwise loop, we’re exploring Iceland for a month via camper van. We’re on and off the Ring Road that encircles the island, nipping off on gravel roads to explore quiet corners whenever possible. Lots of wild camping in the van, plus miles of hiking, tons of photography, soaking in hot pools, and laying in soft, thick moss beds looking at the fjords dominate our days.

Once we’re all done, I’ll write a highlights post. This one aims to capture some interesting aspects of the country, the things that pop out at us.

Rollin' Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

Rollin’ Thug Life Style in our sick Go Campers van.

A Few Observations About Iceland

In a small town in the east fjords, we saw a guy in a leotard standing on the end of a long board over icy water. While his buddies hooted, he sawed away the part under his feet. Hack hack hack SPLASH into some seriously cold water. Welcome to an Icelandic bachelor party!

I haven’t seen a police car since leaving Reykyavik a week ago. Instead, there are speed cameras. Luckily, they announce their presence via a warning sign a few miles ahead of the actual camera. No surprises here, people. Even funnier, digital speed signs beam a smiley face at us when we’re under the limit and an angry red frown when I’m gunning our zippy little camper van.

Our friend Eli has hip flexibility to die for! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

Our friend Eli has flexibility in spades! Here he is showing off on top of a still-hot volcano on West Man Island.

When I’m in a foreign country, I’ll usually lead with a greeting in the local tongue. If I’m passable at the language, I’ll stick with that. Otherwise, I ask if they speak English. Don’t even bother in Iceland! Same as the Netherlands, everyone here has better grammar than me does.

A lovely feature in even the tiniest village is a geothermally-heated hot pool. Directions require showering naked and scrubbing all the dirty spots, with diagrams dictating what to wash. (Use your imagination.) Only THEN can you head to the pool – swimsuit on, please. Oddly enough, even though the pools are outside, I have yet to see any locals wearing sunglasses.

Be warned: the weather here is variable. You may notice many of my pictures feature gray skies? It’s mid-July, but temps still skim the low 40s at night, the rain is cold, and the wind blowing off glaciers ain’t exactly a palm breeze in Tonga. Bring your warmest and most waterproof gear. Chelsea brought every item of winter clothing she owns and has her Eskimo impression nailed.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine at midnight is a good idea.

Chelsea contemplates whether hiking across a glacial moraine is a good idea.

Dodging the Crowds

Apparently tourism to Iceland has tripled in the last six years. I won’t lie – the southern part of the country felt crowded. Get to the outskirts, though, and things calm down. As always, hike a mile past any attraction and you’re practically alone.

Our first two nights were at busy campgrounds. Since escaping outside day-trip-from-Reykyavik range, things have mellowed out. We’ve parked our Go Campers rental van in secluded spots and enjoyed peaceful, lingering sunsets with views like a nature preserve or a carpet of flowers in a mountain valley.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

Misty evening over a nature preserve in the eastern fjords of Iceland. We wild camped a few feet from here.

For a quiet corner, head to the eastern fjords, home to a scant 11,000 people (and ~2.6 million sheep, I’d guess). Here, it’s clear tourism is still an ungainly, friendly teenager. Compared to a surly campground owner in the south, the campsites in the too-cute fjord town of Seydisfjourd didn’t even have an attendant on site between 12-8. It even featured honor-system laundry. I only hope tourists are respectful and don’t wreck the trusting spirit.

My friend Eli, whom I met 10 years ago couchsurfing in Spain, is guiding in Iceland this summer and joined us for the first few days of our journey on his weekend. Along with a little language instruction (the town of Hofn is pronounced HUP), he also shared that Iceland is experiencing some growing pains while dealing with the onslaught of tourism.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour.

Can you spot Chelsea crushing (as usual) on a bike? In the background is the lovely fjord town of Seydisfjour. Definitely visit this town if you’re in the east!

As a small sliver of that, we searched for ice in Seydisfjour and the only place to get it was to have a grocery bag filled at the gas station. With so many camper vans rolling around, this is a missed opportunity for a local business. I’d wager next time we come through town, ice will be for sale.

That said, don’t worry about having cash on you. Every single merchant accepts credit cards, finding good food is simple, and travel logistics are easy. If you can travel in the U.S., you can travel in Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Chelsea takes in a beach view on the SE coast of Iceland.

Iceland Won’t Empty Your Bank Account

Everyone will tell you Iceland is expensive. In a few areas, they’re right: car rentals, lodging, and restaurants carry a premium here. Otherwise, we’ve found prices to be quite reasonable, especially considering that mangoes and everything else come from SO FAR AWAY.

Don’t eat out unless you’re cool with $25+ entrees. (Iceland servers are paid well, so there’s no expectation of a tip.) We love the flexibility of renting a camper van, but it also makes sense since it combines lodging and transportation, not to mention takes away the need to book ahead.

Iceland, a land of contrasts... This view looks from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers that were added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

Iceland, a land of contrasts… This view is from West Man island, a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The black lava is 2 square kilometers added during an eruption a few years ago. New real estate!

When I compared prices for nice outdoor gear, items cost the same as Patagonia or Mountain Hardwear in the U.S. A bike rental in the fjords was $12/hr, a campground is ~$10/person, organic bananas are $1.50/lb, a cup of coffee costs $4, and groceries are shockingly similar to the U.S. There are also extensive affordable vegan options available (score!), which I’ll discuss in a comprehensive post later.

Iceland also wins big with their cheap, fast, get-coverage-anywhere data plans. For 1/12th the cost of data in the US, I got a Nova SIM card at the airport that I popped into my unlocked iPhone. Are we Americans getting scammed or what?! Apparently cell phone companies back home are staffed by crooks from Enron and Lehman Brothers.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. No signs, just anoooother waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

This little beauty was just hanging off to the side of the road. Just another waterfall *yawn* in Iceland.

Come See For Yourself

If you follow me on Instagram, you may think I’m a paid shill for this country. Here’s a paraphrased recent photo caption: “THIS PLACE IS AWESOME. Yesterday, we woke up wild camped by a beach on the Arctic Ocean. Next was a whale watching tour, where blue and humpback whales surfaced around us. After an hour drive, we found bubbling volcanic activity and this scenic hike. We finished off soaking in a giant hot springs for a couple hours, calling it a day when it closed at midnight.”

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things...

Hiking on a volcano. Tourists do the dumbest things…

Nope, Iceland isn’t paying me to be here. (Unfortunately!) I’m simply another fan after experiencing what this kickass country has to offer. Perhaps I use the word AWESOME in all-caps too much, but hey, I’m a child of the 80s.

Plus, sometimes tubular just doesn’t fit. All I know is I’m in love with this place. With almost three weeks to go, the fun is just getting started.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.

Oh, this move? Just a little dance that Chelsea and Eli choreographed to celebrate Iceland.

2015: A Year in Review

Sunset in Morro Bay, California

On Christmas Day, Chelsea and I talked about 2015 during a walk along the sea cliffs of Santa Cruz. Instead of throwing out new adventures and aspirations, we studied the rear view mirror.

We are currently landed in Santa Cruz enjoying the sunshine and excellent local trails. This stillness affords reflection on what we’ve done, seen, and experienced this past year. (To see what we’re up to anytime, check out a new page I added, inspired by Derek Siver’s movement.)

Sitting down to write after a few weeks off, I broke things down into four categories:

  1. Fabulous Moments
  2. What Went Well
  3. Things to Improve
  4. What I’m Excited About

This is also a chance to share some of my favorite photos from 2015. Let’s begin with the fun!

Fabulous Moments

Exploring Half Moon Caye in Belize

We kicked off 2015 by snorkeling and kayaking in Belize with Chelsea’s family. With warm blue water, incredible birds, and a friendly group of other travelers, (luxury) camping on this tiny island was an unforgettable trip.

Sunrise on Half Moon Caye

Mountain biking and building community in Utah

I can’t get enough of this red rock playground. I certainly mountain biked my legs off, yet my April trip through Utah was also about community.

I met up with half a dozen friends from Oregon, California, and Colorado, crossed paths with various blog readers, and built a friendship with the Keys to Freeze crew. There is nothing like spending time in nature with great people!

Porcupine Rim above Moab

Porcupine Rim in Moab

Cycle touring Europe

A highlight of 2015! If you are into cycle touring and haven’t experienced the car-free bike networks throughout western Europe, I can’t recommend it enough.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Loving the views on the north side of the Slovenian Alps.

Over 3.5 months, we biked 2,500 miles through 13 countries, taking plenty of time to relax and explore along the way. Experiences like volunteering to help refugees in Salzburg, pedaling with buddies in Croatia, and exploring the deep history of the continent only whet my appetite for Europe.

We finished pedaling in Prague, a special place for me and Chelsea since we met there nine years ago for our first date. It was a treat to return to the romantic Czech Republic and walk down the cobbled, uneven streets of memory lane.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

A gondola glides through the canals of Venice.

Road tripping with my dad

I’ve wanted to take my dad on a trip for years. As fall colors faded and October wrapped up, we finally did it, rolling out in the Sprinter van to explore Montana for a couple weeks.

We cycled in Glacier and watched geysers in Yellowstone, then explored old mining towns. It was a powerfully bonding trip.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Exploring the east side of Glacier National Park.

Things That Went Well

A stronger relationship with Chelsea

People ask us how we tolerate so much time together. (“I’d go nuts being around my husband all the time.”) While we have some tips, the summary is that long-term travel brings us closer together because it requires mutual support.

If there’s an issue on a bike tour, we’re the only two there to get through it – together. We can’t just sweep arguments away to be dealt with another day. Handling it immediately removes the potential for a tiny fight to fester and become gangrenous. Two years traveling together has bonded us more than ever.

Living a vegan lifestyle was easy

Shifting to 100% plant-based in 2013 felt like a big change. These days, it’s both easy to navigate and authentic to who we are.

We’ve traveled through 16 countries, eating amazing food and encountering great support along the way, all while living true to our values. As an added bonus, the selection of vegan options for yogurt, meat, cheese, milk and beyond continues to expand. (You have to try Miyoko’s off-the-hook vegan cheeses.)

If you’d like to try a month-long vegan adventure in the new year, Veganuary is a great free resource and community.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the US in Salem, Oregon.

Lobbying with the Humane Society of the U.S. in Salem, Oregon.

Lots of reading

Immersing myself in a book remains one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m happy to say I read more in 2015 than in any other year. Picking up a book is like taking a class with an expert for free (via the library) or for the bargain rate of a $10 ebook.

Business more streamlined than ever

This year marked the first in nearly a decade where I didn’t work directly with clients. While less profitable overall, managing my business instead of client expectations is both less stressful and frees my time to pursue other passions.

I’m still involved on a daily basis, but my mental energy isn’t drained at the end of the day. It was scary letting go of the day-to-day interactions with clients, but remains one of my best decisions. To those of you deliberating over hiring someone, I say do it.

Pausing for a moment in Bryce Canyon

My friend Reese pauses for a moment in Bryce Canyon

Things to Improve

Less pressure on myself to constantly explore

The flexibility and openness of our lives sometimes creates a compulsion in me to string adventures together the way we did in 2014. While I’m (usually) aware of this, I still find it hard to be content just being instead of constantly doing. In February and March, I struggled to feel centered in Portland and mostly dreamed of leaving again.

Constant motion makes for an interesting life, but eventually it decreases my appreciation for an activity or location. This is not a good thing. While the list of places I want to explore is long, I don’t have to visit them all in the next two years!

The other downside of constant motion is that routines are tougher to uphold. Practicing the guitar or finding space for yoga is tougher (my tight hip flexors will attest to that). Focused time for deep work doesn’t just materialize; it must be a priority. Pausing in one place provides the platform for all of that.

This coming year, I want to embrace pauses as creative periods and time to reconnect with friends and the routine of a grounded life. Hopefully we can then launch into new experiences with vigor and energy.

Columbia River Gorge in the fog

Relaxing with a view of the Columbia River Gorge at sunset.

Writing more

I’ve consistently written here, and in 2016 I’m also aiming to write two articles per month for outside publication. This means I need to write more, a challenge I’m excited to take.

What I’m Excited About

More videos and interviews with people we meet

Until recently, I never seriously considered pursuing video. It seemed outside my sphere – photography and writing were enough. After creating a few videos, however, I’m hooked.

My primary desire is to tell better stories. Video is a perfect way to do that, and I’m looking forward to making more of them in 2016 and sharing them with you.

Our buddy Stevie from SprinterLife.com and her friend.

A perfect day in Yosemite at Vernal Falls with our friend Stevie from nomadlyinlove.com.

More music and art

No, not just Macklemore at full blast in the van. (Been awhile since we did that.) Guitar! I’m a few weeks into online lessons to finally crack through the intermediate-level swamp I’ve been mired in for ten years.

Chelsea is digging into watercolor pencils and is far too good already. I may give it a whirl, but I sure as hell am not sharing the result here. I respect you more than that.

Onward!

Here’s to looking back and congratulating ourselves on a year well-lived. For 2016, Neil Gaiman says it well:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

To everyone out there, thanks for sharing this journey with us, both on the road and on the web. I hope 2016 is full of adventure, growth, and creativity.

Happy New Year!

Grinning it up in Death Valley.

Resources, Links and Apps for Bicycle Touring in Europe

Bicycle touring in Europe has something for everyone, with terrain ranging from flat, well-signed bike paths to mountains and the challenge of the Alps. After 3.5 months exploring by pedal power, I absolutely recommend a cycling trip here. Whether your trip is long or short, self-guided or with a company, there’s great times to be had for both newbies and seasoned cyclists.

Why? Logistics are easy, with frequent lodging, water, and food sources; it seems there’s town every 5 miles in most of Europe. Plus, businesses cater to cyclists. And if you’d like to skip certain areas, train routes are plentiful. Throw in the fun of varied languages and cuisine, tons of history, and beautiful architecture and it’s simply a fantastic cycling destination.

This post describes technology and online resources to help make your European bicycle tour a success. I also list each of the 13 countries we visited and link to my favorite cycling and lodging networks in each of them. Using my external brain in Evernote, I compiled and organized these as we traveled, which made sharing easy. Hopefully it saves you a ton of time!

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

The route! Starting in London, we pedaled 2,500 miles, took a couple ferries, and hopped on a few trains.

Technology to Make Your Trip Easy

Given my love of technology, I’d be remiss to not start here. In fact, only one set of paper maps were harmed during our trip (it was in England, I confess). Otherwise, we didn’t use hard-copy maps at all.

“Real” maps weren’t necessary – really! And neither was a turn-by-turn GPS device; a smartphone loaded with the right apps made navigation a cinch. That said, the correct tool spells the difference between pedaling happily along versus pushing your bike through stinging nettles on a forgotten animal trail. (I did both, but prefer the former.) Below are specific tools that I used, and perhaps also read my post about tech details for traveling:

  1. Galileo Offline Maps – my go-to phone app for touring, Galileo pulls info from the Open Cycle Map database. I tried others (Long Haul Trekkers have a great list of offline navigation apps), but Galileo is my favorite. It costs just $2 and you can download individual countries (for free) as you need them. I toyed around with downloading .gpx routes into apps like Bike Hub from biroto.eu, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. If you use a GPS, perhaps it could help you out.
  2. ACSI – this app dials into the ACSI European database for 8,500 campgrounds that are inspected on a yearly basis (i.e. they don’t suck). You can buy individual country info or just snag the entire continent’s worth of data for $13.
  3. WifiMap – if you aren’t traveling with a hotspot or don’t have Google Fi service, this offline list of wifi hotspots and their passwords can come in quite handy, though the utility varies depending on the area because the info is crowdsourced.
  4. Warmshowers.org – this network of cyclists is a great resource for staying with local people. We used it frequently during our U.S. tour in 2014, but found it tougher to arrange in Europe with everyone on holiday. It’s definitely worth checking out! There’s a great app for it as well.
  5. Booking.com and AirBnb.com – after a long day of cycling where you don’t feel like camping (such as when it’s raining or 100 degrees outside), it can be nice to book a place and not search around at the end of the day. We used the Booking.com app mid-ride some days to nail down a place so we could land without having to search for lodging. It was our favorite since there isn’t any time-sucking back and forth communication with a host, but we used Airbnb probably 25% of the time, especially for longer stays in one place when we wanted a kitchen or a full apartment. I should note that Booking.com also has apartments in some locations.

    Enjoying the view from a balcony in Resia, Italy.

    Enjoying the view from our balcony in Resia, Italy. I loved how many balconies were festooned with bright flowers.

  6. Google Maps – an oldie, but a goodie. Same as with Galileo, I’d save locations or map things before we left for the day. I tried voice navigation using ear buds initially, then decided it was unnecessary.

With the above, you’ll be fit as an Olympic marathoner for figuring out where you are, where you’re going, and where the heck you’re going to sleep. The pedaling is still up to you – I haven’t found an app for that. But now that you know how to find routes, which ones should you follow? Read on!

Crossing from Italy to Austria, Switzerland in the background.

Crossing from Italy to Austria, Switzerland in the background.

Dedicated Bike Routes, Cycle Paths, and Other Resources

We landed in London with no set route beyond a ticket out of Prague. That’s always our favorite method for exploring, though we knew of 14 EuroVelo cycle routes criss-crossing Europe like strands of a golden cycling spiderweb. Following those routes or regional networks, we spent many days on quiet country roads or bike paths, not to mention that many cities also had great cycle-only routes.

 Just follow the stickers! Crossing into France from Germany on the EuroVelo 5.

Just follow the stickers! Crossing into France from Germany on the EuroVelo 5.

Compared to the United States, there are far more resources in Europe for bicycle touring. I used the below to plan:

  1. EuroVelo (EV) routes –  the backbone of any route planning for a European cycling trip for those seeking to follow bike paths or cycle routes. The EV frequently follows local/regional maps (see below), but this overview is great for developing a general route plan.
  2. Updated October 19, 2017: Bikeroll.net looks like a great service to check out. I haven’t used it during a tour, but it looks clean and simple to use. Here’s the instructions for using it.
  3. OpenCycleMap.org – this compiles both the EV routes and regional maps to show low-traffic roads or bicycle paths. Most touring apps that I found pulled from this database.
  4. Bikemap.net – if Google Maps doesn’t have cycling options in the country (Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Republic), this is a great option to scope out potential elevation profiles, such as this quad-tester from Sudtirol in Italy.

Jen and Dave from Long Haul Trekkers cruise through a misty day in the rolling valleys of Slovenia.

Jen and Dave from Long Haul Trekkers cruise through a misty day in the rolling valleys of Slovenia.

Regional Bike Routes in European Countries

The EuroVelo routes are great, but what if you want or need to deviate from those? Fear not – there are many local resources available. Here’s each of the 13 countries we visited and the resources I used to navigate, all arranged in alphabetical order:

Many of the bike paths are old train lines, which means we rode through many cool tunnels like this.

Many of the bike paths are old train lines, which means we rode through many cool tunnels like this.

  1. Austria – not only is the scenery fantastic, but it doesn’t get any better than Austria’s bike infrastructure. Clear signage, car-free paths, and even bike maintenance stops. The best part? The word for “bike” in German is RAD. North to south, the Alpe Adria route rocks through the Austrian Alps. East-west, try the mountain-cutting Inn River Path from Switzerland to Germany and the Drau Cycle Path from Italy to Hungary (we rode both of them). Or just check out all of the country’s paths.

    Digging the views near Innsbruck on the Inn River Path.

  2. Belgium – you’ll need multiple resources here. First the Fiets Routes for the Dutch-speaking Flanders (northern Belgium), where we followed the famous Tour de Flanders. Then the southern, French-speaking part has two – RandoVelo and Ravel will help you through the famous WWII battle zone of the Belgian Ardennes. Fair warning that an 80k day will stack up 1000 meters of climbing in these steep hills. Here’s my post about our Belgian experience.
  3. Croatia – cycle routes here are more, shall we say, suggestions? Narrow, winding coastal roads with no shoulders and a few country roads for a breather. I recommend riding here in the shoulder seasons and getting up early to avoid traffic. It’s beautiful, but stressful riding. We joined two friends and their dog for this portion of the trip.
  4. Czech Republic – this country features an insane number of cycle routes. I can see why cycle touring is one of the favorite activities in this country, as routes are well-signed and typically follow quiet country roads. It holds a special place in our hearts since Chelsea and I met there in 2006.

    Cesky Krumlov in the southern CZ.

    Cesky Krumlov in the southern CZ.

  5. England – the National Cycle Network is the place to go for designing your cycle tour through Britain. We spent a week riding from Oxford east to the coast, and I’m looking forward to returning to explore the Lakes District up north.
  6. France – sorry, not much help here as we simply followed the EuroVelo 5 route through eastern France into the pretty Alsace wine region near Strausborg and Colmar. The super-popular EuroVelo 6 runs from France’s western edge straight east and is reportedly quite good.
  7. Germany – as you might expect, the Germans have cycle touring figured out. Their cycle network is solid, as is their list of accommodations (bike and bed, as they call it) for cyclists. We didn’t spend many days in Germany, but I found it easy to navigate.

    Storks are good luck in Europe and we saw nests like this all over.

    Storks are good luck in Europe and we saw nests on houses all over.

  8. Hungary – the EuroVelo 6 is the most common way people ride through Hungary, which is predominantly farmland. We came in from Slovenia/Croatia and pedaled around Lake Balaton, which was…ok. The beautiful north side of the lake is the only part of the trip I’d recommend (here’s the blog post about our experience).
  9. Italy – we only cycled in the NE part of the country, the beautiful Sudtirol. These two resources laid out the routes nicely. A German traveler in England insisted we visit this place and described it as a combination of Austrian efficiency and Italian quality of life (all menus and signs are in both languages, which was interesting). He was right: go here. This was our favorite mix of scenery and silky cycle paths, most next to rivers through the Italian Dolomites. (Side note: the mountain biking here rocks. Check out the riding in Reschenpass, which starts in Italy, into Switzerland and Austria, and then back to Italy. First time I’ve been to three countries in one ride. Did I mention there are four gondolas that haul you and your bike uphill?)

    A perfect bike path through Sudtirol.

    A perfect bike path through Sudtirol.

  10. Luxembourg – this tiny speck of a country has a great cycling network both in the countryside and in the picturesque capital. And lots of steep hills.
  11. The Netherlands – all you need is Nederland Fietsland. Flat terrain, perfect cycle paths, and more e-bikes than you’ll see anywhere in the world, Holland is a cycling paradise. It also has a “friends of cyclists” network where locals host cyclists. According to my friends there, the downside is the terrible weather. Here’s my post about our time there.
  12. Slovenia – a favorite country from our trip, especially the NW portion in the Julian Alps. Nice people, laid-back cities, and varied, pretty landscapes made for a great time there. However, while Slovenia lauds its cycling, I couldn’t find a digital copy of their bike routes. Luckily, the Galileo app worked well.

    Chelsea gives a final switchback into Slovenia the what-for coming over the pass from Austria.

    Chelsea gives a final switchback into Slovenia the what-for coming over the pass from Austria.

  13. Switzerland – of course the Swiss have their cycle network totally dialed. We didn’t spend much time there, but look forward to coming back.

And that, my friends, is the logistics download for countries we visited during our European cycle tour. For countries not mentioned, I recommend simply Googling “country name + cycling network” to see if there’s a regional resource. It seems there usually is.

Europe has my vote as a great cycling destination. And we weren’t the only ones out there – I saw an incredible number of people of all ages using the excellent bike infrastructure. Don’t let the language barrier intimidate you either, as nearly everyone speaks English and people are very helpful. For your next trip there, leave the backpacks at home and try exploring on your bike. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

What resources, tools, apps or other intel do you have for anyone looking to cycle tour in Europe? This post is intended as a long-term resource that will build over time, so please add your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.

Heading up to the top of Reschenpass in NE Italy.

Climbing to the top of Reschenpass in NE Italy. With views like this, we lingered and spent over a month in the Alps.

Eye Candy From Slovenia, My New Favorite European Country

View of Lake Bohinj in Slovenia

Some places stick with me like a bright splinter of happiness lodged in the memory banks. With views like the one of Lake Bohinj above, I’ll be dreaming about Slovenia for awhile.

As we climbed over the mountains out of Croatia, I didn’t know what to expect on the other side. I’d heard of the views, the friendly people, the quiet country roads perfect for cycling. As rumors tend to go, all of that was mostly true, though we did ride some narrow highways and joust with traffic here and there. The cities, even smaller ones, all featured separated bike paths, a stellar surprise. Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (LubJub, as we called it), is criss-crossed by a network of cycling paths with great signage that made exploring by bicycle fun. That’s more than I can say for most big cities.

A lovely night in Ljubljana.

A lovely night in Ljubljana.

Overall, Slovenia was a mix of beautiful terrain and a quiet, laid-back atmosphere not overrun by tourists. Prices for food and lodging were about 2/3 the price of western European countries like Belgium or Austria, and it sported good food, easy navigating and pretty cities. It’s a small country packed full of variety – rolling mountains to the southwest, a picturesque capital in the center, vineyards to the northeast, and jagged peaks of the Julian Alps to the northwest. We pedaled through it all.

Slovenia is right in the center. After taking the ferry from Venice to Croatia, we headed NE out to Hungary before looping back west into the Alps.

After taking the ferry from Venice to Croatia, we headed NE through Slovenia, then east to Hungary before looping back west again into the Slovenian Alps.

Overall we spent three weeks in Slovenia, crossing its borders multiple times. Our favorite part, the Alps, required sweating over quad-testing 18% mountain passes to/from Austria, which was totally worth it. Lake Bled was romantic and lovely; Lake Bohinj (a place I could stay for multiple months) was an adventurer’s paradise tucked into the mountains. Bohinj featured paragliding, mountain biking, trekking, and all the fun available on a pristine mountain lake. It’s my top destination recommendation from all our time in Europe so far.

Enough said. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Have a great weekend, everybody.

The idyllic Lake Bled and the famous church atop an island in the center.

The idyllic Lake Bled and the famous church atop an island in the center.

Chelsea and Jen enjoy the view in central Slovenia.

Chelsea and Jen enjoy the view in central Slovenia.

Even in the rain, Lake Bled is uber-romantic. Where else does a heart frame a castle, after all?

Even in the rain, Lake Bled is uber-romantic. Where else does a heart frame a castle, after all?

Locks of love decorate a bridge in Ljubljana.

Locks of love decorate a bridge in Ljubljana.

Slovenian hills don't mess around - 15%+ grades were common, even on bike routes. The views made up for it.

Slovenian hills don’t mess around – 15%+ grades were common, even on bike routes. The views made up for it.

Paddling across Lake Bohinj in the NW part of Slovenia.

Some SUPers on Lake Bohinj in the NW part of Slovenia.

Embracing the tourist life to row a swan boat out to the romantic castle in the center of Lake Bled.

Embracing the tourist life to row a swan boat out to the church in the center of Lake Bled.

Rolling through the scenic valley near Kranjska Gora in the far NW corner of Slovenia.

Rolling through the scenic valley near Kranjska Gora in the far NW corner of Slovenia.

Chelsea throws down on a soon-to-be 18% pass north out of Slovenia into Austria.

Chelsea throws down on a soon-to-be 18% pass north out of Slovenia into Austria. Steep in, steep out, but totally worth it!

The Best Kind of Headache

Exploring the ruins in Tulum at the beach...

Exploring the ruins in Tulum at the beach. This cool dude was about 3′ long!

My brain hurts. Plus, I can’t stop dreaming in Spanish. I couldn’t be happier about it.

I’m in Tulum, Mexico for two weeks of immersion classes en Espanol. Some days, I feel like I’m drowning in words; they rain down from a tropical storm of sentences and grammar. It’s similar to returning to running after a long break. The first few times hurt like hell and you wonder, “Why in the world am I doing this?” The fifth time out, you catch a fun trail in a forest and can’t stop grinning. Then you turn a corner and there’s a hill that make your lungs fall out. Not quite fit yet!

Practicing my Spanish and picking up fruit for a dessert salad.

Practicing my Spanish and picking up food for dinner.

Anyone who has visited a foreign country knows the feeling: you practice the language until you feel fairly capable. Ten minutes later, you go into a store/bus station/restaurant and a local says, “blah-wordIknow-blahblah” faster than a passing jet. All you can do is stare back blankly and mutter “hola” under your breathe before 1. fleeing in horror or 2. resorting to the old point-and-smile technique to convey your desire. Smoke pours from your ears, cheeks blush. I just try to remember, as someone wise once pointed out to me, words aren’t dangerous, so don’t be scared to speak. (Pretty sure they were fluent in Spanish…)

An interesting aspect of my time in Tulum is that Chelsea isn’t with me (she flies in next week). For the first time in a long time, I’m rolling solo. My bachelor’s pad is a thatched-roof cabana at a hostel called Rancho Tranquilo, a quiet place with hammocks swinging in a palm-shaded garden. The vibe is one where drinking margaritas all day is entirely acceptable. The town of Tulum, an equally laid-back place near old Mayan ruins, is a quick bike ride or run to sparkling crystal water and clean beaches. Initially, it was a tiny fishing village a few hours south of Cancun; until 15 years ago, it lacked electricity or a paved road. Leave the main street and there isn’t a word in English. My kind of place, and I’m roaming all over on foot and bike discovering random things like pineapple and chile popsicles (don’t knock it until you try one).

Colorful murals decorate the city all over back streets. Most stores have artistic decorations on their concrete walls as well.

Colorful murals decorate the city all over back streets. Most stores have artistic decorations on their concrete walls as well.

Still, the last time I took a Spanish class was in 2000, which means my first few days in Mexico involved me trying to spear words like a drunk fisherman in the dark. So far, my best slipup left three people (my teacher included) thinking I ditched my six month old baby at my parents’ house so Chelsea and I could travel. A couple hours later, severe judgment was reversed when they realized my brother is the one with a baby. At least I haven’t accidentally cussed out anyone’s grandmother. Yet – there’s still time.

My focus here is entirely on Spanish. Yesterday, I probably said 100 words in English in 12 hours. (No wonder my brain feels stretched.) Not that I’m speaking good Spanish; Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s Nobel Prize doesn’t have competition yet. And as part of some when-in-Rome extra-curriculars in the class, I’ve also taken a salsa dance class, learned how to cook chile rellenos, and made a ‘pinata pequena’ to decorate a Christmas tree. Lots of laughing, frequent mistakes and plenty of improvement in my Spanish in just a week are the result so far.

Salsa y chile rellenos cooked over an open fire.

Salsa y chile rellenos cooked over an open fire.

Why bother learning, a few people at my hostel have asked. Better to just veg on the beach! (Just my style, right?) I have many reasons, including future travel and wanting to be less gringo when I’m exploring new places. Being fluent in Spanish is also a long-time goal of mine, and this was a great time to get back on track.

To me, just as a translated book loses some meaning, traveling in a foreign country without the ability to speak the local language changes the context and experience. While I will always be a tourist outside of the U.S., it’s a rewarding challenge to hang out with Honorio, a Mayan fellow in town with whom I’ve sat and chatted (in Spanish) over food and drink for hours, have a long conversation with the owner of a tortilla-making shop, or simply order food without feeling blood rushing to my face.

So for the next week, I’m hopeful that my dreams are speckled with accurate verb conjugations and rolling r’s the way I only hope for during the day. If I’m lucky, my sharp gringo pronunciation will melt away with any remaining stress. After all, I’m on Mexico time now, and there isn’t any hurrying things down here.

Hasta luego,

Dakota

P.S. If you want a great Spanish school in Tulum, search no further than the Instituto de Chac-Mool. Fun, knowledgeable instructors in a beautiful setting – score!

Piles of chiles in the market.

Piles of chiles in the market.

Margaritas with fellow Spanish students.

Margaritas with fellow Spanish students.