Waffles in Belgium have a distinct connection to the city or town in which they were developed, and many families and regions guard their recipes as precious secrets. When my Belgian grandma made waffles, drafts of warm air would billow out of the kitchen, filling the house with a delicious smell. While leading Backroads’ Holland and Belgium biking trips this past summer, I encountered this familiar sweet scent in the Belgian city of Bruges. It instantly kicked my senses into a frenzy, renewing my love of waffles.
Like many first-time travelers to Ireland, I had a vision of what lay ahead as my flight cruised towards the Emerald Isle. Lush hills and the rugged coastline, sheep and their shepherds, whiskey and Guinness, the melodic Irish lilt. What I didn’t yet realize was that, while the landscape and natural beauty of Ireland are majestic, it’s the Irish people who make the country truly captivating. It’s the Irish spirit–a magnetic, almost irresistible pull–that drives visitors to return again and again.
Though the Dutch may claim the title for Amsterdam, Copenhagen is considered by many to be the biking capital of the world. In fact, half of all Danes commute to work by bicycle. While bicycle commuting is gaining momentum in many major cities in the United States, touted as a mode of transportation that is friendly to the environment and the waistline, it hasn’t quite infiltrated American culture in the same way. If one looks closely at Danish society, you’ll see that the impact of bicycles on the physical and cultural landscape of its cities runs deep.
In late December, my wife, son and I went for a walk to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall just outside our village. I grew up here, right along the border between East and West Germany. You might be thinking, “But the Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.” And so it did, in Berlin. However, I lived along the further westward inner German border–the 870-mile double-barrier of steel mesh fencing, anti-personnel mines, barbed wire, watchtowers and dog runs. The opening here began on December 22nd 1989, with just pedestrian access and only in specific towns.
Starting with the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, we set out to see how Backroads-quality biking could be combined with a luxury floating hotel. We quickly realized that this is the perfect blend. The Danube is known for having the longest bike path in the world along its banks, known as the Donauradweg. But our job was to look for more than that, to find “backroads” so guests can get off the well-ridden path and really get to know the region via bicycle.
As the plane begins its final descent, I lean my forehead against the Plexiglas and try to catch my first glimpse of the island. For a moment, the outside world is nothing more than a blur of white before we break through the clouds and the harsh scenery opens up below me. A blackened lava bed consumes the skyline, filling my field of vision with sharp edges and a wild landscape belching thick grey pillars of steam.
Amsterdam is full of canals, exhibitions, museums and nightlife. The Hague is where the King lives and where all the political life of the country takes place, whereas Rotterdam will shock you a little bit if you compare it to any other Dutch city. It got completely destroyed by bombing during WW2, and now it has such a modern and futuristic look because it was rebuilt from scratch.
Traditional, yet modern. Buzzing with activity, but filled with peaceful pockets of relaxation. Where the Kloster Dhammapala (a serene Buddhist monastery) huddles in the shadow of the Klettersteig (a heart-pumping level-4 climbing path). Whatever paradox you’re looking for can be found in Kandersteg, your Backroads gateway to a spectacular alpine adventure and the starting point of our Switzerland Family Multisport trip.
The punctually repetitious ezan (Islamic call to prayer) will forever ring distinctly in my ears–that shrill wailing cry echoing from loudspeakers perched on minarets towering above nearly every town throughout Turkey. And never will I forget the hospitality that I experienced during my six weeks of cycling from the rocky eastern Black Sea coast, through the historic hills and caves of central Anatolia, and along the rugged sun-drenched Mediterranean coast before eventually turning north to Istanbul–the geopolitical gateway between Europe and Asia.
One of the best parts of a Backroads trip is the connection with a place and its locals, and one of the best parts of being a Backroads leader is creating our own connections and facilitating them for our guests. At the beginning of my first season leading trips in Italy, I was unsure about my ability to provide this connection.
Minarets and church spires. The call to prayer and tantric beats of lounge music. These are just a couple of the contrasts you’ll encounter wandering the streets of Istanbul, Turkey. The dynamics of this city have been thousands of years in the making and while it’s known for its history, this fascinating international hot spot is quickly gaining a reputation for its contemporary culture.
One of the greatest things about working for Backroads is being able to experience unique cultural events around the globe. Ever since I first set foot in Switzerland, I’ve been fascinated by Swiss national sports–particularly Schwingen (Swiss wrestling).
If you’re lucky enough to visit Italy, then you undoubtedly need to experience one of Italy’s great initiatives, agriturismos. If you’re lucky enough to travel to Italy with Backroads, we’ll take you there. For lunch! Agriturismos are farms with lodging for travelers.
Awaken to the smell of mountains–a mix of cold morning air, dew-laden grass and the faint, earthy smell of livestock. Tuck into your slippers and shuffle across the chilled tile floor, opening the shutters to look out onto a valley still encased in early-morning fog.