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.
Nutella is the mass-produced version of something much more sophisticated: gianduia chocolate hazelnut spread from Piedmont, Italy. Yes, the land of Langhe and Roero vines is also pretty famous for its hazelnuts.
In the weeks before the race, I spent a lot of time basking in the glory of telling my friends that I’d be riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. I did not, however, spend a lot of time actually visualizing myself riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. Ten minutes into the race, I found myself flying down a loose-gravel hill in predawn darkness with only dim candles lining the curving road, and it became apparent why this famous bicycle race is called L’Eroica, or “The Heroic” in English.
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.
Wait! Don’t put that winter active wear away just yet. If you’re planning a trip to the Dolomites during the summer, you might just need it. There is often this misconception about “sunny Italy” being, well, warm all the time. But it’s a long peninsula that experiences true seasons and isn’t always under the Tuscan sun.
I’m not writing any new material by saying that Paris is a magical place. The amount of history, creativity, fine art and architecture in this ever-gray city is astonishing. In fact, deciding what to do with only 24 hours in such a culturally rich place can be overwhelming. Here’s my recommendation for a day well spent in the City of Love.
All right, I realize I’m not about to unleash a revolutionary statement here, but the fact is, Tuscany has some amazing bike routes. Even if you haven’t been there, I bet you’ve seen postcards. The real thing looks just like that! No—even better! It didn’t take me much time in Tuscany to realize this part of the world is a cyclist’s haven.
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.
I’ve been lucky in my time as a Backroads leader to have some amazing guests, like Andy Russell. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Andy was an NFL star in the 1960s and ’70s. It was day three of our trip and Andy and I were riding along a gorgeous stretch of road. Something shiny coming from Andy’s handlebars caught my eye, so I took a look: a ring. It looked like a Super Bowl ring. I had to ask…. Andy, who hadn’t mentioned anything up to this point, grinned a little grin and told me his story, and what a story it was!
One warm and lazy afternoon, I found myself meandering about the twisted and narrow pedestrian streets of downtown Seville. As I made my way back toward the main square, I spotted a tiny nun (almost a full head shorter than myself), nearly doubled over with what looked to be an incredibly heavy picnic basket, disappear into a small doorway. Surprised–and more than a little intrigued–I followed in the nun’s laborious path to sneak a peak around the door she had left ajar.