Long haul trekking by bike with Jen, Dave, and Sora

Jen and Dave with Sora

Who goes by bike through Europe? Who decides to really get up close and personal with the cultures and locations scattered around the European continent? Jen and Dave do, and not only in Europe. I got the chance to talk with Jen who went by bicycle through Europe with her husband Dave and their rescued Australian Shepherd dog Sora.
The idea of biking through Europe brings many associations. The freedom of going where you want, stopping where you like and deciding on the fly where to go next. Then there are the associations of the hard work put into pedaling one’s way around the continent. The logistics that come with this nomadic way of travelling can be challenging. Whether it’s lodging, bicycle paths or where to eat the next hot meal, you are left to your own wits. This is a freedom that many long distance bicyclists thrive on!

Is planning over-rated?

Let’s hear how it can be done from a couple that explore the world by bike. My first question to Jen is how they planned their route and which factors were important to them? “We didn’t really do a whole lot of planning. We decided to start in Norway because we needed to ensure that we would be outside of the Schengen Zone within 90 days.”
They had a vague idea of places they wanted to see so a rough route was in the making.
Scandinavia is a big place however, so I wondered what particular country and region they wanted to see there? “We were hoping to see more of Norway, and tried to figure out how to get to Bergen, but it didn’t work out because of timing. We were excited about Denmark since it’s so bike-friendly.”

On the topic of bikes, with Jen, Dave and Sora

Planning? Get ready to improvise

That’s a very good plan, but as it happens, plans don’t always work out. Something they experienced a fair share of while biking around Europe.
“Our plans were often derailed. If you’re travelling long term, you have to get comfortable with plans not working out. Weather might stop you, physical tiredness, hunger, meeting cool people. We once got caught in a bad storm in Germany and knocked on the first door we saw after emerging from the woods and they took us out of the storm for an hour and gave us food and talked with us in their home.”
She adds “Our trip started in April, however, so Scandinavia wasn’t exactly the best starting choice! It was cold and wet and windy for our first several weeks.”
They wanted the trip to end in Turkey so it was a fair plan to begin in the north and bike southward. On the topic of planning, today’s world with mobile apps and a wealth of information online is very handy. “We used apps like Galileo to find cycling routes, particularly in countries without established bike routes, like in the Balkans.”

On the road with a custom-made bike

The bike is of course the most important tool for such a long bike trip. Picking the right one for long distance biking is crucial. With that in mind, how did Jen pick her bike?
“I had my bike custom-made by a friend of mine who designs and builds bikes as a hobby. Our mistake for my bike design came from inexperience. My friend is not a cycle tourist and we hadn’t done much touring before the build. My bike was great for most of Europe, but did not perform well on gravel roads, because we did not design my bike to hold wider tires.”
But the bike is not the only aspect they would change about the bicycle trip.
“We also would not have started our trip in Scandinavia! Not because we didn’t like it, but because the weather was not ideal for the time of year we were there and therefore wanted to get through as quickly as possible toward better weather.” Warmth and comfort also ranks high for you to be able to feel that you are on a vacation, instead of a hasty cycle marathon through Europe. As Jen points out “We would have liked to have taken advantage of Warm Showers more than we did.

How did you find hosts?

“We stayed with several wonderful hosts along the journey and created some of our best memories in their homes.”
It turned out that of all options available for lodging, Warm Showers which is a dedicated community to bicycle travellers was the most useful one.
“We used Warm Showers to find hosts most of them time. Otherwise we used Booking.com. We tried Couch Surfing, but I think it’s difficult with two people and a dog. We do use AirBnb on occasions, but they have too many fees, especially when you travel with pets.”
In particular Turkey turned out to be a clear favourite, and Jen recounts the hospitality they met there: “Turkey was our favorite country in terms of hospitality. People would chase us down the road to offer us tea, total strangers welcomed us into their homes, bought us meals, and sent us on the road with more food. The hospitality there is well known around the world and we were just constantly humbled by the people there.”
Important accessories included an external battery pack to charge their electronics, an multi plug adapter, and offline maps.

Jen and Dave with Sora
Jen and Dave with Sora

If you would had to choose where was your favourite place to bicycle in Europe?

“Our favorite route, hands down, was the Alpe Adria Bike Path that goes through the Austrian Alps and ends at the Italian coast. The route was super well-labeled (most of it…some of the directions dropped off once we got into Italy) and the scenery was just gorgeous. Austria has these whimsical water fountains all throughout the mountains spewing fresh spring water.”
She goes on to mention Bulgaria with spectacular entertainment in the night sky.
“We pedaled through the gorges of the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria and camped at the top of a mountain beneath a million stars. It’s super cheap there, and there are a lot of spa towns, so we took advantage of a bit of pampering!”
Okay, that sounds like a great treat and well deserved after pedaling around day in and day out. But how about northern or southern Europe, at the toss of a coin?
“This is a really tough question! We enjoyed both for various reasons, but I think I might have to go with southern Europe mainly for the mountains and the food.”

Hey, where to sleep?!

But this brings my attention to the question of lodging. How on earth do you find lodging in remote areas in Europe? Improvisation is key although online communities can help, as Jen points out.. “We didn’t usually plan lodging too far in advance in Europe. There are always so many options. We did when we stayed with Warm Showers hosts, or if we needed to be somewhere specific by a certain date, which wasn’t often.”
Then there is the classical alternative Booking.com that they relied on for finding hotels and hostels. The main reason was to find dog-friendly accommodation. Finally, since Jen and Dave has such extensive experience of touring with bikes, I wonder how fit one should be to go on a one-week touring holiday.
“This really depends on where you’ll be cycling, but for the majority of Europe, anyone who is in decent shape can do a tour here. The paths are so well designed and planned that it takes away from the mental exhaustion that comes with route planning. Plus, we saw a lot of people using E-bikes throughout Europe, so if you want to tackle a hilly route, just try out an e-bike for the tour!”

Read about the adventures of Dave, Jen, and their dogs Sora and Laila, a rescued mutt from Spain. Their website Long Haul Trekkers is about adventure travel with dogs. Find tips for outdoor adventures and detailed destination guides: Long Haul Trekkers. Photos courtesy of Jen Sotolongo.

Paul-Christian Markovski
For EuropeZigZag.com

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