EPIC Adventures in Europe
Long Distance Cycle Routes
Long Distance Cycling in Europe
Iron Curtain Trail.
Norway to Bulgaria. 10,000 km
Sun Route. Nordkapp to Malta. 7,600 km
Athens to Cadiz. 7,600 km
Canterbury to Rome. 1,800 km
Danube Cycle Path.
Germany to Romania. 2,900 km
Tauern Cycle Trail.
Krimml Water Falls to Passau. 300 km
Alpe Adria Trail. Villach to Trieste. 390 km
Along the Iron Curtain Trail
Cycling is good for you. Very good, in fact. Amongst the well-documented benefits are an improvement of your mental health prompted by the steady release of adrenalin and endorphins that physical exercise brings about. Cycling raises your heart rate, gets your blood pumping, and thus reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer. Your leg muscles become nicely toned, and an hour of cycling can burn up to 500 calories, which offers you the chance to lose weight (or have a second breakfast if you are so inclined). It is also gentle on your joints, unlike jogging for instance. You will also help to reduce carbon emissions by forsaking other modes of transport, but if you still need convincing, cycling apparently also improves your s** life. All those hours spent in the saddle seem to build up essential muscle groups that allow potentially reproductive activities to last just that little bit longer. Not convinced? Check out a post on the website Cycling Weekly.
Along the Sun Route. Bohuslan Coast, Sweden
So no excuses really for planning your next get-away involving a bike. You can be truly EPIC by checking out the website of Euro Velo, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Sponsored by the Council of Europe it is a network of 19, mostly long distance trails, from the grand ‘Iron Curtain Trail’, which runs for 10,000 km from Norway’s border with Russia down to Bulgaria. Or how about the ‘Sun Route’, which comes in at a measly 7,600 km from the Nordkapp to Malta. Equally long is the ‘Mediterranean Route’ from Athens in Greece to Cadiz on Spain’s Atlantic coast. If this all sounds a bit too long and arduous; you can of course only do individual stretches, such as the trip down the Loire Valley from Nantes to Nevers (a hop at a mere 400 km).
Along the Mediterranean Route. Tirana, Albania
The oldest established trail must be the Via Francigena. Back before cycles were invented, in 990 AD to be precise, Archbishop Sigeric must have gotten tired of the scenery provided by his hometown Canterbury and decided to hike to Rome. Back in Kent, he recorded the 80 overnight stops that still today form the backbone of this pilgrim route. Cyclists can do the 1,800 km in around 20 days, but you need strong legs as two vicious mountain passes await in the shape of the Saint Bernard Pass (2,469 m) and the Passo della Lisa (1,041 m), not to mention some rather hilly terrain in Tuscany and the Apennines.
Along the Via Francigena. San Bernard Pass
Gaining in popularity, particularly because of its gentle, downhill nature is the Danube Cycle path, which runs for 2,900 km from its source in southern Germany to the Black Sea, passing such cultural highlights as Regensburg, Vienna, or Budapest. In particular the 290 km stretch (3 to 6 days) between the Austrian and Hungarian capitals is very appealing. You can check out the trail as part of Euro Velo’s #6 (Atlantic to the Black Sea) .
Also in that part of the world is the Tauern Cycle Trail, which starts at the spectacular Krimml Water Falls and continues for 9 stages to Salzburg, Zell am See, and Passau. In a sour reference to history you will also pass through Braunau, birthplace of a certain dictator and mass murderer who promised a 1000-year longevity.
Start of the Tauern Cycle Trail. Krimml Water Falls
Not content with being second fiddle to Austrian and German road mapping, France too has a highly attractive (and tough) long distance path with the ‘Route des Grandes Alpes’, which starts on the Swiss French border in Geneva and after 710 km and a spirit-sapping 18 mountain passes finishes on the Mediterranean coast in Nice.
Along the Route des Grandes Alpes. Col du Mont Cenis
Which Bike? You can take inspiration from madman and cycling legend Tim Moore, who rode along the former Iron Curtain on a communist East-German folding bike which he admittedly spruced up by replacing the standard single-gear mechanism with a two-speed version. Tim also famously retraced one of the toughest-ever bike races, the 1914 Giro Italia on a hand-made wooden bike (as was the custom in those days) whilst wearing authentic woollen jumpers through those snow showers in the Alps. Tim Moore: a true legend for our times.
For the less-adventurous types, the decision is between a racing or a touring model. Since the described routes in this post are all on paved and smooth road-surfaces, mountain bikes, which are equipped to handle rough and uneven terrain would not be the best solution. So-called road bikes are lighter, faster, and thus require less physical effort. But the thinner profile of their wheels is more prone to flat tyres, while you might also struggle to mount a decent rack on them in order to carry your luggage. But if you have an accompanying vehicle carrying your gear and repair kit, this might just be a feasible option. But most riders would choose a hybrid bike that is sturdy enough to carry you and your stuff without the need to stop at the roadside, whenever you cycle over a mis-placed nail. The following post in UK’s news outfit ‘The Independent’ hopefully provides some clarification.
To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’.
The case for electric bikes is a strong one. In fact, once you have ridden on one of those magical machines you might never go back to the traditional type, as you are getting accustomed to the almost effortlessly smooth glide. So, if you rate comfort over physicality, e-bikes might just be your thing. You can also carry more luggage without exerting any extra physical effort. And instead of aiming for the customary 60 – 100 km per day, you can easily exceed your target by 30% (or reduce the amount of time spent in the saddle by a couple of hours). The downsides are the need for a powerful battery that can keep you going all day (and potentially up any steep, and thus juice-sucking climbs). Obviously, you also need to recharge those beauties overnight, so staying in campgrounds might prove to be an insurmountable organisational challenge. The biggest factor, however, are the extra costs. You can get basic e-bikes for around 1000 €/£, rising all the way to the level of a decent used car. Check out an article in Cycling Weekly while sports equipment giant Decathlon also offers a wide selection that should give you a good understanding of what’s on offer.
Transport and Accommodation
The websites of the respective routes listed in this post offer links to tour operators that take care of your overnight stays, whilst also adding the option of carrying your luggage to your next stop. It saves you a lot of hassle but in return comes at a price premium.
Yet, with a little time and effort, it is also possible to organise your own tailor-made tour. As to accommodation, Booking.com as well as Hostelworld have plenty of options. Camping Info and Euro Campings are starting points for those wishing to spend the night in a tent. If you pack tightly and factor in the odd laundry stop, it is also perfectly feasible to carry all your belongings in two or three pannier bags on your luggage rack. But if you prefer to cycle without the extra weight, there are numerous specialised baggage carrying companies that would be happy to lighten your load. If you google ‘cycling, luggage, transport, Austria (or Italy, France etc), a comprehensive list of options will come up, chiefly amongst them a pan-European service called Eurobikes.
But whose got the time to embark on such long cycling adventures, you might ask. Fair point. Which is why I would like to highlight a more compact route: the Alpe-Adria route, a modest, 6 day journey from Villach in Austria to Trieste in Italy. EPIC sent out its voyageur in chief Tony Steurer to recount the trip. Here are his notes.
one week, 390 km
Villach - Tarviso - Carnia - Udine - Aquileia - Grado - Trieste
I always wanted to cycle across the Alps. But for whatever reason, it just never happened. But Covid and the resulting lockdowns strengthened my determination. I mentioned the plan to my old colleague and friend Christoph who cycles almost every day and to my surprise his response was full of enthusiasm. Even better, he brought along his brother Hartmut and nephew Julian. After some discussions on the route, we settled on the Alpe-Adria trail, a moderate 6-day tour with the enticing promises of idyllic and occasionally dramatic scenery, good food and shots of culture along the way. Some knee issues in the group convinced us to go electric but frankly it was not necessary as the few climbs in between were completely manageable without electric assistance, and I cycled mostly without the support, rather wishing that I would not have to push the extra battery weight along.
Tony has travelled to over 100 countries. A culture aficionado who likes nothing more than getting lost in some obscure museum or church, this was his first cycling journey. He currently lives in Munich.
Day 1: Arrival, Villach (Austria)
Starting point was Villach in Carinthia in southern Austria with an overnight stay in Hotel Goldenes Lamm, a cosy boutique style hotel next to the river Drau. Some drizzle as Christoph and I picked up the rental bikes near the train station: an easy start compared to the other two guys who had brought along their bikes in their van from Germany. We also opted for our luggage to be transported every day from our overnight stay to the hotel of the next day’s destination. Dinner in Villach’s Palais 26, a scenic, grotto-like restaurant right in the middle of the pedestrian area. Afterwards an interesting walk through the old town with some truly peculiar shops. The window of a patisserie was filled with all sorts of humanized green frog figurines. The adoration for heroes of the first and second world war was also notable, even on the outside of the mighty Saint Jacob church.
Day 2: Villach to Tarviso
65 km, 6 hours
Leaving Villach, we cycled eastwards along the river Gail; sunshine and blue skies. After crossing the river Drau, we decided on a detour into a quiet side valley with some picture book villages, steep slopes and an unexpected encounter with a four-foot long grass snake resting on the tarmac. Life lesson for cyclists #1: Apps can be misleading: On the way back to our main route we got deeper and deeper onto some unpaved tracks along the river, which finally led to a dead end. We had no choice but to re-trace our steps. By now the temperature was warming up. The trail started to get steeper and for some of us that first challenge proved a bit too much. Fortunately, most villages that we cycled through had a fountain with fresh drinkable water.Back on the Alpe-Adria trail we rolled into Italy; a deserted border post with just a green line marking the demarcation between the two countries. Then a steep hill, 15 degrees, and too tough for us, so we had to push the bikes uphill. Tarviso is a rather bland ski resort where we stayed in the modest guesthouse Haberl with decent food served in an adjacent beer garden. Across the street we found fantastic ice cream in Prana Gelateria. Although the mileage on our first day (including our detour) was a modest 65 km, we had to navigate some steep inclines. Not surprisingly, everybody slept very well that night.
Day 3: Tarviso to Carnia
70 km, 6 hours
The trail followed an old railway line coming up all the way from Trieste, which first opened in 1879. For about 40 km, the rail tracks were transformed into a well paved cycling route. About two dozen tunnels, the longest being about 980 m, some illuminated, some pitch black with a distinct temperature drop and water dripping from above.Softly downhill most of the way. A side tour lead us into the Salsera Valley to Valbruna, a mountain village with an impressive war cemetery. At the end of the valley we saw towering mountain tops covered in snow, then back to the main trail which followed the narrow valley of the Fella River. Mountains on both sides, steep ravines, thick green forests, waterfalls, and the gushing river below. Very few scattered settlements. In retrospect, this turned out to be the most scenic day of the tour. Coffee break in Pontebba, a typical mountain village with a shady market square. The valley narrowed near the fortified Chiusaforte, a sunken WW I fortress. From here the river started to meander and widen with gravel and sand banks, and blue-grey water. Spring flowers were in full bloom.Today's finish was in Carnia, a non-descript industrial settlement. Our hotel (also unimaginatively called Carnia) remindsedme of a motel along some U.S. highway. The rooms and the interior were agreeable though, and like all other hotels that we stayed in on this tour were geared towards the needs of cyclists. Being somewhat disappointed with the hotel’s isolated location we walked along the motorway into the namesake village in search of a more atmospheric place for dinner. However, in doing so we get lost in a sprawl of noisy and dusty industrial sites. Frustrated we turned back and discovered that our hotel has a large restaurant with an enormous number of sepia-coloured pictures of prominent Italian politicians and movie stars from the 1980s. All these people couldn’t be wrong to dine here? We stepped inside and were treated to a phantastic culinary treat. Italian cooking at its finest. And decent prices, too …
Day 4: Carnia to Udine
80 km, 8 hours
Dinner at the hotel was excellent, and so was breakfast. We left behind the high mountains before reaching the 14th century town of Venzone, which is encircled by a double city wall. Famous for lavender growing, in 2017 it was elected the most beautiful village in Italy by Borgo dei Borghi, an organization that promotes Italian communities.A strong quake in 1976 levelled most of the town, which has now been carefully restored. This was especially true for the Duomo di Sant Andrea Apostolo where just a few walls and stones remained. Now it has been rebuilt in a stunning fashion. Next to it stands a chapel that houses medieval mummies in the basement. These mummies were naturally conserved by antibiotic, parasitic mildews that live in the dome. An idyllic market was going on in the central square; the old town is covered in ancient cobblestones. When the church bells started to ring strong sound waves rippled through the place. A few kilometres further we rode into 14th century Gemona, a long and steep uphill climb to the old city and the castle and the magnificent Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. The town is a classic example of the Italian model of a city with clerical and secular powers facing one another. Dramatic scenery as the old town nestles below a massive rockface. Steps lead up to the castle hill with sweeping views across the valley and the mountains in the north. For the remainder of the day we zigzagged for long stretches across a hilly countryside on a miraculously winding trail with poppy and corn fields in between small villages. The scattered settlements along the way seemed fairly deserted with no cafe or bar open during the day. We made it to Udine and our Hotel Residencia al Theatro, a cosy place run by a very welcoming family.Udine’s elegant old city is characterised by Venetian and Habsburg architecture. Squares that resemble Rome were packed with restaurants. A piazza with the Palazzo Patriarchale, designed by Palladio. The 15th century city hall, called Loggia del Lionello, the Castello di Udine, a 16th century castle up on a hill. The Duoma Santa Maria Annunziata is massive and full of intricate, architectural details. Insider tip for ice cream lovers as some consider Accademia del Gelato to be Udine’s culinary highlight.
Day 5: Udine to Aquileia
75 km, 6 hours
One hour out of Udine lies the UNESCO site of Palmanova designed in 1593 by Venetian architects as part of the defence line against the Ottoman Empire. Built in the shape of a star with nine angles, it is surrounded by three massive circular walls with just 3 gates. Inside the centre of town, we came across one of the biggest squares I have ever seen. It held its position as a fortress for more than 300 years. A short ride later we reached Strassoldo, and just like Venzone regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. A place that looks as if taken straight from a fairy tale, it is mostly the private estate of Castello di Strassoldo di Sopra. We caught a glimpse of the extensive grounds, which were filled with roses and other flowers, as well as a small river full complete with ancient water mills.Finally Aquileia, a Roman settlement which used to be a harbour town. The ancient docklands and river canals can still be seen today. Nearby are the remains of the forum and Roman streets in their original condition.
Day 6: Aquileia – Grado – Aquileia
20 km, 1 ½ hours
In the morning we visited the amazing 11th century Basilica di Santa Maria Assunto, whose floors are covered with 760 square metres of mosaics from the 4th century. These used to be covered by mud and ceramic layers and were unearthed only about a hundred years ago. Spectacular. The frescoes above the altar and in the crypta from the 9th century are equally stunning and colourful. And there’s more: Before the basilica was erected there were predecessor buildings, like the 1000-year-old, 73 m high bell tower with another collection of impressive mosaics. The grounds are filled with old cypress trees and a cemetery. Nearby is the excellent archaeological museum which houses a fine collection of glass and jewellery that kept us busy for another 2 hours.A short 10 km ride, and over a dam spanning the protected Laguna di Grado to the namesake town. Open salty waters, plenty of seabirds, strong winds. Grado itself has a massive tourist infrastructure. We took in the rather small old town with a few atmospheric alleys, ate an overpriced lunch before heading back to Aquileia to avoid the tourist hordes. Over dinner we decided that in order to reach our final destination we ought to cycle a remote route through Slovenia via Fiumicello and San Canzian, bypassing busy and industrial Monfalcone.
Aquileia. Basilica di Santa Maria Assunto
Day 7: Aquileia to Trieste
80 km, 8 hours
Zigzag crossing over the plains of Isonzo. In World War I, the area was Italy’s Verdun. About a dozen battles took place here with more than 1.2 million soldiers perishing. And as in Verdun, senseless human losses without any significant territorial gains. Commemorative plaques and graves are reminders of the horrific past.We ascended down to the karst plains, then from Doberdo and onto Gorjansko in Slovenia. A complete change in scenery with dry fields, forests and hardly any villages. Quite a few hills up and down, the few pubs along the way were all shut or had closed for good because of the pandemic. A long ascent to the main road in Gorjansko. Lunch break at the only open restaurant before we rolled downhill for about 9 km to Trieste. Great views over the Mediterranean Sea with the city and its harbour. So much tradition here although some areas appear neglected while others looked polished and renovated. Shining palaces with supercharged stucco fronts, squares full of open-air restaurants, a lively old town with uphill winding alleys, the cathedral San Giusto halfway up the mountain.The city has a reputation of being Italy’s coffee capital. There are some truly marvellous 19th century coffee houses with their original art deco interior. Pasticceria La Bomboniera from 1836 deserves to be mentioned although there are at least half a dozen more. The Concorso d’Eleganza 2022 took place while we were in town. On the stately Piazza Unita d’Italia historic cars from seven decades added a lot of sparkle. But we have our bikes. Who needs a Lamborghini Miura or classic Alfa Romeos?
Trieste. Piazza Unita d'Italia
Day 8: Departure
We got picked up by our prearranged transport van which drove us back to Villach. Time to reflect:
A pleasant ride through a vivid part of European history that exceeded my expectations. Ideal in late spring or early autumn. The thought of crossing the Alps by bike seems more a psychological than a physical barrier. Hence, if you are in a half-decent state of physical fitness, this tour can be done without too much preparation. The prearranged transport of our luggage was a true luxury, and instead you could also just simply store your daily necessities in saddle bags and rough it a bit. What remains is the issue of transporting your bike from the starting to the end point, but made all the easier by a handy direct train link between Trieste and Villach. Or you can rely on the tour operators and bike transport outfits listed in this post.