I’m not a bicycle enthusiast: when I ride, it’s usually for a few miles, not 30 or 40, and I'm never wearing a Spandex superhero suit. Still, I like a good, relaxing bike ride, especially when I'm traveling. I don’t know why, but seeing a town or a landscape on two wheels feels particularly intimate in a way that even walking does not. Why? I don’t know.
5. Salzburg, Austria: I’ve written about Salzburg before on this blog. It’s truly one of our favorite cities in Europe. On our trip in 2015, our hotel was a ways outside of the Old Town, but the hotel offered free bicycles for guests. This is a perk I love more and more, and even something I look for when we’re searching for places online in the planning stages. The two-mile bike ride along the Salzach River was a highlight of the trip. It’s a flat, leisurely pedal, and because on the bike you can enjoy the breeze, it was actually cooler to bike into town than walk in the summer, central-Europe heat. In fact, the afternoon we took the bikes out we actually purposely passed Old Town (our destination) and kept riding along the river, then turned around a couple miles farther along and came back. I loved watching the other riders—often with woven baskets on their handlebars, holding perhaps some groceries or sometimes just flowers. We passed people dressed in full suits for work, and it reminded me of Amsterdam a couple years earlier—how so many Europeans use their bikes as transportation, taking advantage of the exercise and fresh air and connection to community it provides. Travel writer and TV host Rick Steves talks about knitting pieces of our travels into the fabric of our own lives, and this is one, more than any other, that I’d love to incorporate more into American culture.
4. Sonoma, California: After several days of driving north from San Diego, through the ropy turns of Big Sur, my wife and I had the luxury of spending a couple nights at her college friend’s weekend home in Sonoma, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. It’s a great little town to drive around, or walk, with plenty to do on the outskirts—green vineyards, eye-candy views, the beauty and history of Jack London State Park. But the highlight of our weekend had to be riding the bicycles my wife’s friends left for us in their garage. Each night we took to the bikes out—a pleasant and relaxing respite from the toil of hours we’d been spending in the car. We rode each evening after dinner, the California heat dispersing, the sky softening to a palate of pastels, the palm trees silhouetting the horizon. Big Sur had felt like exploration; Sonoma felt like vacation.
3. Provincetown, Massachusetts: Hiding on the outer reaches of Cape Cod, Provincetown is not particularly easy to get to. Crossing the Sagamore Bridge, you’ve technically arrived on the Cape, but P-Town, as it’s called, is still an hour and a half away. But once there, you’re transported. This quaint, funky, vibrant town is unlike any other part of the Cape. Lively Commercial Street is perfect for a leisurely stroll on a bike. It’s a crowded street, to be sure, so you have to pedal slowly, but it’s perfect for people-watching and taking in the sights and sounds of the town. I’ve spent weeklong residencies in Provincetown as a writing student—once a one-week workshop at the Norman Mailer Writing Center, and then a few years later a week at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Both weeks I’d driven down in my car but brought my bicycle, and then never used the car the entire time I was there. The week of writing felt freeing, the good food and salt air, the ocean breeze, the good vibes—all rejuvenating. But I think being on the bike all week—and never the car—was just as important. In the morning, I biked to my writing workshop. Then biked to Commercial Street for lunch and coffee. Then biked some more just to stretch my legs and feel a part of the town. Later, I’d bike this stretch of road again, then again. I biked to dinner. To the library. Without the enclosed cab of a car surrounding me, I was an integrated part of the town.
Provincetown also has terrific bike paths, often paved, that lead across the swath of land that makes up the tip of the Cape to Race Point Beach. A few minutes outside of Commercial Street and downtown Provincetown and you can be in the grassy dunes without a soul around. Suddenly, you feel like you really are at the very end of the Cape—at the end of the world, actually. You understand why they call this place Land’s End.
2. Wachau Valley, Austria: A cool day-trip from Austria is the one-hour train ride to the small town of Melk, with the Danube River flowing below and the impressive Melk Abbey looming above. From Melk we took a ferry to the village of Spitz, about 45 minutes downriver. In Spitz we rented bicycles that we rode one-way to the town of Krems, where we would return the bikes and catch the train back to Vienna. This stretch of the Danube, called the Wachau Valley, is as picturesque as can be: the rolling green hills of wineries stretching as far as one can see, charming villages strung along the impressive river, ruined castles dotting the cliffs in stages of beautiful deterioration. We pedaled along narrow paved roads, very little car traffic to be found, through the town of Durnstein, where we paused for lunch. The entire ride felt vaguely downhill, so it was an easy ride, the ease of it compounded by just how frequently we had to stop to get a photo. Around every corner was another photo op, another moment of natural art that I couldn’t pass by. What probably could have been a 90 minutes bike ride stretched to two, even two and a half hours. We were in no hurry.
1. Aran Islands, Ireland: I’m never as impressed with Ireland’s cities as I am its rural landscapes. Being from Boston, I suppose cities like Dublin or Belfast in Northern Ireland feel a little too familiar. Even Galway, though smaller and more quaint, has a gritty vibe that reminds me of home. That’s why our day trip to Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, felt like another planet altogether. Or maybe even another time. The Aran Islands must be the closest one can get to an authentic old Ireland feel. If you’ve got ancestors who hailed from Ireland, these islands might be your best bet for capturing the feel and look of what those lives might have been like.
We rented bikes off the ferry and spent the day leisurely pedaling and exploring, roads sometimes paved but often not, a green expanse of flat plains stretched before us as far as the eye could see. Beyond, the blue swath of the North Atlantic Ocean ever-present. We passed the occasional biker coming the other way, but not often. We pedaled so slowly that all day long riders came up behind us and cruised by, but we were in no particular hurry. In my mind, pedaling faster might have made us miss something beautiful, which would have defeated the purpose of the day. We were greeted by plenty of goats and mules, horses too. One particular white horse stood out so dramatically against the lush green I could've mistaken her for something mythical—a Pegasus or unicorn. We set Dun Aonghasa as our destination, the cliffside stone fortress with stunning views that would have looked right at home in a Lord of the Rings movie. It was here we encountered the biggest cluster of tourists, so we walked the grounds and took pictures, sat on the cliffs to appreciate the breeze cutting in from the sea, and then retrieved the bikes and ventured off again, in the general direction of the main town of Kilronan but in no particular hurry to get there. The sun was warm and the skies blue, so I couldn’t help but stop frequently to snap another photo. I tried to imagine the harsh winters, that ocean wind slicing across the island, no trees or hills to knock it down, imagined the tough lives lived here, now and long ago. But it was so beautiful, so stunning and quiet and bright, that I had a hard time getting to that headspace. Instead, I pedaled and enjoyed every moment.
Honorable Mentions: Acadia National Park, Maine; Tulum, Mexico; Newburyport, Massachusetts; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts