Five Fave European Bicycle Tours

From Ireland to Italy Contributing Writer Jim Calio, chooses his favorite bike excursions By: Jim Calio
Cycling Salzburg // © 2010 Inntravel
Cycling Salzburg // © 2010 Inntravel

The first time I went bicycling in Europe, I went with an outfit called Untours. Now, as befits a tour company with that name, the tour operator was not interested in Fodor-like spa treatments or Champagne breakfasts. The idea was to get you to someplace — in this case, it was Switzerland, specifically the Swiss Heartland south of Luzern — and let you live as much like the locals as possible. They also threw in a do-it-yourself bicycle tour.

We arrived in the lovely little village of Meiringen, where Sherlock Holmes reportedly met his demise at the Reichenbach Falls (there is even a Sherlock Holmes hotel in town). We were greeted by local Untours staff on the ground and assigned to several private homes, with our own rooms and access to the town only a few steps away. At the local bicycle shop, we chose our mounts and were then given a two-hour orientation at a local hotel. The staff showed us how to use the wonderfully maintained Swiss bicycle paths and timetables for the rail lines.

Every day, we would start out doing one of two things: We would either bicycle to some far off (or not so far off, if a big lunch was the goal) place and, if it was too far away, take the train back to Mieringen. Or we would take the train part of the way and bike the rest. The idea was to be back in our cozy chalets every night.

Here’s a little secret: Switzerland is not all mountains, as the popular imagination would have it. So bicycling, at least where we were, was relatively flat and easy. The one time we climbed a mountain, we took the train up to the top, had lunch and then rode down on our bikes.

Bicycling in Europe is as varied as the countryside and the countries you go to. Here are some of my other favorite trips.

Fort William, Scotland

Of course, you have heard of whoops, doubles, step downs, big and small table tops, a ¾ pack (called the “lumpy bumpy”), a floaty hip jump and huge bermed corners. No? Well if you don’t, you are obviously not an advanced or expert mountain biker, and that’s all to the good. Those terms are what apply to the Nevis Red course, which hosts the annual UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. Better you (and me, for that matter) stick to something a little tamer, say the Glen Nevis road or forestry track, a nice leisurely half-day ride cross country. The area is movie-centric, the setting for such cinematic epics as “Braveheart,” “Highlander” and “Rob Roy.” There’s even a Braveheart Car Park. Waterfalls abound, and you zip right past Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak. Summertime is tourist time, and that means that some of the trails share the road briefly with cars, but all in all it’s a pleasant way to see the Scottish Highlands.

Lake Garda, Italy

It’s sometimes hard to match up the photos in the brochures with the actual views, but this trip more than fulfills expectations. Lake Garda is located between Venice and Milan. This tour is ideal for families, but you can also find more challenging bicycle trails if you want. You can choose between the uphill push at Monte Brento, high-altitude dirt roads or the easy trail that runs through plum orchards and olive groves. You will also pass through ancient villages where 11th-century castles front beautiful lakes. And, let’s face it — this is Italy. One reason you’re there is to eat, and the food along the way is terrific. Think of it as fuel for the trip.

Salzburg, Austria

They should have renamed this trip the Storybook Tour because it passes through some lovely small towns with painted houses and flower-decked wooden balconies. A company called Inntravel runs a six-day Austrian Lake District bicycling trip east of Salzburg that weaves in and around dozens of lakes and passes through fields of blue, yellow and purple Alpine flowers as far as the eye can see. At night, after an easy day of pedaling, you stay at three- and four-star hotels and inns. My favorite was the hotel Fottinger in Seefeld on the fourth day of the trip. It’s here that Mahler spent three summers in seclusion composing his third and fourth symphonies. The hut where he did it is on the property and is open to visitors. After that, you may want to download some classical music for your iPod for the next day’s cruising. This is self-guided hotel-to-hotel cycling at its most spectacular, especially in the early spring. The last stop is the lakeside town of Hallstatt, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Give your legs a rest by taking the funicular to the salt mine above the town. You can extend the trip by spending a few extra days in Salzburg, which I highly recommend.

Brittany, France

Brittany has long been my favorite region in France, more so than Provence or the Loire Valley, although I’ve certainly enjoyed traveling in both those areas as well. But Brittany has a flinty kind of charm, no doubt because it’s situated on the northwestern coast of France, which can be freezing in the winter. In the summer, it’s lively with tourists from the U.K. and elsewhere who flood across the channel. But in the spring and autumn, when the crowds have died down, it’s magical, with its signature houses of stone and slate roofs standing starkly against a gray-green sea, the sounds of fishing boats scraping against the piers with their daily catch and the lore of this having once been a haven for pirates in the Mediterranean. This is known as the Emerald Coast, and the bicycle route is flat, with stops at small local hotels. Headwater, the tour operator, is careful to fit you with the right-sized bike, which is important if you want to avoid painful saddle sores just hours into your long-planned vacation. They will carry your belongings up ahead to the next hotel and have on-the-ground guides. The last day takes you through the ancient Forest of Hunaudaye. But my favorite activity, when not bicycling around Brittany, is visiting the seaside casino at a hotel in Dinard, where I have also found a delightful pastry shop. This is a nine-day excursion, but Headwater will customize your trip depending on how much time you have to spend. I’d take all nine days and more.

Connemara, Ireland

Cycling in Ireland // © 2010 Cycling Safaris

Cycling in Ireland // © 2010 Cycling Safaris

Irish eyes will indeed be smiling as you whiz through villages and towns with names like Leenane, Renvyle and Clifden. In Leenane you can stop to go Hobie Cat sailing, orienteering or even clay-pigeon shooting. In Clifden, the annual Connemara Pony Show and Sale take place in August; it’s well worth attending to get a flavor of the region. Connemara is the name of the western part of County Galway. Weeklong tours include bed and breakfast (you buy lunch and dinner), bike rentals and luggage transfer along the way from hotel to hotel in a support van. The emphasis is on quiet back roads, although it’s sometimes necessary to share certain stretches with traffic. I would always opt for an overnight stay in Galway, if possible, for the lively pubs and cobblestoned streets. More movie lore: The bicycling tour starts in the village of Cong, made famous by the film “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, a genuine daughter of Ireland. The routes are mostly flat, but there are some hills, and as with most bike trips, I spent the few weeks prior to leaving ratcheting up my miles at home just to be ready and in shape. Of course, that means I trained for the long nights at the pubs, too.

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