After looking at glossy biking tour brochures for years, several friends and I decided to spend what is now called an "active" holiday, so we tried one of these tours in Germany recently. You’ve no doubt seen descriptions of leisurely biking trips from small quaint villages to more small quaint villages, while your luggage magically transports itself from last night’s accommodation to the next. The problem is that most of these tours are so expensive, you have the right to expect the tour operator to motor you from one place to the next in a gold plated sedan. To exert that much energy and sweat at ridiculousy high prices is absurd!
The bicycling tour to fit the pocketbook
Nevertheless, the motivation for one of these tours was there. After some digging, I found a German company that offers a slew of tours, including one that immediately caught my eye: Lake Constance Cycle Route. After literally years of yearning, I finally found the tour for my pocketbook. It offered everything we wanted, plus we’d be on our own without a peloton of tourists to hold us back. For less than $400.00 per person with three people traveling together, we had five nights in inns, bicycles, luggage transfers, local tourist information and route maps. With some caution, we decided to book. We wondered how and why it could be so cheap. That really nagged at me for the weeks leading up to our adventure.
We set off for our independent biking journey in early May with only the name of our first accommodation in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (twin city of Konstanz, Germany, across the border). The remainder of our places to stay and route information would be waiting for us at the hotel. As promised, it was there and in English! Landing firmly after our first leap of faith, we anxiously looked forward to five days of biking around Lake Constance, going from quaint village to the next with our luggage mysteriously following, and then greeting us at the next hotel along the way.
Oh, and now I realize why our bike trip was cheap – we were traveling in May, when the rains of spring seem to be ever-present, but oddly never really overbearing. Luckily for us, we had planned accordingly and brought rain gear, thinking that we’d never really need it. It only rains on the unprepared, right? Wrong. For us, it rained anyway, and every one of the five days, but as seems to be the case with these spring rains, the clouds moved quickly and blue sky snuck through somehow. Fortunately, the rain was never heavy and never lasted very long. I didn't anticipate the extent to which I’d be praising the miracle of quick-drying polyester – amazing stuff!
A major plus when biking this time of year is the lack of other riders. Each day we could ride for hours and never see another cyclist. Hikers aplenty, but few riders like us, which we found amazing. The flowers and trees were in full flush, the temperature was perfect, and though the rain came in bits and spurts, we expected to be sharing the bike paths – apparently, the deluge of riders arrive in June.
Some things to consider
The first (and most obvious) thing to consider when you’re booking a biking tour is how active you are on a normal basis and how active you want to be. This is really important. No kidding. We were all fairly active back home and were actually looking forward to the 50 kilometers (30-35 miles) per day for five days. And as it turned out, the physical exertion was the least strenuous part of the bike tour, particularly since the Lake Constance bike paths are more or less flat. In fact, the hardest part was the gravel paths, which required a bit more effort than the paved paths.
The other thing to consider – and this may be the most important factor – is the length of your "touring" day. The point here is that just because you may be able to pedal 30 miles a day (which we did, and easily), doesn’t mean that this is the most enjoyable way of spending your time on the lake.
Looking back, we were so driven to get to our next destination because of our ambitious schedule, we never felt like we had enough time to really take in each town we rode through. But then, one of the joys of traveling is seeing places that you want to go back to; it gave me a wonderful sampling of towns I’d like to visit and spend some time in. The German cities along the lake specialize in spas, thermal baths and indulgent pastimes, while the Swiss towns cater mostly to recreational vehicles and day-tripping urbanites. In particular, the island city of Lindau was impressive and easily justifies a long weekend with its ample shopping and medieval history, while Ueberlingen further up the German coast, exudes patrician comfort, relaxation and seclusion, and it’s own equally fascinating history.
The one constant we experienced around that lake were roadside apple vendors. In most of the smaller towns you can’t escape these ever-present fixtures, along with the inevitable urge to stop and buy some, or a few of the other seasonal produce. In May it was apples, asparagus (particularly the white asparagus that has a near-obsession status in German-speaking areas that time of year) and strawberries. A jar of strawberry preserves I bought along the way tempted me every morning as I prepared my toast on the remainder of my trip, but I was strong and unyielding. Better to take it home so I can savor my trip from afar.
On more than one occasion we actually saw un-attended apple stands with kilo bags of apples for sale on the honor system. And they were dirt cheap to boot – one euro for a kilo (about two pounds) bag of apples! In testament to their quality, I had bought several apples early in the trip, and somehow managed to end up with one in the bottom of my bicycle’s travel bag on the last day. Being famished, starved and miles, um…. kilometers away from any discernable food source, I devoured the apple and was utterly amazed at how good it was – brown spots and all. To this day, my mouth waters at the thought of that delicate, luscious, sweet apple.
For a traveler like me, I tend to define my travel experience in terms of the place I lay my head. Yes, I can be a hotel snob and realize that it really was a leap of faith to entrust my accommodation demands with this unknown (to me) biking tour company – what could we have been thinking! The tour company came through, and managed to book three-star rooms for the entire trip. Without fail, the places where we stayed were cozy and satisfying.
After looking at the rack rates for each of our hotels, for once I think I can say that our biking tour company booked and planned a trip at a price I could not have done on my own. For a bargain traveler like me, that really says something. In some ways it is actually kind of "freeing" to know that I couldn’t have put this trip together on my own. After so many years of second guessing those advertisements in the Sunday newspapers touting bargain package rates, it was actually comforting (in a way) to have booked a trip where you felt the tour company was able to negotiate a price and package that you couldn’t have negotiated on your own! Once again, this bargain traveler was impressed.
If I had to come up with a gripe about the journey it would be the bike route, map and directions. This is the one area of the trip where a sense of direction, a modicum of adventure, and a heaving of patience are required. Whoever said the German-speaking folks of Europe were detailed-oriented has never tried to bike around Lake Constance with near-cryptic signage. This is not an exaggeration. Seriously.
Quite honestly, trying to follow the route markers was at times inexplicable and baffling, but we obviously managed to find our way around the magnificent lake. This was not without a fair amount of back-tracking and subsequent irritable grumblings from the other riders.
To some extent we were prepared for the inevitability of bad signage, but don’t these guidebooks exaggerate? I guess, in this case, they really do speak the truth. Like I said, we somehow developed a keen sense of direction and were able to figure out when to second guess the (contradictory) signage and when to trust it. A little bit of logic and map reading skills go a long way around the lake. It takes a strong sense of intuition to read (nay, interpret) the bike maps. For some this is a chore, but for others (like me), it was an enervating challenge, and one that I’ll definitely seek out again.
All in all, biking Lake Constance is an incredible and exhilarating experience, and in an area of Europe you’re not likely to find too many Americans. Germans (primarily) and Europeans (generally) know about the lake and seem to appreciate its easy scenery and charming towns. If what you’re looking for is an active vacation with history, vistas and an odd bit of directional challenge thrown in, then this is the trip for you.