Words and photos by Nicholas Carman
“A network of footpaths blanket the European continent. From across the globe, I cannot tell what I’ve discovered. There’s a chance these trails are too steep to ride, too difficult to navigate, or simply no fun at all. I don’t even know if the trails are legal to ride. But then, there’s a chance that between the North Sea and the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, are some of the best routes I’ve never ridden.”
~ Alaska, winter 2012
Przemek arrives in Chabowka on the night train from the big city, pulling into the station at daybreak on an ancient Soviet-era machine. An internet acquaintance and native of Poland, he’ll be our guide through the mountains for the next few days. He waits for us near the tracks. Descending into town in the cool air, Lael and I intersect train tracks and follow them to the station. The sun pierces the morning and reminds our suntanned faces that we spent yesterday outside, and the day before that, and the last three months before that, all the way from Amsterdam. We share hugs and stories with Przemek and seek the nearest grocery to prepare for another week of riding in the mountains. Half-sour dill pickles, cheese, rolls, tomatoes, apples, mayonnaise, and chocolate are on the menu in Poland. Someone will undoubtedly pack a bottle of vodka and a bunch of sausages wrapped in deli paper.
We turn uphill from town, continuing our trek along the red trail which comprises a long-distance traverse of the Carpathian Mountains across southern Poland. The road turns to dirt at the last house on the street and turns sharply upward. We ascend the ridgeline beyond fields of grain and into the trees, gaining occasional views of the jagged Tatra Mountains in the distance to the south. Clouds approach over the peaks from Slovakia. The trail is rocky, rooty doubletrack, punctuated with broad ruts on steep sections that are shared by tractors, and defined by a single narrow rut on sections traveled exclusively by foot. Following red painted blazes up one final rooty section of trail through a clearcut, we reach the peak marked by a crumbling stone obelisk at the intersection of four trails, including the papal route indicated by a golden cross. It’s rumored that the papal routes are the most challenging.
Hikers rest against their packs. Down the trail stands a large stone building with a broad patio extending towards the Tatra. Dressed in a Carpathian exterior, the rugged two-story wood and stone structure appears to have stood for nearly a century. We arrive as the first heavy raindrops fall. This is the kind of rain that feels like hail. As we pull our bikes onto the porch, the heavenly space between us and the Tatras is completely consumed with clouds and the deluge begins. Shelter is especially welcome at moments like this.
In the dim foyer, a black and white photograph of a young Jan Pawel II looks over us. He’s dressed in sunglasses, short sleeves and a rucksack, barely 30 years old, I think. The Polish have a strong outdoor heritage and a love for the mountains, and the Pope. We seat ourselves upstairs on hard wooden benches alongside other hikers and order warm kefir, vegetable soup, boiled potatoes, and a cold pint of Żubr. In an hour, as the storm passes and the sun returns, we’re back on the trail.
Uncovering the possibilities
While living in France several years ago, Lael and I would make trips into the countryside on weekends. We’d aim to discover the smallest roads, voie verte greenway trails, and canal towpaths on our stout touring bikes. On an extended spring break, we connected a route across the country from the Atlantic to the Alps, and back. Along the way, our backroads route crossed many narrow trails signed with painted blazes and directional markers to nearby towns. Ascending into the hills and mountains, these trails became more common. But these were not biking trails, at least not for our conventional touring bikes. They remained a passing curiosity, much like grazing sheep and mailboxes.
Several years later, amidst a growing obsession with off-pavement touring and mountain biking—as on the open roads of the Great Divide Route or the alpine singletrack of the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail—I look back at all the trail crossings in France as an opportunity. What if these trails are part of a larger network? Are they mapped? Are they technically rideable? Are they legal to ride? Moreover, are they fun?
I contact a framebuilder in France named Yann, known for his custom-badged Salamandre Cycles. He builds unique fat bikes, tandems, and touring bikes. I gamble that he may know something about the footpaths of France, a country which claims over 64,000 km of Grande Randonée footpaths, also called GR trails. Similarly, Gran Recorrido trails cover much of Spain; Grote Routepaden trails cross Belgium and the Netherlands. Each neighboring country must also have trails, I figure. Yann responds to my query about routes through France, from the north:
“Another general alternative would be to join Luxembourg and then follow the GR5. You’d have a non stop mountain ride to the Mediterranean Sea! You can follow the top line of the Vosges Mountains (sandstone) that culminates 1430m, drop down to Belfort and climb just in front to top line of Jura Mountains (limestone) that culminates around 1700m, have another drop to Genève and then enter the Alps to the Mediterranean or not. And if you want to visit me, you’ll just have to cross the Rhône.”
His instructions read like an international treasure map composed of entire countries, mountain ranges, rivers, and cities. Five weeks later Lael and I are high above the Atlantic. Unpacking our mountain bikes at the airport in Amsterdam, we begin our ride below sea level, far from the nearest mountain.
On the ground
Within several days, we connect to the popular GR5 route at Hoek van Holland on the North Sea near Rotterdam. Red and white blazes lead us away from sand dunes at the coast, in the rain. The trail lopes alongside dikes, between courtyards and churches and fields of flowers, and through orderly forested plots. Passing real people amidst real life —not evading them, as we do on many backcountry adventures in America—proves to be an ideal aspect for cultural exploration. In a country known for efficient paved cycletracks, we’re tracing an indirect route across the countryside on mountain bikes. Most importantly, as I once questioned, it’s fun.
We scribble a line through Holland and south across the border into Belgium. While chasing the red and white paint of the GR5 as much as possible, frequent intersections with secondary trails present imaginative touristic digressions. We detour to the Westmalle Abbey, home to the historic Belgian Trappist beer. We encounter an old-time circus under a tent and are invited inside for the night. We splash in rivers and canals in the heat of the summer. Deep in a local forest at the Belgian border, a signpost points towards Nice, France, on the Mediterranean Sea, 2,172 km away via the GR5. Let’s go that way.
Life on the trail
With each turn, the trail surface changes. A signed footpath may connect a doubletrack farm road, a small paved lane, a singletrack walking trail, an unpaved forest service road, a footpath along a fenced property boundary outside of a village, a signed cyclepath, and a cobblestone pedestrian path leading to the church at the town center. In Belgium, we lift our bikes over turnstile cattle gates, up stone staircases, and through tight urban spaces. In France, we sleep in a medieval castle above vineyards, villages, and the Rhine River valley. In Poland, we pedal and push up impossibly steep climbs to forested ridgelines which comprise once-important international boundaries. We ride for miles up high before descending to cross a river at the beginning of another climb. This is our route; your experience may vary. At every turn you have the opportunity to choose your own adventure.
A tour in Europe is likely to focus on food as much as riding. Each day, perhaps several times a day, we pedal through towns. In between mountain bike rides are picnics of pastries, local produce, and in Belgium, some of the finest beers in the world. In France, the trail presents a supply chain of cheeses, charcuterie, shallots, bread, and wine. In Poland, fresh dill, smoked sheep’s cheese, and tomatoes are on the menu. Within a few days, the local selection of food and drink changes. In a few more days—across a mountain range or a river—there’s another country to explore.
Camping, unofficially, is quite simple along most footpaths. As much as the continent is populated, these trails pass the backside of civilization and explore the forgotten spaces in between. For instance, France isn’t densely forested, but it may seem that way along the GR5. While riding for five months in ten countries across Europe, safe and secluded campsites present themselves nightly. We’d often ride out of town with fresh produce and a bottle of wine and within an hour or two, camp is made and dinner is on the way. Whatever official policies exist about wild camping, the occasional encounter with a farmer or early-morning jogger is most likely to elicit a friendly greeting or “Bon appetit”. Of course, prudent campsite selection is always advised to limit impact on the land and to local residents. For all the people that live in Europe, there is a civility that comes in spite of the density, or perhaps because of it.
Navigation is enabled by a variety of resources. All routes are signed, either by numbered cues or colored blazes, or both. Once on an established route it’s typically easy to follow the trail, although it’s always possible to lose the trail or sidetrack onto another route. Long-distance routes are often mapped, at least generally, and can be found on commercially available maps or for free from local touristic centers. Detailed guidebooks may exist for popular trails in the local language. An approximate trail map is usually sufficient to stay on route or to reconnect with the route if lost. Most of the time if we lose the trail, we’re already in town, sidetracked by medieval urban planning and pastries. Detailed maps are not always a necessity.
Mountain biking across Europe
Many potential long-distance mountain bike routes cross Europe. Most of the routes described thus far are comprised of footpaths, which developed over decades and centuries. There are inconsistencies across the continent in trail administration, signage, and mapping. The European Rambler’s Association has been working since the 1970’s to connect international routes and to standardize administration, while respecting the individual trail culture of each nation. Twelve long-distance routes are under development in various phases of completion. These routes rely almost exclusively upon pre-existing trails.
A proper mountain bike is recommended for most routes. We ride reliable 29-inch steel hardtails with a suspension fork. Full-suspension bikes would be fun on many rides, especially if you focus your time in the mountains. If a simple rigid bike suits your ride, or your style, that’ll do. Some pushing is par for the course on almost any bike. Necessarily, lowland routes are less technical while mountainous routes may include extensive hiking.
As an alternate to the technical riding and route-finding challenges along some footpaths, there are a growing number of accessible bikepacking routes in Europe. Some are officially mapped and signed while others are available only as digital files. The growing resource of GPS routes are the product of visionary volunteers who wish to encourage others to explore their region, while some routes originate as self-supported adventure races. Most smartphone devices can operate programs which will decode GPS tracks and layer them over base maps, using intuitive apps like Gaia. A dedicated GPS unit may also be useful. Printed maps and guides are available from online retailers, or may be sourced locally once in the country. Often, we’re able to find free maps from local touristic centers which describe nearby trail resources in detail.
From the North Sea, to the Black Sea
Continuing our trajectory from Holland through Belgium, Luxembourg, and into France, we decide to head east to Ukraine. My grandparents emigrated from Ukraine during World War II, and as a result of a thriving diaspora community in Upstate New York, I grew up between worlds. I spent my weekends studying the Ukrainian language and attending Ukrainian church. I practiced Ukrainian dance and memorized Ukrainian poetry between swim practice and school and the spelling bee. I had always expected to visit Ukraine.
We ride part way across Germany and opt for a budget rail pass which rapidly deposits us near the Czech border. Exiting the train at midnight, we wander into the forest to camp. In the morning, we pedal over a low mountain range into Sumava National Park and into the Czech Republic. Everything from this point forward—in the post-Soviet sphere—is different.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland continue to provide adventurous routes and abundant summer. Ripening fruit lines the roadside. Cycling facilities exist, modeled after resources in western Europe, although they can be inconsistent or incomplete in contrast to German and Dutch facilities. These are emergent economies, and of course, travel is also less expensive in the east. Crossing the border into Ukraine, things change once again.
The Polish-Ukrainian border is our first official border crossing, as we exit the EU. We present our passports, respond to questions about the contents of our bags and our intentions in the country, and pedal away. The roads in Ukraine are quiet and fields lay fallow. The trains are a little slower, the cars a lot older, and markets a little less abundant with foreign goods. For us, most of this is great news.
We focus our time in several ways. First, a series of trains and buses transport us across the country to meet my family. Near the end of August, we arrive in the village where my grandfather was born almost 100 years ago and are received at several homes. On my birthday I enjoy layered torte, fruit compote and fresh vegetables on the property where he was born.
Our summer concludes in the mountains of Ukraine. We continue our ride through the Carpathian Mountains in the west, following farm roads and trails until the season suggests we go elsewhere. Annually, we migrate in this way, chasing the riding season as a skier may chase the snow. We discover that Polish enthusiasts have mapped and signed some routes in the Ukrainian mountains. As cool air and rain settle in the Carpathians, we run further south to the Crimean peninsula.
The coastal mountains along the Black Sea in Crimea provide a new palette of experiences. Crumbling white limestone, a semi-arid climate, and a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, and Tartar cultures are different from Western Ukraine. Hops, nuts, and grapes grow abundantly, and ancient cave cities are carved from cliffs. As in the Carpathians, Czech hiking clubs have prepared signed walking routes and published maps in Crimea, which aid recreational navigation through the region.
High on a bluff above the Black Sea on our first night out of Sevastapol, we discover an extensive Cold War military bunker. A light rain falls, and we take shelter for the night in what is presumed to be a garage for armaments, or large missiles. Our route connects footpaths with old military tracks and passes decrepit concrete structures in idyllic coastal settings, proof that this coastline was one edge of the Iron Curtain. At a crossing with a small road the next day, we are detained by members of the Ukrainian Army. It seems we have accidentally trespassed on base, and are sternly escorted out the front gate. Now, to think that only several months later Russian tanks are traveling these same trails.
From the North Sea to the Black Sea are some of the best routes I’ve ever ridden. In time, our ride in Europe grew as a cultural education, punctuated with memorable trails. Riding east, we find friends along the way, and eventually, family. It’s hard to imagine how else we could have arrived here, if not for the exact sequence of events that transpired this summer, and in the years leading up to this trip. Even when it isn’t about bikes, it is.
If you’re inspired to head out on a bikepacking trip through Europe of your own, be sure to visit—and even contribute to—Nicholas and Lael’s growing database of bikepacking routes through Europe. The goal of the project is to catalog all the wonderful opportunities there, despite the lack of long, unified trails like the Great Divide or Arizona Trail.
Nicholas and Lael returned to Poland, Ukraine, and Romania last summer to continue their exploration of footpaths and off-pavement touring routes in Eastern Europe. They hope and expect that each round of travel will continue to inspire the next. They share stories, images, and ideas at Gypsy By Trade.Tweet Print