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Flat and Chill vs Mountains and Awesome: leaving France’s Canals for Italy’s Alps

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Paris to Varna, 531km; total 4,167km

Maybe we should’ve stayed in France.

For the past six days, we’d floated blissfully alongside meandering rivers and quaint canals, with a reliable routine, a familiar language and plenty of ice cream.

Now here we were: 3000 feet above sea level amidst breathtaking mountains, late afternoon and 40km from camp, with a gear-shifter plastered in duct tape, negotiating our arrival time using Google Translate.

Wann schlieBt ihr Campingplatz?”

Those aren’t typos. German has these curvy B-looking letters that sound like S’s (we think), and random capitals mid-sentence.

Then came a mad flurry of words back into Ed’s ear. Some may have included curvy Bs, but how was he to know? We’d thought of how to ask the question, but not how to comprehend the answer.

For way too long to be polite, Ed just stared into space, his mouth making the shapes of words but not actually vocalizing any. Then, an idea: just tell her when we hope to arrive, and hope Yes in German is audibly different from Nein. But…

“I only know numbers up to five!” Ed freaked out, half at his family, and half at the woman on the phone.

Then he hung up.

Hours earlier, Joce’s temperamental rear derailleur adjuster was loose again. Given that we were climbing steeply and steadily into the Tyrolean Alps just outside Innsbruck, Austria, its insistence on continually rattling into the hardest gear was troublesome. So Ed whipped out his trusty multi-tool and tightened the screw, as he had several times before. Good as new!

But was it too tight? Hmm, maybe it needs just one little, tiny, refining adjustment, and SNAP! Out popped a small metal piece that Ed had never before encountered, and the whole mechanism was left dangling from Joce’s handlebar.

“Ooh, yes, that’s a problem,” confirmed the first English-speaking Austrian cyclist whom we waved down (among very many on this sunny Sunday morning) after Ed finally conceded defeat 15 minutes later.

Are there bike shops ahead, though? We’re in the middle of The Sound of Music here - serene little villages in the alpine fields.

“Oh, yes, everyone cycles in Austria, so there are shops everywhere.”

Is there one before Brenner Pass (30km away and 500 metres up)?

“Oh, no, none. But it’s not that steep,” reasoned the hyper-fit, spandex-clad dude on a racing road bike.

Ed had planned on just holding the dangly bits in place while cycling (yes, it was Joce’s bike, but you know the rule: you break it, you ride it up the Alps). But our new pal had a better, quite Canadian idea.

“Use tape. You have some tape, yes? Tape fixes all things.”

Shamed that he hadn’t thought of it first, Ed valiantly set to cycling up the Alps on three gears instead of 27.

The views? Spectacular. After miraculously making it up to Brenner and into northern Italy (where the majority still speak German, a century after the region was surrendered after World War I), we were treated to a thrill ride down the Iscaro River valley on endlessly paved bike path into the funky town of Sterzing, where our camp-booking snafued.

But for most of this week, we had dreamily eased our way through Bourgogne and Franche-Comte in eastern France. The quiet countryside with endless fields, rows of leafy trees and medieval cottages felt like pedaling through the setting of childhood fairy tales. We would not have been fazed to spot a wolf in a bonnet rocking on a porch, or three pigs doing home renos. It’s a flat, well-signposted, whimsical ride - an easy place to get lost in one’s thoughts and almost plough into the retired French couples in matching spandex breezing on their e-bikes in the other direction.

Here, the EuroVelo 6 traces the Canal de Centre, Saone and Doubs Rivers, and the Canal du Rhône au Rhin - an elaborate series of waterways developed in the strategic country-building days of Napoleon, with more than 150 smartly engineered, still-functioning locks. Among the near-constant spotting of herons and croaking of bullfrogs, we saw dozens of péniches - a canal’s version of a tugboat, converted from its working days pushing barges into a trendy recreational houseboat meandering the canals and navigating the écluses with a remote-control device that fills or empties the lock before their arrival. We even slept in one on our last night before continuing into Switzerland, to commemorate our ride in this sweet vacation spot, where the time goes by as quickly as the flow of the near-still waters.

We still got our dose of surprise highlights, like cycling in a 400-metre-long underground canal flowing beneath a hilltop medieval citadel in Besançon, and frolicking around a gigantic, five-foot-hedged maze in Montbélises. But largely we basked in the warm sun and luxurious calm of chill bike touring, finding our rhythm with late-morning “second breakfasts” from scrumptious bakeries in charming town squares, escaping the heat in shady parks or cavernous gothic cathedral, testing uniquely French potato chip flavours (pesto-mozzarella, French-fry-sauce and Indian-curry were favourites), and playing nightly games of pétanque and ping pong in idyllic campgrounds - almost all of which had picnic tables.

We were far from alone: this is a popular route for stunningly fit French retirees, cycling in merry packs of ten or more, decked out in vividly coloured bike outfits, and absolutely smitten when they see a family loaded for a long-distance camping trip. Sitka especially received multiple back pats, helmet taps and words of enthusiastic encouragement (“Salut, champion” was his favourite) every day.

(Sitka has certainly enchanted French folks over our three-week visit. In the bustle of entering Paris’ Parc des Princes to see the boys’ favourite soccer team play last week, our little one dropped his ticket just after we got through the gate. Arriving at our section, the bonhomme checking our seats gave a stern look when he heard of this faux-pas, then grinned ear-to-ear and tussled Sitka’s hair and let us through. Later, after a halftime bathroom break, the same fellow whisked over to rescue us from his colleague who refused to let Sitka pass again. “Il a perdu son billet,” he explained, a coy grin in Sitka’s direction. “Il ne vas pas faire ça encore, hein, mon petit?”)

Our final France week was extra special as the second half of our visit from Joce’s sister Brook, who slid in seamlessly to our family groove.

“I like having someone different to talk to,” Heron told Ed, whose colourful history anecdotes have apparently become stale. More fascinating are Brook’s tales of surf adventures and her work as a lawyer, which has our young reader of a dozen John Grisham novels positively entranced. Not only is it fun to have family around - it’s another willing set of hands to tackle the daily chores, and an extra set of panniers to stuff all our food. We had no idea where those extra bags of chips would be packed when Brook returned home to the Yukon.

But having now passed 4,000km on this Europe Epic, we’re a resilient lot. On a cloudless Saturday, we pedaled from France into a small corner of Germany, and then on to Basel, Switzerland, where we hopped a train through Liechtenstein and onto Austria. It’s an impromptu detour to ensure Sitka can maximize his time in Italy’s Alps and Dolomites, of which he’s been dreaming and planning for months. Our first day scaling upward may have snapped a screw and tested our language skills, but hey, we made it to our campground, which did exist after all, at acht o’clock - and we even found the showers using our nascent German.

Easy and chill is nice for a while, but we’re craving some awesome. So into the mountains we go - even if only with three gears.


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