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Trip Report: Cycling the Camino Portugues (plus Madrid and Costa Blanca)

Trip Report: Cycling the Camino Portugues (plus Madrid and Costa Blanca)

Old May 8th, 2024, 06:03 AM
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Trip Report: Cycling the Camino Portugues (plus Madrid and Costa Blanca)

This may not be helpful to a lot of people, but in case anyone is thinking about doing one of the Camino routes that start in Portugal, I thought I would share it anyway.

In April I cycled the Camino Portugues from Porto to Santiago de Compostela with five friends. Some day by day observations and pictures will follow. I'll start with generalities.

We used a company called "Follow the Camino." They were very responsive and helpful during the planning process. Cycling is only a small part of what they offer - they primarily organize walking tours that are self guided with luggage transfer. I had mixed feelings about cycling the Camino and still do. My guess is that parts of it are much better suited to cycling than others. The part we did was a beautiful, challenging ride, but we were sometimes so focused on getting from point A to point B over difficult terrain that it felt a little less like a pilgrimage and more like a trip. The accommodations they found were exactly what we wanted - low-cost but clean and comfortable - a safe place to shower and get a good night's sleep. They answered questions quickly and made adjustments to the itinerary as requested.

Unfortunately, we were not as happy with the bike supplier they used as with the planning process. The bikes were extremely heavy (I know mountain bikes are heavier than my road bike, but these were heavy even by mountain bike standards). Two of us got bikes with carbon frames that were more manageable. My bike was at the limit of what I could safely ride - although technically the right "size" - and so heavy that manipulating it really detracted from the overall experience. One of our party missed two days of riding because the bike supplied was dangerously too big for her, and the company gave us a hard time about providing a replacement. We were very unhappy with how that situation was handled. During the ride one of the women (again, an experienced cyclist) had repeated chain issues and when she sent the company a video of the chain, they actually told her she was causing the problem by spinning the pedals backwards in the video.

Bottom line...I might consider them for a walking trip; I wouldn't plan a cycling trip with them again. I would like to return and walk part of the Camino, and I would also like to do several different bike trips in Europe, but I will stick to bike trips that are actually designed as bike trips.

We rode for five days, with a rest day in the middle. Other companies offer a version that involves seven days of riding, which I think would have been more enjoyable. But we had no way of knowing that until we were there. Our directions were clearly adapted from directions for walkers and could have been a bit more helpful, but with GPS and a lot of trial and error we always found our way.

We absolutely loved the route itself and everything we experienced along the way - apart from the bike issues. It was a great time of year to be there - not too hot, and at times it felt like we were riding through an outdoor florist shop.

We are six women of a certain age who cycle regularly - four of us do a fair amount of mountain biking, one just spent two years recovering from a mountain bike crash, and then there's me - I like roads. So I knew a lot of the trip would be outside my comfort zone. Also, living in Florida, there was simply no way to prepare for the terrain. What we consider a "hilly" ride at home is considered flat and easy in Portugal and Spain. But the scenery was worth the effort. We had no trouble eating well (by that I mean food that was healthy, not just tasty) and people were helpful and kind everywhere we went.

At the end of the trip we spent two days in Madrid - that will be below as well - and then I made a final little detour to Alicante to visit a friend who has retired to a small town near there.
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Old May 8th, 2024, 07:39 AM
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Cycling the Camino Portugues

Continuing: Days 1-4

The Camino Portugues can be walked (or cycled) from Lisbon or Porto. We started in Porto, on the Douro River, after overnight flights through either Amsterdam or Madrid. We checked into the first of several modest but comfortable hotels, the Cliphotel. The staff there was extremely helpful and friendly - it was a short Metro ride away (across the river) from the old town. After a short rest we went to get our bearings and explore Porto. We had a fabulous dinner at Vinhas D'Alho, on a walk overlooking the river.

On our first full day in Porto we took a short test ride on our bikes, which were not ideal - bulky and heavy (even by mountain bike standards). Then we walked all over Porto, seeing the Torre dos Clérigos (an 18th century Baroque tower), the Ponte Dom Luís I (built by a student of Gustave Eiffel), the train station with its tiled walls, the beautiful Igreja de São Francisco, and the Cathedral Sé do Porto, where we got our pilgrim shells. Four of us took a tuk-tuk tour around town while I and one other person walked back across the Ponte Dom Luis and down to the riverfront, where we had a glass of wine and enjoyed the beautiful view. Dinner was at an unremarkable neighborhood restaurant close to the hotel.

On Day 3 we were down two (one illness, one waiting for a bike that wasn't too big). A storm that threatened the day's ride passed through in the morning while we were dealing with illness and bike issues...the first of many moments where we agreed "things work out for the best on the Camino." This turned out to be one of the themes of the week. We asked for a late checkout, had lunch at the food court at the nearby Cort Ingles, and then four of us took our bikes on the Metro to get to the outskirts of town rather than ride through the city. One of us had been struck by a car at an intersection the previous day, which made her understandably nervous about city traffic. She was OK - the car hit one of her wheels and threw her to the ground - it could have been worse. In general, I did not perceive people as particularly bike friendly in Portugal, although they were absolutely "people friendly"! That improved a bit later, when we got to Spain - but even there, I learned, a law that cars have to give cyclists space has only recently been passed, and people are still adjusting.

Back to the ride. The route was short that day, taking us from Porto to Povoa do Varzim. The terrain was not difficult, but navigating was! We also had to dismount several times to change from boardwalk to paved path to street.

As we got close to our destination and stopped for one of many discussions about whether we had taken a wrong turn, I tried turning around on my bike - only to lose my balance and get thrown to the curb. Three men immediately stopped to help, called an (unneeded) ambulance, and made sure we got to our destination safely. One of them even drove me all the way to the Hotel Avenida...Because things work out for the best on the Camino. The hotel was again very welcoming and clean, and the front desk directed us to a local restaurant, Restaurant Firmino, for a wonderful dinner. Because it was so late and I sagged the last few miles, I saw very little of Povoa de Varzim.

On Day 4 we rode from Povoa de Varzim to the lovely town of Viana do Castelo. The route was still relatively flat with lots of ocean views and beautiful scenery. We stopped for an excellent lunch at Restaurante A Cabana in Esposende. It is part of a row of tourist restaurants near the water and my expectations were relatively low, but I was surprised - I had a salad that was fresh and almost too large to finish. Others had salads or seafood that they all enjoyed. The people at the table next to us were having a whole fish (I didn't recognize what kind) that looked delicious.

Navigational challenges led to another long day, and by the time we crossed the Ponte Eiffel (a hair-raising walk along a pedestrian curb barely wide enough for our handlebars) and checked into the Parque Hotel, it was too late to see any sights. We especially regretted not being able to visit the Santuário de Santa Luzia, on a hilltop overlooking the town, which is supposed to have one of the most beautiful views in Portugal. But we enjoyed walking around the older part of town, and we were able to visit the Romanesque Cathedral before leaving in the morning.

You might be wondering about the "navigational challenges." There are places where the route had to deviate from the walking route, and places where the route was not well marked (although this seemed to improve day by day). Our written directions were geared more towards walkers, and two of us had downloaded apps that supposedly provided better directions - but which didn't always agree. And...people have lost the ability to read maps. At one point a detour around some road construction took us several miles out of our way, only to realize that we ended up about 100 yards from where the detour started...something we would have realized if we were looking at a map rather than just blindly following an app. (I don't ride with GPS. But I also wasn't navigating.)

Porto at sunset














Viana do Castelo pedestrian quarter

Santa Luzia in the background.




Last edited by Barbara_in_FL; May 8th, 2024 at 08:07 AM. Reason: Edited to add photos
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Old May 8th, 2024, 07:51 AM
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Cycling the Camino Portugues

Continuing: Days 5-8

Day 5 (the third day of riding) was the day we crossed over from Portugal to Spain. It was a longer ride than the previous days, and we had a lot of ground to cover on both sides of the border. The scenery outside Viana do Castelo was beautiful and became much hillier, with a variety of surfaces (cobblestones, dirt paths, paved roads, and gravel). We arrived at Marinha, where we left Portugal, and were sorry we could not stop to relax in the beautiful town square.

The "ferry" over to the Spanish side seems to exist only in theory and is usually out of service. We were shuttled across the river in a small boat that barely had room for six bikes and eight people. We went through A Guarda and continued along a coastal road all the way to Baiona. There was a lovely painted bike lane for long stretches of the ride with spectacular ocean views, but the Camino directions kept steering us off the road onto unpaved trails or back roads that dipped down and then rose back to the highway. It was incredibly scenic and also very challenging. We saw increasing numbers of cyclists on the road and, had I been by myself, I would have stayed up there too!

Coming into Baiona we rode past the Fortaleza de Monterreal, which dates to the 12th century, and then continued along the waterfront to our hotel, the Hotel Bahia. The hotel was in a great location. Like us, it was showing a little wear and tear, but it was clean and convenient. The nights were still cool enough that we could open our windows, and we were on the side away from the main street, so we didn't have any noise issues. Dinner at Sidreria Estella Baiona was delicious. Some of us never really adjusted to the whole eating dinner late thing. I loved it. I'm a night owl anyway.

Day 6 was a welcome rest day where we slept in, did laundry, and then walked all over town. Baiona still commemorates the arrival of the Pinta on March 1, 1493 (Columbus and the Niña ended up in Lisbon). We had lunch at a luxury hotel (Paradores) on the old castle grounds, enjoying the view, and then walked around the old town. Sights included the Romanesque Collegiate Church of Santa Maria de la Anunciada, and a 17th-century chapel dedicated to Santa Liberada. Dinner was lasagne and paella outdoors at La Boqueria - one of several paellas we had on the trip, but the lasagna was also a hit. After dinner we watched the sun set from the base of the fortress.

Day 7 was the most strenuous day yet as we rode through Vigo and Redondela on our way to Pontevedra. Some of the route around Vigo kept us on a ridge road with expansive views, but there were lots of ups and downs on various surfaces. Navigation was still a challenge. My shins were bloody from my pedals. I started walking down some hills as well as up. But the weather was glorious. We got separated riding into Pontevedra and I arrived with one other person at the Hotel Avenida Pontevedra. We regrouped in the morning and set out for the last leg.

Day 8 was beautiful and even more challenging. The trail winds back and forth across a local highway for much of the route leading into Santiago. One other rider and I decided to ride on the road for awhile and it restored us both mentally and physically. We took a break at a cafe in Padrón and stopped at several churches in the towns we passed. One of our group had mechanical difficulties on the trail, so we ended up in Santiago about two hours ahead of the others, even though, as we drew closer to Santiago, the highway got busier and we had to retreat to back roads - some paved, some not. It took us as long to get around the edge of Santiago as it did to ride there from Padrón, but finally we found ourselves in a very nice suburb, and then at the edge of the University Campus. At last we rounded a corner and saw the spires of the Cathedral across a park.

Our hotel, the Pombal, was a 10-minute walk from the cathedral. We parked our bikes, washed off the first layer of dirt, and walked over. It was too late to go inside (it closes at 7 PM) but we enjoyed the end-of-day light in the square. At one point some somewhat scruffy young men gestured towards us saying "picture?" I said no thank you, but my friend told me they wanted us to take a picture, not the other way around! We laughed and found out they had just finished walking from Seville - a 40-day journey. We all congratulated each other on finishing. My friend and I had a fabulous seafood dinner at Restaurante San Clemente with a lovely server who comped us a cordial after dinner when we told her we had ridden there from Pontevedra that day. We reconnected with the others back at the hotel.

Many, many cobblestones


Caminha, where we left Portugal

Spain

A view from the fortress walls in Baiona













Pontevedra

The most rugged riding of the week sent me and one friend in search of a paved road




Padron

Back roads leading into Santiago

Our first glimpse of the Cathedral


Last edited by Barbara_in_FL; May 8th, 2024 at 08:19 AM. Reason: Edited to add photos
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Old May 8th, 2024, 08:37 AM
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The day after we arrived in Santiago was a recovery day, both mentally and physically. We had breakfast at the hotel and then set out to join a tour to Finisterre/Fisterra ("the end of the world"). There are a number of companies doing these tours and they all stop at the same places; it was nice to let someone else get us from point A to point B for a day. On the way we visited Fervenza do Xallas, a power generating waterfall. The coastline was lovely, with a strong wind and wild ocean. We visited Muxia, where the Virgin Mary once appeared to St. James (who had sailed to Galicia in a boat made of stone that did not sink). The Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Barca has stood there in various forms since the 12th century, but the current church was rebuilt after being nearly destroyed by fire in 2013.

We had lunch in Fisterra, a fishing village, at an outdoor cafe on the waterfront - obviously a tourist mecca, but quaint, and my lunch was delicious. In fact, on the entire trip I think we only had two meals that were less than great, but even those were not terrible - just ordinary. On the way back to Santiago we stopped at Ponte Maceira, a small town with a 12th century stone bridge built on the foundation of an earlier Roman bridge. Grinding stones from medieval times are still there. Lots of tours stop there because the village is so scenic; it is also on the walking route from Santiago to Finisterre. We learned that the small shrine-like structures we had seen all over the countryside were hórreo and were for grain storage. They are typical of the Galicia region.

After the tour ended we went directly to the old part of Santiago to see the interior of the Cathedral. My friends got their Camino certificates. And, since we had been separated the day before, we celebrated our arrival with hamburgers and sangria.
I'll finish with Madrid and Alicante tonight.




The harbor at Fisterra, where we had lunch


The Sanctuary of the Virgin

A granary

Ponte Maceira

Back in Santiago, at the Cathedral




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Old May 8th, 2024, 09:31 AM
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Thankyou for this TR. You are a braver woman than me.
It is a shame your bikes were less than great for such a ride. Did you carry your luggage on them or was that transported for you?

I'm a tricyclist and such rides are not available for us three wheelers.

Love the photos too.

Hopefully your experiences haven't put you off epic rides in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter.
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Old May 8th, 2024, 08:09 PM
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Not at all! I have several bike trips on my travel wish list.

Follow the Camino transported one bag per day for each of us, which was a very welcome part of the service. We also had panniers on the bikes for carrying what we might want during the day. In hindsight I wish I had removed the panniers and just carried a day pack. But it was helpful to have a place to stash extra sunscreen, a first aid kit, a rain jacket (although we never needed one), and a pair of sandals for when we were finished riding for the day.
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Old May 8th, 2024, 09:16 PM
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Cycling the Camino Portugues

Before describing Days 10 and 11 in Madrid, I just wanted to add a quick note about our hotel in Santiago and our hotels in general. I would happily stay in any of the places on our itinerary. They were all simple but clean and staff were typically very helpful. Breakfast was included in our reservations and was very similar from day to day - some bread, cheese, sliced ham, fresh fruiit, sometimes yoghurt, and coffee makers that let me add a shot of espresso to my mornng latte. The Pombal Hotel in Santiago was a new experience in that it seemed to have almost no staff. Everything was outsourced; breakfast was typical but served on prepared trays rather than set out buffet style; the front desk was only staffed until 8 PM. But the rooms were generously sized and the location was great.

Our two days in Madrid - really only a day and a half - were not enough. I know this. But I had never been to Madrid before, and we had to fly home from somewhere, so I thought a short visit was better than nothing. We arrived at mid-day after taking a high speed train from Santiago. The hardest part of getting to our airbnb was getting out of the train station and finding our Uber. Seriously. It took forever. (Did I mention navigational difficulties?) We finally got to the right spot and got to the apartment, which was on Plaza de la Cruz Verde, a stone's throw from the Palace and Cathedral, and a short walk to Mercado de San Miguel and Plaza Mayor.

I loved the airbnb, which slept 6 in three rooms (it also had a loft which we did not use). It was in an older building with high ceilings and had some of the quirks you can expect in older buildings. I appreciate the guidance I got here on selecting a neighborhood because we were able to walk everywhere. Our first day we ate near the San Miguel market and walked around that area. Four of us decided to take in a flamenco show; I headed back to the apartment with one other person. Our hopes for some wine and cheese were dashed when we could not get in. Part of the problem was that I had no strength in my hands (a consequence of gripping handlebars that lasted for several days) and part of the problem - as our landlord discovered when she arrived to help us - was that the key was just a tiny bit "off." (A locksmith was called the next day and she left us her key, which worked better, in the meanwhile.)

The next morning we were in the mood for a change of pace from hotel breakfasts, and found a cafe that served breakfast, the Federal Café Conde Barajas. They have a varied menu; most of us had some variation of baked eggs and everything was good. The main event of the morning was going to the Prado, where we stood in line for an hour to get in despite having advance tickets. If I ever return to Madrid I will become a "friend of the museum" in advance - those people had a special line. The museum was overwhelming. We had agreed on a time limit in advance, so we met outside at the appointed time, had lunch outdoors at Cerveceria Santa Ana, and did some souvenir shopping. Then we visited La Almudena Cathedral, deciding to skip the Palace. We had been told some people don't like the mish-mash of styles that make up the Cathedral, but I enjoyed it, especially the way the light from the stained glass played on the interior surfaces. I had hoped to see a Chagall exhibit I learned about in this forum, but we ran out of time.

We saw many churches, including San Francisco El Grande, San Isidro El Real, and Iglesia Sacramento/ Catedral de las Fuerzas Armadas. They were amazing.

At the end of the day three of us went back across town (literally next door to the Prado) to visit the Real Jardín Botánico while the others had some down time. We met for a final dinner within walking distance of the apartment. I have to say - I have no Spanish heritage at all - but to be in a city where the street outside our apartment was quiet at 7:30 AM and bustling at 10:30 PM made me think "these are my people." I could totally get used to that schedule.

In the morning the others left early for the airport. My train was not until later in the morning so I was able to stay out of their way and then leave quietly.

Epilogue: Alicante

I have a friend from high school who has retired to La Nucia, a small town north of Alicante on the Costa Blanca. She and her husband are Swedish and he apparently always dreamed of living somewhere warm. So, after my riding buddies left to return to Florida, I took a train to Alicante and spent two final days with my friend and her husband. The day I arrived we went straight back to their house and just walked around their neighborhood catching up on each others' lives. The next day we walked downhill to Altea, which was absolutely charming, and ate down by the water. We took a taxi back to their house because it was all uphill. On my last day, we took a drive up into the mountains to see El Castell de Guadalest and Orduña House. We had a simple lunch at a roadside restaurant and then drove down to Alicante, where we walked along the ocean before going back to the train station.

An aside: 40 years ago, as a graduate student in Paris, I took a spring break trip to Villajoyosa because it was 800 francs (the equivalent of about 100 dollars at the time) for the bus and a hotel room for a week. In those pre-cell-phone days I did not take a lot of pictures, but when I got home from this trip I dug out what I have - sure enough, there I was in Alicante AND Guadalest. I had remembered the area as stunning, but I didn't remember just HOW stunning. I'm so glad I had the chance to retrace my steps a bit.

I got back to Madrid at about 9 PM and checked into the Hotel Don Pio for the night. It was convenient to the train station and the airport and I thought it would be a fun change of pace. I didn't really get to spend much time there but my room was very comfortable.

All in all it was a wonderful, challenging trip and the only thing I regret was that I couldn't spend a month instead of only two weeks. I was not interested in walking the Camino before this trip but I am reevaluating. The welcome we received everywhere was lovely. I had been told I would love Portugal so many times I was almost afraid it couldn't live up to the hype, but it did. And everywhere I went in Spain was beautiful.




The view from our airbnb

Looking across from the plaza where we stayed

An interior shot


Waiting to get into the Prado




Altea



Guadalest


Guadalest, 1984

Last edited by Barbara_in_FL; May 8th, 2024 at 09:21 PM. Reason: Adding a photo
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Old May 9th, 2024, 01:03 AM
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Really interesting, I've cycled across the country on the south starting in Faro (trust me it sort of works) and after leaving the first way marker, we got lost, as the woman at tourist Info said "we started to build the cycle route but just got bored.

I've cycled all over Europe and around a lot of the Med so if you want suggestions just shout.
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Old May 9th, 2024, 06:46 AM
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Fascinating report and lovely photos - thanks for posting. Curious how many miles (or km) you logged on your bikes? I can so relate to your "navigational difficulties".
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Old May 9th, 2024, 07:44 AM
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Thanks! I will definitely be looking for suggestions in the future, bilboburgler.

The coastal Camino Portugues (there is also a route that stays more inland which is more mountainous) is about 275 km, or 171 miles. Our shortest days of riding were about 25-28 miles and the last three days were closer to 40...which would be nothing at all here in north Florida! (We had a local bike shop for years called "Higher Ground" that claimed to be the highest bike shop in Florida, elevation 222 feet.)
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Old May 9th, 2024, 07:50 AM
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Thanks for the details Barbara. That sounds like a lot of riding to me, but then again, I'm more of a walker.
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Old May 9th, 2024, 11:53 AM
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Barbara this is a wonderful report and your photos are glorious!

We are off to Santiago next week so it is especially timely for me. (Although I will be driving while you were doing all the difficult work!!)


I am in Florida for part of the winter, so would love to hear of your future travel plans!!

I could never bike like (barely at all anymore and I was never keen to begin with; you certainly did your best considering the less than ideal bikes) that but maybe one day I could do a part of a Camino walk (one day might be it for me, however!!)

Welcome home and thank you for this!
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Old May 9th, 2024, 06:47 PM
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Thanks for the memories!

I did this route this past September. But, I was on an ebike, and the riding was still tough at times for someone who is probably past "of a certain age". It was a rewarding if at times exhausting ride, and I definitely felt like I had earned my compostela by the end of the ride. One time I was riding uphill on rough terrain next to our super fit 20 something guide, and he said, "Jesus this is tough without an ebike!" So, I congratulate you. I went with an escorted tour through a company I definitely recommend--Top Bike Tours Portugal. The owner of the company went on the tour with us. https://topbiketoursportugal.com/por...ela-bike-tour/ Most of us biked together (most on ebikes), but a couple people who were super fit did their own rides on regular bikes and met up with us at the end of the day.
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Old May 9th, 2024, 06:55 PM
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ekscrunchy, I hope you have a wonderful time! And julies,you have no idea how much I love hearing what your guide said!
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Old May 10th, 2024, 02:09 PM
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Thank you for posting! I've also done some e-bike tours on my own but I live in Switzerland so it's easier.

Here are some more ideas:

1) The Herzroute in Switzerland which is a well-marked bike route that takes you from the Lake of Constance to Lausanne.
2) Exploring the Emmental area, which offers a wide variety of bike routes in an area that not even the Swiss know well but is highly recommended due to its architecture, scenery and definitely off the beaten track.
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Old May 12th, 2024, 07:53 AM
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Thanks for sharing such a great report and amazing photos! I've never gone on trips like that, so reading about your experience was just impressive! However, I completely understand the "navigational difficulties" issue, that's probably something any traveler faces sometimes.
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Old May 16th, 2024, 01:21 PM
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Interesting!

Such an interesting report - thanks for sharing! And “hats off” to you ladies for completing some tough riding days.
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