|“A Day in the Life of a Blue Marble”
What to Expect During Your Trip
What happens day-to-day as you cross Europe with us? There is a lot of variety, and no single day is perfectly representative. But this will give you an idea of what to expect.
Reaching the Trip
Your trip has a precise starting point, and a start time, or range of times. That is where you typically meet your Trip Coordinator, and at least some of your fellow Marbles.
But most groups will have a great variety of arrival schemes and times. And inevitably, at least one person will have changed planes in London, lost his luggage, and been arrested as a terror suspect when he got excited about it.
With the exception of this poor soul (who will arrive a day or two late, and initially need a bit of time to himself) the first time a group will generally all find itself in one place together is at the first evening’s dinner. It is here that introductions will be made, and that you will get your first overview of the trip. This will probably feel more like the trip’s start.
Try not to worry if you feel at loose ends until then. The volume of start-up administration required of your Coordinator, and the travel mishaps which characterize modern air travel (and befall a significant number of our guests every year), combine to keep things in a state of flux (read “panic”) during the first few hours.
If we have had a hand in making your travel arrangements (our “Access Packages”), your Coordinator will be aware of your arrival plans. But if you are making your own arrangements to reach the trip, please tell us how and when you intend to arrive, so that we know how to get you associated with your cycle, your hotel room, your luggage... whatever it is that you need from us on that first day. If anything goes wrong during your travel, please call our Paris office, or your Coordinator’s cell phone if you have his number and can get through, and let us know. The Paris office is the place your Coordinator will contact when you do not show up as planned, and if he has not heard from you directly.
Our meeting point is typically a railroad station if the trip’s first day involves some biking, a hotel if it does not.
Arrival Day Administration
On your arrival day, you will go thru a few “start-up” routines, in no particular order. If you are reaching your trip via our Paris office, many of these will be seen to there. Otherwise, you will take care of them with the assistance of your Coordinator at the trip start point. These include...
- ...getting rid of luggage that you don’t want during your trip (and of your cycle container if you brought your own bicycle).
- Collecting cycle luggage, a cell phone, or other equipment rented or purchased from us, if any.
- If you are cycling, getting your bike ready (raising and lowering the seat, figuring out how the baggage is going to attach, learning how to inflate the tires if this is a new concept, attaching your own pedals or seats).
- Verifying post-trip plans, especially if these have changed since you signed up.
- Collecting route information sufficient to get you to dinner that night.
These tasks are irritating, and can be time-consuming if they all have to be routed through the Coordinator. Clearly, if you want your travel plans confirmed, but your Coordinator must put luggage tags on all eighteen suitcases while everyone in the group looks on, you will wait around for 30 minutes while he does so. If you help by taking some or all of the job over while he does something else, you reduce your waiting time by half.
So we ask for your help in any domain where you are able to provide it. If you know how to adjust a cycle seat, help the person next to you to do so. This is also a good way to get to know each other. Or to get hit. “Hi, I’m Jim. Can I handle your seat?” If the luggage has to get down to the station, and you just came from there, volunteer to show the way to the other two who have to go. Such aid can be invaluable in getting things rolling, and frees the Coordinator for things only he can do, like arguing with the railroad in Italian about your erroneous post-trip train reservation....
What You Need the First Day
Your only goal on the first day should be to get the information you need to get you to the first night’s dinner.
This is all that your Coordinator will typically volunteer. He is under pressure at this point to get everyone on their way, and will try to avoid taking the time to go into general topics not immediately needed. If you can find the patience, hold general questions for the evening’s get-together, not least because the answers may be of interest to others on the trip.
This may mean exploring the village, going to the station café, or starting your journey, by bike or by train. If others are ready and of like mind, grab a couple of them and head out. This is immeasurably preferable to standing around and looking bored.
Getting Up in the Morning. Or Afternoon.
So now you’re on vacation. But this is an active vacation, right? So you have to get up at 6a for the Fun Run, right? No, you don’t.
Check-out time is noon (more rarely 11a). So you have to get up by then. If you are leaving town by train, the train’s schedule may have an influence, but there are typically several choices even here. If the free coffee is an issue, then 9 or 10a is necessary. But some people never see the free coffee. Typically, wake-up times in a given group are quite disparate.
There are advantages to getting up and getting started, as you shall see. But you should play the day as you see fit, and if that means a late start, that is your affair. Except in unusual circumstances, your Coordinator rides a bike, and will run a relatively late program, so a late start remains possible even if you want to stay in front of his tool kit. On long days, he will set out earlier than on short ones, but you will always know his program in advance, and can integrate that into your decision-making process. Obviously, if you decide to leave at 4p, cycle a third of the route, and then take the train the rest of the way, your Coordinator and his tool kit will have to leave ahead of you. He must in all circumstances ride the route such that he is in the destination town in time to set up dinner. As you shall see, you don’t even have to get there by supper!
To Breakfast, or not to Breakfast?
Breakfast is not the high point of a continental European day. Generally some variant of bread and coffee. The bread may be a croissant, and the coffee might be tea, but you get the idea. Sometimes a fruit juice will be included. And there are some local surprises: the occasional Spanish omelette, Swiss cheese, German sausage, Norwegian sardine paste (yum!).... The breakfast scene is gradually improving, and some very full buffets are now on offer, in more northern countries, and even in the latin ones. But if you don’t get too excited, you won’t be too disappointed.
Regardless, whatever breakfast is not, it is free. And it is inside the hotel, which is an advantage if you don’t have your contacts in yet, and need coffee to get them there. The breakfast schedule is always at least 8 - 9:30a, but ask for details when you check in if you tend to prefer one of the extremes.
We, the Blue Marble Coordinators, ask one favor of you in the morning: it is that non-emergency issues, questions, comments, or bike repairs that you did not bring up the previous evening, be reserved until after we ourselves have been able to get coffee. Most of us are not particularly “morning people,” and we are much more effective in our work after the civility of a moderately slow start.
Heading Out, Our “Route Sheets”
The previous evening (or upon boarding the train, if you are just coming out from Paris), you will have received a “Route Sheet.”
In association with a map (which we also provide), the information thus received will offer our recommendations for travelling, by bike and / or train, to your night’s destination. The Route Sheet is divided into three sections:
- A chatty overview of our take on the day: what there is to stop for and why, ideas on timing, where the most interesting cycling is, how you can expand or contract the ride, ideas for lunch stops, brief comments on the destination (its relative interest may influence your decision to ride early or late, stop more or less). Our suggestions are not meant to replace those of a guide book. They are a very personal take on what you might want to do with the day... if you were us!
- For cyclists, detailed, kilometer-by-kilometer instructions for following our suggested route, and generally some shorter and longer alternates.
- Ways to “bail out” (abandon the ride part way through, should you be lost / hungry / broken / sad, or just have had enough).
Your Coordinator will also tell you what route he is following, and provide you with his earliest times of passage at some strategic intermediate points.
If you have one of our Baggage Transfer services, and your bags have been with you at this night’s stop, pack before breakfast, and bring your luggage down with you when you come. This avoids your having to cut breakfast short to pack in time for the 10a luggage pick-up (luggage pick up is often later, but if you have not heard otherwise, you must assume 10a). If you are “self-contained,” this is not an issue.
Over breakfast, find a couple of travel mates whose conception of the day fits yours. When you are ready to go, check out of your hotel room, which includes bringing the key down to the front desk. This is a continental tradition - Europeans do not generally leave the keys in the rooms, as non-Europeans often do. We (your Blue Marble Coordinators) are grateful if you adhere to it, since part of our job is to hunt through all the rooms after you leave, looking for renegade keys. And, at least once per trip, to cycle back 20 k (40 k round trip) to return the key that you found in your pocket at lunch.
Checking out of the hotel is important. Though we pay for the room, “extras” (telephone is the most common, but a bar tab or a fax charge is not unheard of), are yours to bear. If you neglect to formally check out, and the hotel tells your Coordinator that you called Singapore for an hour, he has no way to contest the charge, and will simply pay it. And then ask you for the money in the evening. Even if the charge is not legitimate, it will be yours to pay, since (as a practical matter) it is now impossible to contest. Please protect yourself from such misfortune (our hotel keepers are honest, the error would never be intentional) by clearing your bill before you leave.
And then, off you go! The open road is yours, at least until the first café stop....
On The Road
This is the fun part! Do whatever you please. Stop and visit things, go off route to get in some extra k or see a special site, have a huge lunch and then take the train....
Our one piece of advice: use the whole day. Unless your destination town is announced as being one you want to spend some time in, try not to come in too early. A common strategic misplay for people worried about “making it” is to cycle straight through the day, and arrive at 3p in some village with two houses and a cow. And then wait 4 hours for the others to show up, bored to tears. There is a lot to see along the road. Why zip past it all, only to spend an uninteresting afternoon in a place chosen for its proximity to a railway junction?
Our cycling stages typically involve from 3 - 5 hours per day actually on the bike, pedaling. Shorter days
when there is a lot to stop for, longer ones when the principle interest of the day is scenic. A strong rider will be 20% faster, a novice perhaps 20% slower. In all events, that leaves a lot of time for stops in a 12-hour day....
And a cautionary word: do not make cycle groups too large. If you are in a group of eight, and all stop every time someone has a Kodak moment, you will have gone 10 kilometers by nightfall.
Following are some cycle etiquette suggestions, to help you stay safe, together, and yet mobile.
- Unless you have strong mechanical skills and a complete tool kit, we suggest that you cycle in at least pairs.
You can always ride with your Coordinator if you wish (we like the company), but this means that if he spends two hours searching random villages for some rare bike part, that is what you will see of Europe that day....
- Clearly establish with whomever you are riding with that you are cycling together, and just who “you” includes.
If three of you set off at the same time as four others, make sure you are clear on whether you are a group of seven, or whether you are two distinct groups. This is important, in order to decide whom you are to wait for at turns. Try not to either take or give offense in decreeing this: these are very pragmatic decisions, designed to enhance everybody’s overall riding experience.
- Even within your defined “group,” cycling at identical speeds can be difficult or frustrating. Instead, try waiting for each other in each village, or at the top of every hill, or whatever else you decide in advance.
Faster riders will find it more fun to cycle at their speed, and then sit on a grassy bank for a few minutes, or stop for a photo, than to go at the same exact pace as slower cycling partners. And the slower riders will fell less pressure without you perpetually a half a cycle length ahead, looking over your shoulder.
- Conversely, do wait for each other at each turn or fork.
If the cyclist behind you arrives at an intersection, and you are not there, s/he should be able to presume that he can cycle straight through the intersection without consulting the Route Sheet. In this manner, the faster riders navigate for the others... and reduce their own waiting times.
- It is not necessary for each member of a group to wait at every turn.
You are responsible only for the person behind you. Wait at the turn until you see the next rider, long enough that you are sure s/he has seen you and could wave you down if he needed to. Once you are sure that s/he does not, you are free to continue just be sure s/he sees which way you go. S/he, in turn, should wait at the turn until the next person behind is in view.
- If you leave the group (two of you decide to go on ahead, or to drop back), first tell someone.
This is important, but not always a pleasant task. If you and your buddy come to the perfect café overlooking the proverbial babbling brook, but the others went on by, and no one has phones, it means you must keep going. Or at least that one of you has to sprint and catch up to someone, to announce that you two are dropping off the group. Otherwise, someone will wait for you at the next turn until he fossilizes. If you are wont to fall in love with café terraces, keep your group small and like-minded. If you do set off as part of a larger group, explicitly tell the others not to wait for you if you aren’t in sight.
On occasion, the base route will have you take a train. This can happen to get you around a busy or uninteresting stretch of road, or up a big hill. The route sheet for the day will tell you how to deal. Just keep the ticket, and hand it to your Coordinator in the evening: he will cheerfully reimburse such trains are included in the price you have already paid for the trip.
Support (a.k.a. “Bail-Outs”)
As previously mentioned, your route sheet has some useful suggestions, for trains, buses or taxis that you can use to shorten your day. “Training Partners” will use these for the entire trip, and can often make stops en route, just like the cyclists.
Even if you have a bike, learn to use the trains. They are very much a part of your vacation. Although they are not included in the price of the cycle trips, they are not expensive. When you have had enough biking, stop. It’s not a complicated concept, but you’d be amazed at the guilt / angst felt by some as their bikes vanish into the baggage compartment. It’s OK! One of our fondest memories is of a tri-athlete Blue Marble, feet up on the opposite seat of an Austrian train, beer in hand, alpine panorama passing by out the window, musing, “I could get into this comfort thing.” Variety is the spice of life, the trains are cheap, and the station cafés are fun local hang-outs.
Also previously mentioned: your Coordinator cycles on a late schedule, preannounced.
So if you have trouble with the bike, you can place yourself along the route, bike clearly visible. We are trained to look for the things, and will stop to pay a visit when we come by. You can also try to reach his mobile phone for advice (we all carry them), but this can be tough, as rural coverage is not perfect, you may not have a number at which we could call you back, and we do not always hear the ring in traffic, or with the wind in our ears.
Another option is to just wheel the thing into a bike shop. We will not second-guess repairs. Tired of an irritating noise? We aren’t due through for hours? If you can make yourself understood by the local mechanic, pull in and get the steed tuned. Get an invoice, and we will cheerfully reimburse. Every large town will have a bike shop and a café, and the two go marvelously together. One request: get the most detailed invoice your language skills permit, since this will help us to understand what was wrong and apply any necessary preventive measures for the future (or to replace an inappropriate part).
Note that you can save yourself a lot of trouble by hand checking a few of the bolts that hold your bike together each morning as you set out. Just make sure nothing is working itself loose. We’ll show you which ones. Also by cleaning excess mud and dirt off of the working parts of the bike. These two gestures may save you a half day of waiting by the side of the road for the tool kit....
And finally, an important rule about back-up: unless you have a train to catch this evening, you are free to stay out on the road as late as you wish. In June in Europe, darkness falls at 10p. However, if you come in late, we don’t know whether or not to worry about you, nor whether we should hold a space for you at dinner. Here is the rule we use to govern this: we hang around (or check in with) the hotel until at least 7p. If you have not called for help by then (either to the hotel, or to the Coordinator’s mobile), or to tell us that you are “moving but worried,” we assume that all is well, that you are on your own for dinner. We may wander off with the others of the group who are in and hungry. Note that if the dinner is one of those rare ones where the hotel requires that we dine in its dining room (noted on the itinerary), we will not be able to fund a “road dinner,” since we will have prepaid the one at the hotel. Otherwise your alternative project will be funded by us to the same level as the one we set up.... More on dinner below.
Groups often re-form at lunch. Some picnic, some look for a little café for a sandwich, or for a country restaurant.
Midday meal prices are reasonable if you take the prix fixe lunch in France, Spain, Portugal, or Austria. Even Switzerland becomes affordable, so long as you accept the fixed meal on offer.
Sometimes those with whom you find yourself cycling will prefer a different type of meal than that which you seek. Or will want a post-priandial siesta, while you prefer to push on. This is a good time to hook on to the new group of three that happens by.
One hint: make your philosophical decision re lunch type before stores close for their own lunch break (which can be up to 4 hours). It is impossible to shop for picnic supplies in stores doing oyster imitations.
Arriving at the Evening’s Hotel
This is always a bit traumatic, especially if you are first. We have been in some of our hotels for 20 years now. But others are more recent to our trips, and even in our old favorites a new employee may be surprised at the anarchy of our arrival. Who ever heard of a “tour group“ where people dribble in all afternoon, and the “guide” is the last to arrive?
They all cope sooner or later, but sometimes it can take some effort to check in.
Just so you know: we send a “guest list” to each hotel before the group arrives. You might think that the hotels would use this to assign rooms (we suggest this to them, of course), but this is not routinely the case. When you pronounce the magic words “Blue Marble,” the hotel keeper may look at you blankly, start screaming and waving his arms, or smile and tell you something that might as well be a recipe for chicken. Or, he may hand you eight keys. In the first three cases, try writing “Blue Marble” down on a piece of paper (though this may only increase the volume of the screaming — you can probably assume that someone in the last group rolled his cycle across the persian rug in the entryway). In the last, go find a room appropriate to your lodging circumstances, and bring the other keys back to the front desk.
A courtesy rule: if you are part of the early crew, and always in first, please do not shop through all the rooms and take the best one. The best room is not a prize for being first - this is not a race. If you had a private balcony last night, and your neighbor did not, give it to him tonight. You get enough of a prize in that you always have hot water for your shower! There is little more embarrassing to your Coordinator (or to you) than having to publicly arbitrate room disputes.
And a comment on what we hope for, and what we demand.
We hope for clean, pleasant rooms, the best available in the hotel. Generally, that is what we receive. We are good clients, and respectful of our hosts. They appreciate that.
But in Alpine resorts in August, there is simply no way that we will get the rooms with the lake views. European guests come to these places for their entire 4-week vacations. They obviously get first draw on the lake view rooms. You cannot imagine how much of an exploit it is for us to be in a hotel on the lake at all, for our one-night stay! Contiki is in the factory town 8 kilometers inland, or out on the autostrada.
We demand that there be a bed per person (unless you have asked for a double). That triple rooms (when they exist - they are not frequent) be rooms conceived as triples, and not be twins with a cot stuffed in. If there is a problem with these basics, and you can’t solve it in polite discussion with the hotel keeper, don’t panic. Drop your bags, leave a note for the Coordinator, and head down to the lake for a swim. Try not to unpack too much if you think you may be shifting rooms. Your Coordinator will do his best to remedy the situation upon arrival, and the results are usually satisfactory — provided that your original room can still be used by other guests without cleaning. But we ask for your indulgence while we work on it.
This is the time that your Coordinator will typically use to distribute tomorrow’s route information. He can also provide you with info on the evening meal, if this has not been done previously (see below). If you are not in yet, or are otherwise occupied, you can get the route information tomorrow at the end of breakfast.
It is also the time when everyone finds the terrace to revel in post-shower (or pre-shower, first-beer) bliss, and tell war stories of baggage cars and speed bumps.
Finally, it is the time to tell your Coordinator stuff. Get reimbursed for trains that the route sheet directed you onto. Hand over the pedal that came off a third of the way through your day, obliging you to use your bike as a scooter for the last 50 k. Whatever. He is as tired as you are, and in no mood to problem-solve. Gently remind him that this really is the logical time for you to transmit the info, that he can deal with it later if he prefers to, that this is, after all, his job.... Even if he doesn’t want to hear any of it, this allows the bum to order his priorities, and deal on his best schedule.
Continental Europeans eat late. Less so in Switzerland or Scandinavia, but even in Switzerland, little is open before 7p. In Spain, restaurants open at 9p! No, we are not making this up.
Your Coordinator will tend to adhere to local custom, and to fix dinner for a standard 7:30 or 8p (later in Spain, half an hour earlier if the group is big).
For some, this is just too late. You may always dine earlier, if you wish, and if you can find a restaurant that will accommodate you. You may go to the same restaurant your Coordinator was planning on, or to another; one which you find yourself, or with his help. He will give you an idea of how much he plans on spending, and that is the amount that you will be reimbursed. You may spend less or more - it is your decision. Our meal budgets are generous, and you can always comfortably dine on them, in a great variety of restaurants.
To be reimbursed in cash, you must bring us a dinner check. Otherwise the tax folk tax us on the amount we used to buy your dinner. But your dinner check does not influence what we contribute to the repast. You can get pizza, and pocket the extra cash, or go to the Ritz, and make the credit card folks smile. Or feed us the day’s lunch check if you decide to get fruit and watch German TV. If you cannot get a legitimate accounting receipt of any sort, you still get reimbursed. But in this case it must be in the form of a check / cheque / credit card reimbursement sent to you at the end of your trip.
If you do dine with your Coordinator, you will generally find yourself with the majority of the group.
If the group that accompanies the Coordinator is large, menu selection will be limited: three or four dishes at each course (chosen by the Coordinator for their regional or culinary interest), so that the kitchen can handle us. A family-run restaurant cannot turn out 14 simultaneous à la carte orders without way more time than a hungry diner is willing to wait.
This group meal gets oppressive for some: too many people, too much noise, too long to get served, whatever. Nothing obligates you to participate! Get a couple of like-minded souls, and sit at a different table, or go somewhere else. Most people like being in our groups most of the time (you are pretty interesting people), but the system is designed to let you opt out when you wish: take advantage of it!
If your dietary requirements are limiting, know that Europeans will be surprised by this. World War II privation is still a present part of continental culture, and a refusal to eat “good food” is considered surprising, if not rude. Plus, they have less to complain about, in a general sense.
It is no one’s place to comment on your habits, but in exchange for the understanding which you ask of your hosts, please understand that the “authentic” restaurants which we frequent may be mystified by (and unprepared for) unusual demands. In the end, the waitress may cope nicely with your Harry-met-Sally order. But have the smelling salts ready as your Coordinator translates it. We try to cushion this for them as much as we can, but it is a process that takes years of repeated contact with each place. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem: no one in our French company can remember ever meeting a French vegetarian. Nor have we ever seen a French person order sauce or dressing “on the side.” Dosage is considered a part of the chef’s art, and not a matter of individual taste; dishes are ensembles, and not assemblages of ingredients.
If there are many “restrictive” diets in a group, we try to limit the damage by dining at smaller, staggered tables, with the Coordinator helping each through the ordering process, and joining a late table of omnivores for his own dinner.
The other adventure implied by group dining is sharing the drinks tab at the end of the meal. We have a special system for this, known as the “Ron” system, which allows us to quickly and equitably share a tab, even when we don’t all drink the same amount or of the same thing. You have to see it to believe it.
LEAVING THE TRIP
Taking Possession of Your Ongoing Travel Documents
The night before you are to part company, your Coordinator will give you any ongoing travel documents that you have requested through us, and help you to understand how you are to leave the trip.
He could give them to you sooner, of course, but why? We are pretty good at hanging onto things, and are organized to do so. Given the number of guest passports we help to replace every year, your track record as a “class” is not quite so good.
Setting Up Ongoing Projects
If you have not pre-ordered anything from us, but would like our help with ongoing travel, try to give your Coordinator a couple of days’ notice. In the half hour before you all part company he will be otherwise occupied.
Arranging your travel at the last minute is not the cheapest way to do things, but, well, you can’t spend the rest of your life in Souillac....
If you have a bike, we ask you to help with shipping it onwards, much as you helped at the trip start....
Tell us about problems with your cycle or your paniers that need repair, so that the next rider does not get saddled with the same problem. We are grateful if you help us to fill out the baggage tags, remove a layer or two of mud, maybe help load the cycles on the train....
Equipment, and / or the cell phone (or chip) that you rented from us may be given back where you leave the trip.
This is generally at the local railroad station, if you are not returning to Paris. If you have lost or broken something (your pump is generally missing by this point), this is the time to face the music. Of course if what you “broke” just wore out (the bike’s frame split in two, and you walked for the last 30 k), it would be in bad taste for us to charge you....
We sincerely hope that you enjoyed your ride with us, and that you will tolerate our company again at some future date. Because otherwise we have to get real jobs, and we wouldn’t enjoy our work nearly as much.