Last year provided me with some great insights on how individual experiences while travelling, which might not seem all that enjoyable at the time (cycling for 50km against 60km/hr winds while being honked at by grumpy Hungarian drivers, for instance, or spending a night trying not to be wide awake while lying on a 45 degree slope above the Danube on the Romanian/Serbian border) amalgamate to conjure up warm and fuzzy memories. The bad moments are recalled as funny anecdotes while, through their retelling, the good times become so good that normal life pales into merely drab existence in their shadow.
Of course, I have had a thoroughly great time in 2010. Following my travels around Europe with the Trusty Steed I returned to the UK and, after some dallying around, settled down to volunteer on the construction of Michael’s self-build strawbale house in Wales.
My time here, in disappointingly un-snowy Pembroke Dock, is coming to an end but, with the start of 2011, comes a new challenge. Thanks, in part, to Michael’s never-end optimism and his ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ attitude I am jumping into the self-build arena with the purchase of a little bit of land in Sheffield. But, never mind my plans to build my own house over the next two years, let’s just focus on getting planning permission for it first…
While it might well prove a very abortive project (the site has already had permission refused at least once, did I mention I like a challenge?), I hope that I’ll be able to look back in a couple of year’s time and laugh at those inevitable dark moments while sipping a glass of wine with friends in my luxuriously self-built new home. In the meantime it was a New Year email from WordPress that prompted me to get back on the blog and start writing this all down (2,600 hits last year, where did they all come from?) so that, with any luck, we really will be able to laugh out loud at the low points, and reminisce at those magical moments when things slotted together the way they were meant to when I planned it.
And perhaps some other people will read this and, who knows, have a go (or at least a laugh) themselves.
Happy 2011 everyone.
How typical that I travel all over Europe and it takes my return home to bring the summer sun out in full force. Not that I’m complaining of course, what a delightful welcome for a weary cyclist. But, apart from a couple of day’s feet up in Bristol with my sis, I’ve hardly kept off the Steed since I’ve been back. Having taken four months to get fit, it would be a shame to stop now. Instead I’ve been continuing my couchcycling attitude with trips all over the UK, and have just surpassed my previous record by cycling 202km from Bristol to London last Friday (ok, so my panniers were significantly lighter and the wind was mostly behind me…). With a diary full of engagement parties, hen weekends and weddings across the UK for the next few weeks I have plenty of excuses to keep cycling…
Fortunately I’ve also managed to make a little time to get round to thinking about what’s next. Searching for sustainable building volunteering opportunities is high on the list, but more importantly my commitment to raise £1,000 for St Wilfrid’s Hospice Chichester. Okay it’s been a while since I pushed this so please don’t look away now! You see I’ve already been published – take a look at the Hospice’s May newsletter which features your very own intrepid cyclist and Steed on the second page. There are many stories of the fundraising activities of the Hospice and support they are able to given to local people as a result. So, final unabashed punt – sponsoring my trip in aid of this great cause is easy. Just visit my Just Giving page and make a donation now.
Now I just want to give a huge thank you to all the fabulous, generous, openhearted people that have accommodated me over the past four months and made my trip not only possible but also ten times more incredible than I ever imagined it would be.
- Francesco in Casserta, Italy
- Massimo in Benevento, Italy
- Francesca and friends in Savignano, Italy
- Michele in Bari, Italy
- Jean Francoise in Alberobello, Italy
- Maurizio at his Carpe Diem Hostel in Brindisi, Italy
- Spillios in Megara, Greece
- Geoffroy and Lambros in Halkida, Greece
- The villagers in Vagia, Greece
- Hendrik near Lamia (who I also met up with in Germany)
- Vaya in Larissa, Greece
- Roula, Nico and Demitria in Platamona, Greece
- Panos and his brother in Thessaloniki, Greece
- Stoyan and Julia in Bladoevgrad (which I eventually learnt to pronounce), Bulgaria
- Andrey in Cladnitsa, Bulgaria
- Boyana and her band Ajabez (a mix of rock, Bulgarian tradition and style) in Sofia, Bulgaria
- Maxime in Botevgrad, Bulgaria
- Cathy and Nick at their Phoenix Hostel in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
- Radi and family in Varna, Bulgaria
- Gheo and Cosmi, and Rudiq in Bucharest, Romania
- Alex and Raz in Craiova, Romania
- Ingrid, another intrepid cyclist who I met at Three Black Catz Hostel in Belgrade, Serbia
- Dinko in Osijek, Croatia
- Neda in Slatina, Croatia
- Kiara in Tata, Hungary
- Veronika and her family in Brno, Czech Republic
- Lucie and Michal in Prague, Czech Republic
- Wiebke and friends in Dresden, Germany
- Peter and Nikki in Brussels, Belgium
Throughout my trip I’ve tried to be as upfront and open about my perspective of what I’ve experienced as possible – from my Western European point of view. In places I’ve probably come across as somewhat prejudiced, ignorant and probably highly cantankerous. Most important for me was to be honest in how I saw things, after all one of the reasons I embarked on the trip was to challenge my expectations and to experience the places I visited in a raw, first hand way. Although I wrote this for very personal reasons, to have some kind of record of my trip and changing perspectives as I travelled, it is really rewarding to think that some other people might enjoy reading it too. If you are planning your own trip then the best bit of advice I was given was to talk to everyone who shows an interest in me and to make the most of every opportunity that was offered to me. People are generally very interested in what you are doing and will go out of their way to help. So, enjoy!
Not on Garmin GPS:
Eersel to Brussels (110km)
My last day of cycling took me over the border and on to Brussels via Leuven, where I had planned to grab a shower to make myself a bit more respectable before meeting up with my cousin Peter and his wife Nikki. In the end I gave up on the shower idea and appeared at their pristine city centre apartment in all my cycling and wild camping glory. I must have made an impression because they were only too happy for me to jump straight in the shower, after which we had a tasty home-cooked dinner while catching up on news; sharing my cycling and Nikki’s pregnancy stories.
I spent my last day enjoying the sunshine, exploring Brussels and trying to curb my ridiculous cycling appetite while coming to terms with the end of the adventure. Another night of being spoilt by Peter’s cooking, and comparing the European / Belgium lifestyle with the UK’s, and I was officially exhausted. My legs were knackered, my backside had developed a thick protective hide and my knees creaked each time I sat down.
Home beckoned but it was with mixed emotions that I boarded the Eurostar train back to St Pancras the next day, looking forward to the connecting train journey that would take me back home to Sheffield after a few hours welcome catch-up with my dad in the London sunshine.
Not on Garmin GPS:
Appeldorn to Eersel (140km)
The next few days involved much cycling, sunshine and worry whether I was making enough progress towards Brussels. I eventually made it over the border to Holland on the morning of Sunday 19th June, legs weary and bottom getting progressively sorer. I was put to shame by a national cycle race that stopped the traffic as I passed through Helmond (I don’t think anyone would have mistaken me for one of the contenders) and I limped on to Eindhoven where I eventually gave up navigating by instinct and bought an overpriced map of Belgium/ Holland at a petrol station before camping right on the border with Belgium in a wonderful bit of tranquil pine forest near the small town of Eersel.
Not on Garmin GPS:
Sonder Bjert to Kropp (160km)
Kropp to Wingst (180km)
Wingst to Syke (140km)
Syke to Birgte (160km)
Birgte to Appeldorn (145km)
With just over a week to go when I crossed back into Germany on the 15th June, I was pretty engrossed in a new-found mission to clock up as many kilometres as reasonably possible before I boarded my train, in Brussels, back to the UK on the 23rd. Flensberg proved much prettier than Hendrik had made it out to be and, after stopping to buy a map of northern Germany (at 1:500,000 it was the best compromise I could get between having to buy a dozen large scale regional maps and a single one at miniscule scale), headed off into the countryside to find a good camping spot in one of the numerous and highly accessible forests.
The next morning I started early with the intention of stopping at a real, proper, bonafide, campsite near Hamburg so I could spend the evening exploring the city. After two hours getting lost and cycling in a large figure-of-eight on country roads not featured on my new map, before wasting another hour mending one and then another puncture, I gave up on that plan and settled on staying at a campsite in Wingst on the other side of the Elbe. It was an impressive ferry ride over the river, which was greatly enlarged since I’d parted company with it back near Magdeburg, and we had to pause to let a massive Chinese cargo ship cross our path in the middle of the shipping channel.
By the time I arrived at Wingst and located the campsite, which had looked very promising on my map, it was 9pm and the reception, which claimed to be open until 10pm, was deserted. I rushed to the loo in the only style possible for someone that has just spent two hours trying to cross her legs while furiously cycling to reach her destination (i.e. with great relief). The campsite was full of motorhomes and a few people wandering about, but I realised on returning to the entrance that everything was smart, all the notices were written only in German and that it looked suspiciously as though you had to be a member of one of the caravanning clubs to stay there. Bearing in mind that dusk was arriving, and after five nights of wild camping I was desperate for a shower, I decided to worry about that in the morning and to find a discreet spot to camp in the meantime. The spot I found was on a manicured lawn overlooking the private fishing lake and tucked behind a thick hawthorn bush. I cooked up my dinner, took a hot shower and contemplated the welcome I’d get in the morning when I introduced myself at reception. Clearly they would be pretty non-plussed with me and probably wouldn’t know what to do with a random cyclist that wanted to pay for a night’s tent pitch on their caravan-club campsite. All in all it made much more sense to save them the aggravation by slipping away before they even noticed I was there. So I set my alarm for 5:15 the next morning and was wheeling the packed-up Steed up the drive by 6am. Feeling extremely light hearted and only marginally guilty I slipped past the reception and out onto the main road. Stopping for breakfast an hour later I half expected to be tracked down by a police patrol on the hunt for the cycling sneak, but all my paranoia was forgotten by the time I arrived in Bremen for a few hours exploring the city and trying to escape the heat of the afternoon. I got lost once again trying to exit the city (so much for 1:500,000 scale maps) and ended up camping on a sorry little field track 150m off the main road outside Syke on the edge of a protected nature reserve.
Copenhagen to Helsinge (90km)
Helsinge to Hermlufmagle (105km)
Not recorded on the GPS:
Hermlufmagle (to Tisinge, not on GPS) (130km)
Tisinge to Sonder Bjert (130km)
In contrast to Eastern Europe the well stocked, well informed and very helpful Tourist Information Centre in Copenhagen provided me with heaps of free maps and advice on how to get to the cheapest, but basic, city camping site (at more than twice the price, I passed on the picturesque campsite my sister recommended that is located in an old fort north of the city). My enthusiasm for Scandinavia couldn’t survive the perpetual rain that followed for the next five days without some blunting. Copenhagen is heralded as the friendly city, but no-one looked in the mood for demonstrating this as cyclists raced each other to avoid the next downpour and the cars ploughing through the puddles drenched tourists waiting under shop awnings to cross the road. I eventually made it out to Christiana in the early evening during a dry spell and enjoyed the views of the waterfront and atmosphere of laid back alternativism of the enclave, but by the time I got back to the campsite I found it necessary to cook my dinner inside the tent to avoid the saucepan overflowing with rainwater. The next few days were no better as I headed up the coast to Northern-Zealand, battled the fierce winds to head west, and erected my tent in the pouring rain safe in the knowledge that no-one would be stumbling upon me in such weather.
If it hadn’t been for the rain and the wind I think I could have liked Denmark almost as much as Sweden, although the architecture and landscape weren’t nearly as delightful. I did love island hopping, taking rusty old bridges across windy straights while admiring the swanky new motorway bridges across the water, and the views across the rather flat fjords (I’d always imagined them to be dramatic mountainscapes plunging into the sea, but that must just be Norway…). The ferries were fun too, and I tried not to look too excited by their novelty since everyone else on board clearly thought them old hat. Denmark was the first place where I encountered bike-free roads (and they weren’t even dual carriageways) that forced me to take silly and long detours at a time of day when I would have much preferred to be seeking out and settling into comfy wild camping sites in secluded woodland. From Zealand I took a bridge over to the island of Lolland, cycled along its length to Tars where I took a ferry to Fyn via Tasinge. I rode north-west to the connecting bridge that would take me back to the European mainland, Jutland, before cycling south back to Germany.
On my last evening in Denmark the sun finally made an appearance and I enjoyed an hour on the beach, watching two dogs running around in the shallow water, before sneaking into a beautiful pine forest for the night. After a week of wild camping the Garmin had long ago run out of juice, with the result that my map reading skills were really (and not always successfully) put to the test through much of Denmark, Germany, Holland and Belgium.
Trelleborg to Loderups Strandbad (140km)
Kunga Backen to Copenhagen (58km)
The sun had finally come out in the last couple of days in Germany, but when I peered bleary-eyed out of the window at 6am the next morning I could barely see the sea for all the rain battering down on the ferry. The wind had picked up again too, so that when I staggered off the boat half an hour later I didn’t hang around to explore the no-doubt delightful Trelleborg but set off for Malmo with the sole intention of keeping warm and finding out how to get over to Denmark. When I arrived in Malmo two hours later the rain was worse than ever and my chilled feet were sloshing around in trainers drenched through. I made my way into the station looking for an information board and was met by the invitingly warm and dry atmosphere of a public building very sensibly served by a fully functioning underfloor heating system (can you imagine there even being any heating in a British railway station, never mind it being on in May?). Not only did I find a half decent map of Malmo and Skane (the southern region of Sweden), but also cheap public internet stations.
Two hours later, warmed and fed and with a fix of internet action, I picked up some decent maps of the region from the tourist office and headed out to explore. After a ride round Malmo I promised myself I’d make a return visit, then headed back along to coast for a misty view of the Oresund bridge before heading back past Trelleborg and Ystad (of Wallander fame, so I’m told) on the search for the large area of green on my map I hoped marked a large and deserted forest. By the time I reached it the clouds were thinning and the sun, still high in the sky at 8pm, was drying out my trainers nicely. I quickly discovered that the green on my map translated as a large area of grassy coastal training ground for the Swedish Army – in other words a definite no-go area even for the intrepid Steed and I. I cycled on, peering keenly for any camping opportunity. Unfortunately the tendency in Sweden and Denmark is for the countryside to be populated by smallholdings packed to bursting with open fields and just a few promising trees providing a little privacy for the farmhouses themselves. Whenever I did find a couple of trees they were inevitably accompanied by big signs outlawing camping on the site. I eventually followed signs to a two star campsite on the waterside, disappointed not to find any free camping opportunities and too British to ask a farmer if I could camp on his land. The reception was closed so I pitched up, watched the clouds dissipate as clear skies spread inland from the sea, and tried to convince myself it was time for bed at 11:30pm despite it still being light enough for me to read my maps without a flashlight. The morning light woke me up early so that I was up and packed up by 8am. The reception still wasn’t open and so I didn’t feel too guilty about leaving without being able to pay for my pitch. So in the end it turned out to be a not-so-wild camping experience, but free non-the-less.
During the rest of my stay in Sweden I fell in love with the beautiful landscape, the fresh clean colours of the buildings and magic of the northern sunshine falling obliquely on the crisp colours, and the warm friendliness of the pedestrians and cyclists always eager to say hello in passing or give directions to an undiscovered seaside village. The second night I camped in a quiet wood sandwiched between smallholdings and ate breakfast while watching a fluffy Greytit learning to fly. On the way to Malmo I visited the historic city of Lund, narrowly missing the worst of the rain by making a stop-off at one of the ubiquitous ICA supermarkets, before carrying on to explore a Swedish design museum in Malmo and taking a train over and under the Oresund bridge to Copenhagen.
Libochovany to Dresden (110km)
Dresden to Muhlberg (98km)
Muhlberg to Desseau (98km)
Desseau to Magdeburg (98km)
No Garmin data available (you’ll have to take my word for it):
Magdeburg to Tanger Munde (61km)
Tanger Munde to Pritzwieg (109km)
Pritzwieg to Rostock (130km)
Refuelled and armed with suggestions of places to visit that would fill my remaining weeks and guides to the Elbe cycle route from Prague to the Baltic Sea, I followed the beautiful but very winding route to Dresden where I met up with Hendrik (aforementioned German cycle tourist) and his friend Wiebke who very kindly put us up and let me brush up on my rusty cooking skills as a thank you. Dresden has a beautiful historic city centre, thanks partly it appears to the relative lack of investment in rebuilding it under the GDR regime after the Second World War. This delay has meant that the centre has benefitted from lessons learnt from the post WWII reconstruction projects of many Western European cities.
We wondered around the spotless central district, bike wheels wobbling over the cobbles while trying to spot the faux-classical facades implanted between the reconstructed remains. Fortunately the local independent cafes were a much more entertaining distraction, especially once the rain re-started, and in the evening we tried some more local traditions – most importantly the local beers to wash down my attempt to recreate a traditional British pie and Rhubarb Crumble.
Hendrik and I left the next morning for a week of wild camping on our way to the Baltic coast. After a day of weaving through the country along the banks of the Elbe and managing only 96km we gave up on the cycle paths and found a deserted pine forest (with 50% of Germany being covered by forest, I was relieved to hear that we would never be short of wild camping opportunities) to pitch our tents in. It took a while for me to get used to company while cycling and camping, but I quickly learnt to enjoy Hendrik’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his country and the variety of dishes made possible by the addition of his camping stove. Over the next few days we battled winds, bugs in H’s eye, 17˚C showers (our first in three days) at the lido in Magdeburg and further troubles with H’s temperamental chain (give me derailleur gears any day) but eventually made it to Rostock in time for me to catch the night ferry to Trelleborg in Sweden on the 6th June.
Bratislava to Hrabitce (140km)
Hrabitce to Brno (45km)
Brno to Staj (75km)
Staj to Prague (140km)
Prague to Libochavany (115km)
In cycling from Bratislava to Brno in the Czech Republic I took, for once, the Garmin’s lead and skirted through eastern Austria, still fighting strong north-westerly winds (which were a more or less permanent feature of my trip from Zagreb onwards until I boarded my train home in Brussels) but enjoying sunny spells and the more familiar Germanic sounds of the Austrian dialect. I wild camped in a field just over the Czech border near Hrabetice before making an early start to cycle the 40km to Brno.
I met up with the wonderfully animated Veronika, a friend of my German wild-camping companion that I met in Greece, who took me for a giddy afternoon in a shisha bar overlooking the central square. Brno was a beautiful city and I would have loved to explore it more but my Warmshowers hosts in Prague (Warmshowers is a couchsurfing website dedicated to cycle tourers) had strict constraints on their time and so on the second day I braved the torrential afternoon rain showers and left for Prague.
As experienced world cycling tourers, Michal and Lucie knew exactly what I needed when I arrived on 26th May, offering me a hot shower, clothes wash and plenty of delicious Czech Goulash to recharge my batteries. Over the next two days I explored Prague with Lucie, met some fellow cycle tourists and learnt the secrets of touring on the cheap. Having started as young wild camping tourers they had, over the years, developed a reputation for writing touring books and articles for the Czech cycling magazines. Thanks to this the biking duo now sported sponsorship deals for all their biking, clothing and equipment needs.
Tata to Bratislava (130km)
Staying for just two nights in a large campsite near Bratislava’s airport, I didn’t get to know any Slovakian people but spent enough time in Bratislava to simultaneously appreciate the beauty of the city and realise that I was developing symptoms of tourist-lethargy. Having visited dozens of cities and towns over the past two months I was getting lazy; less eager to discover new places and less enthralled by each castle, museum, local delicacy or landscape that I sampled. In an effort to shake my plans up a little it was around this time I decided not to visit Poland as I’d originally planned, but to take a route influenced more by the people I met than a pre-determined plan jotted down months before.