Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Turkish Tales

A month of myth and mirth through Turkey’s wondrous cities, coast and mountains… lots of mountains. Not short of company; I was met by several of my nearest and dearest for some of the most memorable times of my lengthening adventure. First I had to get there…

I had three days to reach Istanbul to meet my dear friend and Better Life Cycle fundraiser extraordinaire, Rebecca. I had a serious race on; three countries and over 1000km.

I left Albania, raced through Macedonia and northern Greece, arriving in Thessaloniki having covered almost half the distance in 60 hours; eat your heart out L. Armstrong! Despite my marathon efforts time was running out, so I caught the bus to cross the border into Turkey; it felt a bit like cheating but my priorities were clear – without the likes of Rebecca this trip wouldn’t have happened.

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Any sense of feeling like I’d skipped a challenge quickly vanished when, 20km outside Istanbul. I was dropped at the coach station; it was rush hour & the only way into town was the heaving motorway elevated 100m above me.

The next 90 mins will standout as being some of the most sketchy of the ride. Honks and hoots came from every direction, cars and lorries whizzed by, disbelief was written on drivers faces as I crossed up to three lanes of traffic to make the junction - all without a map. My guide – ‘head for the Blue Mosque’; much like being dropped in Croydon and told look for Big Ben! Luckily I made it without a scratch and was gleefully reunited with Rebecca.

Istanbul is an ancient sprawling metropolis, ‘it measures time not in days and weeks but in the rise and fall of empires’. It has an epic history that has contended with rulers from all Eurasia, each leaving their mark on the impressive landscape: the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Blue Mosque, the Tokapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Galata Tower, and my favourite the Hagia Sofia.

I could write a whole blog entry on the Hagia Sofia – it left me in total awe. Islam and Christianity are celebrated under one glorious roof; two great forces of humanity and divinity living side by side, friend not foe - to me it was unique and profound. Where Europe meets Asia; East meets West; this wonder from the past evoked an insight into the future, a spectacular and harmonious one.

Rebecca and I moseyed through the streets and sites, sampled the bazaars and cafes; far more content to experience Istanbul than tick the boxes of sights to see. The friendly folk and fine weather all added to exceptional days that will provide a ready smile when the going gets tougher.

I waved goodbye to Rebecca and shortly after to Andy – who’d made his own way to Istanbul but not before he taught me to play backgammon. For the guy who’d started off as ‘Random’ Andy; he was now anything but. We’d cycled for a month without so much as a sour word, pushing ourselves and having lot of laughs – most notably our 1,700m ascent of Mt. Lovcen – ‘Ace!’ …as he would he say.

I wasn’t alone for long; one of my best buddies, Jimi, arrived with Cecile; the bike I’d originally intended to use for this trip. We had a colossal, coastal cycle planned from Izmir to Antalya. After catching up over a nargileh (water pipe) or two and several Efes (quality local beer) – we took the ferry/train service to Izmir and got on our bikes.

The first two days sped by, finding secluded camping both nights, enjoying the coastal views and passing through the ancient Roman city of Ephesus, with it’s stunning and iconic Library of Celsus – although otherwise it left me a little low on enthusiasm.

We’d planned to cycle round the Dilek Yarimadasi National Park; a long lush mountain peninsula. Having got within 5km of the point, we were turned back by the National Guard. Rather than cycle back 40km we opted to cycle through a hiking canyon and over the mountain; 11km of rocky, rugged climbing - this proved to be an extreme effort.

We pedalled, pushed, sweated, cursed, chuckled and heaved, as we fought our way to the summit 900m above. Satisfaction wasn’t our only reward; the lagooned coastline beyond was one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The rock strewn descent was almost equally as testing, so it was with considerable joy that we reached the tarmac that heralded the end of the test. Put that in your nargileh and smoke it!

The next few days we made our way through Didim; an undesirable English outpost of ‘Full English Breakfasts’ and general tack - then by boat and bike to Bodrum; still touristic but far more appealing. We found an exceptional camping spot for snorkelling, sunset gazing and night-time frolics with the camera; the highlight being an underwater encounter with an inquisitive octopus.

The cycling got really serious as we had some miles to make up; one particularly gruelling day covering 135km of mountainous coastline on our way through Marmaris. We stopped a night in recommended Riviera retreat Ölüdeniz, beautiful but with roads so steep we had to hitch a ride back over the mountain. And finally we arrived in Kaş, elated, exhausted and entirely ready for a beer.

Rather than pedal furiously to Antalya, Jimi & I opted to spend our final day together on a boat trip, which as it turned out we had entirely to ourselves. I’d lost count of the number of times I’ve looked out from the coast and pondered the joys sailing must offer – it was a treat to finally get in on the action. So ended the jaunt and japes with Jimi – he headed off to the airport by bus, leaving the steep 8km ascent out of Kaş for me to pedal alone - a wise choice.

One moment that epitomised the ride and the difference cycling made to it: Towards the end of our longest day’s ride we sought a turning to Fethiye, in the distance loomed a massive rock face. Our legs tired and the pace slowed at the mere sight of yet another gruelling climb. The cliff-like mountain drew nearer, a busy road clinging and scything a steep scar up its side. No turning appeared. By now the rock eclipsed the sun. Going through the mental preparations - ‘time to dig deep’, etc. - a ray of light appeared, not from the sun; a turn. Not just any turn, our turn; the Fethiye turn. We whooped, hollered, laughed and almost cried in relief – ecstatic that this time we’d been spared the uphill onslaught, destined instead along the valley. To anyone else it would have been just a right-hand turn; to us, a moment of ecstasy - only on a bike!

Feeling a little lonesome after Jimi’s departure I was fortunate to catch up with one of my best friends in New York on Skype. (Seamless video conversation at 5000 miles still leaves me… speechless would be the wrong word choice of word… very impressed!) Aside from being a successful city swinger Mel is an ardent supporter of animal rights. During our conversation she caused me to challenge my own hypocrisy at being a meat-eater: the facts about animal welfare being so unsavoury, the effect of beef production on the environment so shocking, and the premature ending of life for my convenience feeling wrong. So it was time to align my beliefs and behaviour: meat was now off the menu.

This decision wasn’t made without some regret, I loved eating meat, only days before tweeting: ‘If you are what you eat, very soon I will become a kebab’. However - this trip especially - I’m trying to challenge and improve myself; learning to adapt is a big part of that, not being a hypocrite another.

The following days I sped along the coast, through intermittent thunderstorms, saved one more than one occasion by friendly locals who gave me shelter. I arrived in Alanya just in time to meet my Sister and her three awesome sons, my nephews; Innes (9), Ibane (7), and Inaki (2). It was so good to see them; explaining to them why I was going away for a year was the hardest thing I did before I left. Successive ‘Why’s?’ can reveal some insightful answers.

Alas they’d not the best week for a beach break weather-wise but we made the most of it; exploring Alanya Castle, the winding coastline, and when the sun did shine I passed on my new found snorkelling skills to a highly enthused Innes & Ibane; great memories!

The time passed all too quickly and before long we were waving a teary-eyed goodbye to one another. I dearly hope to see them again before the end of the trip. Being with them frequently shifted my perception to one less accustomed to the experiences and sights at hand; somehow simpler, fresher and more intriguing. Sure they could be little rascals too but that’s all part of the fun.

By now I was reaching the eastern end of the Mediterranean, about to turn south, a change in direction that will persist – give or take a few westerly wiggles – for the next 15,000 km.

My penultimate night in Turkey was initially soured by being ripped off for an, albeit tasty, vegetarian meal. The seemingly friendly, local chaps I’d met, who’d accompanied me to a back-street restaurant, obviously took commission for their company – not that this was outlined on the bill of course. In this slightly dodgy environment my protest at paying was met with equal, if somewhat dubious, response. So I ended up paying £12 for a meal that would otherwise have cost £3. Although at first aggrieved I quickly realised this was a cheap way to learn the lesson that is well worth learning…

Lesson: If in doubt don’t leave yourself open to being ripped off. Find out the price before you’re committed to paying - ‘politeness’ may be pricey.

My final 24 hours in Turkey more than made up for the night before. Joined by a puncture-prone Italian cyclist, Michele, I decided to take a quiet coast road, over the highway. The road was barely on the map, which was quite appropriate because it was barely there; a gravel path at first high on the mountain side, then a sandy track beside the sea. We had to wade through two rivers, climb over a landslide and ended up camping in an abandoned house; it was brilliant!

The following day Michele & I parted company, as I headed over my final Turkish mountain for the Syrian border. The three hour climb in wind and drizzle hardly seemed a fitting to my Turkish tour. I hadn’t counted on passing a school at the end of the day. ‘Tourista, Tourista!’ was the cry as hundreds of kids ran out to testing their newly learnt English. I felt like the Pied-Piper cycling through their town, kids beside me laughing and joking on their way home; until as the houses grew thinner just one little boy was left. Poetically, his was the last house on the hill; he wouldn’t take the sweets I offered, content to share our limited conversation and to later tell the tale to his family and friends.

My Turkish tale also grew to a close; it had been an exceptional few weeks – despite all the sights, it was the times with my friends and family which made the experience so special. Receiving unfussy generosity from many friendly locals adding a welcoming gloss to it all - perhaps my only regret that I’d not had the time to stop and accept more of it.

The next stop: Syria and the Middle East.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Albania: Bread, Salt and Heart

Albania is one of those countries that, sadly, has a gained a bad reputation; from where, I don’t know. I cycled across the border with an open mind and the reception was quite unexpected – it blew me away. A beautiful place made more exceptional by its humblingly hospitable people.

Beautiful Chaos

Often when I’d mention I was visiting Albania, the response from folks at home was ‘…really?’, as though I was inviting trouble.

Cycling over the border at Hanii-Hotit it was immediately apparent Albania was a different prospect to the other countries I’ve pedalled through. The road was potholed and worn, strewn with litter, and the only other traffic was a large unaccompanied family of pigs casually trotting home.

After a carefully concealed night’s kip, Andy and I headed for the northern city of Shkoder. Speed was low, discomfort high; in spite of that the instant warmth of the Albanians made the journey a real treat. Virtually everyone we waved at responded with a big smile. Grouchy old faces would light up, buried hands, rise high and with them a unique sense of welcome I’d not previously been afforded.

Shkoder presents a beautiful chaos: on the street people congregate in clusters, while others loiter with some unknown intent; a large wooden pallet pierces the pavement as though dropped carelessly from heavens; indiscernible shouts ring out; a man walks a bear on a leash, as indifferently as though it were a dog; people touch and trade; rules of the road are abolished, instead a mêlée ensues: cars, horns, pedestrians, lorries and scooters pfutting with the weight of generations on their back. The highway code is: biggest is best. Being on the road was to be blithely flirting with mortality. Yet despite the chaos, as though governed by some divine force, people survive, the city thrives – this is what is so beautiful about this place - it is truly alive.

Humbling Hospitality

The road to Tirana was lined with small farms, so with nowhere secluded to camp I asked a local farmer if we could pitch on his land. His reaction was customarily welcoming and we were soon joined by the whole family – the grandparents, the neighbours and friends. Before long we were at the centre of a jolly and enquiring circle of warm and generous local folk.

It was an unforgettable night, so welcomed we were and lavished with all they could offer… which was quite a lot as it turned out; huge traditional dinner, home-made wine and clear spirits; ominously served from a plastic grenade by the amusingly delirious granddad. Soon another common language revealed itself; the Champions League. They love it, we love it – conversation on this point became feverishly easily. Football is the one language spoken the world over.

The morning arrived; heads were a little hazy, not assisted by more beer and wine at breakfast, along with a sizable mutton broth. Luckily Tirana wasn’t too far away.

Library Books

Tirana was another city bustling with life. We checked into a superb hostel and simultaneously met a Dutch couple; Niek and Sanne who’d been cycling round Europe. They were bonkers; we got on like a house on fire.

Niek & Sanne has also raised some cash to help with a worthy project on their travels. A fortuitous run of events led is all to visit an orphanage run by Bethany Christian Services. We were welcomed by Cathy and Bob, two dedicated missionaries who showed us around; we were instantly compelled to help.

The kids didn’t have anywhere to read or even books in Albanian that the nurses could themselves read to them. On seeing the room we hatched a plan to paint and decorate it, make it comfortable and buy a load of books to help found the new ‘library’.

The following day we bought the paint, prepped the room and with Andy’s help set to it. After a coat or two the room was looking so much happier and we too; almost delirious… we can blame in on the fumes. We then lucked in, finding an incredible kids book store which had loads of fantastically illustrated and suitably sturdy kids books in Albanian.

The following day we finished with a flourish; decorating the walls with bright stickers and posters, adorning the room with some new soft furnishings and of course delivering the books. It was a delight to see the kids faces when the walked in, the older kids were napping but I’m sure it will be a real treat for them too.

Two days and £400 later, we were very chuffed with ourselves & had left a legacy with will last. It felt great to finally put some of the funds raised for the Better Life Cycle to good use – for which I want to thank all those who have donated – hope it feels good to see where your money is going.

Lesson: It doesn’t take a lot of kindness to make a big difference.

Andy and I set off late to make a start on the road to Elbasan and the border with Macedonia. Two hours later we’d climbed another mountain greeted by another spectacular sunset. Another kind chap called Hasan let us sleep on the floor of his restaurant, just as well, camping on a mountain can be tricky.

The following morning we were greeted by a stunning dawn and a welcome descent to the city. If a dawn can make an industrial city look this good you have to marvel, because up close it was pretty unsightly.

Waves and smiles lined our route to the border, up one more gruelling climb and on to the picturesque Lake Ohrid – a fitting finale to the unexpected treat Albania had proved to be.

‘Bread, salt and heart’ is a phrase in Albania for what all people have in their home – from this experience it couldn’t be more true.

Lesson: Don’t let unfounded opinion sway your thoughts, if you want to learn about somewhere or something speak to the people with first hand experience.

With the repression of the communist state now a memory, tourists are starting to return and the Albanian people seem overjoyed to welcome them. Like anywhere Albania’s not without its problems – corruption in particular is an everyday issue for many – however if you give it a moment the country and the people will quickly charm you.

I have a strong wish to return and I hope you might now be more inclined to pay it a visit too.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Former Yugosalvia; Existing Wonder

After meeting up with ‘Random Andy’; a new cycle companion in Rijeka, northern Croatia and Eve in Split – the next few weeks were primed for some shared adventure, mis-adventure and chuckles. Croatia proved a fascinating host and Montenegro… lets just say we got a little upgrade from the tent, before a final test; cycling up a vertical mile to conquer Mount Lovćen.

After a Tour-de-France style stage – racing 130km from Ljubljana – I met ‘Random Andy’ in Rijeka just in time to catch an overnight boat to Split.

Andy contacted me through Facebook after hearing me interviewed on the George Lamb radio show. Having been sketching out a cycle tour of his own; he was keen to join me on the road to Istanbul. It seemed to me anyone who’s keen enough to cycle and camp their way through the world, in search of adventure, is likely to be an interesting companion; ‘Nice! See you at the docks at five o’clock’.

We were soon in a rain-kissed yet nevertheless picturesque Split. I pedalled off to meet Eve, a good friend and avid cyclist from home, at the airport. After rebuilding her bike we cruised back into town & checked into a cosy little hostel right in the centre of town.

Split has great charm; a relaxed ambience and great deal to appreciate, without being overrun by tourists. Pauline, a friendly fellow guest joined our posse & we spent a few days moseying around the mazy marble streets. Going up the Deoclician Palace tower at sunset and visiting the house of master sculptor Ivan Meštrović were real highlights.

Andy headed south to meet some friends, so Eve & I boarded a boat to the elongated island of Hvar. The journey was pickled with views of the islands, whetting our appetite to explore. On arrival we paused to adjust Eve’s bike, I discovered I’d lost my Leatherman somewhere – Shucks! – first item of the trip & a darn useful one. The ride to our campsite quickly atoned for the slight pang and before long we were pitching the tent in an idyllic sea-front spot.

We stayed three days, mostly accompanied by a wonderful German couple; Hannah and Jan. We cycled several sizable hills, snorkled amid the clearest water in isolated bays and loved every mintue. The island feels like a rocky Roman throw-back, covered with Olive, Fig and Pomegranate trees.

Dubrovnik was 200km, one ferry ride and a few more considerable climbs away. Eve and I covered the distance in two days, with an overnight stay on the sliver of coastline Bosnia clamed during the Balkan war. It was a classic ride - one that my imagination had convinced me was worth crossing the Alps and Dolomites instead of simply following the Danube, on my way to Turkey – the reality repaid in spades.

Dubrovnik is a tourist mega-magnet par excellence and with due cause. The old town is like Split on steroids – more marble, bolder buildings and tourist troupes to match. Had it not been for our early morning meander around the city walls almost every view would have been obscured, ancient ambiance made unappreciable, and appeal lost. By 9.30 the cruise ship crews had arrived and the previously tranquil main street, became a hive of twitching lenses, gaping mouths and muted argy-bargy.

Lesson: Its always worth getting up early to get the best of a spot, be you a tourist or surfer the average tourist won’t make the dawn patrol.

The two standout moments of Dubrovnik were not to be found on a postcard however. We were first welcomed into the home and terrace of a local lady, Emma who had lived in same home in the old city for 50+ years. She made beautiful traditional shawls and shared some of the her history, kindness and wisdom with us. Eve and I both felt like adoptive children in her presence.

The other more sombre moment was the sign showing the damage and devastation caused during the shelling of the city by the Serbian-Montenegrin forces. The extent of the was shuddering but more astounding the recovery the city has made.

Montenegro now beckoned and a stay at Mrshe Palace in Perast. Some years ago I had put together the website for this gorgeous holiday home and thanks to the generosity of Liliana and Malcolm Glyn, we could stay for free for a few days. Quite an upgrade from the tent!

Rejoined by Andy, Jan and Hannah – the five of us spent a blissful few days, recharging the batteries with barbequed food, swims out to the islands and general frivolity amid our plush surrounds. Fish, meat and beer were incredibly cheap and I finally got a chance to finish a few of the books from small library I’d hauled the last 2000km virtually untouched.

After waving of the others Andy and I planned our ascent of Mount Lovćen; a climb to over 1,700m from sea-level. The ‘Black Mountain’ is the wonder after which the country of Montenegro finds its name. Atop was the tempting prospect of a mausoleum carved by my new favourite sculptor Ivan Meštrović.

After prolonging our departure one extra day - easy to find excuses to stay in a palace over a tent - we set off early on our climb. Passing through the old town of Kotor we began what Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the world’s great drives’ up the mountain. On a bike with 50kgs in tow it’s a smidge more difficult but on rounding the last of 25 hairpins later the sense of achievement was a match for the view.

The self-congratulation quickly diminished when we realised quite how far there still was to go. The 25 take you the first 1,000m or so the rest is straight uphill. Had we seen this from the start we might have taken the coast road. Cue much sweating, puffing of cheeks and leg pumping – we were determined to make it. My adrenaline received a much needed boost after finding and climbing through a treacherous yet alluring fissure inside a massive cave.

After about 5 hours we made it! The view didn’t disappoint we were insanely high. We both agreed that had we seen where we were in the morning we wouldn’t have thought it possible, yet there we were, with Montenegro before us. The Meštrović mausoleum also provided an unexpected moment of wonder; the most sonically harmonious room I’ve ever been in. If ever you go, wait til its empty and just hummmmmm…

Lesson: Sometimes its better not to know the scale of the challenge, keep focussed on what lies right in front of you and keep going; when you reach an end the result can surpass what you’d thought you were capable off.

We camped in the national park, despite the other proclaimed residents; bears and wolves and the following day made for the border with Albania. The countries of former Yugoslavia were a delight to travel through. Recent times have been a dark stain in their history but the future, from what I can see, looks stunningly bright – like Arnie, I’ll be back.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Bends, Bikers Bars, Borders & Balls

Italy had arrived; my arse didn’t hurt, I’d had no punctures, not got lost and been enjoying literally minute. Time to crank up the challenge; add mountain passes, one charming yet inexperienced cyclist, sprinkle with burly bikers, garnish with unchartered territories and serve.

Cortina was truly spectacular; imposing mountains surrounding a bowl-shaped valley which soaks up the sun. Vivi and the family Moretti showed me their customary hospitality; chatting, drinking, and eating handsomely for a blissful couple of days.

Bends

The day to pedal on arrived. Vivi, a somewhat novice cyclist by her own judgement, waited nervously as I updated my blog and cruelly faffed about. Faffing complete and bags packed it was time to roll, quite literally, down the mountain. It’s hard to imagine a better cycle path; freshly paved, jaw-dropping views and downhill all the way.

The afternoon ride went without a hitch and we’d made a start up the ominous Passo Mauria when we found a spot camp. This was not just any spot, this was picture perfect. We’d found flat mown ground on the mountain-side, views of the valley, nice dry wood on hand for a camp fire, all under the soft purpley hues of the setting sun. For Vivi’s first night camping ever this was a five star experience.

On waking the prospect of the remaining 600m climb loomed large. If my mountain experiences to date had taught me anything it was to take it slow and steady, and that we did. The quiet weaving road was dappled with light and extraordinary views, as we appreciated it the ascent crept by.

Then we were there; the top, the summit, the most daunting leg of the ride complete - cue photos, video and any other means available to capture the achievement and elation of the moment.

Biker Bars

The downhill was most satisfying, accompanied by yet more impressive vistas. We followed the valley through the afternoon to our intended camping site – some 80+km away.

By nightfall however we were still on the road. Vivi completely unfazed by it all pushed on until we’d reached our destination… only to find no campsite existed, had ever existed or was even nearby. The messengers of this information were some burly blokes at a biker bar. The messengers became our saviours when they offered us a spot to camp in their beer garden; that’ll do nicely!

Lesson: despite tough exteriors, bikers seem quite as friendly as everyone else - see anecdotes about books and their covers. (Now I’ve taken to giving the biker bands a big thumbs up with a response rate I’d previously have baulked at)

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The following morning we fixed the flat tyre Vivi had picked up and pushed on up the valley. We climbed slowly for the best part of four hours, tough work on the legs after the previous day; without the glory of a pass to set sights on. One proper stretch later we were feeling grand while a peering granny watching lost an eyebrow to her hairline.

We neared the Slovenia border by Tarvisio (another biker haven), and used the opportunity to stock up on carbs and provisions. On leaving the town we stumbled upon an innocuous cycle path which turned out to be a real beauty, following an old railway line, straddled by mini waterfalls, valley views and tall pines.

Borders

We passed into Slovenia, through the now redundant border post. The sun was setting behind us and bathed the still magnificent valleys in an idyllic light. Not rusting the map alone we had a quick encounter with some friendly locals which sent us off in the right direction of the campsite. The wonderful cycle path (D2) continued and we were a couple of highly contented cyclists.

The following day we peddled to the picture postcard town of Bled; just 30km away. An ancient church sits amid the lake on a small island, making for a pretty stunning centrepiece to the already impressive mountain backdrop.

After pitching our tent in a superb campsite right on the lake, we gave the bikes a rest and rented a boat. We both took the oars around and to the island and back; it was great fun. The water was fresh but not freezing, so we went for a dip and I took on the newly christened ‘Bled Challenge’ swimming out to the island and back.

The final day’s cycle a mere 65km took us through lush landscapes; before satisfyingly reaching Ljubljana. Vivi had completed her leg, and what a triumph it had been. We had both admitted our trepidation about how she’d cope with the ride and the Passo Mauria; as it turned out we needn’t have worried.

Lesson: if you can take your time, riding is rarely strenuous; if you’re feeling tired, take a break… you’ll get there - so get out there!

Balls

Central Ljubljana was a fitting tribute to our efforts. The city, particularly along the river is welcoming, vibrant, and cosmopolitan. It is a well preserved and charming nest of the Bavarian regency and well worth a visit.

We moseyed round, took in the sights and ate well, particularly the ‘gelatos’; supreme ice-cream to vie Italy for its mantle. Our last supper was at a traditional Slovenian restaurant. The menu translations revealed an ‘exotic’ local delicacy; I was inexorably drawn to trying.

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Lesson: if eating a dish of origin you wouldn’t normally touch or even go near, remove from your mind what it is that’s going in your mouth from the taste; especially when eating bulls testicles!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

You can do it! Brussels to Cortina

The first two weeks of my ride have flown passed yet looking back they have been crammed with more new experiences than I’d encountered in the past few years. The ride and the adventure have well and truly begun.

‘You can do it…’

I would tell myself, calling on the spirit of Lance Armstrong to keep the legs pumping to up a mountain pass – at the end of a long day.

You can do it

The realisation that in spite of having no cycle touring experience, I’m not just hacking the life as a tourer but thoroughly enjoying it. I remember reading: ‘hardship is just an adventure wrongly considered’ and that’s the ethos I’m employing; enjoying the rain and mountains as much as the sun and valleys.

You can do it

My message to you. There is a world of wonderment sitting right on our doorsteps. I couldn’t believe how many fascinating sights there were so close to home. Cycling is a great way to see the world. You needn’t be overly fit, have an expensive bike or even experience. Get a map have your own little micro-adventure, I have no doubt you’ll be rewarded with satisfaction and a zeal to do more.

Brussels to Cortina

The first leg over the next 10 day schlep was time to train. I hadn’t made much time to do extended cycles fully loaded before I left, so I decided to make haste, put the pain on the legs and at the same time save money; the euro isn’t as friendly as it used to be.

Hills

Leaving Brussels heading for Luxembourg, hills appeared and they rapidly grew in size. I gulped. I hadn’t really planned for this, the route I’d chosen was more based on places I’d like to see than the terrain involved. Fortunately help was at hand. Wim & Veerle; two wonderful folks I’d never met, agreed to put me up for the night. After feeding me like a king then generously helped me plan my route a little more clearly for the next week or so; a serious blessing. Not only did this mean less hills and quicker progress but nicer routes to cycle too.

Off I went (details for the cycle enthusiasts) storming along the RV6 cycle route in Belgium, through Bastogne; the site of many epic WWII battles – I have to recommend Band of Brothers drama series at this point, seeing that then cycling through really gave me a poignant appreciation of my surrounds.

Valleys

I seemed to on to a winner on river valley cycle routes and so I continued, down the stunning Saar River valley on the Saar-Radweg cycle route, though Saarbrucken and counter-intuitively back into France to cycle through the picturesque Vosges National Park. I camped under a stunning array of stars surrounded by towering trees that formed a procession along the roadside.

The following day I was back into Germany, again by boat crossing the Rhine near Wissembourg. Here I learnt my first serious lesson: if it’s 30oC+ and super sunny, cover up and take it easy; I didn’t. I was hit with a mild bout of sunstroke. Fortunately Alice a local lady from Karlsruhe guided me on to a tram to Pforzheim where I could find a good place to camp for the night.

I’m not into taking alternative transport if it can be avoided but I actually wanted to ride the tram and the 20km journey was hardly a major shortcut. I’m glad I did. Two soothing Slush-Puppies later I was over the nausea and had found a great spot to stealthily camp by the Nagold river. I slept in my hammock with the water gurgling next to me, by morning I was in much finer fettle.

The next few days I flew down through Germany along the Nagold, Neckar and Iler river valleys – still camping all the way. The high point was reaching the top of a hefty 17% gradient hill after cycling 120kms already that day. I won’t lie, I had to push, nevertheless the determination to get there and the relief at the top was a great feeling of achievement. I was really working myself.

Mountains

The Alps appeared late one night after another 100+ mile cycle. Fortunately the dazzling and somewhat daunting spectacle was eased by the another AoRK (Act of Random Kindness); being given a delicious pizza free by a very friendly delivery place outside Kempten.

The following morning the rain arrived; not drizzle, proper heavy rain - we’re talking torrents on the roads not puddles. However with my Ortlieb panniers bound up tight and my rain jacket on; it was a fun. The mountains looked so mood and mysterious, it made for some cracking photos.

More AoRK abounded when twice in one day the German then Austrian police escorted me off roads not intended for cyclists. One time I knew; it was motorway (which looked safer than the sketchy A-road) - the other I didn’t, too busy gazing at the scenery to see the sign. Both times the police spoke English asked where I was going: ‘South Africa?...’ after looking startled, then seeing my sincerity, they chuckled and sent me on my way. No fines, no nothing. Thanks chaps –quality policing.

Still amid the rains I was ready for my first pass – the Fernpass; height:1280m. I decided to not to push my luck, avoiding a car-only tunnel, adding another 400m to the ascent. The road was perilously thin and heavy with traffic but I stuck to my guns and took the space I needed. You can do it Danny, I’d repeat to myself – and sure enough with the rain flowing in the opposite direction I did.

Flying down the other side was a delight. Open road, hairpins and speed – woohoo! I was lost in happiness and the sense of achievement… but hold up a sec … shiiish… ; a car took a bend on the wrong side of the road, my side. I slammed the breaks; the car flew by; but the incident wasn’t over; the bike slid out from under me at 45kph! I slid down, and with adrenaline pumping pulled myself and my bike out of the road.

The following day I took it a little more steady, made my way to Innsbruck and checked into the relative luxury of the Youth Hostel. It’s a beautiful city… in the centre at least (as with so many; on’t judge a city by its suburbs).

My date with my friend Vivi beckoned, so the following morning I was off for yet another pass. An 800m+ climb to the Brenner Pass. Head down, tunes on, legs pumping, job done. Italy; I have arrived.

The next 24hours flew by, collecting a few more passes en route; and stumbling upon the somewhat bizarre region of northern Italy that feels more like Germany – not two cultures I’d imagined fusing.

The final valley to take me to Cortina was unlike any other, simply breathtaking beauty. I couldn’t stop stopping to take photos. This Italian detour to meet Veronica and visit Cortina really was worth it, for the views alone.

Shortly after, having coasted into Cortina – I was met by the enthusiastic and incredibly hospitable welcoming party of Vivi, her brother Andy and his awesome kids Kristina and Marco. Three bowls of pasta and a good chat later I’d really arrived. Time to put my feet up!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A flying start

The day arrived, 22nd August 2009 and my adventure began. After teary farewells, I rode to Canterbury, into Belgium under starlight and by day three arrived in Brussels. The 377km/234miles have flown by. The bike’s running well, my butt ‘aint too sore and I’ve been blessed by some uncannily good fortune.

Day 1: Au revior

The night before the ride, I’d felt calm and spent the evening with my Mum and aunt, pottering as they cooked up my last supper. Despite the lack of nerves, and seeming readiness I still only managed four hours kip, leaving me a little bleary eyed in the morning, as I was waved off by a few faithful friends and family. I’m not one for goodbyes – save the fanfare for the finish … if/when I finish!

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The weather was kind, sunny with the odd shade casting cloud; a good omen.

My first concern was how I was going to cope with the weight on the bike – circa 45kgs - my departure was the first time I’d had all the kit packed on. After the weather had done me a favour I didn’t want to wobble into a wall to start; better concentrate I muttered mutely. My blushes were spared … but I still had the hills to think about.

I was joined for the first day by Rebecca and for the most by Martin, an old colleague. We wound our way through London stopping at Greenwich Park to look out over London, grab a bite to eat and bade London farewell. I’d never seen the famous vista in person before, it was stunning.

Blackheath Hill and Shooters Hill, not small by any estimation. Cautiously I slipped down through the gears and got the legs spinning. Sure I was moving slow but I was making it and without too much effort to boot. Phew! The bonus was the other side of the hill hitting 64kph/40mph on the way down – wahoo!

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We followed the A2 out toward Canterbury and found a delightful cycle route on the way. Traversing the South Downs was more hilly than anticipated… much more hilly. They should really be called the ups and downs. Nevertheless after a pit stop or two, as the sun was heading down we made it to out campsite, just in time for the last orders at the local pub.

Day 1 of 400 (or so): done! It had been an emotional, relieving and memorable day. There’s more to see than I’d thought right here in the UK.

Day 2: Night rider!

After a much needed lie-in, Rebecca & I packed up camp and set off for Canterbury, over yet more might mounds. After a quick lunch we said the last goodbyes and headed for the coast. I was on my own.

I had two hours to cover 19 hilly miles to make the ferry. The start to solo cycling included a hike up a super steep embankment to get back on the A2, pushing through bushes and having to pack and repack the bike just to lug it over the 5ft fence; a bit of a rude awakening but not bad enough to dent my spirits.

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The miles were hot and furious but I made it. Rolling into the docks and buying a ticket for the 6pm ferry then sweet talking my way onto the one two hours earlier, courtesy of a car break-down on the on-ramp. My luck was their despair. C’est la vie!

The ferry journey seemed to symbolize the start of the journey into the unknown and with the last of the phone calls home, I wistfully wrote my first journal entry: “Having wanted the solitude for so long, finally getting it feels is causing me to draw breath”

Through flat France I rode on to the border keen to get some miles on the clock. Passing the last French campsite near sundown I decided I’d be able to find one just inside Belgium. Two and a half dark hours later I was still riding.

With my head torch low on battery and having forgotten my front bike light I was cycling and navigating by starlight; it was wonderful– I had the country to myself. All the sounds and rustles of nature seemed amplified as the Belgians slept. I felt a sense of pride at not losing my cool or feeling forlorn, this was mini-adventure and I was loving it.

Eventually I snuck into a campsite and after scoffing yesterday’s left-overs promptly passed out.

Day 3: Belgium, Brussels, Brilliant!

I left the campsite in a hurry, it wasn’t worth staying … or even paying. The showers broken, and facilities non-existent so I saw it as I was a little creaky for the first few hours but a midday stop and snooze, after refuelling at the worlds most awesome patisserie in Koolskamp, saw me right. Not long after hoping on the bike I was joined by Norbert a 77 year old local cyclist on the way to see his daughter. “Wher rre you headit” – he cooed as he pedalled by me, Brussels I said, “Follo mi” he replied and off we went.

He took me through Tielt giving me a WWI history lesson; it was the location of the German headquarters, as well as showing me the magnificent belfry. A simple yet poignant Act of Random Kindness (ARK). It was a real pleasure. Only three years ago he’d cycled to Italy, just goes to show keeping active keeps you young.

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I passed on through various towns, arriving in Gent, to which I decided to give myself a unguided cycle tour. It’s a picturesque and varied city, I enjoyed immensely. Going round without a guidebook really meant I could just take it in without feeling like I’d missed out on anything; I’d recommend doing it. If you want to know about something ask a local- easy! Plus less books to carry; I have seven as it is.

After a whistle-stop last 50kms I arrived in Brussels, cycling in to the magnificent vista of the Basilica. I’d never seen it up close, it’s a geometric masterpiece. So many curves and lines drawing the eye around it’s considerable edifice.

A light rain shower gave me a much needed wash down and set up one of the most vivid sunsets I’d seen in a long time, showing Brussels at it’s finest. I decided to put my camera (Canon D450) through it’s paces, with some pleasing results.

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I met several like minded photographers, one of whom, Luxembourger Laurent, has given me a great list of places to visit in Slovenia; such is the euro melting pot Brussels is.

After spending an inordinate amount of time snapping the local version of the imperious Arc du Triomphe in Cinquantenaire, I found my way to my friends place and celebrate with not a beer but Ribena; a sign of the times. Happy days.